PITTSFIELD — Like Sir John Franklin's ground-breaking and ultimately deadly expedition to chart the course of the Northwest Passage, the locally-based Kickwheel Ensemble Theater group is taking a wild journey into the unknown in the heart of the city. They're just hoping to have a better outcome.
The fact that this weekend they're producing "Passage," a piece of what's called devised collaborative theater, in a non-traditional theater space at Shire City Sanctuary, is only part of the story. So is the fact that the play is based in the Arctic, and the cast is clad in wool, at the end of July, with no air conditioning.
But Sara Katzoff, a Berkshire native and founding contributor to Kickwheel, says she couldn't imagine doing this show or this kind of work anywhere else.
"The kind of theater we're making is really unique to the Berkshires," said Katzoff, the co-artistic director of Bazaar Productions/The Berkshire Fringe, the parent company for Kickwheel Ensemble Theater.
Collaborative devised theater means that there's not one playwright working on the script and stage directions. It's group work.
In the case of "Passage," a total of 17 artists, technicians and designers worked together — beyond the cast members — meeting periodically in group think tank-style sessions at Katzoff's home. There, often into the early hours of the morning, a creative team — ranging in ages from their 20s to 50s, and geographies from Texas to Ohio to New York City — discuss how to distill broad themes like climate change, love, the environment, values and technology, into an 80-minute intermission-less show.
"The story has been evolving," Katzoff said in an interview earlier this week. "We didn't have an ending until a couple of days ago."
But the group collectively felt OK with that.
"There's something about theater being made right now that's completely exciting. This is a very physical show. It makes you feel something versus just intellectualize it," she said.
In summary, "Passage" moves along two parallel story lines. The first is inspired by the true-life tale of British naval officer and explorer Sir John Franklin's failed 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage that led 129 men into the wilderness and to their doom. The second is a fictional story of a couple on a 21st-century luxury wellness cruise across the now melting Arctic and how they work together — or not — as resources are dwindled.
The tagline for the show is, "Climate change. It's a hot mess," which illustrates the fact that the show is neither a straightforward history nor cautionary tale, but a dark comedy about a "too often humorless subject that affects us all."
Plus it's got cool costumes and features to help illustrate the journey of the ensemble's members, from plastic sheets of "ice" to a sea otter puppet, to a man who fearlessly leads, sans pants.
Yes, Katzoff admits, it's "an insane idea" but it's something that the Kickwheel group is thrilled to do. "They've all made an investment and have a stake in this."
As attractive as this process has been to its members, she hopes that the product proves attractive to members of the community.
"Making theater is a collaborative act and it involves listening, exchanging ideas and bringing what is happening in the world into the room," said Katzoff. "Theater is a place where we connect with each other and with you in a visceral way — an act that is becoming increasingly rare in our culture."
The decision, for example, to not have an intermission is intentional. The group decided that instead of giving people the chance to turn on their phones and disconnect from the experience during a break, they want to keep them keyed into the universal experience of watching theater with a group of friends and/or strangers in the same time and place.
"Our hope is that everything we're doing is to create a connection with our audience, not just creating art for art's sake. We're always about trying to bring them into it," Katzoff said.
She added, "a lot of places are struggling to connect with younger audiences and the question of how do we reach out to an audience that's never been connected with before. So we're trying to find a way for all people in the community to feel invited to take part in what we're doing. I hope the audience comes to the show and keeps an open mind and a generous spirit, and embrace the chance to see something completely new."
What: "Passage" — a collaboratively devised theater piece
Who: Kickwheel Ensemble Theater
When: Through Sunday. Evenings — Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinee — Sunday at 3
Where: Shire City Sanctuary, 40 Melville St., Pittsfield