Red Theater tackles obscenity, nudity, honesty, and poop in a new doc | Bleader

Monday, April 1, 2013

Red Theater tackles obscenity, nudity, honesty, and poop in a new doc

Posted By on 04.01.13 at 03:35 PM

The Fourth Wall: A Red Theater Documentary
  • The Fourth Wall: A Red Theater Documentary
It's been a quarter century since I set out to change the art world. Teaming up with a small group of like-minded students from Northwestern University's performance studies department, I dedicated myself to creating a lifetime of nonlinear, non-narrative performance pieces that would beautiful, enigmatic, and occasionally brutal (in one of our pieces, a man slapped himself on the face—hard—with a pair of raw steaks for an hour). We'd build work around the most dire, pressing social issues we could think of. We were serious artists, and on the nights our internationally renowned troupe appeared in Chicago, the city's traffic would be gridlocked.

Five years later, saddled with hypertension, angioneurotic edema, so-so work, and generalized exhaustion, I said to hell with it.

I've never been nostalgic for those heady, absurd days until I saw The Fourth Wall: A Red Theater Documentary. It chronicles the exuberant travails of a performance collective forming at University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008 and nearly imploding within a year. Their efforts to create visceral, presentational, achingly autobiographical theater pieces are met with increasing enthusiasm from the student body and increasing consternation from the faculty. By the time they close their third show, Obscenity. Nudity. Honesty. Poop., they're banned from the school. According to the troupe's cofounder Aaron Sawyer, who directs the film, he was also banned from saying the words "red theater" on campus.

The film is unabashedly one-sided; company members appear on camera to champion their aesthetic bravery while faculty are reduced to hilarious voice-overs recorded during meetings to warn Sawyer of his looming expulsion from the school. But it's the performers' inner turmoil that gives the film a surprising emotional fullness. One actor, a hulking Iraq War vet who proclaims that theater can change the world, crumbles into a heartbroken schoolboy remembering the cancer death of one of Red Theater's mentors. Another actor, who's perpetually at odds with Sawyer, ends up so despondent over the company's troubles that he stops watching for cars when he crosses busy streets.

More than anything, the film reminds us that few things are more vital to the ongoing health of American theater than radically inclined bands of twentysomethings willing to stick their necks way out. Red Theater now has three collectives running—in Lincoln, Omaha, and Chicago. The Chicago branch screens the film Monday, April 1, and Monday, April 8, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Screenings begin at 7 PM, and admission is pay-what-you-can.

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