With FEED, the Catamounts combine food and theater -- but this is not dinner theater!
Pretty much everyone who loves food has read Michael Pollan, knows about the argument by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire that cooking is what made us human in the first place, and understands that food is more than a bunch of inert substances whose only function is to keep us alive -- crucial as that function may be. But for a long time no local theater artists -- and not many nationally -- gave any thought to food and art, and all the ways in which food and theater interact. Until the Catamounts (Theatre for an Adventurous Palate) set up their company in Boulder a couple of years back. The first thing this group did was energize the local scene with a swift, smart, lively big-city sensibility unfamiliar around here because it's Chicago-style rather than L.A. or New York. Then they started thinking hard about food and how to combine eating with the theater-going experience. And, as they explain again and again, they don't mean dinner theater.
Michael Ensminger The Catamounts' fermentation FEED at 63rd Street Farm.
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The Catamounts have just released their 2013-'14 lineup. They list two evenings of theater, which will be followed by community meals provided by the RollinGreens food truck and themed with the plays so that audiences can eat, sip, mingle and discuss. Alternating with these are three FEED events, which usually take place on local farms. They're catered by Zachary Wilkinson, a CIA-trained chef who's married to assistant artistic director Lauren Shepard -- and whose creativity and inventiveness are an essential part of the company's ethos and approach.
The last FEED, at the 63rd Street Farm, focused on fermentation. According to company director Amanda Berg Wilson, the company picked pieces that ranged from a segment of Jose Rivera's Sueno to the "Who Stole the Tarts" chapter of Alice in Wonderland. These were fully produced, fully costumed little playlets, Berg Wilson says, but performed on a farm: "We parked a big pickup truck by the table to give us levels, and there's also a hill that functions as another raised space. Each dish was intentionally paired with a specific performance piece. The audience could eat the dish, drink the drink and watch the performance simultaneously. For instance, for the trial from Alice, we served four different kinds of tarts, along with Lugene chocolate milk stout from Odell Brewing Company. We did an adaptation of a Korean folk tale with short ribs and kimchi and a cocktail with the Spanish sparkling wine Cava mixed with homemade saffron kombucha.
"There's no precedent for anything like this," she continues. "It's like a farm dinner, wine tasting or cabaret -- but it's also none of those things."
The uniqueness of the FEED functions was recognized by the Boulder Arts Commission last year with a $25,000 grant to help support them.
Shepard's devotion to food is the primary force behind the company's focus. She began working on the fusion of food and performance as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taking a food-and-culture seminar at the same time she was studying theater and working on plays. "I started going to the farmers' market," she says, "getting into what food is, and I started to see parallels between food and theater as two different art forms, both in the creation and the execution or enjoyment, and I was also trying to discover parallels between the work of a chef and the work of an actor or director."
Her thesis was on food and feminism: "a study of women and food on stage at the turn of the century, and how the plays paralleled what was happening with women."
After the Catamounts' first Boulder show, Mr. Spacky ... the Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves, the company had an opening-night reception. "Zac suggested he could do a paired reception with the show, food inspired by the show," she recalls. "It was such a crazy, quirky piece, and he did a Quite Queer High Tea with deconstructed tea gelee -- three layers, cream, sugar and tea. He did some black tea sandwiches, using squid ink to color brioche for them."
The August FEED will focus on preservation. "Zac wanted to work with preserved items," Shepard says, "and artistically, the concept lends itself to a lot of different stories. It sparks ideas of memory, vintage, family, tradition."
The plays picked for the coming season will be performed at the Dairy Center for the Arts: Philip Dawkins's Failure: A Love Story and There Is a Happiness That Morning Is by Mickle Maher. The latter, Berg Wilson says, is entirely in rhyming verse: "But it's contemporary, quite irreverent and profane and very absurd. It features two professors, lecturers on Blake, and the poetry of Blake is woven throughout.
"We choose pieces that are inherently theatrical. I do think there are certain contemporary pieces out there that could just as well be movies or television; we're looking for pieces that use language in a really theatrical way. The plays we choose are not trying to approximate the way we talk today; they're using language in an insular sense, creating the specific language of the play. And also, I'm interested in expanding the vocabulary of theater itself, integrating music and visuals on a level that transcends costumes and backdrop sets -- and that's definitely the case with these two pieces."
The FEED events tend to sell out very fast -- all the tickets for the last one were gone within two hours -- so it's worth keeping an eye on the Catamounts website. "It really does become this magical thing that exists only in that time and space," says Shepard.
Adds Berg Wilson: "It's like planning a wedding six times a year."