Experimental Theater: Small Stage, Big Impact

Posted on Dec 31 by SEASONS Magazine

Story by Rebekah Altman

We love big productions—the sets, the lighting, the epic stories, musicals and canonical themes from the likes of Shakespeare and his ilk. But the following companies set the paradigm ablaze, highlighting local talent, a plucky attitude and the idea that powerhouse theater can come in small packages.

DramaDogs founder E. Bonnie Lewis as Queen Margaret, photo by Rod Rolle

DramaDogs founder E. Bonnie Lewis as Queen Margaret, photo by Rod Rolle

Erica Connell, Ken Gilbert and E. Bonnie Lewis created DramaDogs—A Theater Company in 1997 with a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to theater. Their work focuses on the creative process leading up to a performance and removes the hierarchical relationships between director, actor and crew. They term their style “body-centered,” which, Lewis explains, leads them to consider “how do we use the instrument of the body to make a character more dynamic?” In addition to productions throughout the year, the company develops training programs and educational outreach activities in schools.

Genesis West has presented subversive avant-garde theater by contemporary writers in order to elevate the cultural temperature of the city since 1998. The company found great popularity, but around the time that extreme props like livestock were being incorporated into productions, it started to feel untenable. “Instead of getting conservative with our choices, we decided to change the model,” explains Maurice Lord, who co-founded the company with Michael Smith.

So Lord and Westmont College’s Mitchell Thomas staged performances in living rooms as a new way to present theater. Lord says, “The audience…was more engaged, they came in with no preconceived notions.” That led to a run of A Number that took place in a different venue every night, ending with a performance in London. Who knows where they may pop up next.

La Petite Chouette Aerial Dance Studio on the trapeze, photo by Rod Tucknott

La Petite Chouette Aerial Dance Studio on the trapeze, photo by Rod Tucknott

La Petite Chouette Aerial Dance Studio is aerial paradise. Although rooted in traditional circus arts, this six-year-old troupe and studio sets itself apart by also using contemporary dance as its foundation. Founder, artistic director and longtime practitioner of circus arts and dance Ninette Paloma says that her approach has “eliminated a lot of the razzle-dazzle.” She continues, “We feel that aerial dance’s quiet beauty is so inspiring…to allow the body to just tell a story, you don’t need huge fanfare.” The only company of its kind in SB, La Petite Chouette teaches the complete vocabulary of circus skills—such as stilt-walking, partnered acrobatics and tight wire—but with a modern dancerly spin. La Petite Chouette performs Entrée des Artistes December 7 at the studio, 801 E. Gutierrez St.

Musical theater for the next generation, Out of the Box Theatre Company has brought its own renditions of classics like Hair and Reefer Madness, as well as recent productions, to the stage since 2010. Founded by Samantha Eve, the company emphasizes productions that draw on contemporary humor and social relevance, and many are Santa Barbara premieres. Catch rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a serious revisioning of America’s seventh president, February 14–24 at Center Stage Theater.

Proximity has a challenge for us: to be truly alive in our bodies and connected to our fellow human beings. With this in mind, it produces theater that is physical, startling and revelatory. At Contemporary Art Forum‘s Forum Lounge on January 3, the company explores themes of disconnection versus connection, and training of 12-18 year-olds in the physical theater vocabulary is already underway.


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