"I walked in, and it was like Cirque de Soleil meets Parris Island boot camp." It was filmmaker Julie Akeret's first glimpse of Double Edge Theatre's grueling actor-training process. "They're climbing up ropes and running around, and they've come in from five miles of running. It's beautiful and graceful, but they're sweating like pigs."
Akeret visited the Ashfield-based theater collaborative over a period of three years to shoot her latest documentary, Theatre on the Edge: Growing Art and Community at Double Edge Theatre. The 40-minute film, narrated by film star and Berkshires resident Karen Allen, premieres next week on WGBY Public Television.
A multi-award-winning moviemaker whose topics are often socially relevant arts in this region, Akeret had never heard of Double Edge when she was commissioned by WGBY's general manager Rus Peotter. "He said all the right things" to pique her interest, she recalls. "They do original work, they make their own sets and music, and they all live on a farm."
"I'm sort of the average person," Akeret says, and her film is aimed at introducing the average viewer to the company's unique aesthetics, productions and relations with the surrounding community. Shots of rehearsals and performances, including the annual outdoor "traveling spectacles," are captured by cameraman Mark Langevin in a montage of swirling colors, acrobatic movement, lifesize puppets, poetic text and Balkan-flavored music. These scenes weave through interviews with company members, other theater professionals and neighbors of the troupe's 100-acre property, located "in the middle of very much nowhere," as one commentator puts it.
UMass theater professor Harley Erdman explains that "They're interested in stories and the power of idealists who go out on a limb and take risks, who live outside the rules that society sets"—an observation that's illustrated by a sequence from the company's popular adaptation of Don Quixote but also refers to the company's own commitment to artistic risk-taking and to living and working outside the norm.
We also hear from local supporters like Mark and Geri Pollard, co-owners of Bread Euphoria in Haydenville, who donate food to the troupe (Mark says he feels like "the guy sponsoring the Little League team"), and audience members who express fascinated bafflement at their first encounter with Double Edge's avant-garde aesthetic. (Overheard conversation: "Do you know what's going on?" "No, but I'm having a really good time.")
Double Edge calls itself an "actor-centered" laboratory theater. The work is developed over time—often several years—through improvisation and experimentation. As the film demonstrates, the exhaustive (in both senses) training exercises that so astonished Akeret are central to this process. "It takes you from your habitual place of thinking and puts you in a different way of thinking," explains core actor Carlos Uriona. Through creating "physical metaphors" around dreamlike scenarios and universal archetypes, says company founder Stacy Klein, the work seeks "to tap into some deep, human imagination that is shared."
Akeret hopes that her film will serve as "a little window into laboratory theater. Hopefully, you'll want to go and see a performance, or do a training with them—if you're athletic and marathon-like."
Theatre on the Edge premieres on WGBY-57 July 6 at 8 p.m. and July 10 at 4 p.m. Double Edge Theatre's summer spectacle, The Odyssey, runs July 20-Aug. 21.