Early in 2009, a group of theater artists in Melbourne, Australia, reached a fork in their creative road. On the other side was an extraordinary outdoor theatrical event taking place right now in Chicago, titled "en route." But let me start back Down Under, where this all began.
The company of four, made up of Suzanne Kersten, Clair Korobacz, Paul Moir and Julian Rickert and collectively known as One Step at a Time Like This, had been working for several years in theaters. They did what small theater companies usually do — in Chicago and all over all over the world. They did plays. Their audience sat in seats in a dark room. Rules were followed. The years went by.
But the quartet was growing bored. They felt they weren't going anywhere.
As Rickert explained to me earlier this week, the company eventually found itself working in a former tile showroom in Melbourne, a space comprising not a big theater but lots of little rooms. That change in spatial dynamics led them to pay more attention to the audience. "We just became more and more interested in what people brought to the show," Rickert said.
That led to further conversations. Could the theater company just create a frame and let the audience do the show? Could they, in fact, do a performance without performing?
"In theater," Rickert said, "there are a lot of rules. What if you don't follow any of the rules? What then?"
The first rule to go was the need for an actual theater. The second to go was that you treat the audience as a large, ticket-buying collective, rather than as individuals.
That second notion was especially radical because it also jettisoned the ratio critical to the basic economic viability of all performing arts: The idea that a small group of persons perform for a larger group of paying watchers. What if several performers were working for one audience member at a time?
The result was "en route," which the company aptly describes as "a pedestrian-based live arts event on the streets of your city. A love song to your city, in which the private and the public, imaginal and concrete, intersect and overlap."
Indeed they do. That doesn't even do the piece justice. "En route" completely blew me away last week. I should pause here to say that tickets are very difficult to snag. "En route" is a solo experience. The capacity of each performance is about five. There are three shows a day, so that means all of 15 tickets are available each day. In the other cities where One Step at a Time Like This has done its thing, the tickets have shown up on eBay and the like.
Rickert said that piece, which sends audience members across the city armed with little more than a digital music player, a complicated suite of experiential directions and their own set of preconceptions, was first created for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. "We didn't have any funding," Rickert said. "We didn't want to do work that meant we had to go out and get funding. We didn't want to get trapped by that."
But the piece was a hit. It went across Australia to Brisbane, Darwin (about as different a city from Chicago as you could possibly imagine) and Adelaide, where British producer Richard Jordan happened to see it. He too was blown away, and took the show and the company to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010, and basically began the process of rolling out "en route" all over the world. He persuaded Criss Henderson, the executive director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, to see it in Edinburgh and present it in Chicago, the company's first North American city. And he secured a spot for the 2012 LondonOlympics.
I asked Jordan why he was interested in this piece, given that it seems to be structured to make profitability next to impossible. "Of course it not's economically viable," Jordan said, laughing. "But that's not always why you do things. Sometimes you want to build something, start something."
Hmmm. This little group surely has done that in Chicago. There are discussions under way on Navy Pier that would allow the Australians to train a group of locals (as they have done back home) to keep the show going past its initial run. It might even be able to run permanently, as it does in Melbourne. And if you took more people through the experience, maybe economic viability isn't impossible after all. As has been made clear in the world of high-end restaurants like Grant Achatz's much-hyped Next, the creation of a scarce and highly desirable ticket can pay all kinds of benefits, both in the moment and in the future. "En route" is on the way there, I think.
"In each show," Rickert said, "the city is a brilliant and stubborn dramaturge. The possibilities it offers you are endless — you could go to all kinds of places. But it's also stubborn. We can't move that alley to make it more convenient for our show."
I asked if anything has gone wrong. Not much, said Rickert. "We've had to rescue people who have been yelled at," he said. "And some people have gone off route."
Briefly. Each audience member is watched by a team of performers. When it comes to mass production, the creators can only take things so far. "We had a group of South Koreans come through in Adelaide," Rickert said. "They asked if we could do it for one thousand people at once. We said we could not."
"En route" runs through Aug. 13 in the Loop, hosted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater; $35 at 312-595-5600
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