The Foundry is an art space reincarnated from the carcass of an old iron works warehouse in West Berkeley. One staircase off the massive, stabled hall leads to a semi-enclosed attic moldering in the open air. Clapboard structures hulk at both ends, their clouded windows glowing yellow. Great big wheels and ladders throw strange shadows into the dimness and a swinging bench faces stark out to Carleton Street from two stories up. There is an eight-foot-tall geodesic dome suspended from the rafters, whirling at a cosmically slow speed. It is the long-forgotten junkyard of your fantasies.
“The space is as much a member of the troupe as any of us are,” said Eli Wirtschafter, one of the three human members of Radix, the performance troupe behind MOONSHINE: Three Short Pieces. “It has ideas, it’s making artistic choices.”
The members of Radix came together around an informal residency with The Foundry and devised their debut, site-specific piece from within the space.
“We weren’t working with a blank canvas or a black box stage,” Hannah Michahelles explained, “This place already transports you somewhere so we just had to find out where exactly that place was for each of the three pieces and make it really vivid.”
Together, the troupe chose three texts to develop into performance pieces. The first piece is their take on The Lady Aoi, a short play by Yukio Mishima. The second piece was inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Tree of Codes. The third is an adaptation of the Italo Calvino short story “The Distance of the Moon.”
This form of ensemble-devised theater is an entirely different beast from conventional theater in which the script is immutable and a director wields the artistic authority.
“Ensemble-devised performance works for us because we’re interested in the process,” said Eli, “We’ve been working since August, most days of the week. We get to put ourselves through this longer process because we’re not getting paid, we’re not on a payroll.”
“Devising the pieces was the point,” added Hannah. “That’s where all the challenge and the learning happened. Performing them is like a bonus where we get to share our work with our friends.”
As performers, directors, producers, writers and set designers with complete artistic autonomy, Radix is unrestricted by dramatic conventions or licenses.
The pieces are determined by “the talents that we bring to the table and what we can create collaboratively,” said Eli, “rather than about a preconceived idea of a certain kind of performance.”
He and Marica Petrey, the third member, are both instrumentalists and singers. Hannah and Marica both have backgrounds in dance and physical performance, and all three were trained in theater. For the show they’re incorporating pre-recorded and mixed audio elements, puppetry and aerial acrobats.
“Theater can’t compete in realism,” said Eli. “We have no shortage of spectacular visual experiences but what we don’t have is a lot of embodied experiences. It’s rare that culture makes us think about our body being in space and being in a room with other people.”
The term “experimental theater” comes with a lot of connotative baggage. When asked to respond to the term, the troupe rejected the premise that their work represents some breach of charted artistic terrain. “[Our work] is a result of other people’s experiments that succeeded,” said Eli, adding, “We’re telling stories the best way we can, the way we want to.”
“So many of my friends never see theater, but I’m so excited for them to see this. The audience gets to watch us, from five feet away, put ourselves out there in the scariest way,” said Hannah. “If there’s a perception that theater has to be stiff and formal it’s a misperception.”
Catch MOONSHINE: Three Short Pieces on January 30 and 31, February 1 and 2
Purchase tickets here.
Additional performers include Eric Newcombe, Mogli Maureal, and Brendan Liu.