Pirates of Penzance

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Rob McLean and Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” an update of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera (Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

We know that consciousness has no boundaries. It is for that reason that the connectedness of everything running through us is utterly overwhelming. In an effort to manage our day to day experience we create divisions and categories, overlaying a logical structure to our thinking. But underneath that artifice a bottomless melange of impressions, insights, awarenesses and ideas are churning perpetually.

And yet creativity and innovation happen with the unexpected and serendipitous juxtaposition of unrelated elements. This is evident in the painting studio all the time. Permitting the ongoing mash up of concepts, forms, colors and methodology is what studio time is all about.

But then is the rest of life to be packaged up in discrete categories, neatly organized piles? Not mine.

At a recent conference held at UCSC to discuss the interdisciplinary/collaborative intentions of the university’s new Institute of Arts and Sciences, San Francisco Exploratorium curator Marina McDougall stated it succinctly: “The world arrives to us whole, and the best and new ideas grow at the interstises of disciplines.”

While it is popular to approach that interstitial space with the idea that you throw everyone into the mix and a new consciousness will erupt on its own (along the lines of “order for free” in chaos theory), I am a proponent of a more nuanced approach to that liminal world of cross disciplinarity. At the same UCSC conference David Meckel of California College of the Arts described the open space/no walled classrooms/no private studios building that is the school’s San Francisco campus. That approach to interstitial space would be a nightmare for “I like time alone” people like me.

Gratefully Walter Hood, landscape architect, designer and theorist, stepped in to advocate for creative introverts by pointing out how many ways there are to manage “the space between.” “Sometimes we don’t want to be together, and it is our devices that keep us connected,” Hood offered. He went on to point out the value of taking a hybrid approach, one that offers a little of everything—privacy, connection, physical proximity, isolation. “We need to make environments where people can find their familiars.”

The same is true of art. And this is especially true with theater, particularly with productions that advocate for the “audience as participant” approach. The Chicago-based theater company Hypocrites’ production of Pirates of Penzance at the American Repertory Theater is a great example of managing the space between. This high energy, completely engaging and playful variation on the Gilbert & Sullivan opera takes over the entire theater space, but each audience member can gauge how involved they want to be in this 360 production. Some choose to sit on the stage and move around with the cast. Some are up and milling around, stopping by the bar at stage right to buy a drink. Some are singing along with the familiar music. Some are just happy to watch the whole extravaganza unfold. The options are laid out effortlessly right at the beginning by a member of the cast. It was a perfect example of letting the space between be multi-dimensional.

And as for the Pirates: Utter fun. Hats off to Sean Graney and his high wattage troupe of performers. The production is theatrically creative, cleverly delivered, irresistibly adorable. And I loved just being able to watch.

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