Artistic director Vince Ventura and Literary Manager Matt Henderson of 12 Peers Theater do not want you to feel as if you’re on familiar ground once you leave their upcoming shows. While we were speaking about the theater’s newest productions, Ventura asked if I was familiar with any of the plays being put on; I was not.
“Good,” he laughed, “we don’t want to do anything you’ve seen in Pittsburgh.”
However familiar (or not) the works onstage are, the circumstances and themes at the heart of 12 Peers’ upcoming season are deeply culturally relevant. Their independently produced podcast, Modern Myths, produced a full audio play in July titled “The Curse of Atreus,” a Jim Knable-penned play that remixes the titular Greek myth with a conflict between a white police officer, a black mechanic and her son, whom the police officer suspects is a car thief, feels as if its pulled from the headlines.
“When I select plays for the podcast series, I’m always looking at two things: I want the play to have some sort of mythical aspect to it, and to also have contemporary relevance. When I read [The Curse of Atreus] I knew it had to be in the series,” said Henderson.
The podcast, which will continue to produce new material in 2017, also focuses on the works of women and people of color, a distribution of voices that is somewhat uncommon in the world of audio drama.
Fans of the show can look forward to “Ink Trap,” an original work by Pittsburgh-based playwright Clare Drobot sometime this year, and the release of “The Far Travelers” by Sharon Dilworth sometime in 2018.
Like the theater itself, the podcast is an eclectic mix of new voices and ideas interlaced with the familiar in the service of cultural commentary. But eclectic doesn’t do well to describe the 12 Peers lineup, or at least, not exactly. All four upcoming shows skirt a series of parallels: absurdism to combat grim societal issues, shows never before premiered in Pittsburgh that are familiar somehow, shows that find the personal in impersonality.
12 Peers’ unconventional season begins with Mythburgh, the most ambitious project of the bunch. A series of original, contemporary stories that pay homage to the mythos of the city, Mythburgh will play like a live sitcom; the stories will be influenced by audience participation, and will be replete with recurring characters and subplots.
Even more than that, many of the characters will be played by local actors, whose characters will have their own, real social media accounts, continuing the story between shows.
“I wanted to find a project that could really use artists from Pittsburgh in a specific way. I want use the actors’ personas in the actual show…[and] focus on the actual identities of the people involved,” said Henderson.
In terms of plot, the show will feature a deep focus on Pittsburgh’s individuality as a city and culture. “These stories are epic and extremely Pittsburgh. [They are] stories about local myths, inspiring local stories, stories about communities coming together.”
The show will feature a name your own price structure, and debuts at Brillo Box in the east end.
12 Peers’ second show, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), written by Will Eno and directed by Ventura, premiers June 1st at The University of Pittsburgh Studio Theatre. Contrasting Mythburg’s sense of togetherness, Thom Paine is a manic one man show that reflect on moments of struggle big and small, and how those struggles inform who we are as individuals.
“I think Tom Paine is about how we mythologize those moments in our lives…that moment when you stop being a child when you realize that the iron is hot. Those are defining moments, they happen to us over and over,” Ventura elaborated.
Partially a response to a sense of mass confusion and anxiety following the 2016 Presidential Election, for the plays sense of “…fear, and of being overwhelmed.” Henderson, who will be performing, plays the eponymous Thom Pain as he dives deep into his personal psyche, filled with sudden interjections of memory, to come to terms with the shift from childhood to adulthood.
Conversely to Thom Paine’s inner turmoil, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, is about how we mythologize the events around us. Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Ventura, Mr. Burns is a dramatically weird retelling of the Cape Feare episodes of the long-running series The Simpsons (you know – the one where sideshow Bob plays Robert DeNiro).
Mr. Burns is the most complicated show 12 Peers has ever produced. Featuring an eight person cast, Mr. Burns utilizes music, elaborate costume design, mask work, action sequences and nuclear fallout. While the show will indeed feature real-life Simpsons-people, but Ventura and Henderson assured me that the story and characters we see in the first act may not entirely resemble what we see in the third.
Theatergoers and Simpsons fans that are creative-bent can look forward to attending Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play on August 3rd to the 20th at the University of Pittsburgh Studio Theatre.
If Thom Paine and Mr. Burns are indirect responses to a divisive cultural landscape, 12 Peers’ season-closer, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” a one man show written by Nassim Soleimanpour, is the theaters’ most direct political response.
“There’s something to be said, without over-politicizing the play…the questions it raises about manipulation, acquiescence and cultural hegemony rule by consent…these are huge themes within White Rabbit Red Rabbit.”
To discuss the play’s plot at length would be to miss the point – even the actors aren’t clued in on the script before they walk onstage. Henderson, who has performed the play in the past, explains:
“It’s the only show I’ve ever done where I felt like I was in the audience when I
was in the show. I kept wanting to turn the page and see what happens next, but it was weird because I was doing it. It’s trippy for the performer. Part of the fun for the audience is seeing them experience this all for the first time and having no clue.”
This atypical approach to storytelling not only imbues the show with a sense of discovery, but disarms the performer in such a way that they reveal something deeper about themselves in the process. Ventura told me about a time when an actor who had recently survived a car crash had brought a sense of renewed celebration of life to the script. “Every actor inevitably brings something personal to the script because you’re performing immediately.”
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be a benefit show for 12 Peers, and will be performed on March 27. Tickets will be 25$.
The play is a fitting season closer, as it encompasses the two themes that are the spirit of 12 Peers’ 2017 season.
“Community, and stories,” Ventura said. “What stories are we telling our community, and what are they telling us?”
This theater-as-community mentality carries through to the show’s ticket prices. Mainstage shows performed on Sunday nights, as well as a special Monday night performance of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, are name-your-own-price.
For more information about 12 Peers, click here.