Open-air Silk Moth Stage breaks through the theater’s fourth wall

A new kind of theatrical experience has emerged in rural Rockingham County. Randi B. Hagi of WMRA reports.

Nestled between Mennonite farmland and dense forests lies a charming little homestead. On a recent August evening, a rehearsal was held on the porch, accompanied by birdsong, crickets and cows snorting softly in the pasture.

KATIE DOWNING: I was never very interested in romance. Or at least I wasn’t- [audience chuckles] — until I noticed the only other person who was always in the library.

[“At Last” by Etta James plays]

DOWNING: We sat across from each other and didn’t speak.

This show is part of the inaugural season of the Silk Moth Stage – a venue for immersive theatrical experiences that erase the traditional divide between performers and audience. It is the brainchild of professional director Aili Huber.

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Aili Huber, Mitte, is the founder of Silk Moth Stage.

AILI HUBER: I’m really interested in things like what does “an audience” mean? mean? What does it mean when you go to a play that it matters that you are there? That’s what makes it different from a movie.

The stage came about almost by accident. Huber was originally about to replace her 50-year-old “death trap” porch – as she puts it – when her son Silas saw the design for the new porch and asked why it looked like a Shakespearean stage. The seed was planted with this comment.

HUBER: I did my training at American Shakespeare Center, and I was very influenced by their approach to theatre. … Well, if you’re looking at something at the Blackfriars – which everyone should be doing; It’s amazing – you’ll see that there are spectators on three sides of the theater, so you see the stage more like a sculpture garden than a painting.

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Three sides of the stage are open to the audience, so the cast and crew have to take into account that everything is seen from multiple angles.

She said it’s one of the illusions of modern Theater where the audience sits in the dark and looks at the stage as if looking through a window into a lighted room. On a Shakespearean stage, similar to outside in natural light –

HUBER: Part of the experience is how it transforms a play when viewers can see how the actor sees them. … When you see one character abusing another character, as an actor playing that role of an abuser, there’s often a moment where you look at a viewer and have that moment where you’re like, ‘You see how I do this thing and it makes you feel complicit in what I’m doing.”

It can also make for some really hilarious moments, like during a recent rehearsal for the one-woman show Any brilliant thing. In the play, the narrator tries to make a numbered list of everything that makes life worth living against the background of her mother’s depression and several suicide attempts.

Performer Katie Downing relies on the audience to read some of the lines – in this case her director MaryBeth Killian and the Huber family.

DOWNING: My goal was to reach 1,000. So that meant I couldn’t cheat. A – no repeat. B – things have to be really wonderful and life-affirming, and C – not too many material things. Uh… 761?

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Downing (left) drafts Petra Huber from the audience to play one of the supporting characters.

MARYBETH KILLIAN: To decide you’re not too old to climb trees.

DOWNING: 823?

Here, nine-year-old Petra had the “Skinny Dipping” line.

KILLIAN: Oh, oh, we’ll explain that later.

PETRA: Skinny dipping! [everyone laughs] Whatever it is!

Downing originally planned to perform Any brilliant thing for her capstone project at Bridgewater College in 2020.

DOWNING: I’ve always loved theater that pushes the boundaries of what theater is. And this is a show created by the community that watches it.

During the quarantine while the performance was suspended, she and Killian began their own list of brilliant things to do.

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MaryBeth Killian is directing Every Brilliant Thing.

KILLIAN: I think my favorite, and that’s simply because he’s such a close and dear part of my life, is Chaco [sandal] brown lines.

Performances are scheduled for August 6th, 7th, 12th and 13th. On August 7th, members of the Bridgewater Class of 2020 will also receive a discount.

HUBER: We invite people to come earlier. If you want, you can come about an hour before the performance… We invite you to a picnic.

You can also pre-order dinner at the Sugar & Bean Cafe, which will be served upon your arrival at the homestead. The food and community aspects of Silk Moth are another callback to an earlier time. Huber gave me a brief lesson in theatrical customs before World War II.

HUBER: You might go to the theater earlier. They would see who is here, who they are with… And working backwards, we know that Shakespeare’s plays were set in the middle of a town where people knew each other… and you would go to the theater, and you. d go to hear the play but you would also sit down with your friend. They would get information about tulip futures because that was the beginning of the stock market. You would buy some oranges. You would meet someone.

Afterwards, weather permitting, Huber plans to light a bonfire for people to sit and chat with each other and the cast.

To Every brilliant thing a September run of give us good will round off the 2022 season. Tickets and more information can be found at silkmothstage.com.

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Downing’s character tells a love story from the audience.

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