Muhlenberg is well known for its ever-present abundance of student-led creative ensembles. In one weekend, the event-savvy student might attend an a capella concert, a jazz band showcase and an improv comedy show, clapping and jiving and laughing well into the early hours of the morning. Though each of these performance types serves to entertain its audience, one ensemble directly implicates its audience in its performances, transforming those who are normally meant to passively watch and listen into active members of – and, indeed, makers of – the show itself.
This performance ensemble is ArtCo, a devised theatre troupe that prides itself on its inability to be pinned down to any one established art form. On Jan. 31, the group held an open workshop, which was followed by auditions on Feb. 4. Attendees at both of these events were instructed to prepare and bring nothing but themselves, a testament to the ensemble’s focus on collaborative brainstorming and organically conceived ideas. One such attendee, Gwen Wilkie ‘20, was struck by the carefree, creative atmosphere surrounding the workshop.
“There was absolutely no pressure coming from anyone to be anything,” said Wilkie. “It was just a really fun time where we got to create something with other people … ArtCo is unique at Muhlenberg because there is absolutely nothing like it. No one knows what it is, even ArtCo itself isn’t sure quite what it is, but that doesn’t get in the way of them being very them. There is not another group that is a mix of devised theatre and performance art on campus.”
Elena Nahrmann ‘19, the group’s Performance Ensemble Committee Representative, likewise asserts that, though ArtCo shares some qualities with the other ensembles, its methods and results are quite distinct.
“I think ArtCo, like every other performance ensemble, is a great way to take a break from the stress of school and support your peers in their work,” Nahrmann said. “Although our shows often involve humor, it isn’t our sole focus like the comedy groups. We also have freer rein with what we choose to work with for source material.”
This sense of freedom seems to describe ArtCo as a whole, encompassing its commitment to experimentation and reinvention. Member Bennett Urian ‘20, who joined the group in the fall of 2017, describes what he and Nahrmann refer to as “source material” with broad strokes full of room for new and exciting possibilities.
“The creative process behind what we do always starts with source material. This can range from avant-garde instrumentals to children’s book illustrations to squirrel ballet,” said Urian. “Sometimes we come up with the source material ourselves through free-writes, which is a concept Elena [Nahrmann] brought to the group that started a lot of our ideas. Either way, art has to start from something, and we use this source material to rev up our thinking.”
This changeable aspect of the group’s work is treasured by Nahrmann.
“My favorite part of ArtCo is the opportunity we have to play,” Nahrmann said. “We are the directors, the writers and the actors in all of our shows so whatever we make is entirely our own. But this also means that we can’t rely on someone else to do the work for us … We often try to come up with a theme or some source material at the beginning of the semester. Then throughout our rehearsals we do a series of exercises based around sound or movement to create small pieces which eventually get organized into a show.”
Fall 2017’s show, “Tadpoles,” was the product of a semester-long exploration of these small pieces, which, once patterns were spotted and ideas were organized, eventually became a highly individualized, audience-centric experience. Urian recalls the evolution from free-write to performance, a process that continued even as the show was put into motion.
“One specific free-write we did was a eulogy to a lost object, and almost everyone wrote about some sentimental object or concept they lost while growing up, and this was the direction we went in for the show,” said Urian. “We first had the audience write their own little eulogy to a lost object, and then they went on a scavenger hunt of sorts to find all the members of ArtCo (each one of us was a frog). Since there was not enough time for everyone to see each vignette (and some vignettes changed with the time of the show), the show was a different experience for each person, and this was a sort of representation of our own unique experiences and losses. This ended with a monologue of rejecting sentimentality and then desiring it, and then we did a play that Genevieve [Wall ‘18] wrote when she was in elementary school. And then there was a dance party.”
As Wilkie states, there is perhaps no way to describe ArtCo better than to say that they’re very them – their essence is personalized, generated directly from the minds of each member and fostered by an electric community of fellow out-of-the-box thinkers. One thing’s for sure: this group is ready to take on the new year equipped with new ideas, new members and maybe even a dance party or two. Be on the lookout for some ArtCo “happenings” popping up around campus. You never know when you too could become a part of the story.