The beauty – or horror, depending on your perspective – of Portland theater company The Reformers’ LĒR is that it is going on all around you, right now, even as you read this. Whatever device you’re reading this on, you’re that close to LĒR. It’s on Facebook. If you look on tumblr someone is apparently leaking information about their process (apparently, without the Reformers’ authorization). Elsewhere on the internet, a mother is searching for her son who she fears has run off with some kind of cult. There’s a podcast. There is even a cooking video. And this week, opening Friday, it’s going to be live in front of your face at the Shoebox Theater.
“We’re motivated,” says Charmian Creagle, one-half of the husband-and-wife team that runs The Reformers, “by doing something different and taking chances and trying to create a new style.” For the last six years The Reformers, Creagle and her husband, Sean Doran, have been committed to dismantling the assumptions of theater audiences and replacing those assumptions with a more visceral experience than what theater audiences generally expect to have.
Of course, Creagle and Doran have been challenging audience’s perceptions for decades now. They started The Other Side Theatre back in the ’90s and were integral to the creation of defunkt theatre, still going strong twenty years later. After spending a decade in New York they came back and started The Reformers. Much of The Reformers’ work is heavily influenced and inspired by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre. That influence is still seen in their work today.
If you don’t want the audience to just sit on one side of the proscenium and passively observe what actors are doing on the other side of the proscenium, what can you do to alter that experience? The Reformers had two models in mind for the kind of experiences they wanted their audiences to have. One was live music. “I go to a lot of live music,” says Doran. “I just felt like I wanted to see if we could get that kind of reaction out of an audience in a play. Because everybody’s just so quiet and stagnant as they watch plays.”
The other model is horror movies.
“Fear-based theater” is how one actor described the work of The Reformers, and it’s a description they embrace. “[Fear] is vast,” says Creagle. “Of course, we’ve dabbled with a lot of horror things but there’s a lot of psychological fear that we deal with as well.” For The Reformers, fear doubles as the subject matter and the creative engine. “We are really motivated by fear in what we do on all levels. We’re motivated to do something different and take chances and create a new style, and fear motivates us to do it. Fear is our process and our product.“
This has led The Reformers to explore different ways to manipulate the audience’s experience. If you’ve been to a Reformers show you’ve been trapped in a garage with zombies, in a living room with ghosts, traipsed through a haunted house, taken part in a cult’s ritual murder, ridden around in a van (with who knows what in the back), or even danced with zombies to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” – all in the name of blowing up the audience’s expectations. “We’re always trying to find something unique,” says Creagle. “I go to a lot of shows and I get really excited when I see something done in a raw artistic way that shows that the creative team went outside the box. That’s what we like to do. That’s what’s fun for us.”
In fact, in some ways, for The Reformers, the real innovation with LĒR is that a significant portion of it takes place in an actual theater. “We were fascinated by what our aesthetic could be like in a traditional space,” says Doran. “We wanted to see if we could challenge ourselves to taking a standard play into a standard theatrical space and seeing what happens if we turn that upside down.” Of course, anyone who’s ever been to the Shoebox, or worked in it, knows that it is anything but a conventional theater space. Its name is not an accident. It’s size and shape have always been equally a massive hindrance and a creative opportunity you won’t find anywhere else. As theater spaces go, it’s perfect for LĒR and the Reformers.
“For this show,” says Creagle, “we went back to one of the most popular fear-mongers, Shakespeare.” Shakespeare? “All his tragedies are actually horror-esque,” continues Creagle, “a lot of horrible things happen in them. There’s some eye-gouging and there’s some mass murder. Also, the dissolution of the family is horrific.” And of course, King Lear is about a world coming apart at the seams, a theme that resonates powerfully with real-world events. “Living in our current society,” says Creagle, “I hate to get political but there’s so much fear going on, it’s really hard to ignore. It’s something that’s easily tapped into right now.”
But doing just another production of King Lear is not The Reformers’ way. And in fact, the genesis of this project happened several shows ago. “It started with The Haunted House,” says Doran, “then also went into The Van, then into Yes, No, Good-Bye and then into this show as well. It’s an ongoing narrative that has traveled through the past four shows.”
LĒR itself has “been a two-year process,” says Creagle. “The storyline is still heavily based in the meta-story of Lear, but it’s evolved.“
“Or devolved,” adds Doran, cryptically.
“We’ve been writing this on and off,” Creagle continues. “We’ve had workshops with actors, some of which are now involved with the show, some of which are not (just by happenstance). We’ve played with a lot of people and come up with this idea. It’s a real blend of concepts based around the story of Lear. We like the story to bleed from the stage in an interactive way.”
Which is what led to the multi-dimensional approach. They exploded King Lear as we know it, and have put it back together in a 21st century way. “You can choose to take one way of watching the production,” says Doran, “or you can take the chance and experience it in more ways and you get more story. We do that with all of it.” Creagle agrees: “It’s all the same story, but there are ways of experiencing it from different perspectives.”
With a show as multi-dimensional as LĒR you need a lot of talented people to take on certain jobs. Luckily, The Reformers have no shortage of those. They’re a fluid group of multifaceted theater artists that includes (but is not limited to) names like Richard Moore, Chris Beatty, Sara Fay Goldman and LĒR scribe and actor, Caitlin (“C-Note”) Nolan. All of these artists have worked in some capacity on a variety of Reformers shows.
One aspect these creators share with Creagle and Doran informs all their work, and should not be underestimated: their off-brand sense of humor. That humor was present in one form or another in The Revenants, Yes, No, Good-Bye, The Haunted House, and The Van. Just as much as fear, that self-aware humor is one of the engines that drives the bus. It keeps the performers grounded. It keeps them from taking themselves too seriously.
“The Reformers are a collective of theatre folk,” says their website, “looking for a good time.” They do that by trying to give their audience an experience – or experiences – that they’re not going to find anywhere else.
The Reformers’ LĒR plays March 15-31 at the Shoebox Theater, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.