When it comes to making theater, unpredictability reigns at The Hat Factory

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GREAT BARRINGTON — When The Hat Factory member Tom Truss describes the initial moments of the theater company's improvisational performances, he turns to the athletic arena.

"It's like going to a sports event. Basically, you're informed of the rules, but you don't know what's going to happen," Truss said during an interview with fellow company members Amy Brentano and Emma Dweck at The Foundry, Brentano's new West Stockbridge arts space.

It's not a perfect analogy. Brentano, for example, acts as an intermediary between audience and performer that isn't seen in sport, a quasi-director position that simultaneously evokes coach, official and PA announcer.

"I think that my role is to tell the audience a little bit what to expect, like when you're teaching class and you tell the students, 'Here's the agenda for the day.' So, 'This is what this evening is going to look like,'" Brentano said of her contributions at the show's outset, when she indicates how the audience can participate throughout the night.

But unpredictability still reigns when Dweck, Dave Edson and Truss roam the room at Berkshire Pulse, the nonprofit dance and music center in Housatonic where The Hat Factory has been in residence since its 2017 founding. On Saturday night, the group will perform the latest installment of its "Voyeur Series" at 7 p.m. in a building that once housed a hat factory. There's a little more to the company's name than history, though.

"Actors wear different hats, and we're also different types of artists and producers and writers, sort of wearing different hats," Dweck said.

"And it's a very easy way to change a character," Truss added.

The company structures its performances in three parts, or acts. The first is movement-based and involves no words. Brentano typically asks the audience to pick a number between one and 10. That numeral matches a musical piece. The actors then respond to that tune three times, absorbing feedback from the spectators after each take.

"One of the things that we're all interested in is challenging that traditional audience-performer relationship and involving them in our process, and also in the performance itself," Dweck said.

The actors draw from their shared knowledge of the "Viewpoints" movement vocabulary to inform their improvisations. "The Viewpoints Book" by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau emphasizes physical concepts such as tempo, duration, kinesthetic response, repetition, shape, gesture, architecture, spatial relationship and topography. While Dweck and Truss entered the company with dance in their backgrounds, Edson wasn't as well-versed in tap or ballet. Still, he had worked with Bogart's SITI Company and thus quickly connected with Truss, Dweck and Brentano on a "Viewpoints"-guided approach.

"I'm a mover," the Housatonic resident said by phone.

During the show's second part, props, costumes and text may get introduced. Audience members have provided song lyrics as prompts at past performances. One time, the actors needed to represent a driver parking across three spaces in a crowded lot. On another occasion, sauteed spinach came up.

"I think as performers, we should be able to work with any text that they give us, so it is always a good challenge," Dweck said. "If it's sauteed spinach or if it's stardust, we should be able to incorporate it all into the world that we're creating."

A self-described "Type A" person, Dweck doesn't come to improvisation naturally.

"I drive people a little crazy because I want to have structure and I want to know, even though it's improvisation, I want to know what is expected of me as a performer," she said.

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But with each "Voyeur Series" performance, the Kickwheel Ensemble Theater founding member grows more comfortable.

"I feel like I'm letting go more. Last time [in April], I had forgotten a couple of times the day before that we had a performance the next day, which is really a sign that I'm growing," the Housatonic resident said, laughing.

The performers know that audience members' willingness to embrace this spontaneous environment will vary. During some shows, the performers place sound-makers under chairs for their audience's use.

"Some audiences have been really zealous about that. I think some people feel intimidated by that. So, we're always trying to find that balance between not making an audience member feel uncomfortable but also [being] inviting," Brentano said.

In the show's third segment, the audience might give the performers a word as a prompt. But that's not always the case.

"Because we're improvisers, it's going to be different each time," Truss said.

For instance, the tone can change.

"It can be so moving," Brentano said. "There can be images that I go home with, I'm like, 'Oh my God, how do you preserve that beautiful moment that universally resonated?'"

Other times, it might be lighter. Edson is frequently providing some humor.

"For me, it just comes from a sense of play, and I also like a sense of surprise in performance," Edson said.

Truss does, too. Improvisation has long been a part of his life as both a pianist and dancer. The Great Barrington resident has taught at Berkshire Pulse, which will host a youth improv acting program from June 24 to 28 with members of the company, followed by a performance on the 29th that features the students.

"To me, it's the ultimate teacher of problem-solving," Truss said of improvisation.

He believes that The Hat Factory fills a gap in Berkshire theater programming.

"I can count on extraordinary work from Jacob's Pillow, from Tanglewood. I cannot count on extraordinary work from the theater community here," Truss said.

When asked what "extraordinary work" meant to him, Truss said, "Extraordinary work is where I get transported, and my life gets rearranged, and my heart is opened. And I would say visually, I'm surprised or drawn in; all my senses are fed."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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