As with so many events in a city obsessed with polls and plebiscites, the dramatic thinkers and tinkerers at a young theater company called Dog & Pony DC decided that the impact of their newfangled show should all come down to a vote.
So, in the interest of giving the audience as intimate a stake in the proceedings as possible — a company hallmark — they not only created a uniquely participatory two-hour production, but also a fictional, financially fading Midwestern municipality around it, complete with promotional Web sites, a detailed history going back almost 150 years, and a crucial canvas of the citizenry to address a perennially contentious town decision.
If that sounds like a lot of work for an event as ephemeral as a night of improvisational theater, well, remember that the real city that is host to the production is one in which the denizens tease out inordinate meaning from minute chunks of census data. This attention to peculiar local custom helps to explain why Dog & Pony DC’s “Beertown” feels as if it is a performance piece grown as emphatically from the soil of this city as any in memory.
“Beertown,” collectively assembled from the imaginations of, among others, Dog & Pony DC stalwarts Rachel Grossman, Colin K. Bills and Wyckham Avery, is the company’s breakthrough show. After a half-dozen efforts, such as a seven-actor “Cymbeline,” a live-action version of Punch and Judy, and “Bare Breasted Women Sword Fighting” — “a vaudeville exploiting women and violence,” in the company’s parlance — this one seems to have found a sweeter spot in the tastes of theatergoers.
After a successful month-long stint last fall at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, the piece is being revived this week at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where it runs as part of the Capital Fringe Festival until July 22. It then moves to Round House Theatre’s stage in Silver Spring for one additional performance, on July 28.
Mustering a remount is no small task for a company on a shoestring like Dog & Pony DC, but “Beertown” garnered the kind of appreciative reviews and affectionate responses that persuaded the 11-member theater collective that an evening in the pretend locality — built around one of those quirky municipal meetings that go on in small towns across the country — yet had more to say.
Though the creative team was guided by theories about audience integration and themes in serious literature, such as Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle, “Winesburg, Ohio,” “Beertown” developed its own folksier charms. To the show’s originators, the degree to which audiences on Capitol Hill embraced the production could be digested as well as viewed: advised beforehand that they could bring desserts to a pre-show potluck, audiences supplied so many homemade cakes and cookies that on some nights the troupe didn’t know what to do with all of them.
The company’s output is in the local vanguard of a theatrical form that’s injecting some exuberant novelty and imaginative energy into the city’s stages. This loose genre of “devised” theater encompasses the work of innovative directors such as Natsu Onoda Power, whose “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” was developed this year at Studio Theatre and interactive, multimedia experiences spearheaded by Banished? Productions’ Carmen C. Wong, in shows such as “Into the Dollhouse” and the Fringe’s walkabout piece “The Circle,” for which theatergoers are being asked to bring MP3 players as they follow the map for a play performed as an “audiowalk.”
Sometimes in devised work, an emphasis on improvisation or on fusing artistic disciplines over the concerns of a traditional text, can lead to muddy results. Another pitfall is that a show can spring too much from the head and not enough from the heart. For their part, “Beertown’s” multiple birth parents say they did not approach their project as a civics lesson.
“We’re not political scientists or government people,” says Bills, an established Washington lighting designer, and the husband of Grossman, who’s described on the Dog & Pony Web site along with Lorraine Ressegger-Slone as the “ringleaders.” Their point of entry was trying to discover new methods of persuading audience members to put their own stamps on what happens in a theater, in ways that would deepen the experience for both them and the actors.
“The community is us and the audience together,” explains Grossman, who in the show portrays the introverted daughter of the clean-cut mayor, played by Joshua Drew, with starchy bow tie and placid demeanor. “Our ultimate goal is to have the audience care about the voting.”
In the way theater seeks to be transformative, Dog & Pony had the intriguing thought that playgoers would bring enough of their own worlds into “Beertown” for the vote they’d be asked to cast at the end of the night to have meaning. The premise does not automatically strike one as surefire, for the purpose that 75 or so citizens gather in the “Beertown” hall is to poll the town on an eccentric local tradition: deciding what objects should be added or subtracted from Beertown’s time capsule, which by some arcane permutation of community logic, is ritualistically dug up and re-buried every five years.
The company members play various townsfolk, such as the city’s archivist or the local newspaper reporter. The first half of the show is the more scripted, as the ceremony is introduced and a few interstitial songs convey the personality of the city, whose most important historical figures were Rhys Bramblethorpe and Aloysius Thompson, ex-New Yorkers who founded the B&T Brewery that gave Beertown its business agenda and its name. (According to the Historic Beertown Web site, the brewery was forced to close in 1992, and the city has never fully recovered.)
As the show progresses to the consideration of what items of special significance (dreamed up by company members, of course) might go into the time capsule, “Beertown” depends more and more on the questions of and debating among members of the audience. (Some items, like a gun with a dastardly pedigree, feel as if they are extensions of the game Clue.)
Grossman and Drew say they and the other actors develop intricate histories for their characters as well as for the objects: sometimes their own biographies are intertwined with the items they are nominating for inclusion in the time capsule, and what audiences discover about them and the town depends on how sharp their questions are. As a result, the votes on what goes into the capsule take off in different directions from performance to performance.
On some occasions, too, so do the paying customers. To Grossman’s declaration that “We’re creating a playground and inviting everyone to come and play,” Drew adds: “Some people take it very seriously. They start developing parts of the town we didn’t create.”
Talking in front of strangers is not everyone’s idea of a happy playground. But while no one is compelled to participate, the Dog & Pony people say putting one’s two cents in becomes contagious.
“Some people say at the beginning, ‘Don’t call on me,’ ” observes Drew, who crunches numbers at Ford’s Theatre by day and portrays Beertown Mayor Michael Soch at night. “I swear, every one of those people ends up raising their hands.”
through July 22 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. One additional show July 28 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. www.dogandponydc.com.