Walker Art Center’s “Out There” series began 30 years ago as a way to get arts lovers out of the house during the dreary, nothing-to-do first month of the year. These days, there are more reasons to venture out in January, but “Out There’s” concerns haven’t changed.
“Where is theater going in the future? How can the form be played with/distorted/expanded? How can it speak to our time and the next?” asks Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither, listing some of the questions in the back of his mind as he considers possibilities for “Out There,” a series he says he envisions as “a chance to cleanse the palate in the new year, after lots of ‘Nutcrackers’ and ‘Christmas Carols.’ ”
One challenge of always looking for the next thing is that audiences catch up. The nipple slip that might have shocked audiences in 1987 is barely Tweet-able now. And walk-outs, once common during “Out There” performances, have become less frequent as audiences figured out what to expect from the series — and as artists have stopped thinking of inaccessibility as a badge of honor. That moving-target-of-innovation is why the Walker has become more involved in commissioning works for “Out There,” such as this season’s “Real Magic” and “Quizoola!” from Forced Entertainment. And it’s why Bither has had to cast a wider net; work in the series has become more international over the years.
As Bither scours the world, what is he looking for? It may be easier to say what he’s not looking for: No “well-made plays,” meaning traditional works with beginnings, middles and ends. No new pieces from established darlings of the indie art world such as Laurie Anderson or theater-maker Robert Lepage, although the latter will appear at the Walker in his “887” in April). Those folks are too big for the kind of surprises “Out There” craves.
“It’s a chance for us — and for audiences — to take different kinds of chances, to see pieces that are entertaining but, at times, unlike anything else you’ve ever seen,” says Bither.
Despite all that innovation, some tropes have emerged over the years, so we’ve added labels to help identify “Out There” standbys that loom large in this year’s shows: nudity; politics; playing around with gender; inter-disciplinary (or mixed-media) works; investigating the relationship between artists and audiences, and grappling with the question “What is theater?”
“It’s a dense work, but very playful and very funny,” says Bither of this work by the Cuban troupe Teatro El Público, in which the late Fidel Castro is depicted as a monkey. “There is a critique of the lack of freedom that’s pretty irreverent and that has lots of built-in questions.” One Walker fave over the years has been theatrical troupes that boldly re-imagine classic works (Bither says the half of the audience that didn’t walk out still comes up to him to rave about a Belgian take on “King Lear” in 2001). Teatro El Publico fits squarely in that tradition with its loose take on the ancient Greek “Antigone,” which pits human will against the gods. The piece will be performed in Spanish, with English subtitles. (8 p.m. Jan. 4-6)
NUDITY, INTERDISCIPLINARY, POLITICAL
This solo work by Montreal-based choreographer/performer Dana Michel is the most provocative of this year’s offerings, says Bither, who confesses “I was having some trouble with it” when he first saw the piece. “Mercurial George” blurs the lines between audience and performer in a way Bither says is meant to make theatergoers uncomfortable about the character they’re watching. She is, of course, played by an actor but there are times when that actor seems to be experiencing genuine distress in a way that made Bither “question whether the piece was more disturbing or more fascinating.” Spoiler alert: He landed on the latter. (8 p.m. Jan. 11-13) NUDITY, INTERDISCIPLINARY, POLITICAL, GENDER ROLES, ARTIST/AUDIENCE
This interactive piece by the New York-based troupe 600 Highwaymen is designed to give audiences all the feels. “To me, it felt very much like a gentle instruction around how we could be a better society,” says Bither of the timely work, which will put theatergoers right on stage with 600 Highwaymen. The artists have said the idea is not just to illustrate how much we all depend on each other, but to live it. (8 p.m. Jan. 18-20) POLITICS, ARTIST/AUDIENCE, GENDER ROLES, WHAT IS THEATER
“Real Magic,” a Walker commission, is the first of two works this year from the experimental, six-person company Forced Entertainment, which could be thought of as an English equivalent of the legendary New York-based Wooster Group. Mixing elements that call to mind Samuel Beckett with dance and a malfunctioning game show, “Real Magic” speaks to the effort to connect. (8 p.m. Jan. 25-26) ARTIST/AUDIENCE, INTERDISCIPLINARY, WHAT IS THEATER
“Quizoola!” is both a marathon and a sprint, a six-hour performance at the Soap Factory in southeast Minneapolis that audiences are invited to pop in and out of. Part quiz show and part shindig (there will be booze), “Quizoola!” is followed by a free party untl midnight to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Out There.” (4 p.m. Jan. 27) ARTIST/AUDIENCE, INTERDISCIPLINARY, WHAT IS THEATER