Science is a creative enterprise. Let’s start there. If you survey the unassuming objects of your daily life—hair dryer, stapler, scissors, fridge—you can see the moments in time that someone, somewhere, grabbed hold of an opportunity that had just become available. Scissors couldn’t exist without first developing the sharpened blade. And scissors as we know them today couldn’t exist without pivoted blades, plastic, calculated degrees of sharpness.
At each step, someone had to interpret a new development in science and apply that creatively to the practical world. And that’s the premise of dog & pony dc’s latest show, Toast. Art, technology, innovation, and invention may be more intertwined than often we acknowledge.
What, then, does a well-crisped slice of bread have to do with innovation? Just as much as the scissors. As much as anything manmade, for that matter. As you can read about here, this production was born from the question, “Before electricity, how did people make toast?”
If the question feels like a trick, rest assured that d&pdc Ring Leader (and one of the show’s directors) Rachel Grossman had the same reaction. But of course, the humans of the pre-electric toaster eras made toast just fine. A quick dip into the historical nether-regions of the Internet confirms that in the earliest days of toast–when scorching the bread would preserve it, keeping it from going stale or growing mold–the now-breakfast staple was made by holding bread over a fire or placing it on a stone directly in front of a flame. The advent of electricity–and pre-sliced bread–simply introduced an opportunity for innovation.
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’ve come to Woolly Mammoth to watch a rehearsal for Toast. Grossman is wiping down a tub of Crayola markers where apparently there’s been a color spill. Another of the show’s three directors, Wyckham Avery, is taping craft paper to a collapsible table. The third director (and another company Ring Leader), Ivania Stack, is chatting with members of the cast about something she was sketching earlier in the week. Fifteen or so members of the dog & pony fleet are present, either helping collect arts and crafts supplies or flipping through binders from chairs by the wall. Some appear to be teaching others sign language. It feels part university laboratory, part playpen, part mad artist’s studio.
Which, by the time I leave, seems just right.
Quickly I learn that attending a dog & pony rehearsal is much like seeing a dog & pony show: Participation highly encouraged. When the thing starts, I’m soon elbow-deep in duct tape and AA batteries and colored ink and Solo cups, trying my damndest to engineer something at the crossroads of the mechanical and the beautiful. And in very little time.
This is but one of the “workstations” that comprise Toast — activities and engagement opportunities that guide the audience through the exploration process and allow them to grapple with challenging ideas through the tactile world of play.
“Like all of our shows,” says Grossman, “with Toast we’re interested in exploring the process. On a meta level, we’re using the concepts and ideas in every phase of creating the show itself. Even in performance.”
By the end of the three hours I spend in their rehearsal, my brain is full of Big Questions and subcranial Venn diagrams. It’s no surprise the company has been marinating in these ideas, themes, and exercises for so long. Grossman first landed on the concept back in 2010, when that fateful question was posed to her, and after years of idea gestation, brought the team together to devise the play last year. Avery has attended trainings in San Francisco and at MoMa in New York to help inform this work. The company held salons for the better part of 2013, amassing a braintrust of over 200 people. They held a workshop in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, where their audience-participants made flavored butter and were asked to reimagine or innovate the electric toaster. And of course, there’s that reading list. The company’s post-rehearsal chat seems as much academic seminar as discussion of character choices and blocking.
But rest assured, for all the heavy brainery beneath the surface of this production, Toast feels playful, dipped in whimsy, and not at all intimidating. The opposite, in fact. Stack laughingly describes the show as “a spa day for your brain.” It recalls the totally open possibilities we had in childhood and so often neglect as grown adults. It gets us to explore freely.
I won’t disclose exactly how — you’ll have to see the show for that. In fact, see the show again and again — the company’s meta-interpretation of the innovative has propelled them to introduce many a variable factor into the mix – from several casts (17 performers playing six roles) to performances in rolling venues to, of course, the unknown element often called an audience. Which means it’s never the same show twice.
“A typical dog & pony show is about, oh, 40% us, 60% audience,” Stack says, describing who controls the action of a performance. “This one is more like 25% us, 75% audience. So there are a lot of unknowns, and we try to anticipate that as much as we can.” Hence the rehearsal I experienced, where some of the ensemble were practicing their roles, and others stood in for random audience members. Hence, too, the elaborate dossiers given to performers to contextualize their roles. A show like this can’t rely on scripted copy to get them through so many moments of improvisation.
But, says Grossman, that’s one of the most rewarding things about this kind of work. “It’s unbelievably exhausting and mind-blowing at the same time,” she says. “You are placed as a performer in a more vulnerable position, because you’re constantly both yourself and your character.”
With Toast, dog and pony has similar goals for the audience. “We’re encouraging people to have a very real experience in an artistic and quirky world,” says Stack. “And we’re giving them the safety to relax and play and discover.”
Toast launches its rolling-venue premiere on September 11, 2014 and will roll-out for 6 weeks at 7 locations across DC and Maryland. Toast performs September 11-October 18 at: Michelle Smith Performance Arts Library at UMD; Arnold & Porter LLP; Shakespeare Theatre Company – Forum at Sidney Harman Hall; The Hill Center; The Lookout; Anacostia Arts Center; Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Tickets are “Play then Pay” for weekday performances (but you must reserve your seat in advance), and $17 General Admission during the weekend (Friday through Sunday). More information here