Pursuing the American Dream With a Cast of You

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Ticket buyers take note: HERE just got a lot more interactive.

The downtown theater company (formerly HERE Arts Center) is plunging head first into the immersive theater experience this month with Lush Valley, opening Sept. 11. An audience-reliant new project that treats each spectator as part an examination of the American dream, Lush Valley's audience members are under consideration for citizenship in the titular town, complete with paperwork, oaths, civics tests and fingerprinting.

"No one is forced to do anything they don't want to do!" director Kristin Marting assured. "And we're happy to respond to concerns anyone brings in. We've done all this training with the cast in terms of client interaction and their responsibilities."

In a brave new world of participatory theater, Lush Valley is helping break new ground when it comes to engaging with the audience. Instead of the days when reluctant audiences members were dragged up on stage, slightly embarrassed, shows like Lush Valley are questioning what exactly theater means-and what it can do. The eight immigration officers sometimes deliver monologues to two or three audience members; the entire audience convenes for occasions like Town Hall meetings and voting or call in to a radio show to voice their concerns and complaints about America. And this may be the only show in town where texting during performances is actually encouraged.

"Lush Valley is a metaphor for America. It's the America that still has high hopes for the ideals on which America was founded," Marting said. "And [it's] looking back to the breadth of those ideals, not the narrowness. The American dream used to have a different meaning, but now people think of a house with a white picket fence. There's been a codification, and the show is trying to reconnect with our core values and engage people in thinking about those ideals."

Divided into eight chapters, Lush Valley focuses on the concepts that comprise the classic American dream: equality, freedom, happiness, opportunity, community, ambition, hope and honor. Inspired by both literature (including John Dos Passos' USA trilogy) and months of intensive workshops and online dialogue via the company's blog and Facebook, the piece has combined theory with visceral experience.

If Lush Valley sounds ambitious, that may be because Marting and her collaborators-including writers Robert Lyons and Qui Nguyen-have been working on the piece intermittently for three years. But it wasn't until last year that the idea of treating the show as a theatrical Ellis Island came to mind. "It's really solidified how the whole show took shape," Marting said. "[It's] emotionally engaging and not heady and didactic. We really pushed to create something that's funny and entertaining."

Along those lines, Lush Valley will feature multiple dance numbers (derived from all-American pastimes like bowling and baseball) and jester characters inspired by the emotions Marting and her team have identified with the piece. "Lush Valley is about thinking how we all relate to each other and what our responsibilities are or should be towards each other," Marting said. "But it's also wrapped in Civil War fantasies and songs and dances and filled with people as complex as where we are as a country. We have a Tea Party and Democrats as well!"

Despite the presence of Tea Partiers, Marting said Lush Valley "is a friendlier, more inclusive place than America." And thanks to the audience, every performance is different. "The audience changes it every night," Marting said. "They get to choose the national anthem of Lush Valley and they write their own oath of allegiance that every citizen has to take to become a citizen."

Premiering on the cusp of major changes in both America and theatrical conventions, Lush Valley promises to be unlike anything else currently on the boards-and unlike America, in Lush Valley, one actually feels as if a single person can make all the difference in the world. If only American politics had such instant gratification.

Lush Valley runs Sept. 9?24 at HERE, 145 6th Ave. (betw. Broome and Spring Sts.).

Scene from 'Lush Valley', a theater experience that gives new meaning to breaking down the fourth wall. PHOTO by carl skutsch.

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