Sights + Sounds: All Rise
Taking this notion to interesting heights, Walkabout Theater is currently exploring all the various nooks and crannies of a neighborhood church in All Rise – a theatrical event on sacred ground.
Conceived by artistic director Emma Stanton, this collaboration involves many of Chicago’s brightest up and coming conceptual artists. With creative force, this group finds ways of nicely exploring the selected space. As the audience travels along darkened altars and brightly lit meeting spaces, mysteries of movement and ordinary joys are revealed. Granted, as some of the pieces take a slice of life tact and others are explorations of body and space, there is little connective tissue between them. For those looking for cohesion, this is probably this event’s biggest flaw.
Dani Bryant’s “Diets are a Girl’s Best Friend” is the most successful and emotionally viable portion of the evening. Taking place in the church’s recreation hall, sixteen actresses brilliantly create real life characters dealing with body image issues in a support group. By the time they are through revealing their thoughts and daily activities, you truly believe as if you have witnessed an actual weekly event.
“I Begin”, created by Shawn Escarciga and Melissa McNamara, takes place among the pews of the church’s sanctuary. Brilliantly using flashing neon and the intimidating march of group movement, this work is stylistically beautiful and brings out the space’s spooky undertones in perfect measure.
“Thine” involves an astronaut and a battling couple, utilizing the church’s altar in unique and slightly profane ways. The audience is placed in the choir loft for this interlude. Thus, bad acoustics make much of this bizarre segment hard to follow.
Tying everything together is actor Errol McLendon as the church’s maintenance man. McLendon vibrates with fragile realism as he leads the audience from space to space. His exemplary work can’t quite make his character’s ramblings about near death experiences and his vague relationship with his ex-wife achieve a total coherency. Still, he is an important part of a highly ambitious, often compelling evening of theater.
Here, talented performer Justin Harner takes Forest & Bluff readers behind the scenes of this very original production.
F&B: Hi, Justin! So, how much creative input did you have into the fascinating movement style piece I Begin that marks your contribution to All Rise?
Justin: This piece was truly a collaborative effort, where everyone in the ensemble acted as both creators and directors. I would describe Melissa and Shawn as “co-curators” that really helped us sort through all of these weird ideas and movements and guided us into creating a healing ritual of sorts. For instance, one of our ensemble members would introduce a song, and then we would sing it, and then someone would mention that it made them think of a baptism. And suddenly we’ve got something like a baptism going on to this beautiful music. I remember Melissa introducing some headlamps, and the ensemble would just play around with them. What’s interesting about a headlamp? How does it fit into the environment of a sanctuary? What works? What doesn’t work? This process has been a series of “what if I…?” moments. It requires a lot of curiosity and a lot of trust in your ensemble members. Like all theatre, it’s just a miracle that it came together!
F&B: Truly! What has been the most interesting aspect of this process for you and has it been weird or fun (or both) to perform in a church?
Justin: Having access to the sanctuary for the entirety of our rehearsal period was amazing. Usually, you go to a sanctuary for a very specific activity, so having free rein was a little bizarre. It’s a sacred space, and we really balanced being respectful of it, as well as being playful and open to create. Truth be told, I’m a little afraid that the church is trying to kill me. Between the freezing floors (we’re barefoot) and running around in pews (in the dark), I may not make it to the final weekend. Totally kidding, it’s fun to lurk around while the audience doesn’t even know we’re there.
All Rise runs through March 17th at Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson in Chicago. Tickets are $15-$25 and can be purchased by visiting walkabouttheater.org.
– Brian Kirst