Theater / Performance

That Time (PIFA Festival, Kimmel Center Innovation Studio, 21Apr13)

What They Say It Is:

For this special PIFA production, two companies (Tongue & Groove, and RealLivePeople(in)Motion) ask “If you could go back in time to any moment in your own life’s story, where would you go and why?” The answers will inspire a one-of-a-kind, instantly-generated collage of dance, theater and music that will capture the unique spirit of each audience.  The production is a collaboration of actors and dancers, as well as a musician and a visual artist. Each performance is enhanced by live improvised harmonica music. The set design is an interactive large-scale mural of a time-line, upon which audience members add their answer to the posed question.

NEW Clay Says graphic ErniePIFA….we don’t know you nearly well enough.  Walking home from this performance, I wondered why Tara and I are such big fans of Philadelphia’s Live Arts/Fringe festival, yet have comparatively little knowledge of PIFA.  Better marketing?  Better festival brochure?   Better time of year, or perhaps the appeal to our age group?  I’m not even sure if we’ve ever attended a PIFA event before (though in 11+ years as Philadelphia residents, it’s hard to imagine we hadn’t).  However, PIFA is a much newer festival event with only a couple years under it’s belt, and our affinity will probably grow with time.

Anyway, I found a flyer for this PIFA show in the queue at Golden Empress (one of our all-time favorite vegetarian restaurants, long live Sam!) and found myself inclined to attend based on the advertisement’s daring visuals (nudity sells tickets), low entrance fee (a flat $10), and the description of a hybrid dance/improv/audience concept.  Is improv always good?  Definitely not, but I tend to enjoy works that include an audience component and Tara is always up for dance-related shows, so it seemed like a serendipitous, excellent choice.  We were even able to pay for our tickets with some surprise Easter cash gifted by Tara’s step-grandparents—thanks so much, Ginny and Will!

A lasting first impression (this is the show's promotional photo)

A lasting first impression (the show’s promotional photo)

SEPTA was running late and we barely(!) made it to the venue for this Sunday evening performance, slipping into our seats with only seconds to spare.  We’d regrettably missed our chance to submit a personal memory into the show’s timeline, something that bugged me throughout the show (thanks again, SEPTA) but perhaps it was for the best . . . faced with the show’s framing question (what part of your personal life would you like to revisit, and why?) I soon realized that this line of thought can lead to melancholy places (interventions against the deaths of friends, or long-lost family members) or potentially lightweight responses (rock concerts I’d like to relive, for example).  So in spite of missing out on the audience participation aspect, we enjoyed the show (and scenes inspired by our fellow audience members) without actually being “part of it” ourselves.

Here’s how That Time worked as an event:  Audience post-it notes were hung on a backdrop timeline.  Players would pull memories from the wall and then interpret these varied triggers without preparation or guidance.  Skits lasted anywhere from a mere few seconds up to five minutes.  Interpretive harmonica was the only sonic accompaniment to the actors, serving as comic punctuation for scene changes and comedic statements.  (That last item–harmonica–probably sounds terrible to a non-attendee, but it turned out to be a tasteful (and affordable) choice . . . sad harmonica is a surprisingly effective way to lighten the mood when memories get too heavy, while also making the scene-swaps comfortable and entertaining).  Scenes would end on an organic schedule (i.e. when they just ‘felt over’) and according to the rules of typical improv, rarely encompassed more than a single emotion or concept.  The overall pace was quick and seamless, making the 90 minute show feel much shorter and never boring.

As this photo is from Tongue-Groove's own website, I'm starting to think they had a hand in the show's promotional flyer.

As this photo is from Tongue & Groove’s own website, I’m starting to think they had a hand in the show’s promotional flyer.

Some of the memories (as written by audience and read by the actors) were certainly downers, or at best, ambivalent windows into our complicated private lives.  One woman, frustrated with her crying baby, swears off feeding the uncooperative infant.  Another memory wished for a return to age 15, allowing the speaker to realize ‘how cool they were’ (presumably in contrast to the real-life pains of awkward adolescence).  The incontestable shocker of the evening was the show-stopping pronouncement “I’d stop drinking so much, and avoid rape”.  The cast, thankfully, did very little with that particular memory, allowing it to stand on its own as a clinical moment of clarity, honesty, and pathos.  Many of the memories, however, were surprisingly plain and straightforward–I guess I’d have expected more humorous recollections, or perhaps even more tragedy.  One oft-repeated line dealt with what must have been someone’s happiest day . . . “I was after a glass of wine, strolling in the street  . . . ” but was quickly mutated into a surrealist goof thanks to constant repetition and emphasis on language (“I was AFTER . . . I was after . . . after a glass . . . “).  Other sketches interpreted a straightforward memory into starkly emotional monologs–I was especially fond of the act in which an older man gave bits of advice to his younger self, stretching the well-meant advice into a mournful, honest confession of middle-aged regrets.

The unquestionable hit sketch of the night featured two hyper-stereotyped South Philadelphia neighbors perched on a door stoop, reflecting on the changing demographics of their neighborhood (“Those damn hipsters and their big black glasses, and they’re so skinny, so skinny(!), what is the deal with that?”).  For me, that sketch was the turning point of the show, a moment when the entire room felt invested in the actors, the concept of personal memory, and the immediacy of the strange city we live in.  After all, neighborhood politics (and the burgeoning issue of Old vs. New Philly)–while much lighter and less universal than rape or lost childhood or maudlin middle age–is a topic that every single Philadelphian can relate to.  In fact, in keeping with the theme of this year’s PIFA festival, real, actual time travel actually felt possible through the unexpected medium of i-talian caricatures.  Thanks to some perfect comedic timing and clever adherence to the show’s overarching theme, we witnessed the past meeting the present in these all-too-familiar embodiments of Philadelphia’s old guard . . . these classes of people who are still very much with us . . . even as the present city continues to change into the future.  

NEW Tara Says Graphic

That Time—one of the several PIFA festival events we attended–worked well because the improv actors and dancers were well trained and talented at what they did.  I thought the concept of audience memories—reenacted via post-it notes–worked well.  I don’t know what memory i would have submitted into the show if we’d arrived on time to participate in that part…..i was thinking about that question the whole show and still don’t have an answer.

As a voyeur and audience member, the emotional ‘breakthrough’ of one actor was great to witness.  The gentleman was enacting a piece in which the speaker struggles with issues of self-worth and sexuality. The piece worked well because he was recalling holdover issues from growing up in a different generation.  Tthe actor portraying this memory was probably in his fifties, and the context of the childhood memory suggested a locale where homosexuality was not acceptable. I was moved when this confession of a homosexual gentleman stated “there is nothing wrong with you,” and he started to cry.  I find it to be touching—and too rare in American society–for a person to be open and honest with strangers.

With respect to the role of dancing in this show, I will have to say I am a little biased against “improv” dancing…. but that is my own personal problem.  Perhaps my bias exists because i am more used to structured dance—I usually tend to prefer practiced routines.  Also, although i was in a raised seat, we were sitting in the last row, and so my sight of the dancers doing floor work was impaired.  However, my favorite improv “dance” of the show was the skit in which women were attempting to finish college (metaphorically striving toward a distant finish line) and a large, interfering male actor kept forcibly carrying the actresses back to the starting point.  The piece was interesting and funny, especially because of the different ways he kept dragging them back to the start line.  I also really liked the ‘see-saw’ sketch, wherein a duo of two ladies joined hands and rocked up and down, using their weight to lift/exchange places.  Only one person could be up and one person down (so if someone was low to the ground the other had to get up).  This action must have been very physically challenging to get up and down so many times and simultaneously incorporate a variety of different dance moves.

I really enjoyed the concept of the show.  I love being nosy and hearing people tell stories about their lives (this is also why i love blogs, internet stalking, reading autobiographies, crappy TLC shows, etc) . . . events like these totally fulfills the voyeur in me.

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