Meat is theater
Pioneering Butcher Shop theater troupe stages second annual reunion performance
Other than the occasional teenage pregnancy or embarrassing yearbook picture, impetuous acts of youth rarely lead to anything more lasting than a brief grounding or quick stint in juvie.
Both are punishments brothers Dylan and Denver Latimer risked—and amazingly avoided—when they tore a hole in their parents’ garage more than 15 years ago to put on puppet shows, plays and theatric performances of Captain Beefheart songs under the name The Butcher Shop. The Latimer parents supported their endeavor, and the groundwork for theater-as-we-know-it in Chico today was laid; Butcher Shop performances continued every Labor Day for six years and led to the formation of the Cosmic Travel Agency, which in turn became the Blue Room Theatre.
Butcher Shop alumni and other local theater types are paying homage to the now-legendary “Anti-Theater” company this Labor Day weekend with a two-night Butcher Shop reunion to be held in an orchard past the southern terminus of Normal Street. The bill includes five one-act plays and a puppet show that could also be described as beyond normal.
“There’s a tradition that starts with the Butcher Shop and continues through the Cosmic Travel Agency and then carries on into the Blue Room of doing puppet theater, and more specifically shadow puppetry,” explained current Blue Room Artistic Director Benjamin Allen, whose contribution to the weekend is a puppet piece co-written and co-directed with his sister Tessa Allen called “The Carpenter and the Walrus Revisited.”
Allen said the piece was inspired by the Gulf oil crisis and the public’s tendency to get riled up then quickly forget about political and ecological disaster, and influenced by former CSU professor John Gardner’s book Grendel and the Lewis Carroll poem referenced in the title.
“Whether or not the audience walks away thinking, ‘Oh, that was obviously an analogy to the current Gulf oil crisis,’ I don’t know if that’s necessary,” Allen said. “That’s where we’re coming from, and we’re trying to tell a fantastical story that might get people thinking about their relationship to the environment.”
Also on the bill is “Chicken,” about the meeting of two women with diverging sensibilities; “The Trick,” about conflicts on a suburban bus; and the futuristic “In a Lonely Place.” “The Dinner Date” is about a killer and a vegetarian getting together to cook a feast out of a bear and a mummy; and “Thaw, Inc.” deals with time travel.
These are bare-bones descriptions, and it’s fair to say the minds behind them have more than a few twists worked in. Those minds include an impressive roster of current and past Chico provocateurs. New York- and New Jersey-based Yana Collins Lehman was managing director of the Blue Room from 1995-99. Johnny Lancaster and Tom LaMere are both based in NYC, and collaborated with Michael Gannon, who lives and works in Los Angeles, on “Thaw, Inc.” All three trace their roots to Chico and local theater, and the list continues.
“I’m going to guesstimate, and I’m probably low-balling, but there’s at least 50 people directly involved in the production,” said Allen. “The cast of ‘The Dinner Date’ alone is about 16 people, not to mention the techs and the writer and director.”
Allen said those involved in the production have been communicating through multiple weekly bi-coastal phone conferences and a constant stream of e-mail.
“We’re really drawing people from all four corners of the nation, not to mention people coming in who’ve been doing traveling performances in Europe,” Allen said. “I think it’s a testament to how important the Butcher Shop experience is [that] we literally have people leaving their very, very successful real lives behind to come play with us for a week.”
In addition to all the trans-continental wrangling, holding the production in an orchard (provided by Mary Govan and Greg Amaral) rather than a theater presents its own set of challenges: “It’s an outdoor festival, and we’re dealing with all of the obstacles that entails,” Allen said. “And just the fact it’s a huge open space, it’s a bit of a challenge for the actors to project to the audience.
“Evidently there was a fire last week that endangered the barn where the event is staged and the surrounding orchard,” Allen said, “but Chico Fire took care of it and I guess we got a little brush clearing done.”
This is the second annual Butcher Shop reunion, and Allen hopes the tradition will continue.
“We have every intention of staging this again in 2011,” Allen said. “I’m sure the first thing we’ll do Monday morning when it’s all done and everyone is waking up hung over from the dance party the night before, some of us will get together post-mortem and figure out how we can take advantage of the success and talk about what we can do better next year.”