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A festival of political devised theater at Raleigh's Burning Coal 

Alex Tobey, Raleigh native and Carnegie Mellon student, observes a recent rehearsal of Awkward Elephant's "Blackout" at Murphey School Auditorium.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Alex Tobey, Raleigh native and Carnegie Mellon student, observes a recent rehearsal of Awkward Elephant's "Blackout" at Murphey School Auditorium.

Our region is no stranger to political theater. Not with works like Little Green Pig's acerbic February adaptation of Donald, along with Raleigh Ensemble Players' staged reading of 8, Dustin Lance Black's play about an antigay initiative in California, and the leftist politics that usually flavor the summer pageants of Paperhand Puppet Intervention.

But six years have passed since the only previous festival of political theater in recent memory, the RadiCackyLacky Puppet Convergence in Chapel Hill. Until now, some two months ahead of the theatrics that will unfold in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention.

Starting Thursday and continuing through July 8, Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre will host the Politheatrics festival, a gathering of six local and visiting companies at the Murphey School Auditorium. In addition to Durham's Haymaker and Raleigh's Urban Garden, Politheatrics will host companies from Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, in rotating repertory.

The festival's existence is due to what festival organizer Jerome Davis calls a missing sense of "critical mass." He's referring not only to the themes regional theater pursues but also the ways in which it pursues them. As Burning Coal's artistic director, Davis has overseen many politically oriented works, from its inaugural production, 15 years ago this fall, of Rat in the Skull, Ron Hutchinson's drama about Irish domestic terrorism, through works like David Edgar's Map of the World and The Prisoner's Dilemma, to this season's Enron.

But in his travels, Davis was regularly seeing companies create vital new works in a genre called "devised theater." He wasn't seeing it here, though, and the absence disturbed him.

"When a theater company does Hamlet, to some degree it's their Hamlet," he explains. "But on the other hand, it was written by someone who lived 6,000 miles and 400 years away. Devised theater is the idea that we should make our own work, based on who we are, where we are and what is important to us."

And in a capital city like Raleigh, in the middle passages of what promises to be a contentious election, Davis was convinced of the need for works in which artists of this time speak to issues here and now. The festival's theme is politics, but Davis quickly points out: "Politics can mean just about anything: The date you're about to go on can be fraught with politics, the two basketball players deciding who gets the next shot or the war that's about to break out. There are so many levels of politics, essentially in all human endeavors, that it leaves the concept open."

Conversations with the participants only confirm the thought. Durham's Haymaker, who popped onto the regional scene last fall with Living With the Tiger, plans to make sure you never look at the federal budget in quite the same way again with What's That Cost, a work that looks at our total yearly governmental expenditure as a portrait of 313 million people—and finds that $3.6 trillion is literally the sum of our fears. Akiva Fox recalls the genesis of this project from a speech by Vice President Joe Biden.

"He said: 'Don't tell me what your values are. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what your values are,'" says Fox. "It was a great remark. It actually asks what this very long set of numbers has to do with all of us. Every part of our lives is in some way tied into the budget. In the end, it's all deeply interconnected."

In a different vein, Pittsburgh's Awkward Elephant explores the politics of the personal in Blackout. This collection of Carnegie Mellon drama students includes Alex Tobey, whose impressive independent production of colombinus in Raleigh in 2010 presaged a senior year of high school at UNC School of the Arts—and an influential workshop he took there with autobiographical performance artist Tim Miller, who imparted a valuable piece of inspiration. "Mr. Miller said, 'The only stories you need to tell are the stories you have inside,'" Tobey says. He says that while his colleagues began with recent accounts of governmental redactions, "We found ourselves focusing more on self-censorship and interpersonal censorship: what people think the benefits are and what they're afraid of if they don't do it."

America's relationship with fear also drives Children in the Dark by Neutral Ground Ensemble of New Orleans—but not in the way you might predict. "We realized that fear kind of drives everything," says production manager Ross Britz. "Your ambitions, the power you have, the abilities you acquire are all based on fear—of failure, of being alone, of death, and of not getting anything done before you die. Since fear usually comes off in such a negative way, we wanted to find the light in it, and why so many positive things can come out of something that we view as negative."

Washington's force/collision finds itself somewhere between the sci-fi trope of placing the most scathing criticism of one's own culture on a far-away alien planet and the actual historical practices that put indigenous people including Pocahontas and Sarah Baartman on display in London in the 17th and 19th centuries. Its workshop version of Shape, perhaps the most outré of the festival's offerings, will translate into the realm of the fantastic a jaw-dropping but historically documented 1895 large-scale Brooklyn theme-park production of "Black America," which employed some 500 African-Americans in an idealization of the supposedly good old plantation days down South. (A favorable review of the show appeared in The New York Times.)

Worlds collide as well in Mum's the Word, a "bleakly comic fever dream" by Charlotte's Machine Theatre, in which white suburbanites in the New South are forced to meet their new neighbors, which includes a group of African child soldiers.

The festival opens and closes with Raleigh's Urban Garden, which plans to cross-wire genres and audiences with Mark Twain's Joan of Arc. Artistic director PJ Maske asks: "When would a patron who sees every David Edgar play at Burning Coal ever see the Americana band Bevel Summers play live in a bar? And when would either audience ever see Nicola Bullock, who's a choreographer in Durham?" These principals and a quintet of actors will interpret Luke Wallens' original script, which is based on Twain's tender, fictitious and non-comedic account of the 15th-century French national heroine.

The garage-band/ dance concert/ drama aesthetic of Urban Garden defies all categories—except as devised theater. Those looking for the new should check them out.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stage devices."

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