Toast (a workshop production)

by John Stoltenberg

(This report was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

“Audience integration” is a buzzword that has been flying around awhile but only recently landed in my brain. In live theater, it means going beyond removing the fourth wall; it means erasing the line between spectator and performer altogether. It’s different from “audience participation” because it’s not a rehearsed performance into which audience members are sporadically cajoled (without their fully informed consent—which, depending on one’s temperament, can be off-putting or a kick). And it’s different from spontaneous happenings, flash mobs, and other crowd bursts. When one comes to an “audience integration” theater event, one does not merely attend; one joins the creative team.

The preeminent local practitioner of audience integration is the capriciously named theater company dog & pony dc, whose workshop production of  Toast I attended—er, no; I helped create—last night. The site of this novel experience was Arena Stage, where for one weekend (December 5-8, 2013), dog & pony dc appears as part of the Kogod Cradle Series. The company will conduct the workshop production again December 12–14 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. After that Toast goes back into development, a process that typically takes dog & pony more than a year. (Its two most recent productions, Beertown and A Killing Game, both highly acclaimed, opened for real after similar periods of tinkering.)

Though Toast does not appear to be scripted, there actually is a thoroughly worked out conceptual and implementational plan created in advance  by a surprisingly huge team. A program distributed at the end credits two project directors (Rachel Grossman and Ivania Stack), two assistant directors (Wyckham Avery and J. Argyl Plath), a “performing ensemble” of five, a “devising ensemble” of 17, and more than 60 “co-devisers.” The “too many cooks…” maxim clearly did not apply. To the contrary, dog & pony’s recipe for egalitarian collaboration is their broth’s secret sauce.

I was there to report on a work-in-progress, not to review it yet, so I’m repressing all my evaluative critical faculties as I write. Which is no easy matter, because I had so much fun.

Part of my enjoyment was not knowing what to expect. I went in knowing nothing except that friends had urged me to check out this unique company, and I had read a bit about the workshop production on its website—which made Toast sound like a mixture of smart and wacky. It turned out to be even smarter and wackier than I thought, and as tasty a combo as peanut butter and jelly. Or the flavored butter I made. (But more about that in a moment.)

Upon arrival I was greeted by some company members who welcomed me—with an ebullience I was to find shared among the whole ensemble—to what they dubbed an aspirational summit. I was told that this occasion was being held to memorialize a great inventor, the recently and dearly departed Robert Thinkerman, whose bespectacled and bookish photograph was projected on a screen above the stage.

“Is that a real person?” I asked the young man escorting me to the table where, as a summit attendee, I would get my name badge in a plastic pouch hung from a lanyard round my neck.

“Oh yes,” he answered earnestly. For a moment, I believed him. And before I knew it, I was playing along.

Arrayed about the stage were a dozen workshop stations, each a different gamelike challenge to bid one’s creativity and ingenuity to come out and play. I gravitated to a table spread with muffin-size paper cups containing an assortment of unlabeled flavoring ingredients. There I was handed a tablespoon slab of butter in a tiny cup together with a tiny wooden spoon. I was then invited/instructed to create my own flavored butter by picking ingredients to mix in—and I could taste my mini concoction as I went along. Overcoming my hesitance to eat butter as a stand-alone food (“It’s just like ice cream!” I was chirpily assured), I started in. I ended up with a blend of butter, craisins, walnuts, brown sugar, and powdered ginger that was too delicious for my own good.

None of the other workshop stations involved food, but each fed the mind in some idiosyncratic way. After a posthumous video of  Thinkerman, in which he expressed his great regret in life that he had failed to invent a better toaster,  we were invited/instructed to form small groups and brainstorm our own notion of what that better toaster could be. Overcoming my reluctance—I looked forward to think-tanking with complete strangers about as much as I would being stuck with them in an elevator—I randomly wandered into a group in formation. Before I knew it we were all pop-corning ideas and laughing. It turned out to be way more fun than I expected. And the kicker was when each group got to present its invention, from the stage, to an audience of ensemble members and ourselves. It was a turnabout from how theater is ordinarily done that I found utterly delightful and even kind of mind altering.

Obviously we were learning through experience something about the creative process by which inventors come up with ideas—which was evidently the company’s thematic genesis for the entire event. But enjoying that secret sauce was something else as well. It’ll be a different enjoyment for anyone who joins in. And the workshop itself will no doubt become different through ongoing reinvention before the show officially opens in fall 2014.  But as this dog & pony first-timer can candidly report, the aftertaste of Toast piques an appetite for more.

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