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by Caitlin Belforti

“What is reality?” is a question that is simple and loaded at the same time. Answering it was no daunting task for the Operating Theater Company when they presented their devised production of Portal of Parallels on July 21, 2012 at IRT Theater. With a cast comprised of high school students, whom lead artist, Jason Schuler refers to as “co-conspirators,” this off-the-wall production applied the question of reality’s definition to society’s several vices; among those are commercialism, addictive behavior, and the ever-growing monster of technology. Conceptualized by Schuler, and fellow Operating Theater Company artists Christine Holt and Keith Chandler, Portal was a culminating performance of the new West Side Experiment, a summer acting intensive pilot program for IRT Theater created by Kori Rushton, IRT’s Artistic Director and Kourtney Rutherford, a founding member of OTC. PoP photo by Lee Wexler

The show is unique for the OTC in that much of the script was left to the device of the students in rehearsal. For some of the students, this was their first look into the world of theater. Under the guidance of the OTC and IRT lead artists, the students were given a chance to shine in a variety of ways: from designing and building the sets and several large-scale puppets to conceptualizing and implementing the show’s riveting climax scene.  Through ensemble-based acting and brainstorming exercises, the students formed the bulk of the content and dialogue. The script itself served as a sort of map set at “the edge of reality / beginning of absurdity” -- a backdrop for a cast of colorfully odd characters from other planets (Delegates) gathered to find a solution for the threats to reality. Always striving to produce shows that leave their audiences in a state of reflection, Portal of Parallels was a labor of love for Schuler who had hoped to meet that challenge. “We want to push the limits of our understanding of what reality is,” he says.

PoP photo by Lee WexlerPart of the experience is controlled by the audience who are automatically elected to help the delegates “restore the delicate balance of reality” on Earth through answering a vital question on index cards provided for them. “Anyone who sees this type of show will be connected,” says Chandler, “The absurdity of it allows a more liberal sense for audiences to interpret what they want. This show doesn’t have to stop when they leave the theater; they take it with them.” Never relenting on thinking outside of the box, the Operating Theater Company has instilled immense confidence in Portal of Parallels and from the very beginning of the process.  “The first step of change is allowing people to become aware,” Chandler, “I strongly feel that theater can do that.”

PoP photo by Lee WexlerWanting to do a show involving youth for a long time, Schuler was moved by the epidemic of so many mediums capable of distorting reality for today’s younger generations. “Understanding reality is the forefront of human existence right now,” maintains Schuler, “There is this interaction with computers that are literally a billion times more advanced than they were when I was a kid -- Terabytes as compared to 8 bits. The advancement is more and more frequent. Virtual items are as real as actual items for young people. At that age the real world isn’t is as exciting as an idea of a fantasy world. The real world is falling apart around us and this ‘escape’ is taking away the opportunity of making the real world a more fantastic place.”

PoP photo by Lee WexlerWorking with such a large, young cast was a first for the OTC. The process of devising and mounting “Portal of Parallels” within a two week period was a combination of painstakingly hard work, digging deep emotionally, and having lots of off-the-wall fun.  The unique experience was particularly a water-shed moment for many of the students. “I think we all got something out of the experience. Seeing the kids get so excited to have their own words and ideas come alive on stage reminded me creating theater is a gift," says Christine Holt, "A hard, scary, fun, mind-bending gift."

photos by Lee Wexler

Portal of Parallels

Devised by
Operating Theater Company and
Students of the West Side Experiment at
IRT Theater

Directed by
Jason Schuler

Produced by
Dori Ann Scagnelli

Acting Training by
Kourtney Rutherford, Christine Holt, Keith Chandler and Jason Schuler

Vocal Training by
Raquel Cion

Marketing Intern
Caitlin Belforti

This production made possible through
an artist residency from
a Creative Space grant by A.R.T./NY

This is our video advertising the program to students.

Check out info about the program at IRT by clicking here.

Read about this production in the November issue of AMERICAN THEATER Magazine!


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