Devised Theater Comes up with Something New and Stirring, and Puts a Bow on It.

RI’s Devised Theater Festival, created by recently returned RI ex-pat David Ledoux’s First Day Productions, debuted in October at the newly renovated Mixed Magic Theatre on Mineral Spring Avenue. The fest challenges local makers of theater to create short (less than 15 minutes) original works with only two weeks to conceive, write, tech, troubleshoot and rehearse their work. The results were performed on the last two weekends of October.

Traditional theater has a very established structure – the writer sets the stage, the director moves things around on it and the actors do their work bringing their individual pieces to life. “Devised theater abolishes the traditional hierarchy and puts everyone on the same level. The actor is a collaborator, not a tool for someone else’s creativity, and the story evolves from everyone working together to find it – to devise a piece,” explained Corinne Wahlberg, from the participating team Corinne & Stuart. They also coordinate the Stray Creatives Program, a local incubator that fosters devised theater projects.

Six teams took part in this year’s Devised Theater project – each had to respond to a theme and use a prop assigned by the festival. The theme, which they were encouraged to interpret as broadly as possible, was “Monsters,” and the prop was rope. There was a lot of rope, but it clearly inspired these theater makers, rather than tying them down.

The results made for a really intriguing, enjoyable evening of live performance. No two pieces were the same, and they ran the spectrum from conventional (but stirring) monolog to interpretive dance that stretched what ropes can do in many inspired ways.

Monsters included the demons of racism and war, intolerance and more personal demons representing loss of control, selfishness and the weaknesses that tear apart relationships. And there were witches and voodoo doctors.

Ropes were in some uses metaphorical, in some very literal. They were used, variously, as nooses, to constrain dancers, to represent the ties that bind, to support history, to interweave like the lives of the characters and to form a projection screen (which accommodated a history of immigration in America as it unraveled).

Each piece felt unfinished, in different ways and in keeping with the nature of the project. Organizer Ledoux hopes that some of the seedling projects will go on to become fully realized pieces of theatrical art. The grand prize of $2,000 is meant to go toward that development.

“It was so great to work alongside these talented artists for the last month,” said Vanessa Gilbert, part of the winning performance, “We Made This.”

“We each had our own projects, but we definitely cross-germinated and encouraged and inspired each other,” she said in her acceptance speech on the last evening, when the winner was announced. “Theater can’t happen in a vacuum – that’s why we want to take part of this award and give it to the other participants, in the hopes it will help them to expand and develop the really powerful work we all got to witness through this project.”

The evening opened with the audience telling their own monster stories to each other, and ended with a whimsical voting system involving marbles and, of course, ropes.

In between, the participating performances included “The Ties that Break,” by Mixed Magic artistic director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, which was a stirring and chilling piece, heavy on dialog and monolog, structured but with twists, turns and revelations (a lot to achieve in under 15 minutes), about a grandfather trying to protect his granddaughters from the shared tragedies of their past.

Liz Oakley, Jake Kuhn and Nika Salazar’s “Untitled” took a movement-based approach to the material, with two dancers who played with and battled with rope, so clearly having a great time their laughter was infectious.

In “’Till [ ] do us PART” Corinne & Stuart (Corinne Wahlberg and Stuart Window) took a very personal approach to their work, encapsulating a couple’s relationship struggles into an intense dialog that used the entire theater space.

“La Despedida,” directed by Hernan Jourdan, was perhaps the most intriguing of the evening, using rope and magic as metaphor for a romantic relationship, the constraints and freedoms that can spring from it. Passionate and surprising, and very open to interpretation.

“Witches,” directed by Kate Lester, returned to a more literal storytelling approach, exploring the tensions and interplay between five witches, gathered to perform a ceremony to rescue one of their own. Deep characters were hinted at, but couldn’t be explored under the time constraints, which definitely left one wondering what more there might be to those women and their stories – perhaps a future version will reveal more.

Finally, “We Made This,” co-created by Gilbert, David Higgins and Ronald K. Lewis, “Knocked it out of the park,” in the words of Wahlberg, with a multi-media event that combined humor and pathos, slapstick that matched pre-recorded voice-over narration and audience participation to explore the life cycle of an immigrant group – from undesirable and excluded, through earning their place in US history, though becoming part of the new set of excluders and anti-immigrationists. The beautiful execution teased out many interwoven ideas, leaving them dangling for further consideration by the audience.

Planned as an annual event, this fest seems likely to become a must-see for any theatergoer who likes to see how shows can be born.

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