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Two students perform in the production "Portrait of Dora."

Students perform in the Xperimental Theatre's fall production of Portrait of Dora.

Expect the unexpected

Xperimental Theatre offers innovative programming on a shoestring

By Erin Peterson

Published on January 20, 2005

As the lights dim in the Arena Theatre, the scene is set: Two Iraqi girls play with Barbie dolls. The girls have their dolls go to the market to buy food for a picnic, only to find that the shop owner has nothing to offer them because of sanctions. During the dolls' adventures, one girl rips the leg off of her Barbie, explaining that it got blown up. Dozens of toy soldiers circle the scene, standing at attention. The scene is both funny and heartbreaking, a testament to the fact that it doesn't take big budgets or elaborate sets to create powerful theater. In five scenes, the cast members of this Xperimental Theatre workshop examine the Middle East from the perspective of children and adults, Muslims and non-Muslims. Performing just days before the November U.S. elections, perhaps the only thing not politically charged about the show is the title: Free Hummus refers not to the play, but to the snacks served afterward.

See 24-Hour Theatre this weekend

At 8 p.m., teams of playwrights armed with laptops and caffeinated beverages huddle together, the nighttime hours clicking by too quickly. At sunrise, the actors and stage designers begin to arrive and put in their two cents, everyone spinning together something that looks like theater, always watching the clock. That night, an audience will gather to see--I have no idea what they're going to see, actually.

This process--24-hour theater--condenses creativity to its essentials and boils the collaborative process down in a manner unlike any other in the realm of theater-making. Participants have only one full day to write and stage a play. It puts "experts" and "newbies" on the same playing field, providing nearly instant gratification for all. The anticipatory audience, drawn by curiosity, wonders--will these crazy kids be able to pull it together and keep it rolling? The result: energized (rather than exhausted!) students for the beginning of a new semester of theater.

The Xperimental Theatre will present 24-Hour Theatre at 8 p.m. on January 22, 2005, in Rarig Center's Arena Theatre. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. Please call the Xperimental office at 612-625-1876 to reserve your seat.

--By Jessie Glover, the Xperimental Theatre's artistic director.

The student-run Xperimental Theatre at the University of Minnesota has a tradition of creating bold programming on a shoestring. The financial constraints--the average budget for each production is $250--force the students to make creative decisions their University Theatre Mainstage peers often don't face. "There are the kids who get a toy who end up playing with the box more than the toy inside," says Jessie Glover, X Theatre artistic director, and a graduate student in theater. "We're like that kid. We have to use our imagination to work around those limitations." Because the University has more than 300 theater majors, not everyone will get to participate in a major show. The X offers an alternative to the Mainstage productions. Third-year student Dave Jennings, the space and time manager for the X, says that the X offers opportunities to students that aren't available elsewhere. "It's a chance to work with your peers," he says. "You get to figure things out on your own rather than having a professor tell you what to do." Though the X does have a faculty adviser, associate professor of theater arts and dance Matt LeFebvre (B.A. '87, M.A. '96), both Jennings and Glover note that students are given great latitude in their decisions. A student board selects each season's shows and workshops. No overarching theme connects the productions, except that they generally veer from the expected. "This is not your parents' theater," says Glover. Among this fall's offerings was Portrait of Dora, an examination of Sigmund Freud's first published case study, of a woman with hysteria. "It's about the danger of silencing women," explains Glover. "It's largely a hypothesis on what Dora might have had to say about what Freud said of her-that is, who is the authority figure? Whose story is right?" This weekend, the X presents 24-Hour Theatre, a fast-paced collaborative workshop attempted for the first time (see sidebar). Five groups of student writers, directors, cast members, and technical staff will gather at 8 p.m. on January 21 and team up to write, produce, and perform five original one-act plays over the course of a single day. Performances begin 24 hours later, at 8 p.m. on January 22. And this spring, Jennings will direct Religious Pretense, an hourlong improvised show set in the courtroom of God. "The prosecutors and defendants will make their cases for someone trying to get into heaven," says Jennings. The audience will decide that person's ultimate fate. While the productions aren't typical and the budgets are small, those who work in the X have a distinct advantage in attracting audiences: All the shows are free. "We joke that we have the kind of theater no one wants to pay to see, but we mean that in a good way," says Glover. "In most theater, it's hard to take risks because you have to be commercially viable. Here, we can take artistic risks." In a later scene in Free Hummus, actors take turns reading statements gathered from Muslim students at the University. The passages are by turns angry and hopeful, thoughtful and perplexed. The words are not always easy to listen to, but they are candid and honest. Xperimental or not, it's exactly what theater is supposed to be. For more information on the Xperimental Theatre, visit the X or call 612-625-1876.

From an original article in Minnesota, January-February 2005.

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