Slow Theatre fulfills its mission at annual festival
Given the degree to which our own president has no problem stretching the truth, it’s no surprise that during brainstorming for this year’s Butcher Shop theater festival, the theme of “lying and deception” came up.
“We started having writing workshops with the company early in the year, to kind of take the temperature of the community of artists that we’ve formed, to see what’s on their mind, what they’re hopeful about, afraid of,” said Jesse Karch, Butcher Shop artistic director.
In 2014, Slow Theatre took over the production of the annual Labor Day weekend festival from the Blue Room Theatre, which had been at the helm since 2009, when the event was resurrected in a south Chico orchard. However, instead of continuing the tradition of showing a handful of original, experimental one-acts, Slow Theatre has gradually transformed its approach to the Butcher Shop by applying a deliberate, collaborative method to creating a single focused work to headline the event.
This year’s process started with those writing workshops in December and January, followed by the company reconvening in the spring to start the work of digesting the notes and turning it into a story. That’s when the “lying and deception” theme rose to the top; then the group reached out to the greater community.
“We started doing community interviews around the theme,” Karch explained. “We gathered, like, 100 pages of transcripts and then we anonymized them and read them over and sometimes performed them as scenes.”
It might sound like a protracted way to put together a one-time production at a free community event, but for the group of local writers and theater veterans who started Slow Theatre in 2013, it’s the next step in the evolution of Chico’s theater scene.
“It’s not [just] about putting a play on for art’s sake or because we like a play—it’s about, ‘Does this play need to be told; does it tackle something that’s going on in the town?’”
That’s Denver Latimer, Slow Theatre executive director and co-founder, and part of the local theater scene since the late-1980s, having also co-founded both the Blue Room and Butcher Shop.
“[The idea for Slow Theatre] came from my studies at New York Theatre workshop in Manhattan and at Yale Repertory Theatre and my observation of the New York theater scene,” Latimer said. “What I found was that, if you didn’t have a really strong reading program, you never ended up with a good product on stage because you didn’t get enough people/ dialogue going into the process.”
This year’s product is My Name Was Deception. “The story is about a small town that has scored low on a national anxiety poll,” Karch said. “And they have a new mayor who has run on a platform of putting a mood-enhancing drug into the drinking water, and some of the citizens in the town have been having these recurring nightmares which they think have been caused by this new mood-enhancing drug.”
As part of its community-focused approach, Slow Theatre collaborated with a wide variety of local artists. The play itself is a musical, with local dancers and musicians (Josh Hegg and Donald Beaman wrote the songs) performing alongside the actors. And the grounds of the orchard at the End of Normal will transform into an arts-rich festival with preshow music performances (by Jonathan Richman, XDS, SCOUT and others), a couple visual arts shows, food trucks and interactive activities.
And the Butcher Shop is just one of the company’s many projects. In September, Slow Theatre will kick off a collaboration with the Butte County Office of Education, in which they’ll be conducting acting and improv workshops in juvenile hall. And next year, Latimer said they hope to not only start putting on other workshopped productions, but also hold a two-weekend Butcher Shop/Shakespeare in the Park combo event at Bidwell Park.
“We definitely want to be a socially engaged theater,” Latimer said. “You can’t grow to become a professional theater unless you have a lot of programs that are doing that.”