Rose Higgins took to the center stage during a recent rehearsal of “Beertown” at Raleigh Little Theater to speak eloquently in defense of a pie tin.
Kim Jones threatened to steal the show simply with some well-placed nods, smiles, uh-huhs and the occasional outraged comment.
Neither woman is actually in the cast.
“Beertown,” which opens Friday, is something a little different for Raleigh Little Theatre – an interactive piece that asks the audience to play the part of Beertonians in a town hall meeting. The show is the brainchild of dog & pony dc, a Washington, D.C.-based troupe directed by Rachel Grossman. For the RLT performance, Grossman is directing while two dog & pony members are joined by six local actors and, of course, the audience.
Here’s the “plot”: Every five years the Beertown community has a town hall meeting to open the town time capsule and vote on what should go in and what should come out. Members of the cast nominate three new items each show and then the community – that’s you, the audience – weighs in.
(A word about that title. “Beertown” got its name from its one-time main employer, a local brewery. It has nothing to do with “Drunk Town.”)
Increasingly, audiences want to curate their own experience and to be empowered, and this show does a great job of both of these things.
Charles Phaneuf, RLT’s executive director
Charles Phaneuf saw the show five years ago when it premiered in D.C., right before he moved to Raleigh to become RLT’s executive director. The experience stuck with him. “I’d never felt so connected to other people in a theater setting before,” Phaneuf said. “It was an experience that transcended theater because we built a community that night ... and most of the meaningful moments and funniest lines came from other people in the audience.”
Bringing it to RLT seemed natural, Phaneuf says “(because) our mission at RLT is education through theater, it made so much sense to challenge our artists and audience members with a different kind of experience.”
That different experience actually starts before you even get to the theater because the audience is asked to bring a dessert for a potluck to be shared with the cast and audience before the show. (Don’t worry, they’ll let you in if you show up empty-handed, but it’s worth noting that Grossman says they’ve been met everywhere with an abundance of food and speaks wistfully of a certain peanut butter pie at one performance.)
The potluck serves two purposes, says Wyckham Avery, a dog & pony member who portrays the Mayor of Beertown. Eating together helps create community, loosens people up, she says. More importantly, it’s the cast’s first chance to size up the audience. “I’ll throw a softball at you to see how you react,” Avery says.
If it’s obvious someone doesn’t want to participate, that’s OK, she says.
“We don’t embarrass,” she adds. “It’s about us coming together.”
Grossman, the director, describes the show as part civic ceremony, part theatrical pageant. In addition to the town hall element, there are songs and dance (from the cast, not the audience) that tell a bit of the backstory.
Not too political
The show originally came together almost by accident, Avery says. The company knew it wanted to do a community-based piece, and members were reading “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. “A whole series of little light bulbs went off,” and eventually they got to the time capsule idea, says Jon Reynolds, who plays Arthur Whiting, a reporter for the Beertown Bugle.
The show has toured in New York, Cincinnati and Omaha, and before each production, research is done on the community. Ahead of the Raleigh show, the community at large was invited to a meeting and N.C. State students conducted a survey – all with the intention of giving dog & pony a sense of Raleigh. The local cast members help come up with the items that they want to put into the time capsule to give it a more authentic feel, Grossman says.
The idea, she says, is to reflect the community and the times but not be overtly political. Grossman says there was discussion of Raleigh’s brand, or lack of one, as well as family values and the current nature of politics.
A toilet seat was considered; not because of the HB2 legislation, but because so many people seem to think America is going down the toilet, she says. The seat, she says, did not make into the show. Beyond that, she demurs from saying what items might be up for a time capsule vote each night, adding only that each item is aimed toward having a conversation.
If a recent rehearsal is any indication, expect a lively and wide-ranging discussion.
For that rehearsal – which gives the local cast members who may not be as used to the improv nature of the show a chance to hone their skills before a real audience – members of the RLT community were among the invited guests. Higgins, for example, played Mrs. Lovett in the recent production of “Sweeney Todd,” and Jones actually auditioned for “Beertown.”
If the non-acting audience is slower to jump in once the show debuts, cast members seated in the audience are well-placed and well-trained to keep the show moving.
And if someone in the audience gets a little too involved?
“I have a gavel and I use it,” says Avery, who adds that her role has a bit of stage manager in it. “Kind of like conducting. ... I can see something interesting happening over there, so how do I bring that out but not shut down this person? ... It requires split-second decisions.”
Phaneuf, who was at the recent rehearsal with the audience, knows the show is an experiment and is waiting to see how RLT’s audiences react.
“Any time we make a change, I don’t expect that 100 percent of the audience will follow us,” he says. “But, as long as we’re staying true to our educational mission and producing work that is fun and compelling, the overall result will be positive.”
And he says such experiments are necessary to keep theaters thriving as they compete with other sources of entertainment.
“Increasingly, audiences want to curate their own experience and to be empowered, and this show does a great job of both of these things.”
Where: Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and May 12-14, 19-21; and 3 p.m. May 8, 15 and 22.
Cost: $18 for ages 62 and up, and students through college age, $22 for other adults. $13 on the first Sunday.
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org/