Staunton is no stranger to theatre. Home to the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse, this little town in the Shenandoah Valley is known for its big stage presence. That reputation, however, comes with a heavy deference to the classical and the traditional. Sensing a niche that needed filling, some newly-formed experimental performance groups are looking to playfully nudge the old guard beyond iambic pentameter, daring them to embrace the offbeat.
One such group is Heretic Pride, a three-person troupe founded by Emily Pananas, Will Campbell, and Linnea Barklund. All are classically trained actors who share a love of collaborative theatre and unexpected outcomes. They held their first performance last year, spurred into action by the inaugural Shenandoah Fringe Festival’s slogan, “Bring us your weird.” As Staunton’s new rallying point for all things wild and wonderful, ShenFringe features a wide range of nontraditional acts including shadow puppeteers, monologuers, sideshow troupes, cabaret dancers, and vaudeville duos, so Heretic Pride fit right in.
For their debut last year, Heretic Pride authored the experimental piece Labyrinth. A deconstructed version of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, it dealt with the concept of rituals and how bodies can be understood as machines. The performance space, a spare room above a general store, was minimally furnished, featuring only a folding chair, card table, and freely suspended light pendant. The dialogue was spoken in an overlapping, repetitive manner, transforming the words into textural motifs rather than fully formed thoughts. The entire piece had a looped structure, so that even though there was a definite beginning and end to the performance, theoretically audience members could start viewing it at any point and still have a cohesive experience. Regarding the avant garde nature of the play, Pananas explained, “There’s no weirdness for weirdness sake. It’s all for a purpose and it’s still entertaining even if you haven’t had any experience with that sort of theatre before.”
Carmel Clavin, the Founder, Directorix, and Grand High Poobah Extraordinaire of ShenFringe, is excited to bring Heretic Pride back again. “They applied this year with yet another idea that seemed out of the mainstream,” Clavin said. “They had clearly been working as an ensemble to further their craft in the interim year.” While the 2016 season set a high bar, the selection committee was even more discerning with this year’s applicants. As Clavin explained, “Last year we took a chance on some enthusiastic weirdos. This year we are happy to welcome back weirdos who have proved they have staying power.”
This year, Heretic Pride has a new experimental offering entitled Yellow Pity Fragments. The play is set up like a game, a system with rules but no predetermined outcome. The catalyst for action comes from a series of sentence fragments written down on yellow sticky notes. The characters draw randomly from these notes, each corresponding to specific gestures and themes. The action is fast-paced, and quickly the disassociated notes combine to form an interwoven story. The three performers are trying to “win,” though what that means is open to interpretation. Each run-through evokes a new version of the play, new methods of interaction, and new definitions of winning. “There’s no strict structure for how it goes down, but we know vaguely the meat of what we want to happen ahead of time,” Pananas explained. “Just how we get there changes.”
The crux of the play, those sentence fragments on sticky notes—17 of them to be exact—come from an unusual source. They are actually annotations that have been lifted from the margins of an old textbook, marginalia scribbled in the blank spaces of a used copy of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. That early modern theatre piece is one that that Barklund read while studying theatre at Mary Baldwin University. In her copy, the handwritten notes appear to be from a previous student who, comically, was trying to get a last-minute grasp of the basic themes of the book for a class assignment. The sentence fragments are isolated from their original context and repurposed as standalone poems to fuel the storytelling machine. Phrases like “love runs the world,” “phonetic puns,” and “he will die or face death for his love” lead the action like a choose-your-own adventure book. The fragments stack one-by-one to build a complete story and gain new meanings within the life or death circumstances of the play.
Adding to the uncertainty of Yellow Pity Fragments is the open invitation to the audience. Seated in a circle surrounding the actors, the audience can and should interject whenever they please, thus altering the storyline on demand. As Pananas explains, “We’re not breaking the fourth wall because there’s not one there. We’re as aware of them as characters as they are of us.”
This extemporaneous style of performance is quite the departure from the norm for Staunton. In a town where the classics are king, rule breakers like Heretic Pride face an uphill battle in making a name for themselves. “I love a good Shakespeare,” Pananas admitted, but she also sees value in stirring the pot. “We are approaching things from a very nontraditional viewpoint in an industry where the traditional and the classical is really prized. We enjoy shaking things up, we enjoy being heretical in the canon of acceptable theatre.”
The Shenandoah Fringe Festival is a time to try something different and Yellow Pity Fragments sure fits the bill. These performances offer a rare opportunity to catch something a bit scary, a bit wild, and a bit weird. As you consider attending Yellow Pity Fragments, think a little less “why?” and a little more “why not?”
Heretic Pride will be performing Yellow Pity Fragments at the Shenandoah Fringe Festival on April 9-10. Full schedule and tickets available at shenfringe.com. Follow Heretic Pride at hereticprideco.tumblr.com.
Photography by Pat Jarrett