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All-American Experiments: Out There 2009

There is singing, dancing, music, theater. There is impassioned oratory (and, possibly, some less charismatic speakers). There are urgent messages of social import, and opportunities for self-improvement. There are groups of locals coming together in a special, even sacred place to feel a sense of belonging, or to open themselves to transformation—spiritually, morally, intellectually. There is ceremony and celebration … you could even call it a spectacle.

As quintessentially American phenomena, the Chautauqua and the evangelical CHURCH service have many things in common. Still, it’s surprising that they have directly inspired two cutting-edge theater works being performed at the Walker in January. Chautauqua!, from the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), and Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s CHURCH were both created as Walker commissions; they also open and close this year’s Out There, the annual festival of alternative, genre-defying performance. “Questions of community, spirituality, and cultural history seem to have captured the attention of innovators in American theater recently,” says Philip Bither, the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts. “At the same time, Out There has always been a barometer of what’s on artists’ minds and where performance is heading.”

The eight-year-old theater collaborative NTUSA is built on a bedrock of Americana, with a particular penchant for indigenous forms of entertainment—but it absorbs them into its distinctive, highly experimental theater practice. “We have used shows to explore vaudeville, Las Vegas revues, cruise ships, and theme parks” says James Stanley, the company member who focuses on writing NTUSA’s shows.

Now, in reviving the big-top, small-town Chautauqua from a century ago, NTUSA simultaneously investigates the history of the phenomenon itself, which began as an idyllic, lakeside summer lecture series for teachers and grew by the 1920s into an increasingly commercialized, nationwide network of traveling shows seen by millions. As a critically acclaimed, increasingly popular company, NTUSA “is in the same kind of bind as Chautauqua was,” Stanley says. “We’re making work that essentially can’t be reproduced.” He sees Chautauqua! as “our attempt to figure out where we stand in the world of high art when it’s wrapped up in commerce and marketing.” (Note the title’s purposeful exclamation point.)

Mixing dance and debates, comedy and science, the serious and the frivolous, NTUSA also tailors each show to the places where it’s performed. In the Twin Cities, Stanley says, “we were struck by how connected everyone is. There’s a community aspect that we’re trying to bring into the show by incorporating all these people.” The motley assortment of locals they’ve corralled includes bicycle activist “gang” members, a brass band, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, choreographer Karen Sherman, and Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich. Ultimately, Chautauqua! draws on “the tensions between having a good time and taking your art seriously,” says Stanley.

There’s no shortage of tension in Young Jean Lee’s work, either; to the extent that her audiences have a good time, a price is also exacted. On her blog, Lee succinctly describes her modus operandi: “My work has never been about lecturing and bullying people—it’s been about tricking and confusing them into submission in a playful/fanged way.”

Lee herself shares in the confusion. Starting with the flowery, nonsensical provocation of its title, she wrote Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven: A show about white people in love as a way to confront her own worst nightmare: writing a confessional Korean American identity play. The resulting show, by turns hilarious and disturbing, was a hit at Out There in 2007, and led to the Walker commissioning CHURCH. “Songs of the Dragons was convincing proof that Lee is not only one of the most fearless and honest theater-makers of her generation, but is also a writer of great skill and a rigorous thinker,” says Bither.

With CHURCH, Lee confronts another personal challenge: her own spirituality, or lack thereof. Like millions of her fellow Americans, she grew up attending CHURCH on Sundays with her parents. She also hated it. But with the same cutting, contrarian approach used in Songs, she has made CHURCH into a religious service that aims to convert its audience. In ways that are utterly sincere and increasingly uncomfortable, the show’s preacher both praises God and condemns his “flock”—described by Lee as “people who are generally educated, tend to be fairly liberal, and into arts and culture.” As she said in one interview, “If the preacher were to rail against homosexuality, everyone would just laugh, but if he rails against spending too much money on eating out, then everyone is guilty.”

In keeping with 20 years of Out There performances, there’s a strong element of unpredictability with Chautauqua! and CHURCH. Both are new commissions, which means “you’re not buying off the shelf,” Bither says, but rather “investing in a future idea because you believe in the potential of the artist and the idea—and you’re asking the audience to believe, too.”

“We come from a background of doing exactly what we want,” says NTUSA’s Yehuda Duenyas (who is chiefly the company’s director), “and we’re happy to bring that anarchic, anything-can-happen idea to a place like the Walker. We’re not trying to transform the theater physically with Chautauqua!, but the theater you go into and the theater you come out of at the end will be two different places mentally.”

While NTUSA’s production is still evolving, CHURCH has played to acclaim in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. But that doesn’t mean the show itself is a known quantity. “It’s the experience itself that is inherently surprising,” says Lee. “We don’t make fun of Christianity and we don’t piss off atheists. You can say that as much as you want— we don’t make fun of Christians—but people don’t really get it.”

Bither points out that while Lee’s status as a provocateur is no secret, the provocation with CHURCH is of an unusual bent. “It’s not only upending expectations of the audience, but confronting people about their own choices in life, where they’re at. Lee is a perfect artist for the Walker, because we don’t know how people are going to feel about this work—and that is its risky appeal.”