WASHINGTON — Have you ever picked up an item that triggered a memory?
That’s the idea behind “Mnemonic” at Anacostia Playhouse in Southeast D.C. now through April 9.
“‘Mnemonic’ is a wildly exciting theatrical journey,” artistic director Colin Hovde told WTOP. “A ‘mnemonic’ is some sort of a physical device [that triggers memory]. You pick up a rock and it reminds you of something. Someone picks up a watch and — bam — they’re in a taxi remembering a conversation they had with the taxi driver. They look at a chair and it reminds them of the story of the Iceman.”
Yes, the production juxtaposes something as epic as the discovery of the 5,000-year-old “Iceman” Ötzi in the Austrian-Italian Alps, against something as intimate as a modern-day romantic couple.
“You see those two stories juxtaposed and interwoven,” Hovde said. “What that means to humanity to find that ancient corpse … and a very micro love story about this couple who’s been disconnected as the woman tries to find out who her father was and go on the journey of connecting her past.”
In this way, the piece asks both intimate and grand questions about the meaning of “home.”
“Where do we come from on a micro level — Who are my parents? Where is my home? — and on a macro level of humanity — Where does humanity come from?” Hovde said. “So the piece is about memory and imagination in trying to figure out where home is and where our origins are.”
Conceived by Simon McBurney, it was written by seven actors in the British ensemble Complicite.
“They’re considered one of the best theater companies in the world,” Hovde said. “They just had a show on Broadway called ‘The Encounter,’ which was a one-man show. … You didn’t know when the performance started. ‘Mnemonic’ is kind of the same way. It starts with an empty stage, a rock and a chair. The house lights are up, one of the actors comes out, starts talking to the audience, and just has a conversation for like 10 minutes and you’re unaware when the performance has already begun.”
While these techniques push boundaries, Hovde says the show is more accessible than experimental.
“That term can sometimes alienate people,” Hovde said. “It’s not ‘experimental’ theater, it’s really ‘theatrical.’ … It’s not performance art. … A lot of Theater Alliance productions are not a kitchen-sink drama. … We’re finding a way to use the tools of theater to make it a unique theatrical experience. … There’s projections, puppetry, movement, so it’s a piece that really takes you on a wild visual journey.”
Choreographing the movements for “Mnemonic” is movement director Dody DiSanto, a renaissance woman who not only founded the 9:30 Club but studied under famed French mime Jacques Lecoq.
Still, it’s Hovde who remains the driving force behind all Theater Alliance productions, having served as the associate artistic director from 2005-06 and the producing artistic director since 2011.
“Two years ago, we produced a play, ‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,’ which was a one-hour play written by an Iranian playwright,” Hovde said. “It was a different actor every single performance. The actor walks on stage, they’ve never read the play, the producer hands them an envelope, they pull out the play and start reading. They can’t do any research. Once they’ve done it once, they never do it again.”
That play was written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who couldn’t get a passport to leave Iran. So, he wrote the play to reach audiences vicariously through his words. It’s this very notion that brings us full circle to perhaps the biggest lesson of “Mnemonic”: the theme of human migration.
“In our current political climate … I have lots of questions about how theater can be a positive tool for growing compassion and empathy,” Hovde said. “Theater Alliance doesn’t want to produce plays that point fingers. … What I am interested in is theater that can open a doorway for us to have a more nuanced conversation. For me, ‘Mnemonic’ isn’t about building the wall or the travel ban; it’s about how important migration has been for humanity and how people have been migrating, often forced.”
His quest for inclusiveness factors into his very approach to ticket sales. While tickets are technically listed at $40, audiences can “Name Your Own Price” thanks to Theater Alliance’s unique “Radical Neighboring Initiative.” All you need to do is show up at the box office one hour before the show.
“I can’t afford $150 for a Broadway ticket, so what we do to open access [is] make sure that for every performance, there are at least 10 tickets held at the door that are ‘Name Your Own Price,'” Hovde said. “I’d rather have a wider audience of socioeconomic backgrounds, of racial backgrounds, of age backgrounds, so we have a multiplicity of voices in that room and can have a dialogue around that.”
The dialogue continues even after the performance is over.
“[In] every one of our performances, there is an invitation for the audience to stick around and have a conversation,” Hovde said. “When we have an audience that is black, white, Latino, very young, very old, we get these conversations where a 60-year-old white man is talking to a 15-year-old black child [in ways that they] never would otherwise! You get these really complex conversations in a safe space about dangerous topics. To me, that’s how we grow empathy. That’s how we grow compassion.”
What better way to spend a night out than growing your own empathy in a unique theatrical setting?
“It will be like nothing you’ve ever seen in the theater,” Hovde said. “You will always remember this theatrical experience. I’ve talked to a number of individuals who saw the original production over 20 years ago and they have told me, ‘I will never forget XYZ moment. It took my breath away.’ … There is one, if not two, very specific moments in this play that when you see it, it’ll take your breath away.”
Click here for more information. The show runs two hours with no intermission. Listen to the full chat below:
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