Theater News

Big Ideas, Big Art

Kathryn Walat talks to a group of artists that is breaking boundaries and redefining theater.

Shelf Life
Shelf Life

“I think the main boundary to attack is the idea that theater sucks,” says director Caden Manson, founder of the out-of-bounds Big Art Group. “That it’s haughty, that it’s hyper-emotional, that it’s overwrought,” he elaborates. With that goal, three years ago, Manson started Big Art Group, a company that is definitely on the offensive after a sell-out stint at the 1999 Fringe NYC with CLEARCUT, catastrophe! and a successful run last spring of The Balladeer.

But “theater,” with all its grandmotherly connotations, isn’t the only word Manson’s fighting. Don’t call Big Art “avant-garde,” because “avant-garde is in the books,” according to Manson. Company performer Rebecca Sumner Burgos agrees: “It’s been commodified and served back to us in car ads.” Don’t call the group’s work “multi-media” because, as resident dramaturg Linsey Bostwick explains, “It’s a term that doesn’t mean anything
anymore.” Multi-cultural is another Big Art taboo, as its members quest to subvert the Benetton world. And, while a lot of company members are gay, “It’s not like we’re making gay theater,” Manson points out.

Fortunately, the Big Art Group people are as clear about what they are as about what they aren’t. “A lot of theater is made by asking: What can we do on stage? What will be good?” Manson notes. “And I think that ours is about: What can we not do? What is impossible? Can we climb a garbage heap on stage? Can we do a film on stage–with spaces in between, but no space on the film?” Rising
to this challenge in its current show Shelf
, Big Art Group is doing just that.

In a recent rehearsal at the Kraine Theatre, the Group was working out the kinks involved in having three onstage cameras, filming live and projecting the results onto a screen that blocks out the actors from their shoulders to their knees. As one character yanks a second character from one camera zone to the next, a third performer can be seen linking them behind the screen–but not on the film. It’s
tricky….but don’t call it that. “We’re not trying to be spooky and tricky with high-tech,” Manson says. “It’s high concept, low tech. Everything you see on stage is viewable as a double event.”

Big Art’s last show, The Balladeer, was inspired by the high school narrative (in the epic sense), the play-and-rewind aesthetic of video, and company member memories. In creating CLEARCUT, catastrophe! they started with the documentary film Grey Gardens (about Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin) and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. But Shelf Life uses its film to tell a story (written by Jemma Nelson, punctuated
by monologues written by performers for other performers), in which three characters all desire the vacant but beautiful Frankie, played by Vivian Bang. “It’s about how we desire the image and how we hate the image,” Manson explains. “This sort of capitalist orgy thing.” Bang adds, “For Frankie, it’s a love and hate thing.”

Love. Hate. Theater. Image. Even Sumner Burgos–who is in Big Art for its speed and circuits, who is proud of her MTV sensibilities, who hands out cards for the show to people who would rather spend time in a bar than a black
box–finds something redeeming in the art form. “In theater, at least in our theater, you can see the seams showing,” she brags. “Highlighted,” Manson adds, going on to say that “I’m really interested in a broken art form. My aesthetic is duct tape.”

Featured In This Story

Shelf Life

Closed: April 28, 2001