(Reprinted from the November issue of The Dramatist)
The Buffalo Infringement Festival, which celebrated its eighth year in 2013, is a wonderfully illustrative example of the constant creation and collaboration that defines the Buffalo theater scene. Though the Festival comprises art installations, dance, music, media, puppetry, and more, theater has always been an integral part of it. Nobody is turned away from Infringement and space and publicity are provided free to everyone – from Buffalo or not – which invites the wide range of low-to-no-budget experimentation that imbues Infringement with an exciting “what’s next?” appeal.
This year, three distinct “hits” emerged from Infringement’s theater offerings – all of them site-specific. The first, an absurdist take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, was performed on the third floor of the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center, built in 1914 in a once thriving area of the city. “The landscape in which Chekhov wrote this play was one of great inequity and unrest, and occurs in the deep inhalation of an unraveling society just prior to the Russian revolution,” says director Megan Callahan. “Preservation and conservation are also strong themes in the piece, and one need only look out the window to see our own ravaged landscape.” Natural daylight intensifies this view through large open windows during Act I. For Act II, that light is gone (a beautiful, visceral metaphor), and the set is completely reconfigured to employ the video projections that producing company Torn Space is known for (I wrote about Torn Space’s Dan Shanahan, Buffalo’s “de facto king of site specific performance” in the 2012 November/December issue of The Dramatist). Though this work is not original, the interpretation certainly was, and the result was citywide Chekhovian fever and a series of sold-out shows.
Meanwhile, in the cavernous hallways of the former Pierce Arrow factory (which is fast becoming an incomparable arts venue, as it houses two theaters, a film collaborative, artists’ studios etc.), a drug deal was going bad. Click Chamber, the introspective and poetic analysis of six underworld figures, is the brainchild of playwright Justin Karcher and playwright/actor Aaron Krygier. A trapped dealer, a mob boss, a bloody victim of drug violence, the mob boss’s daughter, her poet lover, and the killer each told his or her side of the story – sometimes in verse – to frequently compelling result, even at this first exposure. “We are all inherently linked through two things: death and each other, which makes this some scrap of a human story,” says Krygier. The piece intrigued Infringement-goers who filled the audience night after night to plumb the depths of human despair (and to partake in some excellent home-baked goods for sale at the event).
Finally, in the parking lot across the street from the Pierce Arrow, Buffalo Car Plays – featuring world premiere plays by Jon Elston, Darryl Schneider, Steve Roylance, and me – played to capacity and then some for six nights. Adapting the concept from La Jolla Playhouse’s Car Plays, we staged four two-handers in four different cars, and rotated audiences through them in blocks of eight-to-twelve three times a night. Though I chose this venture for its perfect Infringement aesthetic – we needed only ourselves and our actors – I couldn’t have anticipated the excitement that it generated, or the word of mouth that had us turning people away as the run wound down. The enthusiasm was overwhelming: we were delivering something that nobody in town had ever seen or experienced (and giving my 85-year-old mother a great story to tell her friends). Even the actors – skeptical at first – delighted in the form, barely registering that they were performing their plays twelve times a night.
As producer – and, of course, as a playwright – generating this kind of response was thrilling, but what I enjoyed most is best shared by example. When reservations came in (and they were necessary), I often had singles that I matched up both to maximize audience and to ensure that everybody had a shared experience. One of these matchups was an eighteen-year-old girl who rarely goes to theater but had come to see a friend, and a mid-twenties actor. As I did with other ad hoc pairs, I introduced them at the start of the show and sent them off to the first car. At the third car, where one has to sit in the front and one in the back, I saw them playing rock, paper, scissors to determine who would sit where. In the brief time between being introduced and the third play, this intense and intimate theater experience had bonded them! And there, in miniature, in a parking lot, was the very reason theater exists. I will never forget it.
If you want to bring your show to Buffalo for next year’s Infringement Festival, I can’t wait to meet you!
Donna Hoke, Western New York regional rep, The Dramatists Guild