There's a buzzword heard frequently as theater is discussed these days: immersive. It speaks to an effort to encourage theater-going folks to understand that they are not merely spectators but are actually part of the process.
One of the ways Borderlands Theater artistic director Marc David Pinate has approached his job here is to commit to creating experiences that step outside of what we think as "going to the theater." These are events in which we don't merely watch a scripted play. We actually enter the scene ourselves.
Pinate is Arizona-born and bred, and although he has received training beyond our borders, he is committed to listening to the folks who have made our Tucson culture so unique and to telling their stories, particularly the stories that have often been forced underground.
Pinate feels strongly about this. "It's our job not to forget."
This mission has resulted in a couple of ambitious projects that are rooted in—and a celebration of—the barrios bordering downtown. Two years ago, the grounds of the downtown community center became the setting for a three-day event that celebrated the history of Barrio Libre. There was quite an ironic twist in choosing this locale because much of that neighborhood was destroyed to build the community center.
The venture "was a huge success," says Pinate.
Now, the second installment of this project called Barrio Stories will give us an opportunity to get a feel for the history and culture of Barrio Anita. How? By plunking us smack down in the neighborhood itself. How's that for immersion?
Pinate and Borderlands' staff have reached beyond traditional theater folks and groups to offer us a chance to get a feel for what has been, as well as what is. By probing the hearts and history of Barrio Anita residents, the group has discovered both entertaining and participatory ways to honor this history.
"It's really an amusement park kind of setting," says Pinate. The event is not a traditional concert or theatrical production with one stage. Anchored by Davis Bilingual School, Pinate and his colleagues have developed sites throughout the neighborhood that provide opportunities to tap into the neighborhood's history and energy. Mariachi bands, some featuring students who began their love for this music while students at Davis, will be featured, as well as large-scale shadow puppet theater created specifically for this event. Slam poetry will erupt from time to time, and 10 projectors will feature video oral histories and insights. You get to choose how to interact.
It's not merely a block party. "We wanted to create a sort of sense of adventure. It's meant to create a playful energy while we celebrate the history of the generations who have lived here. With the Barrio Stories project, we really want to underscore who gets to tell that story."
Pinate observes as residents were interviewed what seemed to keep coming up was a very basic concern. "We talked to numerous residents and what they seemed to want most is to get to know their neighbors," including the Anglo population that began moving in in the 1980s. "This is both a sharing and a celebration of the culture of the neighborhood, for past and present residents and for all of Tucson to participate in."
The event is free and there will also be plenty of free parking, including for the disabled. There will be maps and schedules at two headquarter booths. You can also download an app which provides an audio guide. And, Pinate says, "Bring a flashlight."
How do we survive? How can
civilizations build anew after widespread destruction? Where do folks look in their ravaged communal history to begin rebuilding a sense of values and purpose of being?
Playwright Anne Washburn offers an answer: The Simpsons. Yes, Matt Groening's long-lived cartoon creation featuring Homer and Marge and Bart and Lisa, a family whose exploits nail what is important to us in a rarely subtle way. So it makes sense that their small lives in their small town are a springboard to overcoming fear and dread as they provide a source of inspiration and direction to a lost people.
But you knew that, didn't you?
If you doubt this, you should check out Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play on stage now as part of the inaugural season of the Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre. It's a wild ride thanks to Washburn's script, director Claire Marie Mannle and an enthusiastic young cast. It teases us and befuddles us and ultimately makes us respect how storytelling is the bedrock of civilization.
The play opens with a dark and dusky campsite populated by a handful of young men and women. We learn that this is a type of survivors' gathering after a power grid blackout that has caused a widespread nuclear catastrophe. One of the survivors starts recalling an episode of The Simpsons called "Cape Feare"; not just recalling, really, but finding actual lines of dialogue that the others recognize and pitch in to re-create a sense of the episode. In a desperate gathering of post-apocalyptic survivors the thing that coalesces and comforts is a Simpsons episode? Well, sure. Why not?
So the recovery is underway. Seven years later the greater society seems to be held together by traveling theater troupes, and our friends, for their livelihood, are still entrenched in The Simpsons' mystique. Finally, 70 years later, we discover a commemoration in grand style, a bit reminiscent of Greek drama, of what has guided a cultural rebirth.
Now don't get the idea that this is all silly fun. We're talking about a civilization rising from the ashes, finding the kind of depth and truth to create values and mores and instruction in the ways of good and evil, love and hate. We also see how a celebration of this process is as necessary as the actual content that has given birth to a new world.
Washburn, while not quite a cynic, is not a lightweight either. She has woven numerous ideas through this rather mad romp of a play about who we are and what we need and how we go about getting it—with songs and lyrics, by the way. It's clever, confusing and compelling.
One of the encouraging things about the experience was that the audience was not gray—composed chiefly folks who have been attending theater performances for decades. This was a fairly young audience, and Scoundrel and Scamp, as part of their mission, wants to offer fare that helps develop a theater habit for a new generation of audiences. The production has its limitations, but it's infused with strong spirit. And that is a very good thing.