‘Beertown’: Fun place to visit and play
By Jane Horwitz
Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011
Think you're too sophisticated to play along with an interactive theater company?
Well, think again. The clever folks at Dog & Pony DC have collectively devised a theater piece about a small, fictional Midwestern town, and it requires much audience interaction. The result is so gently satiric and utterly involving that you'll find yourself voting for and against issues before you even realize you've raised your hand.
The evening begins before the show officially starts, as company members, in character, converse with ticket holders as they enter the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and send them to the dessert potluck table at the rear of the small theater space.
Beertown's mayor, Michael Soch (Joshua Drew), a pleasant, nattily dressed fellow, calls the meeting to order. The event is the 20th quinquennial ceremony - that's every five years - in which the town's time capsule, first interred in 1891, is reopened, its artifacts carefully displayed and votes taken on what to add or take away from the precious collection.
We learn Beertown was founded by Rhys Bramblethorpe and Richard Thompson, who believed its waters ideal for the B&T Brewery they launched. We learn, too, that the men had a falling out and that Thompson attempted to shoot Bramblethorpe, but accidentally killed the chambermaid instead. The gun was previously removed from the time capsule; one of the issues is whether to return it. At various times, the gun was deemed too painful a piece of history or, alternately, an essential fact.
The audience's participation can change the play's ending and its length. Discussion takes off over voting for the time capsule artifacts, and audience members, at least at Friday's show, become central to it. Thanks to subtle cues from the actors, the audience quickly picks up on petty tensions and rivalries between Beertonians.
One debate became a symbol for our economic malaise. The vote hinged on whether to keep the last beer bottle to roll off the now-closed B&T Brewery's conveyor belt or take out the bottle and replace it with a thick stack of pink slips the workers received the day the brewery closed. Soon there was talk of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, and we were off to the races.
"Beertown" works because Dog & Pony DC is careful not to let the show condescend toward small-town America. From Mayor Soch, who's easily rattled, to his tender, unfortunately named daughter, Michael Soch Jr. (Rachel Grossman, who also directed), to upbeat state assemblywoman Lara Pickel-Cooper (Jessica Lefkow) to astronomer Karin Oppenheim (Wyckham Avery), the cast members bring comic flair and emotional grit to their portrayals.
Little vaudeville skits highlighting Beertown's history occasionally interrupt the voting. More solemn digressions, called "antecedents," delve briefly into such concepts as the wispiness of memory and the unreliability of history's interpreters. And the town's perky newspaperman, Arthur Whiting (Matthew R. Wilson), interviews audience members here and there.
Not every element in "Beertown" works. Some of the skits fall a tad flat, and the second half felt a bit long. But the power of the actors and their vividly imagined Beertonians make the imaginary burg seem a most excellent destination.
You can visit Beertown at www.visitbeertown.com, on Facebook and other social media sites. Dog & Pony DC encourages theatergoers to bring a nut-free dessert to add to the pre-show dessert potluck.
Democracy and dessert, on tap in ‘Beertown’
By Maura Judkis
Sunday, Nov 13, 2011
Good citizens of Beertown always bring dessert. And by citizens of Beertown, the theater troupe Dog & Pony DC means you, the ticketholders to its newest show: Each performance of "Beertown" - for which members of the audience play the roles of townspeople - begins with a dessert potluck before the town's 20th
time capsule celebration.
"Baking something for a roomful of strangers is really giving yourself over to community," says director Rachel Grossman. "It fills people with a sense of pride and ownership."
Bringing a baked good to the show isn't the only way you're expected to give yourself over to community in "Beertown." Dog & Pony is a small troupe that creates audience-interactive theatrical experiences by reimagining classic texts and techniques. This show encourages you to insert yourself in the civic ceremonies surrounding the town's event, as a participant in democracy on a very small scale.
Because even though Beertown is an imaginary town, it's really every small town in the Midwest - and your role in "Beertown" isn't just to bring some brownies. It's to contemplate what it means to be an American.
Beertown is an idyllic little borough in the Midwest ("A state that begins with an I," says Grossman, but she won't specify further to preserve its universality). Founded in 1864 by Rhys Bramblethorpe and Aloysius P. Thompson, the pair named the former territory of the Thakiwaki Indians after the city's industry - together, they founded the B&T Brewery, which operated for nearly 150 years. Beertown celebrates its history every five years with the opening of a time capsule with 13 items.
To recognize the town's changing history, the citizens of Beertown gather every five years to propose new items of significance - anything from a prominent citizen's suicide note to a suffragette's sash - but with each item added, one must be removed. With some encouragement from the actors, the audience can propose items to add to the capsule and vote for items to be removed. For each item that is voted in or out, the actors will perform short skits, called antecedents, that explain the history of the items. The audience's votes will determine which antecedents they see, so no two shows will be alike, and no audience will see every antecedent.
"If you put the power in the hands of the audience, they are going to take it where they'll want to go, and there are ways that we'll never predict," says Grossman, "That's what's so exciting about it. The improvisation can kick in high gear."
"Beertown" is a devised production, which means that every person involved in the show has a hand in almost every part of it, from writing to directing to dramaturgy. It is the ultimate theatrical democracy - which happens to have produced a play about the democratic process.
"The piece is now exploring how individuals navigate community through objects of memory," says Grossman. "The entire project, not just the performance, really addresses this question . . .as a company we're, for the first time, having a show that is damn near collectively created from start to finish. While I'm listed as director, we have other cast members and designers that take notes. I am also [acting] in it. It's a very fluid process that was set up as an experiment for us as a company."
To begin the devising process, company members read Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," a series of sentimental short stories about an imagined town. The company also read Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated" to contemplate how communities remember and forget.
After that, "We made it up," says Jessica Lefkow, who has several roles in the play. "A lot of it was positioning ourselves as historians," says Grossman, except that the history they were responsible for was an imagining of how a small town would react to national events such as Prohibition. The company's members dreamed up an entire 150-year narrative for the town, which gave them more material than they could ever use in the play. Much of it can be found at visitbeertown.com, the tourism Web site promoting the city.
"I tell people what the show is about, and because I know so many details about this place, people will ask me, 'How did you find out about this place and this event?,' as if it was real. And I say, 'Oh, no, we just made it up.' And they say, 'How did you make it up?' " says Colin K. Bills, scenic designer and one of the devisers. "The long answer is when you have 12 months of brainstorming and constant editing, among a group of nine to 15 people, it just kind of happens."