Eggtooth Productions finds ways to make theater despite social distancing
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Friday, May 22, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Friday, May 22, 2020
Bramble Hill Farm and the adjacent Larch Hill Conservation Area in Amherst are about as pretty a spot as you can find in the Pioneer Valley. Ferns, wildflowers, bushes and trees, wetlands and ponds are all crammed into an area navigable by boardwalk and trail.
Participants in Eggtooth Productions’ Promenade 1 (over the still world) will experience all this loveliness with an additional layer of meaning. Walking through the space with headphones, they’ll hear sounds subtly augmenting the natural ambience of birdcalls and wind. Then: “Stop!” a woman’s voice commands, before reciting a beautiful passage of text. Walking on a bit further, at a small manmade water feature, a man’s voice muses on ponds and water, and further on, there is a piece about trees — 44 sound cues in all invigorate a lovely walk.
This presentation by the Greenfield-based company is the first salvo in a season that aims to offer collective art in creative, safe ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is what artists do. We look the ugly right in the eye and make something of it,” said Linda McInerney ‘98G, the company’s Artistic Director.
While many companies found themselves needing to shut down as the pandemic hit, McInerney and her compatriots — a network of movers, actors, and installation artists, some of them, like her, with UMass ties — sprang into action. Since 2011, she said, the company has been offering immersive productions as well as traditional plays. Immersive theater puts the audience into the show. Rather than being seated and viewing the performance, audience members move through the space and interact with the environment and the performers, giving each person a unique experience.
“We’re living in a time where theater is seeking and yearning for other forms beyond the proscenium, and this really does open up a whole other way of experiencing theater,” McInerney said.
John Bechtold, one of Eggtooth’s artist members, has a longstanding association with immersive theater heavyweights Punchdrunk and also works in sound design. McInerney credits him with the idea of creating three Promenades that would allow people to safely, individually walk through a soundscape. He served as creative director for the series, while McInerney was the producer.
Bechtold researched the technical aspects of the work and partnered with a British company, Echoes.xyz, which has an app that uses GPS to trigger sound cues as a listener moves through a space. In the Promenade, some sound cues play throughout the entire property, while others are triggered when walkers near a specific site, so that cues may overlay each other. Some are subtle, while others demand that the listener stop and absorb what’s happening.
“When you begin to hear something heightened, just slow yourself down and let yourself drink that in,” McInerney advised. “It does the ‘Be Here Now’ thing in a really turbocharged way!”
Many of Eggtooth’s cadre of artists recorded the pieces that comprise Promenade #1. In addition to this piece (listed as running until May 26 on Facebook for logistical reasons but actually continuing well into the summer), the group has planned a Greenfield walk with a more linear narrative, and a third on Skinner Mountain will take yet another form.
This series will take the company into summer, but it’s not the only thing the company has planned.
“We’ve decided for the first time to create a full season, so that people will know what’s coming, and so people will have something creative to depend upon and to look forward to,” McInerney said. “I feel like we have an obligation to offer something that can give a little light, give a little hope.”
On May 29, Katherine Adler will present a 24-hour durational piece called Artifacts of the Ephemeral, live-streamed from the Shea Theater. Eggtooth performer Jack Golden, who works in a mime and movement discipline, is presenting a one-man “drive-in” theater piece, a performance where audience members stay in their cars to view a piece that offers a comic take on Dante’s Inferno (McInerney is the director and is rehearsing with Golden via speakerphone). And James McLindon’s This Is Your Captain will be presented as a Zoom play.
All of these folks received Mini-grants from Eggtooth, which speaks to another of McInerney’s priorities: supporting artists. “We really want to keep performers performing and vital and nimble,” she said.
The group anticipates two additional rounds of grants and has encouraged work that experiments. Not coincidentally, the group’s educational arm has offered workshops for artists who are interested in immersive and experimental theater. “It’s hard for us to break out of the mode of what we do,” she said. The workshops aim to help artists who want to shift their mindset “to being open to creating in an entirely new way.”
Amid the sadness and chaos of the moment, for Eggtooth and its collaborators, there is an opportunity to take performance and theater in new directions.
“We have to seize this moment with innovation and passion and relentless dedication, to make something good happen out of this pandemic,” McInerney said.