“I feel like I’m not talking about anything.”
You’re talking about everything.
Before listening to Connor Bahr’s zeal for absurdism, one might wonder what more can be gleaned from these pieces of theatre. What more could a bunch of existential white guys like Stoppard and Beckett have to say? Didn’t they already have their time? Sometimes it’s just two guys on a bench, prying the other open, like in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. Why put yourself through that mind-warp for nothing?
Before Bahr begins, he glances at my notebook and iPhone app recorder and apologizes for the prepositional cliché, “In this post-9/11 world, reeking of terrorism and a global community unable to function most of the time, things look pretty bleak. It feels futile.” The immediacy of absurdist theatre is clear. The phrase, ‘I laugh because if not I’d cry,’ comes to mind.
Hailing from the uppish South Hills neighborhood of Mt. Lebanon – where houses don’t even have basements – Connor Bahr appears to be a typical Point Park University graduate, involving himself in the Pittsburgh theatre scene as best he can. Complete with button-down collar and easy-going handshake, Bahr’s introduction seemed ordinary. He’s learning his way around the craft and the business, making plenty of mistakes and friends along the way. He has been a stage manager, assistant stage manager, director, assistant director, actor, and technician. The range of experience on his theatre major résumé, though wide, is not unexpected. ‘Stilt walking’ makes an appearance in his special skills section, sure, but other actors have included tap dance, juggling, acrobatic skill, and foreign language levels. Truth is, in the theatre world, not much is unheard of these days. So, why are you hearing about Connor Bahr?
Well, because he just graduated from Point Park and founded a production company this summer. He’s 22. The production company focuses on absurdist theatre, because that’s what he’s good at, he says, and so far it’s artistically directed and managed by one person: him. It’s called TACT Theater Company. If you talked to him for as long as I did, you wouldn’t think that ironic.
“The whole reason I started it was because I was so tired of waiting for opportunities. You have to make your own things happen,” he says.
He definitely found a way to make it happen. TACT’s premiere production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, ran for four performances, June 26th-29th, after a jam-packed two-week rehearsal period. The production was only made possible, Bahr says, thanks to local support from the larger theatre companies: Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, and Spotlight Costumes. Bahr is also grateful to Actors Equity Association for supplying him five equity contracts, which allowed him to cast Equity Actors, giving the Hamlet roles in R&G the weight and gravitás he felt they deserved.
Read our review of the entertaining performance here, and look forward to seeing more from TACT, maybe even within the year, as Connor Bahr is crazy enough, and crazy-passionate enough, to do this for a while, or at least “as long as it lasts.”
His love of absurdist theatre is obvious and he admits to identifying with the voices of playwrights like Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett. His favorite play is Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot.
“When I read it in high school, I found it hilarious, but very depressing. I thought, ‘how could anyone see anything other than utter despair in this?’ Then, years later, I saw it performed, and instead I saw two guys who never gave up. No matter what. No matter what happens they’re going to be waiting for Godot. It was hopeful to me, for some reason.”
Rather than over-analyze it, like most literature classes love to do, Bahr’s experience with absurdist theatre is focused and practical. “I just think it’s one of the most honest styles of theatre, and the funniest. How niche and weird it is; it speaks to my life.”
This shy kid from Mt. Lebanon suddenly made more sense to me, but I still wondered how receptive Pittsburgh would be to an exclusively heady form of theatre that actors and directors generally stay away from. Bahr may have found his niche, but are the everyday “yinzers,” as he affectionately calls them, ready for that?
“Absolutely. I’m doing a kind of theatre that’s been misunderstood and given a bad rap. Some say it’s stupid, or boring, or so intellectual that it doesn’t mean anything…” He obviously wants to alter that message: “…if yinzers hear that, why would they even bother?”
Talk about challenging. It’s not written around a central societal-improvement message. It’s not even exactly what the Humana Festival churns out every year. And it’s definitely not Rogers and Hammerstein. He explains that even though there is extensive dramaturgy surrounding works like Pinter and Albee, revealing realities the playwrights and society dealt with at the time, Bahr very wisely states those realities cannot be acted.
“I don’t care if people don’t get all the deep meanings of these plays. That doesn’t matter to me. If they’re not looking for that deep meaning, why try to force it? That’s not what it [the play] is to them. I’m trying to put on an interesting night that will probably get some people to think about it. But if some people just sit and laugh, or don’t laugh, and just watch it – that’s great, too.” Especially with absurdist theatre, audience members will either get it or they won’t, and the effective comprehension of those realities are most often a result of a high quality production.
When pressed for how he sees TACT’s absurdist presentation affecting change in the grander scheme of things, he concedes, and exposes his own high expectations for Pittsburgh audiences:
“These plays do have messages, but it really is up to the audience member to find it. People don’t give audiences enough credit. They try to make it too accessible and that’s a problem. I think it takes away from the audience’s chance to figure it out for themselves.”
Most of the time, Bahr refrains from pushing a concept onto an absurdist work, or any theatrical work for that matter, because he wants it to be as the playwright intended it. Otherwise, he feels it loses something, “[that] chance to feel smart. They don’t have to lean in and engage themselves because you’re explaining it to them. It kind of defeats the communicative purpose of theatre.”
Bahr confides his ticket sales to me, his drastic need for a marketing director, his newfound appreciation for delegating, and his inadequacies with social media. Yet, with his belief, he stopped my petrified chuckle in the back of my throat. He believes his artistic success is affirmed in the way the audiences were confused, and in the way the audiences laughed.
The telltale sign of a person’s adjustment in the world is their sense of humor. In reference to those moments of confusion or shock, in life and on stage, Bahr agrees, “I think what you think about in those moments says what this play means to you at the time and is indicative of what kind of a person you are.”
Like a modern art museum experience, in experiencing the artist’s work and worth, the judgment is reflected back on you. How good are you at paying attention? How much fun do you have? Keep an eye out for Connor Bahr’s TACT Theater Company and you can measure up those moments, or measure up to those moments for yourself.