Review: I Am America (Workcentre of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards & The Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies)

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Patriotic experimental theatre took over Toronto’s Glen Morris Studio with I Am America

There are productions that have appalled and confused me, productions that have surprised and inspired me, but very rarely do I have the chance to see something that penetrates so thoroughly, challenging my notions of what theatre is. That is what happened with I Am America, which I was honoured to see last night at the Glen Morris Studio Theatre.

Nostos: Encounters with the Open Program, currently being hosted by The Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (CDTPS), at the University of Toronto, is a presentation of three performances featuring work of the Open Program.

Based in Italy, the Workcentre of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards strives to “re-discover the nucleus of theatre: the moment of meaningful contact between human beings.” Using poetic text as a springboard for their ongoing exploration of how poetry relates to the body and behaviour, this innovative company seeks to keep our cultural traditions alive through examination and reinvention. Their work is theatrical research, developing productions in a laboratory setting—making this experimental theatre in the truest sense of the term.

Experimental theatre is not for everyone, but I must specify that the work of this company is not esoteric and alienating. The show I saw is accessible, vibrant and—perhaps most importantly—honest. I do not mean that in a trivial way. This company has worked hard—for years—to explore how cultural traditions can be internalized, reinvented and become part of a ever-changing collective identity.

With I Am America, ten performers have taken the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, fused it with traditional songs from the American South, and then let it simmer—giving birth to some original musical compositions and choreography.

The ethnically diverse performers sing and dance their way through the humour and suffering of Ginsberg’s words. Using instruments—both conventional and makeshift—as well as their own bodies to convey emotion, they tell an abstract tale of what it means to live in America. Not surprisingly, the immigrant experience figures prominently. This elliptical narrative suggests a nation full of individual voices sharing their own small piece of a grand drama and drawing comfort from each other.

Sharp changes in cadence and body language indicate how easily joy can turn into sorrow—squeals of delight to guttural moans. Far deeper than the words being spoken (which are sometimes hard to follow), it was quality of the vocals and movement that told the story. There were moments when my body reverberated as a result of the performers’ contact with the stage. It was impossible not to tap my feet and sway to the persuasive rhythms.

AddImageAmericaA huge American flag serves as their main prop and I couldn’t help but be struck by its symbolic significance as it is handed from person to person, serving each differently, becoming a blanket, shroud or wings.

The minimalist set—milk crates, apple boxes and pillows—creates an inviting and casual atmosphere. The lines between performer and audience are obscured; we, the guests, are greeted individually and lead to our seats by the very people whom we have come to see. Pillows are thrown onto the playing area to accommodate everybody. The message is clear—we are all in this together. There is no barrier between them and us, and so the event becomes something bigger than just a show. It is a chance for people to interact with each other and share an experience.

I stayed for the Q&A and found myself even more deeply moved by this company’s efforts. They are so proud to be part of an ongoing project that doesn’t culminate in any one completed production. Their focus is on the continued exploration of our shared cultural history, always digging out remnants of the past, making them a part of our present, and preparing them for future generations. In a romantic moment, I was compelled to drop everything and join this troupe… like a hobo hopping a circus train.

During the Q&A, there was much talk of history, and how creative ventures are part of a grand project that will never be truly completed. We are constantly building upon structures that were created long ago. What we create as individuals and as groups is not entirely our own. It draws upon the legacy of others and will be passed on to those who will reshape them long after we’ve gone.

When complimented on their dedication to their craft, one member of the company reflected upon a thought that had occurred to him during the performance. He was looking out at his fellow performers, the crew, and the audience… and he wondered: “Is this important?” And we all laughed, but he waited for us to be silent before going on.

“Really,” he continued, “What is important? We must always ask this question. Even when we think we know.”

That really hit me. I looked around at my fellow audience members, and at the performers; I realized, despite the fact that we had come together as separate entities, how close we all were.

And that, my friends, is why I love theatre. If you love it too—and I mean truly love the essence of it—then you must go see one of the Open Program’s beautiful shows before they leave!

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Images provided by The Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards.