You have probably heard of Artist’s Laboratory Theatre.
They’re an experimental theatre company that have produced shows in and around Fayetteville for almost three years. In 2010, the company debuted in Fayetteville with Bombs, Babes, and Bingo, which was presented a year later at the New Orleans Fringe Festival.
The company has since created performances in shop fronts, put on sheet forts (which has become something of a signature), and even produced work in a residential home.
They’re interested in expanding the audience’s role in live theatre, in heightening the theatrical experience. The sheet forts, where audience members lounge on beanbags for staged readings surrounded by a fortress of strung bed sheets, is just one example of that. Like any scientific laboratory, the company experiments with new ideas, assessing and attacking them from different angles with every performance. They’ve even been known to traipse about the Farmers’ Market wearing lab coats and carrying clipboards.
Beginning Monday (May 21), Artist’s Laboratory Theatre will return to the Square to present Alley 38 as part of the Walton Art Center’s annual Artosphere festival. Erika Wilhite, the company’s artistic director, received a project partnership grant – one of two awarded by the WAC – to help produce the show, which will be an outdoor performance where the audience walks to different locations within a four-block radius. The performance will take place throughout the corridor titled “Alley 38” on city planning maps. Led in small groups to spaces within and around Alley 38, audiences will experience performances about place and identity while in the “natural” environment of an urban landscape.
Wilhite is producing the show in collaboration with local designers, poets, theatre artists and musicians. Her consistent collaborator and co-director, Joseph Fletcher, known as Fletch to friends and cast, was flown in from New York for every installation of the company’s Place Project.
The Place Project is an ambitious, multi-location project, built on research to create its dramaturgy, which is kind of like the science and history of the theatrical world, and then apply those findings to performance. The project officially got underway last June in a residential home, where the ensemble began giving a context and form to local stories. A select audience was allowed to preview their ‘findings,’ but Alley 38, which is the second location for the project, was always on the list, Wilhite says, as a perfect venue to large-scale premiere the company’s advances.
“It has been a joy,” she said, to contribute Alley 38 to Artosphere’s calendar of events, which is just “part of a long term, multiple location performance project that examines how place affects identity and consciousness.” Using an incredible range of stories—from interviews, poetry, song, and true-life experiences to local legends re-imagined—the company performs vignettes in a series of performance installations. Wilhite says that her work would not be possible without the rich, local artistic community that both inspires and builds it.
Alley 38 is designed around a poem, “Cloud & Grid” by local poet Carolyn Guinzio, which was used to make a map for the show: actors followed the poem on a journey through the enclaves of parking garages, ramps and back alleys to discover where and how pieces of the performance would fit. It is a theatrical expedition, in which audiences will follow a guide – one of two characters and your journey will be quite different depending on who guides you – through Alley 38 and the surrounding landscape of Fayetteville Square. “It’s part walking-tour, pseudo-ghost tour, but ending up in locations where you sit, more like theatre as you know it,” is how Wilhite describes it. There will be six theatrical pit stops in all, with the journey of the guide providing an overall through line for the experience and plenty of surprises along the way. “Our aim is to help you see it differently,” Wilhite emphasizes. “It” being all of it: Fayetteville, our community, our own individual place in those places.
Artist’s Lab is interested in where the urban landscape intersects the natural environment; how we are in different spaces, how we react to things. According to Wilhite, “All urban landscapes have a natural component. Signs of ingenuity, of progress and then, the gaps in between,” like the alley. She calls the path through which her audience will travel “a gateway to liminality.” What is liminality? Wilhite says it is, “the place between two places.” “We’re finding that liminality is everywhere we look,” she says. “It’s always happening, we just don’t know it. It’s the space between before life and after death.” The idea seems to serve the project as a sort of existential model, a starting point. But while liminality may have been the inspiration, the key to Wilhite’s work she says is in applying this idea of place to the stories that exist there; it is in responding to the stories of a place, changing the audiences’ perspective on their place in these larger contexts.
“I really hope that what I give, what this does is that audiences will see where they are now differently. I want to involve Fayetteville as a community.”
Audiences will meet at the northeast corner lot of Block Avenue and Spring Street (free parking available across the street). The show will run from May 21-27. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. sharp.
Alley 38 is a part of Artosphere 2012 presented by the Walton Arts Center. Artosphere is a multi-week performing and visual arts festival where art, nature and sustainability come together. Tickets can be purchased for $12 at waltonartscenter.org or by calling (479) 443-5600.