As I drove through Lawrenceville a few weeks ago, I passed the location where, I saw in Pittsburgh, a experimental art performance some 30 or so years ago. Jim Provenzano and I had danced together as students at Ohio State University, and he had taken a dance position here in Pittsburgh. With some friends was doing these experimental performances. Maybe Pittsburgh is like many places where creative people can’t help but find interesting spaces and in them, allow new and different things to evolve that engage the audience in special ways. Or maybe Pittsburgh is unique. In any event, last evening I found myself at another experimental performance.
I generally write, under the guise of “A Gay Man Sees…” sharing my perspective on shows at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, where wonderfully professionally produced theater blossoms for your enjoyment. But last evening, I had the pleasure of watching a very odd and magnificent performance called “Walldogs” by the Hatch Arts Collective, and I encourage everyone to go and check it out. I love many types of shows, and I left this one excited and inspired to create in ways I never would have expected.
Walldogs will be the second full-length play produced by Hatch Arts Collective. It weaves together four stories that explore what it means to mark a wall with text and image. A 1930?s wall sign painter, or “walldog,” buys advertising space on a rural woman’s home. Two teens tag an abandoned wall. A hipster street artist gets a lesson in economics. And, as in the biblical account, a drunken King Belshazzar seeks the meaning of the writing on the wall from Daniel. What does it mean to write on a wall? What can it tell us about ownership, gender, expression, and value?
Artist Image Resource is a space I’ve recently become aware of, as I’ve been exploring the use of screen printing for my own artwork. They host an open studio on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and the space used for this performance of Walldogs is the exact room where I did a screen printing tutorial, not too many weeks ago. Nothing about the performance is like my experience printing, and yet these two events connected for me. It was as if I saw this art studio (maybe any art studio) as a space where anything can happen. My experience of the performance and yours may be utterly different, but I’m guessing this sense of possibility is available for anyone.
There are a few aspects of the performance which really make Walldogs shine as exciting theater, not the least of which is the quality of the performers. Parag Gohel and Mallory Fuccella are well matched and weave these four stories together in an amazing way. They create an intimacy within the space- partly due to the size of the room but mostly due to the chemistry between them. Every movement, gesture, and facial expression becomes a way to feel closer to these two and the characters they bring to life in front of you. Gohel is especially mesmerizing and commanding but Fuccella holds her own. (more on this comment below)
While the space is not large, it is used in a masterful way. For most of the performance, all of the focus is upon a wall which is both one large wall and two separate spaces at the same time. Seating is on three sides, much like a thrust stage, but a lingering moment in the event brings the entire space- and in fact space far beyond the space- into importance. Enjoy the magic of that moment! I especially appreciated how seamlessly quality lighting, sound and set were realized in a very non-traditional theater space, making the use of the space as important to the success of the evening as the high caliber of the actors.
Another aspect I loved about the space and set rests in the “life” of the wall. It has a life, for sure: a “way” it is at the beginning, the end, and for the next beginning. This interconnectedness of performances is much like the interconnectedness of life’s experiences in the most general sense. Not only are four stories from different eras and times, but they are woven into time itself along with the wall. So often, theater, is about the creation of a space and the narrative has a distinct beginning and end. This performance did too, and yet it didn’t- each performance is connected to another and to the past full of stories as well as the potentiality of stories to come. For me, this is perhaps what makes Walldogs most experimental or as least like traditional theater and more about performance art.
A Queer friend alerted me about this performance, and honestly, I was expecting something far more queer. At first I was a little disappointed, but as the performance progressed it drew me in and I lost any need for queerness. Or perhaps I found a queerness in it. I’m not entirely sure, but I came to love the characters being created in front of me without the need to pigeonhole them into well defined boxes. Their website blurb quoted above alludes to “…ownership, gender, expression, and value.” I tend to think I write about these things all of the time, but I found Walldogs encouraging me to think of them all, but differently. On the one hand, I would be inclined to believe there was nothing here about gender, but as I prepared to exclaim to you, that Gohel’s characters were always stronger than Fuccella’s, I realized this wasn’t the case at all. My own perceptions about gender came into play, and really thinking about these characters confronted that.
For me as a Gay man, Gender is all about the expression of masculinity and femininity or all about identity as either cis or trans, but it is far more than that and covers what we expect from others and how we accept them when they do or do not fit those expectations. Maybe that statement doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I’m still trying to find words for this aspect of the performance, but whatever the language used, this aspect of the event was exciting to me. If I were to write the blurb, I would have said that the play is about relationships and the way intimacy is independent of gender, with the reasons people connect delving far deeper than gender.
In June, I saw several plays during a queer theater festival, and the actors practically beat us over the head overplaying gender differences. Not here. Here, real ideas about gender allured me in to seeing gender differently.
Following the play, a second element of the performance surrounds an art making project in another part of the AIR space. This makes the evening gel in my opinion. In a very real way, the performance is about five- or an infinite number of stories- rather than the four listed, and the audience becomes the performers. I marveled at watching the performance viewers become creators, printing and coloring as they enjoyed some food, drink and company. I left wanting to make artwork, immediately, my mind spinning with energy, while still sorting out the various elements of the evening that had been so successful to me.
All in all the event is fun, intellectually stimulating, accessible and inviting on many levels. Hatch Arts Collective is definitely a group to watch and I’ve linked to their information. Do not miss this performance of Walldogs.