The Many Voices of Power and Control: Overseers
‘Polyvocal’–that’s the term that local director, Becky Wright, has coined to describe the work she’s making with her company, Applied Mechanics. For the company, theater is about more than telling one linear narrative. They seek to create performances that enfold their audiences in an array of voices and perspectives. “That’s the world we live in,” Becky comments. “There’s not one truth, there’s not one narrative. I’m interested in representing that.” The company’s 2011 Fringe Piece, Overseers, is no exception. Examining the dynamics of power and control, Overseers unpacks the parallel narratives of a scientist, a curator, a bureaucrat, a revolutionary, and a priestess. Each character adheres to a different belief system and, as a result, each one has a unique understanding of what they can and cannot control.
These characters, though, are just one tool that Applied Mechanics uses to tell their intricate story. Becky and company also rely on the show’s immediate environment to further immerse the audience in Overseers‘ universe. Set in a warehouse in South Philly, the company has created an installation-style set that experiments with the navigation of both horizontal and vertical space. To discover the story within Overseers, the audience is asked to wander, to explore what might be hidden within the various levels of the set installation. “We’re asking [our audience] to be very active when they watch the piece,” Becky points out. “We hope that they’ll empower themselves to walk around, to see what they see, and make decisions.”
Of course, in a world where multiple characters are telling their stories at the same time, seeking out and choosing to pay attention to one narrative also means choosing to not hear another. This tension of choice doesn’t perturb Becky at all. “I like that you have to miss things,” she says cheerfully. “I like giving people the chance to choose; watching one important thing might mean you miss another important thing. And that’s life. There’s something about the democracy of that viewership is really interesting.”
To be sure, challenges arise from granting audiences the agency to move around and choose the voices they want to follow. “I’m trying to figure out how people can get a whole sense of the story without having to see [every part of] the story.” A tall order? Sure. But, for Becky, it’s worth the effort.
“I don’t want people to feel like they just have to absorb ideas,” she explains, elaborating on her belief that theater is particularly well-suited to capture this immersive style of polyvocal storytelling. “[I don’t want] to just have everyone sit in a dark room looking at a lit stage. I like to put some pressure on the audience-performer relationship.” At its core, Overseers is meant to interact with and react to the presence of the audience. “More interesting to me than trying to say something about power, is to provide an experience for the audience about power.”
Applied Mechanics Overseers runs September 3 through 5 and 11 through 13 at The Machine Shop, 2037 Washington Avenue, South Philly. Times vary, $15.