“The overall tone,” Ben Mattson said in an interview this week, “lands somewhere between hope and dissolution.”
That’s a wide emotional range.
No wonder Mattson added that “Shattered Constellations,” the final production of the season at Durango High School, “is not for all audiences.” In an era when many movies and musicals are flagged as family friendly, it’s refreshing to hear a candid assessment about mature content.
Durango High School Thespian Troupe 1096 has had an illustrious history sparked by the creative genius of Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford then continuing with Kristin Winchester. When Mattson took over the DHS program last fall, everyone wondered how he would manage and if he could sustain both high standards and creative flair.
Well, the jury is in. After a crisp and telling fall production of “Pride and Prejudice” followed by a witty and energetic musical, “Legally Blonde,” Mattson and Troupe 1096 are continuing a stellar tradition. The final production this year is already underway. Mattson has challenged the students with what’s called devised theater.
The troupe’s upperclass students have spent months developing an evening program based on creative collaboration. That’s an alternative term for the group-made, collage-like work of devised theater.
“Shattered Constellations” has evolved through a relatively new process that’s the hottest thing in contemporary drama. It upends theatrical conventions and reverses the traditional script-rehearsals-performance time line. Instead, devised theater begins with a group of performers and no script. They may have chosen an idea or a theme but develop a script through a labor-intensive process. Once a theme is selected, experiments follow and improvisation rules. Eventually, a finished format and sequence may be agreed upon. If there is a director, he or she usually has a light touch. It’s all about teamwork.
Devised theater has revitalized contemporary performance practice all over the world. It emerged after World War II in various European cities with a tradition of experimental theater. Many critics cite Joan Littlewood’s British company, Theatre Workshop, and the 1963 production of “Oh, What a Lovely War” as a formal beginning. And today there are dozens of companies that have formed around this new way of working – particularly in New York, Chicago, London, Copenhagen and Barcelona, to name a few.
The form has evolved as a loose mixture of monologues, dialogues or group scenes, abstract movement and dance, occasional or persistent music. Technological elements may be added from the world of sound, lighting and scenic design. Film clips are often part of the scheme.
The DHS production, Mattson said, “started as a series of free writings done by everyone involved.”
Among others, topics included life experiences, dreams, ideas about social injustice, and trauma. Ensemble work followed, including bits and pieces that morphed into whole scenes. Slowly, sections started to coalesce. Some of the stories are deeply personal, Mattson said, while others may be completely fictional.
The DHS Thespians, Mattson said, chose to work with an extended metaphor as the central idea.
“‘Shattered Constellations’ is about people struggling with their own shadow, shining brightly on their own but potentially getting lost in the immense darkness,” he said. “Only when stars find connections to others through constellations can they be mapped, hold shape and form, have history, be seen as individuals and part of the whole.”
Sounds like a perfect theme and process for thoughtful high school drama students. Two performances remain this weekend.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.