What will the theater look like in the future? Will it continue to tell stories in the way it has for centuries? Or will it find new ways? And if so, what exactly might what's next look like?
Michael Fenlason, the new artistic director of Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, is pondering these questions, and in response, he has established The Next Theatre as the Beowulf Alley's avenue to explore and experiment with new ways of theatrical storytelling.
The subgroup of Beowulf Alley is actually a new version of what used to be its Late Night Theatre, which also operated with an experimental spirit. Fenlason was associated with Late Night, but now as artistic director of the entire organization, he has an opportunity to help develop The Next Theatre. This summer, the group is slated to present four shows.
"The idea is to look at how live performance is going to change, and to try to reinvigorate the form by finding new ways of presenting and new ways of telling a story," Fenlason says.
The first show is a multimedia, company-developed piece, Joan Is Burning.
"I created the story, and some of the scenes, and then let the actors breathe through them," Fenlason says. "They have been free to make changes to make it work."
Crucial to the development process has been the work and input of filmmaker Josh Parra. "He's a fantastic creative mind and brings a nice satirical edge."
Fenlason says the piece looks at "how we have an almost-erotic attraction to our technology. The film supplied by Parra is shown on a big screen that represents Joan's phone, her computer screen, etc., with which she constantly interacts. We're often more attached to our technology than to real people."
The story takes place in the near future, and Joan (played by four actresses) is a marketing whiz who can sell anybody anything—a "terrible power," according to Fenlason—and she has issues with her boyfriend, her aging father and her boss. She also has to decide whether she should answer a call by a women's protest group to support issues that she feels do not really affect her.
The actors have to interact with prefilmed material, and that's been one of the biggest challenges for Nicole Scott, who is playing one of the Joans. With live theater, there is a sense of give and take, she explains. But when acting with film, your scene partner's performance never changes. "You really can't miss a beat," she says.
Another challenge is that there are four actresses playing Joan. Scott says, "It speaks to the idea that in the future, people will be able to change their appearance just as easily as they can their Facebook profile. It's a unique experience to have to develop the same character with four other people, but I've really enjoyed that aspect of the process."
After Joan Is Burning, The Next Theatre will present Exorcism: A Play in One Act, a recently discovered manuscript by Eugene O'Neill. Scott will direct. It is thought to be O'Neill's first play, written when he was 31. The autobiographical story involves two friends living in fairly miserable circumstances: Jimmy was kicked out by his wife, and Ned by his wealthy father. Ned is so desperate that he tries to take his own life, but is saved by Jimmy.
O'Neill himself survived a suicide attempt, after which he turned to writing. Now, of course, he's considered one of America's greatest playwrights, having won four Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel Prize in 1936.
O'Neill destroyed all copies of the script after its production in 1920—or thought he had. O'Neill's second wife had a surviving copy, which she gave to a screenwriter. The manuscript was found recently in his estate and was published earlier this year.
There is speculation about why O'Neill attempted to ensure that it would never again be produced. Perhaps it was just too personal, since it was about his own attempt to take his life. The question arises: If he wanted it never to be presented again, should it be produced now?
"I've thought about that a lot," Scott says. "But even though it's not his best work, he still deals with ideas and issues that are relevant today, especially family issues. And, really, it's about hope."
Perhaps Exorcism will lay the groundwork for the next piece mounted by The Next Theatre. The play, by Jem Street, is called Hope, and is the second part of her Second Millennium trilogy. Fenlason knows Street's work well, having worked with her at the Unlikely Theatre Company in Tempe. "It's about a man who's trying to decide if he's lived a good enough life to run for public office. Of course, that makes it full of lovely ironies."
Finally, in August, Next will premiere The Body in the Bath, local writer Joan O'Dwyer's adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers Whose Body?, her first novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.
Fenlason says there are more truly experimental shows "in development," including a full-length live silent comedy, and something he calls "a flash-mob musical."
"These are very challenging, and we won't schedule them until we're sure they're ready," he says.
Fenlason is bringing a rather experimental approach to his leadership of the entire Beowulf Alley organization. He's invited other theater companies in town to use Beowulf Alley's theater in the heart of downtown so they don't have to scramble to find adequate spaces for their shows. Winding Road Theater Ensemble will perform its entire season at the downtown space, and Chicken Lipps productions will perform Becky's New Car there this fall.
Fenlason hopes to find enough funding from nongovernmental sources to finance the season's productions, so that money from ticket sales can be donated to local social service groups, like the Community Food Bank and Planned Parenthood (which will be the benefactor of ticket sales from Joan Is Burning).
Says Fenlason: "Maybe we can do some good, as well as doing some good theater."