At first glance, the thirteen items on the table in Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre suggest a yard sale in its final hour. A rusted license plate, an ancient film projector, a gray pie tin, and two cloudy old jars look like the picked-through scraps left over after the good stuff's gone. But then you notice the cotton gloves an archivist wears as she carefully handles the items, and the improbable container they've been lifted from: a pony keg engineered into a time capsule, with a hatch and latches soldered on its side.
Then it clicks: Everyday objects can represent things far greater than themselves, capturing the essential history and values of a community. Two twists turn Beertown, which opens Friday at Raleigh Little Theatre, into a fascinating theatrical variation on the classic "lifeboat" group exercise. In the first, citizens are empowered to open the capsule and decide which items from the past the present still values. They can propose additions to reflect recent developments, but each new artifact displaces an older one.
The second twist is that Beertown's citizens are also its audience members and can fully participate in the debate.
"You're actually in the show," says director Rachel Grossman, cofounder of dog & pony dc, the devised theater group that has previously produced Beertown in Washington, D.C., New York, Cincinnati, and Omaha. "The content and the themes of the show are shaped by everybody in the room."
Early on, the trappings of a hokey civic ceremony are amusing, as officious officials (including Wyckham Avery as the mayor and Greg Guiliano as the wonky town manager) preside over kitschy small-town musical tributes that wouldn't be out of place in Waiting for Guffman. One details the settlers' search for water pure enough for the beloved brew that gave the town its name.
But then the artifacts, some of them derived from the company's local research, start illuminating different facets of our area's own history and culture. A belted family bible evokes both the fictive town founders' genealogy and the long influence of one religion upon our region. Different artifacts are swapped in and out of each show; in one preview, a Native American arrowhead spoke to North Carolina's original inhabitants and "old-time values," while a large glass lens symbolized science—and "the closer look we need at issues we're ignoring now," as one character says.
Audience members at each performance must deliberate on which elements of their own culture and history matter most to them. As the editor of the Beertown Bugle (Jon Reynolds) says at one point, "It's not enough to remember the past. We have to interrogate it in order to learn and move forward."
Grossman says that as the group debates, about forty-five minutes of the evening's content will be produced by those attending. Prompts from various characters give attendees the chance to contribute, challenge, and defend artifacts. Then the group votes on what goes in the capsule, collaborating on a spontaneous snapshot of social change and contrasting values.
"There is a live quality that is missing from most live theater," Grossman observes, "but when you provide the audience with the agency to shape the dramatic content, it deepens the potential for emotional and intellectual investment, by the artists and the audience, in ways no one expects."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Suds of Time"