I was first touched by the Woven experience two years ago. Friends of mine convinced me that it was worth the $10 ticket price. When I asked them what Woven was all about, they struggled in the same way that I am struggling now.
“Well,” they said, “it’s sort of theater and sort of dance, but there is music and comedy as well. There is a terrific energy. It’s great fun.”
I must have stared at them quizzically because they quickly added, “And you get two free drinks.”
I was sold.
Having seen the show, however, the alcoholic enticement is the least of my praise. I have returned two more times, yet defining the Woven experience still escapes me. Perhaps it even escapes those who created the show.
“‘Theater as rock concert’ is the easiest tagline we have come up with,” said organizer and performer Jason Burnstein. “Although it is pretty much impossible to explain what it is.”
Woven’s enigmatic quality is what makes it so appealing. Many in the audience treat the show as if it were a bizarre sort of pilgrimage, returning year after year like a school of spawning salmon. You can pick out the first-timers; they are the ones staring around in bewilderment as the rest of the crowd whoops and cheers with delight when they hear the first lines of their favorite act. But what really makes Woven so unique is that each show is different.
“Things will happen and people who have seen [the show] before will know something is done a little different,” Burnstein said. “When we are up on stage and [the audience] is finishing our lines it is great. We always have a philosophy that we provide half of the evening and the audience brings the other 50 percent. Each night we let the show change based on how the audience’s energy is working off us. We really work off each other.”
The talent of the Woven performers lies in their ability to piece individual acts together to form a cohesive show. Burnstein described how performers would create lines and images and pull out recurring themes.
“That is where all the weaving takes place: in the transitions we create,” Burnstein said. “Throughout the night you will hear a line said two or three times, or a certain image brought up more than once. As you sit back and watch all these different little pieces unfold, you will start to see different things being teased and popping out – sharing more of a theme to the evening.”
This year, however, the Woven team has embarked on a new adventure: Mango Fest. Having toured around last year – visiting Minneapolis, Boulder, San Francisco and Los Angeles – the local group has decided to focus its attention on the art scene in Santa Barbara.
“We got the theater for five weeks and we decided if we had the stage why not put on a festival?” Burnstein said.
The first annual Mango Fest will include original works by seven different theater companies, featuring world class juggler Jay Gilligan, local theater artists and innovative out-of-town acts from Los Angeles, Houston and Minneapolis.
“Each [act] is very unique,” Burnstein said. “[We] chose different things to be in it, everything hopefully being somewhat of a celebration. The goal is to bring theater and music together.”
Woven itself is continually revitalized by the departure of experienced cast members and the influx of energetic newbies keen to try their hands at this type of “rock concert” theater. One popular performer, Justin Palmer, has left Woven to write, produce and direct his own show entitled “Day Sleeper,” which will be debuted at Mango Fest.
“It is about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. [Kesey] wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he was involved in LSD acid-testing in the ’60s. It is a really interesting story,” Burnstein said.
“And then [to round off Mango Fest] there is the show that we took to the Minneapolis Fringe Festival this year – Ruffy Landayan. He is really cool. He graduated from UCSB’s BFA acting program and created this one-person show. He is just on fire now.”
Landayan’s performance, “Generation Hodgepodge,” is a sensitive indictment of our generation, weaned on MTV and pop culture. Landayan lashes out at his latchkey compatriots with slam poetry, impressive dance and skillful character portrayals.
“[The show] deals with all these different issues,” Burnstein said. “[Landayan] does this whole thing on the rave scene and ecstasy … on homophobia and Britney Spears. It is a really good show.”
To kick off the month-long Mango Fest, organizers have scheduled a concert in Anisq’ Oyo’ Park on Oct. 12. The concert will feature four local bands, including The Messengers and Stirfry. Organizers hope this event will be a way of incorporating more music into the theater as well as providing an opportunity to inform people about what Mango Fest has to offer.
“We really want people who go see concerts, who like concerts, to feel safe coming to check out some theater that might capture some of those elements,” Burnstein said. “People don’t get excited about theater anymore like they do about going to see concerts. We are trying to bridge that gap.”
As for Woven itself, the show has seen a lot of changes in the cast. There is also a new group of professionally trained musicians, which adds a new element to the show. But Burnstein sees these changes as a positive sign of the growth and development of the Woven phenomenon.
“A lot of the old pieces that people might know have had new life breathed back into them,” he said. “We have definitely gone back to every old piece and thought about why we are doing this piece, what is important about it and how we can make it better. I think the audience is going to get a kick out of it. We have a ton of new pieces as well as the old pieces being really fresh again.”
What hasn’t changed is Woven’s strong devotion to its local connection and its unyielding philosophy on performance art.
“[We want] people to walk away feeling better, especially with the hard times that are happening now. We try to set up a nice community where people feel safe and where they can be taken on a journey; they can go on an adventure and leave the theater … having thought about some things and having had a good experience.”
The Mango Fest Kickoff Concert will be held in Anisq’ Oyo’ Park on Oct. 12. For details abut the various Mango Fest performances call the Center Stage Theatre box office at 963-0408 or visit www.mangofest.org.