When the Blue Barn Theatre announced their plans to build a new performance space in 2012, the main objective was to expand their theatrical capabilities and create a better audience experience while maintaining their artistic identity. That identity never wavered last season, even as the artistic and managing staff worked through all of the kinks and nuances of their new building.
“The day-to-day was the biggest challenge,” said Artistic Director Susan Clement-Toberer. “It was the little things; the facilities management. Remembering how to turn lights on and off, how to use a new sound system and how to operate in a space that has more room for artistic vision. It was a massive learning curve and we’re still learning.”
Perhaps the most important thing the Blue Barn learned, Toberer said, was that they can always rely on the grounding power of their artistic process to keep themselves centered and focused on their audience’s experience.
“Our patrons love it,” she said. “They love it, first and foremost, because it’s still feels like us.”
That idea of knowing who you are in face of change was partly the thematic influence of Blue Barn’s 28th season: Identity.
“I very rarely choose a season from a word,” she said. “I didn’t run across the word ‘identity’ and think ‘I’m going to do a season around this.’ It came to me from different sources. The building, news stories, personal relationships. They all seemed like it was the perfect way to speak from the building for our second season.”
The second season kicked off with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, currently running through October 16th. The show features a unique stage design, forgoing the typical proscenium layout and opting for an alley theatre-style composition; one that places audience members on the stage and flanking actors on both sides. The play is an allegory to the rise of Adolf Hitler, chronicling the rise of fictional Chicago mobster as he tries to corner the cauliflower market (that’s right, cauliflower) by any means necessary.
“It’s one of the most visceral wrestling matches I’ve had within myself in trying to grab onto a role,” said lead actor and Blue Barn founder Nils Haaland. “It’s fascinating because Brecht really examines what the dynamics of power are.”
“Think about the time period he was writing this play in as he was fleeing Germany. I can only imagine the upheaval that was going on. You can almost feel it in the writing itself, that anxiety and heightened state. There must have been this huge tumult just in questioning your culture. ‘How could my culture, my existence, my life, all these surroundings create the capacity for this one man to attain power in such a brutal way?’”
Haaland and Toberer have long paired together on theatrical endeavors, dating back to their days as students and company members at SUNY Purchase College in New York.
“I couldn’t have done this show without Nils,” Toberer said. “If I couldn’t have gotten Nils to play Arturo Ui then we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Even with Haaland taking up the role of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s work proved to be a monumental challenge.
“We were innocent in it,” she laughed. “I spoke to everyone and made sure I had a good team around me to do it. We then found out we really didn’t know what we were getting into! It has been epic. I keep using the word ‘epic’. It refers to Brecht but it also refers to the layers and layers of style and approach and language that we are learning and dealing with.”
“It’s difficult to describe,” Haaland said. “On the surface it’s very simple. You think, ‘Oh, there’s words, you memorize, you put them up and you’ve got a show. With this show, there’s so many different meanings and so many different ways to convey that meaning. It’s a seemingly simple but incredibly complex play.”
The Blue Barn’s mission is ‘to provoke thought, emotion, action, and change’. It’s a mission very much in line with what many considered Brecht’s own theatrical goals to be. He was someone who sought to create work that people could actively observe and personally interpret.
“He wants you aware that you are watching a play,” Haaland said. “By doing that, you are questioning the previous convention of theatre, which was to just get immersed in it. As an artist, you have the ability to express some type of feeling during your time on earth. That feeling can be a vehicle to something larger than yourself. That’s what this play does. There’s a reason it’s being done now, during a political season, that makes perfect sense. Most importantly, you have to let your audience draw their own conclusions from it.”
“I think first and foremost it’s about telling a story that makes the audience want to go out and change something in the way they live,” Toberer said. “A perspective or a viewpoint; more than normal theatre, more than going in and watching a story and getting lost and involved in the experience. Brecht wants you to do more than that. He wants you to do that in waves. He wants you to be brought out of it and know that somebody is not speaking realistically at times. You’re aware that you are being shown something that hopefully will be a catalyst for you to go out and change the world.”