Everybody into the pool

KOLT Run Creations’ epic staging of Vinegar Tom takes on the history of women, water and witchcraft

photo courtesy of kolt run creations

Vinegar Tom, 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; $15-$30; in the basement pool room at the Elks Tower, 921 11th Street; (916) 454-1500; www.koltruncreations.com. VIP tickets include post-show wine tasting in Rail Bridge Cellars’ penthouse tasting room. Through November 3.

Kelley Ogden isn’t afraid of risk—rather, she embraces it.

“It’s either live big or go home,” she said, explaining what very well could be the motto for the reach-grasp conundrum that her theater company, KOLT Run Creations, set up for its final show of the 2012 season.

KOLT Run, formed in 2005 by Ogden and her business partner and spouse, Lisa Thew, closes its first full season with Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom in a production that adds layer upon layer of theatricality, musical and sound experiments, and women’s history—both local and global.

The play itself is complex enough. Here, Churchill frames the story of a witch hunt in 17th-century England, with contemporary songs provided as interludes—a theatrical device aimed to help the audience better situate the tale of women’s lives as both changed and unchanging in the intervening centuries.

But KOLT Run is adding even more to the show. For starters, it has enlisted a trio of local artists—Patrick Claypool, Martha Omiyo Kight and Andrea Thorpe—to create original music for the lyrics Churchill provides in the play’s text. The company also partnered with a San Francisco-based media firm to create an interactive online video in which a contemporary woman explores her ancestor’s role as one of the “witches” in the period described in Vinegar Tom.

The work is also being staged as site-specific theater—an edgy style of production gaining popularity in Europe and on the East Coast.

Ogden and Thew weren’t sure the Ooley Theatre on 28th Street, their usual home, would be large enough to fit their vision of the play, so they scoped out alternative venues.

Specifically, Vinegar Tom will be performed, for all intents and purposes, beneath the city.

“The space happened very organically,” Thew said. “We were looking at alternate venues.”

In its search for a larger space, KOLT Run associate artist Kellie Yvonne Raines noticed that Rail Bridge Cellars had a sign up advertising event space available in the Elks Tower downtown. The initial spaces they surveyed, however, weren’t quite suitable and eventually, a tour led them to the building’s basement—and its long-neglected swimming pool.

The location couldn’t be more fitting for the play in which the character of Ellen, the cunning woman, muses on her chances for surviving the town’s witch hunt:

“I could ask to be swum. They think the water won’t keep a witch in it, for Christ’s-baptism sake, so if a woman floats, she’s a witch. And if she sinks, they have to let her go,” Ellen speculates. “I could sink. Any fool can sink. It’s how to sink without drowning. It’s whether they get you out. No, why should I ask to be half-drowned? I’ve done nothing.”

The swimming pool itself possesses an interesting history: For years, women were forbidden to swim in it. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for women to be banned from entering men’s public spaces—some clubs and dining rooms, not to mention bars and saloons—across the country through the 1970s. Gradually, these male spaces, which were often where business was done and political decisions made, opened up to women, though not always without protest and clamor.

(And, of course, this isn’t just a bit of history or a chauvinistic relic. Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club, for instance, didn’t offer green membership jackets to women until August of this year.)

At the Elks Tower, while women weren’t allowed in the pool, they were permitted to lounge in an observation area, elevated for a good view, from where they could watch the men engage in swimming contests.

As such, it makes for an interesting spot for some site-specific theater. The practice of moving theatrical productions off the stage and into the “real” world has a long political history—Ogden cites the guerrilla theater of Abbie Hoffman, for instance, as a 1960s version of site-specific theater.

But a real necessity is that the work and the site complement each other; that the site works to actually bring some element of the play to the forefront. In the case of Vinegar Tom, the swimming pool works to reinforce the play’s central plot and themes.

“There’s so much water imagery in Vinegar Tom,” said Ogden. There is, of course, Ellen, the herbal healer who theorizes about being tested by water—a risky proposition, since the only way to be proven innocent is to sink in hopes of getting hauled out before drowning.

Photo By shoka

There’s also a song in the play, “If You Float,” which addresses the sort of aquatic Catch-22 involved in not just the water test, but all of the tests to which suspected witches were put to at the time.

The pool is “perfect for this particular show,” Thew said. “Churchill writes in representational theater. It’s an epic show. It’s making the audience aware that they are always watching a play. And it’s a very presentational style that works well for a broader audience.”

The production’s structure is also set up to make good use of the pool. For instance, the trio of musicians will be above the pool, lit so that they can easily be seen, for the musical interludes. The audience will be seated—approximately 50 people at a performance—in the shallow end, with stairs that allow them to enter and exit safely, and a few poolside seats available for those who need more accessibility.

And the actors? They’ll be in the deep end, of course.

The company is adding yet another interesting element to the production: the use of all the players to create space and sound environments for each scene.

“One of the components of epic style is a minimal use of set and props,” said Thew. “What we’re doing is allowing our actors to create their own set and props.”

“[That] means that the actors that are not a part of the action still remain in the stage area, and they support the action through their own vocalization of sounds,” Thew said.

“[They’ll] create an outside environment to let us know where we’re at, or support an onstage action through a sound effect,” she added. “In addition to that, then the actors onstage are utilizing space to create their own props.”

But don’t mistake it for mime. Please. There’s none of that silent, white makeup stuff that invites parody.

“Miming is about creating something that’s not there, and space work is indicating something that is there but unseen,” Ogden said.

“The total effect is to create a give-and-take between the actors who are in the scene and the actors who are on the side, giving it a fully ensemble effect.”

For example, in one scene, a couple in a barn tries to understand why so many bad things keep happening to them: butter that won’t thicken, sick calves, unexplainable pains.

“All throughout the scene, they’re hearing the sounds of their barn, which is where the scene takes place,” said Ogden. “At this turn, those animal sounds die away and become the sounds of a growing storm. As the players move into the accusation, the sound creators are working off of them in creating that growing storm.”

Done well, sound environments and space work create a multiple opportunities for collaboration between the performers, and also invite a more participatory attitude from the audience. Watching a production like this is an invitation to use one’s own imagination along with the creative work of the actors: It’s not all spelled out for the viewers, but instead invites them to lean forward, pay close attention, and think carefully about what’s occurring onstage.

“It forces all of us to be very present,” said Ogden.

And paying close attention is a very good idea—especially when one is in the deep end of the pool.