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Audience As Moderator: Inside dog & pony dc's Beertown

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Beertown town archivist Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter) and Mayor Michael Soch (Joshua Drew) revel in the town’s time capsule.
Clinton Brandhagen
Beertown town archivist Joann Ryals (Elaine Yuko Qualter) and Mayor Michael Soch (Joshua Drew) revel in the town’s time capsule.

In a way, Beertown is like any other town. It has a mayor, an ombudsman, an archivist. It has a website - visitbeertown.com -- which outlines the town's history, lists upcoming events and offers a directory of places to shop, play and stay. But two major things set Beertown apart.

First, every five years -- quinquennially, in other, more elaborate words - Beertonians congregate at City Hall to unseal the town time capsule, and vote on artifacts to add and remove, before sealing it up again for another five years. This year marks Beertown's 20th Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration. But the second thing that makes Beertown a little bit different from other towns?

It doesn't actually exist.

Beertown: A different kind of interactive performance

Beertown is actually the latest production from dog & pony dc, which touts itself as "an ensemble-based devised theater company," meaning members create each production, from scratch, as a group.

"And that's taken many different shapes over the past six productions," says company member, and Beertown director/performer, Rachel Grossman. "And Beertown is sort of the next evolution of the future of dog & pony dc."

Grossman uses the word "production," but if you ask the dog & pony crew how best to define their work, they'll toss around a bunch of terms, from "productions" to "shows" to "devised experiences."

"That's the problem," says company member and Beertown performer Wyckham Avery. "Whenever we're trying to talk about our work, it always ends up sounding really pretentious."

"Pretentious and vague!" Grossman adds with a laugh.

But, whatever you call it, dog & pony's fare is definitely different. Take, for instance, the performer-audience relationship; the line between performer and audience is blurred. But not in an uncomfortable or confrontational way, says Avery.

"I think people often get worried when they hear about shows that are like 'audience interactive,'" she says. "Like they're gonna be dragged up on stage to get squirted with water, and that is so not our thing."

Instead, with Beertown, audience members are invited to bring a dessert to the pre-Quinquennial potluck. They follow along in their programs as they sing the traditional Beertown Hymn. And, of course, they deliberate over artifacts for the time capsule - if, Avery stresses, they so choose.

"It may be that somebody comes and they don't want to raise their hand, they don't want to debate about anything," she says. "Maybe just watching for them is the best way for them to engage. Other people come in and devise a whole new personality that they take on. They write a new name on their nametag. And so anywhere on that spectrum is fine."

Beertown: An ever-changing experience

"Each time we do this show, the audience is going to be creating the experience of it with us," adds Jon Reynolds, another member of the dog & pony/Beertown crew. "They're going to be completely empowered with deciding not just plot details like which objects get voted in to the time capsule, but just the whole flavor of the experience."

Which means, of course, that each night brings an entirely different experience - especially after the Quinquennial's "recess," when the debate begins. So as Rachel Grossman points out, while the first half of the show is more or less scripted, the second half is more of a free-for-all.

"The show suddenly becomes this other thing that it never was before," she says. "So it is this constant game of prediction, of 'what are they gonna say, and what could they say, and how can we just be nimble?'"

And this nimbleness is quickly becoming a dog & pony dc signature. With the last show, for instance, Separated At Birth, the theater became the Metro, and every time the door chime bing-bonged, the audience had to scoop up its belongings and dash to a new seat. Which led to all sorts of surprises.

So with dog & pony dc's imaginative, ensemble-derived smashing of the fourth wall that separates artist from audience, perhaps "production" isn't the only word that makes one go "hmmmm..." here.

"With all terms our terminology becomes squishy," says Rachel Grossman. "'Performer' is better for us than 'actor.' And we talk about 'director,' but there's multiple sections in this show that Wyckham directed. Colin, one of our designers, has been directing me a lot. It's very sort of fluid. And I think it allows for everyone to look at redefining themselves and the role that they play in a theatrical experience."

Not unlike the way Beertonians look at 'redefining' themselves, every time they unearth that time capsule. They might vote a bunch of things in and out; they might vote to keep it exactly the same. But every five years they navigate that same "squishy" territory you and I navigate every day, as we figure out who we are, and what we are... even if we can't quite find the words to describe it.


[Music: "Beertown Hymn" from the poem written by Bronwyn Bramblethorpe, music by Antonius Guy (a.k.a. dog & pony dc)]

Photos: Beertown

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