The silence from experimental theater lately has been deafening. Since the dissolution of oddball Planet Earth Theatre last year, there's been almost nothing out of the ordinary -- save the occasional offbeat translation by teeny Nearly Naked Theatre -- happening on local stages. But there's hope for those who want a little edge with their theater: Wedged among the many tried-and-true season openers this month is LA Numb, a production by Theater Numb, a performance-based troupe of ASU alumni and faculty who are reinventing theater for art's sake. These are theater folks who've grown tired of traditional storytelling techniques and are staging original stories in contexts so "other" that they're hesitant to describe them. They're cool enough to cringe when asked to give a name to what they're doing, but gracious enough to give it a shot.
"Everyone is always looking for a label," according to Dustin Goltz, Numb's resident playwright. "What is this? Experimental theater? Edge theater? That's a conversation I'm not interested in having, because we're trying to do something different, to create a new form, a new way to communicate a story, a new way for an audience to approach characters. And to give it an existing name is to describe it as something that's already out there."
Theater Numb's ultra-hip Web site is a bit more to the point. The company is a five-year-old multimedia collective that calls on various disciplines including performance art, theater, film and movement. Its previous productions have names like Deviant, Banging the Bishop, and Angels and Jennifer Aniston, which have been performed at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Performance Art Festival, and Phoenix's Alwun House, to name a few. In the '70s, we called this "experimental theater"; today, giving the form a name is apparently pretentious.
"We don't want to exclude anyone with a description that might scare part of an audience away," says Theater Numb co-founder Jennifer Linde, who's directing LA Numb. "Dusty's writing is just off center, which makes you think. We don't want to just entertain and then not give an audience something to talk about in coffee houses afterward."
Linde hopes that LA Numb will make audiences consider the blandness of life. "It's about how vapid Los Angeles is, and how that filters into all our lives through the TV and movies created there," she says. "These guys come back from L.A. after they've been working there," Linde says, indicating Goltz and Ryan Bailey, a working actor and Numb's other co-founder, "and it takes them three months to become real people again."
"LA Numb is about people in L.A. trying to find a connection with each other and failing miserably," Bailey says. "Because they've bought into all the superficial Hollywood bullshit, and they're unreachable. It's three people looking for a connection in a land of no connection. People trying to 'get' other people. That's universal."
It's also local. Recent media coverage found the troupe photographed as beggars. "They decided that since we are a theater company without a home, we should pose as homeless people," Bailey says. "They had us digging in garbage cans for the camera. It was really degrading. The photographer was going, 'You're actors, make big faces!'"
"It was pretty awful," Goltz agrees. "I had to go home and get drunk afterwards."
Goltz is serious about his work. By creating a play structure that comments on itself, then comments on its own commentary, Goltz hopes he's subverted what he calls "the usual storytelling techniques." He's reluctant to cite performance art as an influence, "because true performance art died about two decades ago," and doesn't want to be mistaken for a theater basher, either.
"I enjoy traditional theater, when it's done well," he says. "But there's a lot of regurgitation there. It's not like anyone is borrowing and progressing, they're just repeating themselves. So it becomes about presenting familiar stuff that will sell tickets."
Theater Numb isn't about making money, Bailey insists. But its principals confess that, if they were offered a hundred thousand dollars to produce Blithe Spirit, they'd consider it.
"It would have to be rewritten," Bailey says. "And it would have to be an all-nude version."
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