Sitting in Hugo's, nursing the end of a head cold and a whiskey sour one rainy February night last year, I was surrounded by friends, acquaintances and assorted locals in various states of dress and sobriety. There was a building sense of anticipation, as those of us lucky enough to have been given an invitation to The Missoula Oblongata Theater Company's basement performance of Shakespeare's Richard III were instructed to "be prompt and dress appropriately for the theater" and to construct a small lantern (mine was fashioned from a flashlight, coat hanger and small paper bag).
At 8:30 p.m. sharp, as promised, one of the group's spearheading members, Donna Sellinger, arrived to take us to the performance's secret location. We were led across the street, past Keller Williams, down Holyoke Street and up an icy moonscape of a driveway, which proved difficult for me and other female audience members who interpreted appropriate theater dress to include high-heeled shoes. We were then led down into a basement where mulled cider, programs and popcorn were doled out at the door. Our lanterns were collected and the small room quickly filled with people. With no room to take off our coats, move or sit comfortably, I knew we were in for a treat.
What ensued was a stylized redux of the famous history play, in which each of the five acts was interpreted by a different person or group outfitted with an audience-provided lantern, then performed in order and accompanied by the Barret O'Brien Memorial Shape-Note Choir (a fictional vocal group apparently created for the event). None of the performers knew ahead of time how the act preceding or following their own was to be presented (act one was a flamboyant simplification of the plot with ridiculous costumes, act four was read verbatim, quickly and breathlessly, from the original text). The resulting production was provocative and delightful, giddily rejecting the stoicism that often surrounds Shakespeare and embracing it all at once.
This punk approach made sense to the audience, populated mostly by artists and liberal arts students, in the best kind of way. Most had likely attended or heard of The Missoula Oblongata's freshman Northampton performance of The Wonders of the Word: Recite! (which took place in the yoga space above FitzWilly's and was slightly less cramped). Accompanied by an original score by Leo Gebhardt of the acclaimed Subpop punk quartet The Catheters, performers and writers Madeline ffitch and Donna Sellinger, the group's founding members, and director Sarah Lowry channeled salty island life and old-timey sea ditties in apocalyptic fashion. Plus everyone in the audience got cake.
Along with their exaggerated make-up and elaborate, self-made sets and costumes, The Missoula Oblongata avoided the melodramatic and pretentious tendencies of some independent theater and arrived at a quirky nostalgia, a quality that briefly poked its head into the indie music scene with bands like The Decemberists and, more recently, The Arcade Fire.
Comparing TMO to bands is not a stretch, and has been done before, as they travel the country in a van, relying on the kindness of others to feed and house them. The comparison is certainly handy, as their brand of theater exists in a different realm than Broadway, off-Broadway, theater departments and repertory companies alike. These traditional forms of "serious" theater differ from The Missoula Oblongata's in a way that is perhaps not obvious from performance alone. The difference between traditional theater, or at least how many who aren't familiar with theater think of it, and TMO is in the process leading up to performance. In this sense, TMO is like a band. They are most interested in collaborating with fellow artists, utilizing their writing skills, creating original material and performing for peers in venues familiar to them for affordable ticket prices, comparable to what one would pay for an independent rock show (ideally in the $5-$10 range).
For decades, touring bands have provided a thriving, grassroots level of DIY live performance, living the unglamorous lives of not-quite-famous rock musicians. In sepia-toned years past, vaudeville played a large part in providing live entertainment for Everyman. Perhaps it would be most accurate to associate TMO with vaudeville–their presence on stage is at times exaggerated and extremely physical; their writing and signage sometimes utilizes the same florid language; and their shows are in fact traveling ones. But their methods are timely and relevant, and their inspiration stems from more than just blind revival of a dead craft.
Three years ago, while on tour with a production neither were satisfied with, long-time best friends Donna Sellinger and Madeline ffitch, 22 and 24 respectively at the time, saw a performance by an Australian theater company called The Suitcase Royale Junkyard Theater, whose members were just their age. (The spelling of Madeline's last name is no affectation, it's simply the centuries-old English spelling that her family uses.)
"[The Suitcase Royale] were just doing whatever they wanted and they were having so much fun," ffitch explains. "Clearly what they were doing on stage was an extension of their aesthetic concerns in real life, incorporating other artistic disciplines… not obeying very many traditional rules of narrative, and they didn't seem to be saddled with any of the burdens of what they thought storytelling should be and what the audience expected of them."
When not on tour, ffitch and Sellinger were living in Missoula (where ffitch studied creative writing at the University of Montana) in a collective community of working artists (from all sorts of disciplines), underground musicians, bike builders and activists, who inspired them daily. ffitch explains how seeing The Suitcase Royale led them to a revelation: "We thought, "Why are we separating [our lives] from our art in terms of our performance?" So seeing this example of people who were kind of just celebrating their art and their life as all of a piece, we thought, "Oh, we could do that. We could do that! Oh, great! That's what we're going to do!""
Out of this first glimmer of stylistic identity grew the theater company whose name is both an homage to Missoula and a play on medulla oblongata, the part of the brain stem that controls autonomic functions. Since its inception, the group has taken on a third member, dancer Sarah Lowry.
Initially, ffitch and Sellinger were most concerned with the spectacle and seeing what kinds of tricks they could pull off on stage. They were forced to become performers out of necessity (they identify steadfastly as performers, not actors). In order to produce one full-size show a year which they tour nationally (The Wonders of the World: Recite! was their first full-length piece, followed by The Most Mysterious Day of the Year, which toured in 2007), and smaller productions dubbed "dinner theater," usually performed in people's homes for an invited audience of the hosts' choosing, ffitch and Sellinger have developed a very specific collaborative method for writing the plays.
The method, ffitch says, is based on "doing anything we want." They start by making a list of the "biggest impossible dreams" they wish to see fulfilled onstage. These dreams have included a meteor hitting the earth and killing the entire audience; the most comfortable bed in the world; being a detective; being a bird; having a character who'd once taken Ulysses S. Grant as a lover; and flying away in a life-size hot air balloon. "We want to disassociate ourselves from any practical constraints [because] decisions having to do with practical constraints can get really mixed up with aesthetic decisions," ffitch says.
After making this master list and agreeing on some common character and plot factors, they go off for about two weeks and each write a play. They then exchange the scripts and "synthesize" one into the other, then exchange these scripts. The process is repeated until the plays start to look similar. "We wanted to see what happened if we just focused on [our artistic instincts] without having to consider any issues of narrative… just to see where it led if we were feeling bored or weighed down by plot or character," says ffitch.
On paper, these impossible dreams can be elaborately satisfied, and since the pair does anything they want, they can get pretty outlandish. The physical realization of these dreams on stage is another story. TMO design and build all their sets and hook up all sound and lighting. For The Wonders of the World: Recite!, a play about a boy named Eugene and his grandmother living a secluded life in a lighthouse and waiting for the world to end, ffitch and Sellinger needed to kill the audience with a meteor and build a functioning lighthouse, among other things. The practical constraints so deftly avoided in the writing process had to be overcome.
For the meteor, the audience was given umbrellas that were studded with fiber optic lights. When the house lights went down to a full blackout, all that could be seen was the starry sky the umbrellas resembled. Fashioned out of cheap white Venetian blinds, the lighthouse had a ramshackle appearance that added to the feel of the performance and also took care of an issue ffitch and Sellinger had to address: transportability.
But that doesn't stop them from pushing the limits technically and with the elaborate nature of their sets. In a recent dinner theater performance at Hampshire College called The Moon, The Raccoon, The Hot Air Balloon, the audience helped realize the full capacity of the set, which at the start of the performance consisted of a four-foot-tall square platform with an area of about 10 by 10 feet and a brightly striped pole at each corner. Audience members were instructed to stand at the corners, take hold of and pull ropes labeled "grasp me" attached to pulleys at the top of the poles. From the center of the platform a huge mass of red nylon unfurled, forming the bottom third of a hot-air balloon; the basket rose halfway out of the platform, allowing ffitch and Sellinger to peer over the edge and look around. It is this peering, this natural curiosity to create–to imagine, to write, to design a set and to perform–that makes TMO worth paying attention to.
"The thing I can offer is not expertise, but I stand as an example of someone who, through trial and error, has been able to build some pretty amazing things,"ffitch says, referring to a workshop TMO taught at the National Theater Institute on methods of set design and building. They brought their power tools and trained a lot of young women to use them, which was particularly exciting for ffitch, who describes herself as a feminist. Building these sets and fulfilling their initial vision is "deeply empowering," says ffitch, who is learning the vocabulary and official nature of set design along with her students in the Theater 100 class she teaches at UMass, where she pursues an MFA in creative writing.
Their start-to-finish collaborative process is deeply important to TMO, who identify politically as Anarchists. While they don't claim to have a political agenda regarding the work itself, they focus on collaboration and the value of what the individual has to offer. When ffitch came to the Valley to start graduate school in 2006, Sellinger moved with her. Considering their relationship a "long-term collaboration," TMO are committed to the group, but follow individual opportunities wherever they may be. Lowry has, most recently, traveled to Toronto to study under a master clown teacher; spent three months working with her mentor, Donna Mejia, at Smith College; and traveled to Philadelphia and Baltimore to participate in performances. Sellinger recently moved to Baltimore to join Wham City, a collective of artists whom she directed in a stage rendition of Jurassic Park.
Wherever they go, TMO produces "a number of community-driven performance events which bring together artists from different disciplines and different cities." The Missoula Oblongata Shakespeare Repertory Theatre (the Richard III production mentioned earlier was a result of this project) and The Colloquial Disforum, which consisted of a series of keynote speeches written by one person but performed by another, both took place in Northampton last year.
Currently ffitch is directing a play she wrote called Go to the Chateau, for which she was awarded a grant on behalf of TMO from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The play is to take place in a moving car for an audience of two and will travel to various points on the east side of Northampton, starting at the top of Venture's Field Road.
These side events are constructed in the full spirit of collaboration. TMO believe in a non-actor aesthetic, and use friends, musicians, visual artists and extraordinary people who are physically compelling or personally compelling" to fill the roles. While she says they wouldn't be opposed to using an actor in their plays, ffitch explains that she is "specifically interested in using non-actors as an aesthetic choice, partly because we feel like the choice to use people who identify themselves as actors ends up being an aesthetically limiting thing that& the theater community tends to think of as a neutral choice. But the power that certain people can bring to a performative setting who don't identify themselves as actors… has a lot of possibility."
In rehearsals for Go to the Chateau, for instance, ffitch has asked her non-actors to break off into pairs or small groups and work on scenes independent of direction to see what they come up with. "We work with a lot of people who are interested in their own original work," she explained, "and those people tend not to be actors, they tend to be artists working in other disciplines and we feel like our concerns are aligned." She has even relinquished the fabrication of all props to young local visual artist Ali Osborn, whose skill and focus on his task lends professional-grade results.
Discouraged by those who say theater is a dying art, ffitch takes consolation in knowing that TMO performs to full houses of people mostly under the age of 30, and always have someone in the audience who has never been to the theater. TMO's influence can already be seen, as new people appear in the audience at each tour stop and bands and musicians who have seen their shows have begun to incorporate more performance into their acts. "The response has been tremendous, because the underground music scene and the underground art scene and the punk scene are full of imaginative people who are interested in seeing new and exciting things, and they're interested in seeing experimentation and in artists who are taking risks," says ffitch.
Currently the women are writing their new full-length show, which will be called The Last Hurrah of the Clementines. ffitch says it will tentatively involve prime numbers, eggs, outer space, displaced athletes and fortune cookies. For the months of July and August, they will be on a national tour, stopping at the Berkshire Fringe Festival the first week of August among several other places large and small. "We want to support each other in taking artistic risks&because that's what we do with our time, that's what we do all day, that's our full-time job," says ffitch.
Working 80-hour weeks and living meager lifestyles, TMO show a total devotion to their craft. Their productions are taut and charming and their performances are full of deft movement and interesting things to look at. To borrow a line from their first play, "The wonders of the world are alive and well." In The Missoula Oblongata's case, all signs point to an art form full of wonder that is not dying, one that long ago broke down the fourth wall and continues to be a transforming influence in a thriving arts community."
To find out more about The Missoula Oblongata, visit their website at http://www.themissoulaoblongata.com or http://www.myspace.com/themissoulaoblongata. Go to the Chateau, presented by The Missoula Oblongata and the All My Children Players, will be performed a total of 20 times in Northampton on a varying schedule April 25-27 and May 2-4. Admission $7. Call 413-230-4525 for tickets, location and more secret information.