Compleat Stage artistic director Ruby Lou Smith pushes back against the name “theater” for what her company is trying to create.
“It defies classification. Our collaborators, musicians, actors, photographers, are equal in their relationships. The process is organic,” she said.
She and her husband and collaborator, composer/conductor Raul Gomez, view a script as an incomplete entity, an opportunity, and seek to infuse it with multiple perspectives and artistic disciplines.
“The text asks the question of what serves the story. It is then the process of mending and rewriting the material to create space for the other disciplines begins,” LSU graduate Smith said.
The company’s latest offering, “An Evening of Short Stories and Sounds,” takes the stage Wednesday, Aug. 27, at The Frenchmen Theatre.
Free of charge, the evening is part of the company’s ROOT series. It will feature three actors and three musicians, at music stands, in dialogue with three fantastical stories by three celebrated writers. For reasons of surprise and as part of the project’s audience participation mission, those stories have been kept secret.
The new troupe’s process is similar to a performance energy that has been growing on the New Orleans theatrical scene over the last few years.
Exemplified by Goat in The Road’s radio drama “This Sweaty City” and more recently Dane Rhodes and Chris Marroy’s experimental “The Fourth Circle,” this style of performance seeks to integrate nontraditional forms, like painting and improvisational jazz, into performance and break down the traditional understanding of what constitutes a theatrical event.
Like many others in New Orleans, Compleat Stage has wrestled with how to create a live performance energy that matches the musical and festival vibe of the city. Smith believes this can be achieved by “offering experiences that, rather than asking for polite applause, ask the audience to come out and be a part of it.”
An experimental group, the Incense Merchants will be playing the event’s original music. Gomez, who holds a doctorate in conducting and is a violinist, leads a group of musicians whose approach leans towards the avant-garde but also possesses a narrative drive uniquely suited for this sort of material.
In the case of the three stories, the musicians responded to what Gomez calls “the simplicity and elegance of the writing’s forms. Natural pauses in the text were sought out.” In these places, the Incense Merchants charged the material with musical interludes throughout the rhythm of the tales.
“The musicians react to the text. Finding the special moments, the actual performance is not a repetition but a natural consequence rising out of the rehearsals,” Gomez said.
This means, rather than a set form, the project has the potential to grow in an improvisational manner once presented before its audience.
Made up of a number of Baton Rouge transplants, the company has been engaged in its interdisciplinary project for over a year now and has presented works as diverse a version of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” complete with a philosopher commenting on the proceedings.
Smith explains the overall project as extending, “life lines out to the community.”
And that commitment extends beyond individual performances. The company has recently launched an educational program titled “Keep It On The Stage.”
The brainchild of Smith, the project is a collection of workshops and summer programs aimed toward children and teens from divergent backgrounds. It seeks to create the same sort of interactive dialogue as the organization’s more sophisticated fare.
“We are asking our audiences to take ownership by participation,” Smith said. “We want to ensure their support isn’t wasted.”