Good citizens of Beertown always bring dessert. And by citizens of Beertown, 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 quinquennial 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.” The 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.”