Stirring the pot

Changes are afoot in the local theater scene
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 14, 2009

PLAY SUBSTITUTION: The cast of Mad Horse's The History Boys.
The new year ushers in some lively shake-ups and stirrings among Portland's theater community. Three breaking developments, reported below, offer theater-goers and thespians a little more of 2009's hot commodity, Change:

First of all, MAD HORSE THEATRE COMPANY has announced a major alteration in their season's schedule: Alan Bennett's much-lauded The History Boys is set to replace Larry Kramer's The Naked Heart as the company's spring mainstage show, which runs April 23 through May 10. (The Naked Heart will still get stage time, in the form of a staged reading during Gay Pride Week, in June.) The History Boys explores adolescence, the nature of history, and warring pedagogies in an English school for boys. Eight students are taught history by both a slick young teach-to-the-test expert and a deep-thinking maverick, and in the process, they learn about learning and life as well as history.

The change, says Mad Horse artistic director Christine Louise Marshall, follows the standing-room-only success of the staged reading of The History Boys, which Mad Horse presented as part of its new Dark Nights series this fall. The reading featured several young area actors as the students, and the collaboration proved electrifying for everyone involved — so much so that the company decided it was too good to let go quite yet.

"This production of The History Boys is lightning in a bottle," says Marshall. "Knowing that several of the cast members will be graduating this spring, and reflecting on the tremendous enthusiasm and ability they've shown, we simply can't let this opportunity pass us by." The young actors participating in the show include Jason Badeau and Nick Reynolds of Gorham High; Philip Rogers of Freeport High; Rick Blake of Waynflete; and Danny Gay, Lucas Perry, and Nate Speckman of USM. Great props to Mad Horse for their new dedication in involving community youth so intimately in professional theater.

A NEW WORKSHOP VENTURE, spearheaded by performers Jennie Hahn and Tess Van Horn, also seeks to bring the community together in theatrical creation. This month, the two actors launch a weekly creative movement lab, open and free to all at Zero Station, Tuesdays at 7 pm, and based on an improvisational approach to ensemble work known as Viewpoints.

Viewpoints was first conceived in the 1970s by modern-dance choreographer Mary Overlie, who broke down the main spheres of a performer's work — time and space — into six categories, or Viewpoints: space, story, time, emotion, movement, and shape. These elements act as a vocabulary by which performers improvise with each other. Later, in the 1990s, Anne Bogart and her SITI Company adapted Overlie's approach for actors, with an eye toward encouraging more spontaneous and intuitive ensemble work.

Hahn and Van Horn both first encountered the Viewpoints technique in college, and have gone on to incorporate it in their theater projects — most recently, in last summer's beautiful and ethereal Choirspeak, an oral history-based exploration of Mainers' perspectives on the Maine Woods. As a highly collaborative ensemble work merging words with abstract movement, Choirspeak benefited from what Van Horn explains is the strongly democratic focus of Viewpoints. "It takes away the sense of hierarchy, or the idea that 'the director is god,'" she says. "Instead, each individual has an equal part in sharing ideas."

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