I shouldn't have told you the ending," says Our Own Voice Theatre Company's founder and guiding light Bill Baker, conjuring up the restless spirits of stress and genuine concern. It's production week at TheatreWorks. Hammers are hammering, large puppets are being constructed from random bits of refuse, and Baker is, as usual, trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together to make a show -- and what it all ultimately means. "If you give away the ending," Baker laments, "nobody will want to come and see the show."
He's making a joke, of course: a little jest at his own expense and at the expense of his unusual performance troupe. Our Own Voice isn't exactly known for producing potboilers where giving away the ending amounts to much. Though the company was born out of the urge to create performances around issues of mental-health care, it has grown into something else altogether. It has become Memphis' only true experimental company, mixing and matching (in a fashion akin to the scientific method) the applied theories of the 20th century's most progressive playwrights and pontificators. Meaning and relevance are, of course, the desired outcomes.
After the success of OOV's 2001 puppet-centric production of Spurt of Blood (a play even the bravest of thespians generally consider unstageable), Baker and company have returned to the unholy grail of performance art: Antonin Artaud's difficult Theatre of Cruelty. In this instance, they have developed The Momo's Curse, an original script based on the life and collected works of Artaud, who is, without a doubt, the most misunderstood and misrepresented dramatist of all time. It is a memory play of sorts, each of the 20-plus performers representing a single aspect of Artaud's personality during a period of time when he was administered a series of devastating shock treatments. As the shocking currents are administered, characters -- like deep-fried memories -- begin to vanish until all that is left is "The Momo." It's a name Artaud gave himself. It means "fool." This is the tragic ending Baker pretends to guard.
"Actually," Baker interjects, "the whole audience will be getting the shock treatments. We're creating an environment where we are all inside Artaud's head."
When dealing with Artaud, the greatest obstacle to overcome is the name he gave his theatrical style: the Theatre of Cruelty. It implies that either the audience or the actors will be subjected to some sort of physical torture, and images of whips and chains leap to mind. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"As is the case with Jesus," Baker says, addressing the problem of cruelty, "a lot of atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of Artaud. He was really just trying to get to the essence of theater, to create a total theatrical experience. He was trying to ask, What is the language of theater?"
The answers Artaud found to his open-ended questions sprang from the well of myth and ritual. He discovered that language was, at best, a tertiary concern in the creation of poetry and that the sacred was often best revealed in light of the profane. At a time when the Surrealists were trying to align their artistic revolution with the emerging Communist revolution, Artaud hoped to create art that transcended politics by revealing to us the very urges that put history in motion. He suffered from schizophrenia as well as an obsessive need to control every aspect of his productions, which, in turn, were to take absolute emotional and psychological control over the audience for the duration of the performance. In short, he wanted to create a theatrical experience that, to some degree, aped his own madness and jolted the audience with the kind of deep, wordless psychological revelations associated with Native American peyote rituals.
Though Baker hopes to tell Artaud's story in the style of the Theatre of Cruelty, he knows he can't exert this kind of absolute control over a production. OOV's mission makes it a theater of inclusiveness. The fact that scripts use improvisation and theater games -- and that casts are often an eclectic mix of actors, kids, mental-health-care consumers, and other interested members of the community -- means that shows can vary significantly from performance to performance. The imaginary fourth wall is always down, and audience interaction is always welcome. These fundamental aspects of OOV are based on the work of another, more politically minded theorist, Augusto Boal, whose work is about as far away from Artaud as you can get.
"The connection [between Artaud and Boal] is that they both believe theater is necessary," says Baker. "It's not just entertainment. It's not just telling stories. It's about communicating and solving problems. Like Artaud said, the theater must rediscover its necessity."
Through November 3rd.