January is theatre-fest time: there’s the always exciting COIL fest, Under the Radar at the Public Theater, and the opera-centric summit Prototype. But Theresa Buchheister– a founding member of Title:Point, the DIY production company that runs Vital Joint at the Silent Barn– thought it was the perfect opportunity to introduce her own operation into the mix, The Exponential Festival, as a counterpoint to the usual. “Most of the festivals are very Manhattan-centric and exclusively feature artists who are well established–they’re already getting huge foundational support–some of them it’s their actual job to be an artist, which is that golden goose we’re all chasing,” she explained.
While Theresa conceded that most of those festivals are totally fascinating, she argued they’re “not totally demonstrative of all the exciting work happening in New York.” Exponential, rather, is a who’s-who of super recent, “super local” underground experimental theatre.”Most of the companies are based in Brooklyn, well one was based in Brooklyn for a few years and then moved to Beacon, New York,” she explained. “But it’s still New York.”
And you can trust that Theresa knows her underground theatre. As a member of Title:Point, the same company that put on the bizzaro journey into Beckettian alternate reality and psychopathic slasher hilarity, Biter (Every Time I Turn Around), last year at their mini-theater digs inside the Silent Barn, she’s steeped in the subterranean.
Included in the lineup are Jeff Seal’s real-as-hell one man show, The Goddamn Truth; Eliza Bent’s poop humor epic, Toilet Fire: Rectums in the Rectory; and from the Bread Arts Collective, Rise & Fall a punk opera inspired by the Kurt Weill / Bertolt Brecht political satire collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. If you’re familiar with all these names, bravo– you’re officially with it.
Each participating production is of the experimental variety, though probably not the kind of “experimental” you suffered in college Central European literature courses. “The aesthetic glue is that they’re all experimental and strange in nature, but in a way that’s experimenting with the idea of experimental theatre,” Theresa said. Each one of the fest’s theatre piece have an element of humor, some of them incorporate music, and all are decidedly non-traditional in a variety of ways.
Exponential has good reason for spotlighting performers and producers who challenge the traditional approach to experimental theatre. “It can often be serious, and elitist in a way– instead, all these productions are very accessible,” Theresa pointed out. “I mean, Toilet Fire is a poop joke play.” (Definitely the one this writer is most looking forward to.)
The festival actually grew out of Theresa’s own desire to see her friend Eliza’s play, Toilet Fire, on stage. The initial thought was to do that show alongside Biter– Theresa described it as a “win win,” as both friends would get a chance to see one another’s work– but then all sorts of small-time production companies and independent performers (who Theresa said she was already “familiar with, to varying degrees”) started jumping on the bandwagon. “That’s why I ended up calling it the Exponential Festival, is because it grew exponentially from two shows and one venue, to way more,” Theresa recalled.
With the growing roster, it quickly became clear that this community needed a festival of its own. The festival, then, is just as much about “mutual support” as it an opportunity to re-stage a bunch of productions at a variety of indie venues, Theresa said.
“A lot of stalwart spaces have closed in the last five years, and particularly places that would support this kind of Downtown, self-produced, noncommercial theatre that’s really super vibrant,” she explained. “But others have opened, and people are doing theatre in places that aren’t traditional venues, like the Silent Barn or Cloud City.”
Obviously one hallmark of the underground is a lack of financial resources, but I wondered if DIY theatre of this kind was facing a particularly rough time– after all, Exponential states that one of the goals of the fest is to “keep theatre kicking.”
“I think there’s this need to energize it, but also to address issues of sustainability– how can we support each other more? How can we build a tighter community without being exclusive? How can we share resources?” Theresa explained. “It is a struggle to live here and make art. The venues have their own struggle, but artists sometimes don’t know that there are ways in which venues are operating which are detrimental to the artist– so I think those conversations are important to have.”
And even if you’ve seen some of these productions, you might see an updated verion at Exponential. Title: Point, for one, made some changes to their play. “Biter is still as underground and weird as ever, but we’ve had the opportunity to fix things we think didn’t work as well,” Theresa explained. “So we’ve made some fun changes.”
Theresa was careful to point out that Exponential itself is very much an “experiment,” but one that she hopes will return next year. “I don’t like to put the cart before the horse, I like to try something and then evaluate risk,” she said. “So, worst case scenario: all of these companies do a show that they’re proud of. Best case scenario: we all become trillionaires and own private islands. But it will probably land somewhere in there.”
The Exponential Festival runs from January 13 through January 27 at various Brooklyn venues (Vital Joint at The Silent Barn, The Brick, and Cloud City). Find the full lineup for for the fest here.