Awkward Festival

Theater of the Awkward

in Sarah’s backyard

In Memory of Lorca–Voces Ansiosas Cinco/Anxious Voices V

Association House

By Jack Helbig

All art flows from the margins and edges, because artists who have not yet become successful can buck the status quo, creating work that might challenge or offend an audience. Ten years ago, for example, Greg Allen and a handful of actors, writers, and performance poets called the Neo-Futurists put together a nonlinear, intensely interactive show delivering 30 plays in 60 minutes. The press all but ignored it at first. Later, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind became so popular it prompted a battle for ownership between the show’s creators and the theater that initially produced it.

These days, very young theater artists have taken the Neo-Futurist aesthetic into their souls and measure their own work against its standard. Indeed, repeated trips to Too Much Light by Max Alper, a 1998 graduate of Evanston High School, inspired him to create his own merry band of Neo-Futurists, calling itself the Theater of the Awkward. Until last week, the Awkward artists performed their shows–all original material–in the Alpers’ living room once a month before a more or less invited audience of friends and family. But two weeks ago they hosted the all-afternoon-and-evening Awkward Festival in “Sarah’s backyard” in north Evanston.

The fest was the very antithesis of the glossy, uncontroversial state- and corporate-sponsored festivals we see every summer in Grant Park and in all the neighborhoods. Set up in someone’s beautiful, woodsy backyard was a stage consisting of two layers of pallets covered with plywood. There was no sound system because you don’t really need one when no one sits farther than 50 feet from the stage. The acts were raw, the acting frequently ragged, the performers not always sure of how long they should perform or even how well their material was going over. But their energy and invention throughout balanced their occasional amateurish fumblings and lapses.

One witty performer called his homemade mix tracks “DBWWWG,” which stands for “Doing the Best With What We Got” (“It’s like DIY, but more better”). And much of the show was very much in the DBWWWG mode, though what these suburbanites got–speakers, electric guitars, and the like–is a lot more than most kids have at 17 or 18. Still, there was no Awkward Festival press kit. There wasn’t even a program, only a schedule posted at the entrance listing the acts and their starting times.

Most were musical, displaying an astonishing range of influences– from Coltrane and post-Coltrane jazz to folk to techno–and some freely sexual lyrics (ditto for some of the jokes). The Neo-Futurists also appeared, performing an abbreviated version of Too Much Light–15 plays in 30 minutes.

Max Alper’s The Theater of the Awkward was the most ragged of all the acts, a series of comedy sketches that missed as often as they hit. But those that did hit–such as a monologue about the demands Alper’s employer places on him, including Alper’s complaint about the strictures of “proper” personal hygiene–struck home in a way that even the Neo-Futurists did not. The Awkward folks know their audience intimately, how they think, what they worry about, what they want out of life–or at least out of this summer. And it’s this intimate connection that gives fringe companies an insurmountable advantage over their richer, larger, market-driven brethren. Disney spends millions of dollars every year to learn what Alper and company know in their bones.

Yet no corporation could have created the sublime ending the Awkward folks fashioned. The final sketch, Last Dance, began as a send-up of school dances, including funny but predictable bits about kids being too nervous to ask other kids to dance. But it ended in an amazing fourth-wall-breaking invitation to the audience to join in the dancing–in a matter of at most 90 seconds, everyone was slow dancing with the actors, a bittersweet, truly inspired finale to a six-hour festival of music and theater.

A week later I attended another ragged, fringier-than-the-fringe show, Association House’s In Memory of Lorca. Staged by Ralph Flores (who also adapted the script from the writings of Federico Garcia Lorca), this rough-hewn show starred young Latino and African-American actors. None was exceptionally gifted, though some–notably Daisy Cruz and Clarybelisse Marti–had an ease and presence onstage that, with time and work, could flower into something impressive. But any lack of expertise hardly mattered, because these open, sincere performers were so thoroughly committed to bringing the work of this rich, multilayered poet to life that they revealed a side of him I’d never seen before.

I haven’t seen a lot of Lorca in performance, mind you, but the little I have seen emphasized either the political subtext of his work or his highly poetic, mildly surreal aesthetic (he was a contemporary of Luis Bu–uel and Salvador Dali). It took a cast of actors in their teens to show me how large Lorca’s heart is. The House of Bernarda Alba is as much about a family of sisters yearning for love from their mother as it is about a Franco-like matriarch who keeps her children under lock and key. And Yerma is not only a play about the unfair power husbands have over their wives but also about a woman, trapped in a barren marriage, aching for a child she’ll never have.

Emotional immediacy is another fringe benefit of fringe theater. Most professional companies would be too cool to acknowledge the sweet side to a writer like Lorca, an “intellectual” more often discussed than performed. Lorca may have had just such a ragged cast in mind, however, when he wrote his plays. For a time he had his own itinerant amateur company, La Barraca, which toured Spain performing his works and others by Spanish greats–Lope de Vega, Calder–n de la Barca.

Consciously or not, Flores has created his own version of La Barraca at Association House, and I hope he continues (this is his fifth year). In a few years, all of Chicago theater may reap the harvest he’s sown here.