BWW Reviews: Ideas Pop at Dog & Pony DC's TOAST

Creativity. That's what our society needs. IBM polled more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, and these industry leaders think that what our businesses will need to navigate the future - more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or vision - our companies will require creativity.

Well clearly they haven't been inducted into The Order of Wind and Lightning, a secret society of the most creative inventors that can trace its roots back to "jack of all trades, master of all" Benjamin Franklin. Thanks to the folks at dog & pony dc, we are all privy to the machinations of this august confab. In fact, at performances of Toast we are invited to become part of its inner workings.

You don't 'see' a show at dog & pony dc, you become part of it. Dog & pony is committed to "Audience Integration" or participatory theatre - that means when you attend a show you are intimately knit into all that is unfolding. The audience completes the ensemble.

Toast playfully explores innovation, technology, crowd-sourcing and the very roots of inspiration. The basic framework of the production has six performers welcoming the new recruits to The Order of Wind and Lightning (TOWL). We are first ushered into a science fair complete with cardboard triptychs of great ideas. An automaton of Benjamin Franklin himself holds forth on innovation and new ideas. There are hands-on activities that demand our attention. Then bells steer us into the enclave and the audience is inducted into the ways of the secret society through lecture and even a delightfully cheesy retro orientation film. Dog & pony takes great delight in shattering the fourth wall that supposedly separates actors and audience. The Toast ensemble actively engages everyone in the room - questioning, touching, nudging, mumbling, seeking a reaction.

Directors Rachel Grossman, Ivania Stack and Wyckham Avery and the artistic team first began workshops for Toast in 2013. The company began with the question "Before electricity, how did people make toast?" With the advent of electricity everyday life for things as simple as the act of making toast was fundamentally changed. With that as a jumping off point, Toast enfolds its audience in contemplating technology, sources of inspiration and the future. Or, as the esteemed members of TOWL said, "sometimes you need to dive into the deep end and then come up for air."

Toast will have 21 performances in seven venues throughout the region and feature a rotating cast of 17 performers in six roles - not to mention the unique influence of more than 1,000 audience members who fully participate. On the evening I saw Toast, the performing ensemble was comprised of Tyrone Giordano as the barefoot guru convener Alex Billings, Lindsey D. Snyder as interpreter "and consigliere" Sydney Williams, Colin K. Bills portrayed the contrarian linguist Chris Gertner, Melanie Harker played the spunky and excitable Sam Jordan, Earth mother behavioral scientist Joey Lane was portrayed by Tamieka Chavis, and Lisa M. Austin brought us the exacting natural sciences expert Morgan Pitt. While there are fixed lectures, film and displays, not all is rote or passive. We, the audience, are expected to join small groups to interact and brainstorm society's next great platform. Audience extroverts will have their moments but introverts are treated respectfully - there's room for all to cautiously dip their toe in the world of participatory theatre. But it's certain that no two performances will ever be the same. Not only does the rotating ensemble of performers make a difference, but the locales - from the Shakespeare Theatre's Sydney Harman Hall to the Anacostia Arts Center to the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop will each lend their own unique vibe. The performance I attended at the hushed and luxe Arnold & Porter made me feel like a highly sought-after recruit for TOWL. As I passed gorgeous artwork by Sam Gilliam and William Christenberry I had no doubt I was in distinguished company and great things were expected of me.

However I find myself far more excited about the process of creating Toast than the production itself - it's fun, it's audacious, it's unique. The organization's website richly details the year-long process from the original sources of inspiration, notebooks of the devising process and details from the early workshops. But without a culminating "a-ha" moment for the audience at the production, the evening feels a little flat.

But the theatre experience continues after the audience goes home. It is a "meta" experience - we gather together to explore innovation. But in the days after the performance, every post-it note idea, every reference to "spit balling," every collaborative act had me questioning what is real and what is theatre in our day-to-day lives.

Through Toast, dog & pony dc welcomes us to a thoroughly unique theatrical experience that's full of discovery and fun. We cannot sit idly by. Together we probe, reflect, explore and interact.

Runtime: approximately 120 minutes with no intermission

Toast runs through October 18 at several locations throughout the metro area. Select performances are ASL interpreted. For pricing, venue information or to purchase tickets, please visit dog & pony dc's website.

Photo caption/credit: L-R Kerry McGee (Joey Lane), Tyrone Giordano (Alex Billings), Joan Cummins (Sam Jordan). Photo courtesy of Teresa Wood.

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From This Author Pamela Roberts