PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It might be nearly 90 degrees outside, but inside the Shire City Sanctuary this week, it's going to seem downright chilly.
That's because the Kickwheel Ensemble Theater (the creative arm of The Berkshire Fringe) is staging an original work called "Passage," which weaves together two parallel story lines of survival: the tale of Sir John Franklin's doomed 19th expedition to conquer the famed Northwest Passage and the story of a modern-day couple on a luxury wellness cruise through the now-melting Arctic.
In a news release, Kickball describes "Passage" as "a dark comedy exploring themes of a changing climate, love and loss (that) integrates sea otters on razor scooters, a guru of ultimate enlightenment, dead sailors, marketing executives and questions of hubris and faith to reveal the cyclical nature of human history."
Director Sara Katzoff said the idea behind "Passage" came to her after she heard an NPR interview with Anthony Brandt about his book "The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage." She realized she didn't know much about this piece of history and so she brought it back to the rest of the Kickwheel crew, which comprises six core members and four associate artists, for consideration for their next project.
Kickwheel's mission is to "create original, collaborative and genre-bending new works for the stage," and so members started doing historical research and some writing — entirely as a group.
"It's a very collaborative process," Katzoff said in a phone interview on the last day of rehearsals before the show opens on Wednesday, July 27. (It runs nightly at 8 through a 3 p.m. closing matinee on Sunday, July 31. Tickets can be purchased online; opening night is "pick your own price.")
That process means the individual thoughts of everyone have to be respected and pieced together to form a cohesive script.
"It's both the beauty and the challenge of our process, that everyone has a voice," she said. "It's a much longer process. It's a lot of work to come to a consensus as a group."
One particular challenge was figuring out how to trim the script to a normal length when everyone felt such ownership over the material.
"There's so much great stuff. There's stuff we created we absolutely love … but we don't need it anymore. Everyone trusts that," she said, likening the experience to an experiment. "We have our little beakers and our science goggles and we're mixing things up. The process has been really exciting."
While Katzoff is directing, the actors on stage are Michael Brahce, Amy Brentano, Emma Dweck, Jacquelyn Gianetti, Julian Claire Mia Kang, Marcus Neverson, Timothy Ryan Olson and Chris Tucci. Music and sound design was done by Peter Wise, lighting design by Tim Cryan, set design by Juliana Haubrich and costume design by Stella Giulietta Schwartz.
All performances take place at Shire City Sanctuary at 40 Melville St. The building used to be a church, and as such presented some challenges as the Kickwheel crew attempted to set it up for a full production — especially a production set in the vast wilderness of the Arctic Circle.
"We've made a theater in a space that's not a theater,” Katzoff said, urging the public to come see it for themselves to help fulfill Kickwheel's mission of using art to bring people together. "That's an important and rare thing in our world right now.”"
And the Kickwheel performers are fully invested in this mission — even to the point of being able to act as if it actually IS Arctic-cold inside a non-air conditioned theater on a 90-degree day in July.
"What we're doing is completely insane," Katzoff said, laughing as she described the actors wrapped in wool coats and scarves pretending to be cold. But because they are performing their own work, it hasn't bothered them as they sweated their way through the "very physical" production.
"They're part of it and there's ownership of it," she said. "We're just going to dive in and do this."
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