Reflections on the Age-Old Question, “What Next?” and the Troublesome Questions of Identity and Purpose That Ensue, Part 1
It has been a banner year for Bare Theatre. Almost twelve months ago we were dusting off “The Shakespeare Zone” for its Raleigh debut at SPARKcon 2011. “The Zone” is a Bare Theatre original collection of comedic sketches mashing up Shakespeare and modern TV and, despite the rains, it was a crowd pleaser. This was especially true at Raleigh Ensemble Players, where we huddled out of the cold and damp with a truly appreciative audience.
Two months later we were back onstage with a steampunk-clad version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This was a big production for us, with 24 cast members (several of whom had several costume changes); video projections that featured flying airships, fireworks, and characters appearing onscreen; a couple of company dance numbers; and a big fight sequence pitting clowns against drunks.
Much Ado was our biggest box office success since the company began, and we had a fantastic three-week run in Durham and Raleigh.
The winter brought our third annual collection of short plays, One Night of Absolute Dismay. This collection featured three originals and one parody from Christopher Durang, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls.” This was our best attended one-acts show so far.
Towards the end of spring we were gearing up for the entire collection of shorts that included “Southern Belle,” Durang’s humbly-titled Durang/Durang. The show was supposed to go up in May but had to be postponed at the last minute due to the sudden and very sad closure of Raleigh Ensemble Players’ space on Fayetteville St.
So we ended up following Absolute Dismay with an original adaptation of slave narratives from North Carolina, called Let Them Be Heard. It featured seven monologues performed by African American actors portraying people who had experienced life under slavery and survived to the Great Depression.
We staged these narratives at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC, which had been one of the largest plantations in the South. The show led four sold-out audiences on a lantern-lit tour across the plantation grounds, beginning in an original slave quarters cabin and ending in the huge Great Barn, hand-built by the slaves in 1860.
Let Them Be Heard was not only our first environmental play, but also our first Kickstarter campaign. With Kickstarter we successfully raised over $1,400 to cover production costs, which in turn enabled us to donate 100% of the ticket sales – $1,850 – to Historic Stagville, helping the Stagville Foundation preserve the important historical landmark.
Immediately after Heard, we got right back to work with Durang/Durang. We had a great opening week at Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School in Raleigh, and are finishing out the run in Durham at Common Ground Theatre.
Christopher Durang’s work has been insanely fun, especially after the tragic stories told in Let Them Be Heard. These six shorts are hilarious, ridiculous, silly and satirical, and as we always do – we have a great group of people involved. Not to mention, there are a ton of great photos of us in wigs (courtesy of the magnificent Mario Griego) on Facebook!
We’ve stretched ourselves, pushed the envelope, and had a blast in the process. Now that our eighth full season (yes, eighth full season!) has begun, we are faced with a question of identity.
We’ve done a lot of Shakespeare – almost half the canon at this point. We’ve done plays by Miller, Pinter, Stoppard and Durang. We’ve done a slew of original works from playwrights around the country. The question for me lately is: does the work define us or do we define the work?
I keep coming back to the latter answer. What makes us “Bare” is not necessarily what we do – it’s how we do it.
We are “Bare” because we tell stories with intensity and passion using little more than a room, some actors, and the text. Everything that happens between those elements is what hopefully makes our work worth watching.
It’s not an option for us to rely on production values. This limitation is actually what I find the most liberating about Bare Theatre. When you don’t have money, or set, or a ton of crew members, you have to get creative. You have to use your imagination.
We are constantly challenged by the fact that we do not have a performance space of our own. Common Ground has been a great home to us in Durham, but it has always been difficult to find suitable venues in Wake County and Raleigh.
That ongoing search has led me to a conclusion: that we embrace the challenge of finding venues that fit the pieces, and make that a central part of what we do. The experience at Stagville proved that we could create a one-of-a-kind experience with nothing more than actors, text, a location, and lanterns.
It doesn’t get any more Bare than that.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about The Next Show and Where We Go From Here…