Review: Salvaged Layers

Collaboration is a buzz word at Butler University for theatre students cutting their artistic teeth. So when Butler University Theatre announced a collaboration with Ball State University students in the Department of Architecture, it seemed an exciting new take on a common idea. Each Spring, Butler University Theatre teaches a Site Specific class, where students work together through the semester towards a culminating project: a devised production inspired by and performed in a site somewhere in or around Indianapolis. Salvaged Layers, last weekend at the Irving Theatre, offered a climactic performance showcasing the collaboration of Butler and Ball State University students.

Site specific theatre by Butler University is a “true collaboration.” Students work together to create all aspects of the show, from content and research to costume and lighting designs and even publicity. The resulting piece is a real reflection of their work together throughout the semester, under the guidance of their site specific professor Melli Hoppe, from Susurrus Performance Group. In a first for the site specific class at Butler University, these Indianapolis kids have teamed up with students from Muncie, Indiana’s Ball State University. The Department of Architecture at Ball State University created a series of scenic installations in the Irving theatre based on the collaboration between the two schools.

The site for this annual production from Butler University was the Irving Theatre in Irvington, Indiana, less than ten miles east of Indianapolis downtown. This historic Indianapolis neighborhood not only provided the performance space but also the inspiration for performance. As the home of “artists, politicians, scholars and historical events for more than 130 years,” Irvington offered Butler University theatre majors a wide selection of material, on which to base the show.

Students focused on two historical characters, who resided in Irvington. Information found in the Salvaged Layers program tells of Dr. H.H. Holmes and D.C. Stephenson. Though the two men lived a generation apart, they share a brutality in their lives that is paralleled by only the most horrifying criminals. Dr. H.H. Holmes was responsible for the deaths of dozens of women in what he termed his “murder castle,” an elaborately built mansion designed for torture without escape. D.C. Stephenson, a politician and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of murder after the mutilating attack of a women.

Wisely, the program for Salvaged Layers also shares a bit of insight into what to expect with sight specific theatre. “This performance is a collage of these stories, one overlapping another, like peeling paint revealing bits and pieces of the past,” it says. “It allowed the history to become more abstract, the movement less literal.” In Salvaged Layers, like many other similarly devised Indianapolis theatre offerings, meaning is what you make it. Narrative structure does not exist, and isn’t even a real goal. When narrative structure is perceived, it is likely an accident, or even more likely, the projected narrative of an involved audience member. The stories in Salvaged Layers were intertwined in this way. Two central elements created the form: the installations and the performances.

The design elements of this show were, in my mind, the main event. Scenic design and architecture are two different fields with many similarities. Ball State University Majors in architecture created captivating and well carved playing spaces with their designs. Their innovative work created strange and abstract interpretations of various locations in each man’s story. When brought to life by Butler University actors, the space and their designs were given new life in a horrible world of twisted murderers.

To look at the space on arrival, each piece seemed a creative art construction, composed of entirely re-purposed and salvaged material, including scrapes of the now demolished RCA Dome. After reading the program notes, describing the stories to be told on and in these installations, they immediately seemed newly perverted, scary almost. The imaginations of these talented architectural artists ran wild. The outcome was a success with bizarre inventions and gravity defying illusions. Their eco friendly designs of entirely salvaged materials presented many challenges, I’m sure, but their flawless presentation puts them among the most innovative scenic designers I have seen all year.

With little exposition and narrative plot to rely on, the actors of Salvaged Layers offered solid performances that lacked clear purpose but shared clear ideas. Though each performer could both move and speak with purpose, why their were moving and speaking was unclear at times. They shined not as individuals but as an ensemble, creating a mood in a dangerous space as they shared dangerous and disgusting themes. As they guided the standing audience back and forth through the space, it felt as if you were walking the art galleries of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This effect worked extremely well for the piece, which was intended to be taken as a collage. The program, as any wall plack for a piece of art would do, provided what was needed to understand, or rather place understanding, on the piece.

When theatre is created collaboratively, like Salvaged Layers, standout performances fall to the wayside. Group success was the important goal in this piece, and because of that each member of the cast and design team deserves to be mentioned. Ball State University Department of Architecture students who carved such a deliciously wonderful installation include Veronica Eulacio, Ben Greenberg, Luke Haas, Greg Hittler, Eric Jensen, Austin Lucari, Michael Niezer, Paul Reynolds, Mark Vanden Akker, Brad Wanek and Jay Weeks. Butler University students who created the human installation include Jessica Conger, Joseph Esbenshade, Steph Gray, Jill Harman, Jeff Irlbeck, Amanda Meyer, Amanda Miller, Jacqueline Vouga and Chris Ziegler.

Sadly Salvaged Layers ran for only two performances last weekend at the Irving Theatre. However, each Spring Butler University produces site specific theatre, which always makes for a different and jarring experience, well worth the yearly wait. Head to their website (listed below) for information about their Indianapolis performing arts season throughout the school year.

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Caucasian Chalk Circle
October 2009

Butler University Theater
1600 Sunset Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46208