I’ve seen my fair share of interactive theater. I’ve even seen the occasional “immersive show” or two. But I’ve never quite been to something like Beertown, and you owe yourself this experience.
The premise is simple: You are not a member of an audience attending a performance; instead, you are a citizen of an actual place called Beertown, attending a quinquennial civic meeting wherein the assembled citizenry votes on what objects to include or remove from the town’s hallowed time capsule. The immersion starts right when you walk in the door to check in, with the cast giving you a chance to sharpen your improv skills by making small talk with you about your position in the Beertown community. The venue isn’t a theater: it’s the auditorium of the Thurgood Marshall Center, and it’s laid out exactly the way you’d expect for a meeting of a local political club or a Kiwanis meeting.
Mayor Soch (Joshua Drew) kicks off the proceedings with the expected hokey pomp and circumstance of a small town civic meeting, but as the program develops and the other activists and community members begin to participate, it becomes clear that there are underlying tensions and divisions in the Beertown community just aching to be sorted out. What makes the show unique? How these divisions and tensions are explored is entirely up to you.
The first half of the show lays the groundwork: the history of Beertown is explained through narrative as well as comedic sketches, and the rules of what follows are explained for the audience: the “community” is voting on whether to include any or all of three new proposed pieces to the time capsule—but for any piece voted in, an item must be voted out. The second half is the community debate, where each participant, whether audience or cast, has an equal voice in the debate and vote in the outcome.
Invariably, these debates cause tension. Will something important to the African-American community in Beertown be included, at the possible expense of something of value to the deaf citizens of the town? Do we discard the relics of a past that were less than inclusive, or do we keep artifacts that served as flawed legacies of an imperfect history?
The debates are so relevant that it’s very easy to forget you’re in a show: in the performance I attended, many members of the audience, including myself, stood up to give impassioned speeches advocating for their points of view.
Beertown in DC
closes November 7, 2016
Details and tickets
The immersive experience is that much more realistic because the entire cast excels at the improvisation required by the show. For instance, I happened to have a seat next to Patricia Brown (Natasha Gallop), one of the activist characters, and she was constantly making remarks and witticisms to me about her ideological supporters and detractors throughout the show. As a veteran of many years of political club meetings, it made me feel right at home. James Caverly also deserves a special shoutout for his transformation into Nate, a member of the deaf community who brings intensity, conflict, and a dissenting voice to the proceedings.
Beertown isn’t just a perfectly executed immersion experience—it also causes you to think about important questions of privilege, history, and memory, as represented by the artifacts in the time capsule. It affords you the opportunity to express your feelings, or observe how the ongoing debate influences you. And it even allows you to take a stand and vote for your beliefs.
Beertown (2016) . Beertown Devising Ensemble: Wyckham Avery, Colin K. Bills, Joshua Drew, Cory Ryan Frank, Max Freedman, Jess Holman, Rachel Grossman, Kate Langsdorf, Jessica Lefkow, Mitch
Mattson, Elaine Yuko Qualter, J. Argyl Plath, Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, Jon Reynolds, Ivania
Stack, Elizabeth Stone, Matthew R. Wilson . Director: Rachel Grossman . Assistant Director: Kala Granger
Featuring: Wyckham Avery, Joey Caverly, Eileen Earnest, Natasha Gallop, Jon Reynolds, Jacob
Yeh . Produced by dog & pony dc . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.