Brave New Stage At Funkopolis, an avant-garde theater collective, the politics and the process are as important as the product.


Two days before their experimental play "3 Stories to the Ground" opened at Theatre Project last month, co-authors Denise A. Gantt and Gabriel Shanks sat in a darkened hall watching the actors go through their paces.

There was a guy with electric blue hair and bare feet and a woman with Rapunzel-like tresses lounging on what looked like an oversized kids' playset. They both talked a mile a minute, but there was an incongruous immobility to the scene, as if the whole thing were taking place underwater.

Meanwhile, other characters wandered on and off stage saying strange things and behaving a bit like lost marionettes. In their studied, supertheatrical artificiality they resembled mimes or performers in a Japanese Kabuki theater.

Suddenly Shanks, who was doing double duty as writer and director, halted the action.

"Hold it," he called. "The lights on Shannon didn't come up on cue."

The session was called "tech night," devoted to melding the play's various elements -- lighting, sound effects, etc. -- into one seamless whole. It was the last chance for the actors to practice together before the final dress rehearsal. But there were still glitches in the show. Shanks and Gantt would continue cutting and pruning right up until opening night.

"3 Stories to the Ground" was the debut production of Funkopolis, an avant-garde theater collective founded in Baltimore last year. The drama was loosely based on the life of jazz artist Chet Baker, who fell to his death from a third-floor hotel room balcony in 1988.

But the play was just a pretext. What Funkopolis was really after was a new conception of theater, one that has as little to do with the ideals of Broadway as John Waters' Baltimore-kitsch films have to do with Hollywood.

Known variously as underground, experimental, guerrilla, off-off-Broadway or fringe theater, troupes like Funkopolis are an evolution of the pioneering avant-garde companies of the 1960s like San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theater in New York, which stressed cooperative working, a common view of life and productions that reflected their political and social views.

Funkopolis is part of a quasi-underground archipelago of cutting-edge young artists, most in their 20s and 30s, who live and work in Baltimore but whose efforts only occasionally surface in mainstream venues and publications. And, like most young artists, they live off their day jobs as waiters and office workers.

Wrong approach

"I think most theater is made incorrectly," Shanks says. "What happens is a director finds a script, usually by someone who is dead, and casts some actors whom he or she may or may not know.

"The actors never meet the set designer or the sound designer, yet all these people supposedly are working together. Funkopolis is an attempt to say, 'What if we got everybody in the same room and everybody did everything together?' "

Which is exactly how Shanks and Gantt created "3 Stories to the Ground." It is a work of collective inspiration, built from dialogue, gesture and staging contributed by all the members of the ensemble.

Funkopolis had its genesis last summer, when Shanks and Clark, who had worked together previously at AXIS Theater in Baltimore, decided to establish a new ensemble dedicated purely to avant-garde work.

Shanks, who was a master's student at Towson University at the time, asked fellow student Shannon Maddox to become part of the team. Gantt, who is also a master's student at Towson, joined the group shortly afterward.

With the core personnel assembled, each member of the group took on a specific project.

"The first step was actually doing a lot of research," recalls Susan Rotkovitz, who signed on as the company's dramaturge, or in-house literary adviser. "We researched Chet Baker's life and everything we could find about jazz. Some of us studied just the design aspects -- colors and textures that recalled the era. Shannon, for example, originally was going to be our costume designer."

Starting with movement

At first, the group spent a lot of time developing a regime of physical gestures and stage movements. They rehearsed at Theater Project, which has a tradition of nurturing experimental companies, and at Towson University, whose graduate theater department had agreed to co-produce the play.

"Gabriel wanted the work to come out of gesture rather than script," Rotkovitz recalled. "So we did a lot of exploring, looking for all the various influences we could put into the play."

"It's sort of the opposite of the Stanislavsky method, where you start with the emotional, interior life of the character and then give that individual expression through the actor's body," Gantt says. "We start with the physical life of the character first."

Eventually, the company evolved an series of physical exercises that included traditional voice and body training methods as well as non-Western techniques such as yoga and Senegalese trance dancing.

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