Friday, July 23, 2010

DC Theatre Collective: The Tea Party Project

(NOTE: One performance of The Tea Party Project remains: Sunday, July 25 at 5 p.m. at the Capital Fringe Festival's RedRum stage.)

As regular Balkans via Bohemia readers know, I've been increasingly putting my thoughts, money, mouth and actual theatrical work behind efforts to attract more and younger theatergoers (See: Taffety Punk Theatre Company and this terrific Washington Post summary of what we're all about.)

Along with that, I've also been pondering how to open up (and in some cases, reopen) more theoretical and practical room for playwrights and the theater to reclaim or renovate history, invigorate their work with politics and envision big plays once again.

So it was terrific to see that the DC Theatre Collective used this year's Capital Fringe Festival to mount a theatrical work that attempts to do a lot of those same things. The Tea Party Project is -- in essence -- an attempt to restore/renovate the "Living Newspaper" that was made most famous via the Federal Theater Project in the late 1930s. (The FTP gang lifted it from revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia, of course.)

It's a great idea to revive this theatrical form: our politically and economically polarized times lend themselves to an activist theatre that's (literally) ripped from the headlines and thrust in front of audiences. But how do you prevent it from becoming a fond look backwards formally? After all, the original "Living Newspapers" took the stage before the widespread advent of television a decade later . It was a theatrical form that could unite much of what passed for media in that time: the traditional theater, the polemic of newspapering, and the radio drama.

DC Theater Collective managed to make it new -- using multimedia (a potted retelling of the original Boston Tea Party in 1773 with animation, for instance) and integrating audience response into the show. But the question remains: What does this sort of political theatre offer in a 24-7 news cycle -- where we are literally bombarded not only with the images of Tea Partiers, but actual video of them speaking in their own words?

In my view, there are some powerful things that can be done with decontextualizing a movement such as the Tea Party from mainstream media accounts and recontextualizing it in a concentrated and activist frame. And The Tea Party Project managed to accomplish much of that work -- mashing up and juxtaposing liberal commentary on the Tea Party movement with voices of actual Tea Partiers.

The one quibble I had with The Tea Party Project was that it didn't use more overtly dramatic tools to do some of that work. The props were minimal (two blank signs) and the DC Theatre Collective chose to engage with the iconography of the movement with projected images. At some moments, I was craving a sly use/reappropriation/recontextualizing of some of the actual Tea Party movement's fetishes: tricorn hats and tea bags and such. (It was interesting to me, for instance, that they didn't do this considering how effectively and pluckily they employed such parody and subversion in promoting the show -- as you can see in the above photo.)

Talking afterwards with DC Theatre Collective's Jenny Lynn Towers and Brent Stansell, we chewed over that question and my quibbles. They agreed that using performance to aggregate the material was powerful and potent -- even in the Internet age. They also argued that they had made a conscious decision not to push too much into overtly dramatizing the Tea Party movement -- preferring to keep the signs they carried in performance blank and allowing the found images (and the words of prominent Tea Partiers) to speak for themselves.

One thing that's inarguable is that engaging in this sort of political and activist theatre in Washington, D.C. yields considerable attention and discussion. Washington City Paper's Chris Klimek has a handy summation of some of the ruckus that DC Theatre Collective has kicked up with The Tea Party Project here -- including conservative backlash before the show even opened, Tea Partiers or their agents coming to surreptitiously tape the show, and a lively discussion about why there isn't more political theatre at the Fringe. (Klimek and Towns also hash these questions out on video here.)

So on all counts, DC Theatre Collective's The Tea Party Project is one of the conceptual and actual successes at this year's Capital Fringe Festival. And, perhaps, a goad for more political theatre that speaks directly to our times?

(Photo of DC Theatre Collective members -- from left: Michael Rodriguez, Jenny Lynn Towns, Valerie Fenton and Rose McConnell -- hyping their show at the Capital Fringe Festival's Baldacchino Gypsy Tent swiped from the group's Facebook page.)