Every January, the world of theater (and theater-ish) comes to Minnesota for Out There.
The winter festival focuses on what’s next in the world of experimental performance, as imagined by boundary-busting artists. That’s why Philip Bither, senior curator for performing arts at Walker Art Center, says, “Every piece is its own little adventure.”
As usual, Out There features four pieces, spread over four weekends, but this year’s adventure is augmented by a free bonus: Rabih Mroué’s “Sand in the Eyes,” being performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, sets the stage a day before his new piece has its world premiere.
Then, the adventure continues with these innovative works:
Two towering figures in Walker performances past are reference points for this piece. “It’s a little like Robert Lepage meets Spalding Gray,” Bither said.
Bits of it have been performed elsewhere, but the piece will come together for the first time Friday and Saturday at the Walker, which co-commissioned it.
Rabih Mroué, whose “Riding on a Cloud” was in the 2016 Out There, collaborates with his wife, actor/writer/director Lina Majdalanie, and artist/musician Mazen Kerbaj on “Borborygmus,” which Mroué says can mean a belch or an attempt at discourse. The piece tackles heavy themes, including death and disillusionment at the direction our world has taken, but Mroué insists it’s a “playful” performance by artists who have “surrendered to this absurd reality.”
The playfulness is evident in Bither’s favorite among many rejected working titles for the show: “Let’s Fight Until 6 and Then Have a Drink.”
“Rabih’s work questions truth — which is certainly interesting at this moment — and memory,” said Bither, noting that audiences may see similarities with “886,” which Lepage performed at the Walker last year. “Lepage’s meditations about his childhood are like the way Rabih thinks about the years of Lebanese civil war and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. And he often uses documentary material, archival material he gets from city halls or museums, to construct a ‘reality’ that is partially true and partially fiction.”
The McGuire Theater’s balconies will be closed to make for a more intimate space for “Borborygmus,” which sounds like a prototypical way to kick off this year’s festival.
“It’s very much this Out There notion of: What is theater now? What could theater be? What does theater look like when it’s created by someone whose training is as much in the visual arts as theater?” Bither said.
The curator expects the evening to end in a hopeful place, with performers using storytelling and comedy to affirm their belief in a better future.
The most Out-There-iest thing about it: The performance will be in Arabic, with English surtitles created live each night.
The other Walker commission, running Jan. 17-19, comes from theatermaker Kaneza Schaal, who appeared at the Walker in Elevator Repair Service’s 2013 performances of “Fondly, Collette Richland,” and who calls the new piece “a multimedia comedy of errors.”
Those media include archival film, sitcoms, stand-up comedy, cookery, hallucinogenic video and a goldfish bowl, mysteriously perched at the edge of the stage.
“She’s dealing with pop culture, black culture, the idea of cotillion, dances and society balls, slapstick comedy like ‘The Honeymooners,’ and she weaves that all into the story of a guy, the actor Cornell Alston, whom she discovered in a penitentiary theatrical production,” Bither said. “He was in drag, in a production of ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ I think, and she was blown away. Cornell got released a couple of years ago, and she asked if he’d be interested in working on a piece.”
Alston opens “Jack &” with a humorous monologue about his life, but that blows up into a piece that interrogates the various ways we enter or re-enter society, ranging from getting out of prison to “coming out” at a debutante ball. Fans of “Nailed It,” the Netflix competition show about baking nightmares, may spark to one continuing source of Alston’s frustration: getting a cake just right.
“Kaneza Schaal is a real up and comer,” said Bither, who admires Schaal’s passion for linking to the communities in which her company performs. Locally, she has connected with juvenile justice groups in Hennepin County, as well as working on a piece about child refugees and on another for the Walker that has not yet been announced.
The most Out-There-iest thing about it: What better way to connect to audiences than with a ritual at the Walker’s bar — cutting and sharing cake after the performance?
‘Zvizdal (Chernobyl, so far — so close)’
If you ever visited the “Home Place Minnesota” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, “Zvizdal” (Jan. 24-26) may not seem all that experimental to you. Both combine theatrical props with archival materials to tell a story that conveys a sense of place.
In the case of “Zvizdal,” that place is a tiny community near the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and the story is of a loving/bickering octogenarian couple who chose to remain there because it was the only home they knew.
The Belgian ensemble that calls itself Berlin (go figure) spent parts of three years with the couple, shooting documentary footage that “Zvizdal” projects onto two sides of a movie screen, with the audience seated on either side. Below the screen is a scale model of the couple’s village, complete with representations of them. Theatrical lighting reveals parts of the model that relate to what’s on screen. Video cameras in the model come to life to further illuminate the story of survival and community.
“Berlin investigates ways to make film that brings it more into the realm of theater,” said Bither, noting that the troupe has been presented at the Sundance Film Festival.
That blend is reflected in the presentation. Audiences will be seated on stage, which they’ll enter through the theater’s backstage area — a setup Bither promises “will change your notion of the Walker space while also expanding your idea of what film and theater can do.”
The most Out-There-iest thing about it: The seats will come all the way from Belgium, a pricey setup that makes Berlin tricky to book. The Walker and six arts partners are sharing the freight costs because, Bither said, “The Berlin artists are very rigorous. The way the chairs feel and are made is all part of the expression, artistically.”
If you’re thinking about seeing “Minefield” (Jan. 31-Feb. 2), book it now. Bither suspects it’ll be the toughest ticket.
“This one I really feel could translate to a more general audience, people who don’t necessarily consider themselves experimental theater fans,” he said. “I wish we could do a two- or three-week run because, once people see it, word will spread really fast.”
It’s also “by far the largest scale and most expensive project we’ve done in Out There.”
The piece brings back Argentine director Lola Arias, whose “The Year I Was Born” capped the 2014 Out There. Her specialty is documentary theater. “She knew people who had fought in the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina in the early ’80s and she decided, as part of a research project, to interview veterans from those war years,” Bither said.
One Brit said he hadn’t touched corned beef for three decades because he had to kill an “enemy” while eating a tin of the stuff. Arias turned these stories into a theatrical event that has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Brighton Festival.
For the past 2½ years, six soldiers — three from the U.K. and three from Argentina — have performed “Minefield” all over the world, hoping their alternately horrifying and hilarious tales can shed light on the ludicrousness of war.
“It was really all about national ego, but people died,” Bither said. “These vets were combatants — enemies — but they went through extensive workshops, sharing stories with each other. [Arias] weaves in projections and all this multimedia stuff, but really it’s about these figures who forged this camaraderie with one another, despite standing on opposite sides of the war.”
The most Out-There-iest thing about it: After trying to kill one another and laughing at one another’s foibles, the soldiers end up forming a rock band.