Art beat // Whats happening Out There

The Walker’s annual festival of innovative performance returns in January

LOWRY HILL — Most years, Philip Bither, curator of the Walker Art Center’s annual Out There festival, doesn’t organize the month-long new performance series around a specific theme; a selection of the theater world’s best and most exciting talents is enough.

Bither, though, noticed recently some of the freshest, sharpest theater work out there was the product of unique artistic visions. So, for its 24th year, Out There celebrates the work of the theater auteur — four of them, from four very different parts of the world.

Even Bither’s not sure if it’s a real trend or just a happy coincidence. For a decade or more “the exciting trend has been in ensembles working together, where there’s no single artistic director or visionary,” he said.

But this year, he continued, “it seemed like there was a movement of a lot of innovators from around the world who were really putting a very personal stamp on their work.”

It’s also a more international group than in years past, with three of the four companies traveling overseas to Minneapolis. And Bither said he thinks they’ve all picked up on something in the air — possibly the same thing Time magazine’s editors sensed when they named “The Protester” their Person of the Year this fall.

“Even though they are not consciously political theater pieces, almost all of them have a relationship to this incredible moment we’re living in,” he said.

There are multiple opportunities for audience members to interact with the artists during each of the plays’ three-night runs.

The lower-priced Thursday opening nights and Saturday performances are followed by receptions in the Balcony Bar outside the Walker’s McGuire Theater, and Friday performances feature question-and-answer sessions with the artists. The artists host Inside Out There workshops at the Walker 11 a.m. Saturdays.

Here’s more on this year’s artists and performances:

“Untitled Feminist Show,” Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, New York

Jan. 5–7

Young Jean Lee has made her name as a playwright and director of her own work who fearlessly takes on race, religion and other potential landmine topics, leaving rave reviews in her wake. Among Lee’s supporters is Lou Reed who, in an online video, calls her “one of the most accomplished, articulate, versatile and hilarious playwrights-musicians-artists that we in America have to offer.”

   Her latest piece reflects on the role of feminism in an age when the once-sharp lines dividing genders have blurred. This is the world premier of the Walker-commissioned work, a piece that is reportedly light on dialogue and heavy on the spectacle, with plenty of dance and movement and elements of burlesque. It comes with this rather unique warning for viewers: “Performance contains only nudity.”

“Looking for a Missing Employee,” Rabih Mroué, Beirut, Lebanon

Jan. 12–14

An investigation into the disappearance of a government employee, Rabih Mroué’s multimedia performance on is one of those pieces Bither felt was particularly attuned to the zeitgeist.

   “The piece itself is like a mystery and a puzzle, but it questions the powers that be that exist in a city like Beirut and in many ways is I think a precursor to what we’re seeing in the Arab Spring,” Bither said.

   Those interested in Mroué’s insights into developments in the Middle East should not miss his Jan. 14 Inside Out There workshop, when he will present “The Pixelated Revolution,” a work-in-progress on the role of social media in mobilizing Syrian protesters.

“Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and The Farewell Speech,” chelfitsch/Toshiki Okada, Tokyo

Jan. 19–21

Toshiki Okada’s theatrical triptych “is about a group of young, disempowered temporary office workers in their mid-20s,” explained Bither, adding: “It’s so much about so much of what’s going on in the global economy right now.”

Online clips of Okada’s work are intriguing. Actors perform jerky, repeated movements, like marionettes, as their silhouettes are projected onto white backdrops. The repetitive dialogue — like snippets of banal office conversation — is pronounced over a prominent soundtrack that includes John Coltrane and the Chicago instrumental-rock band Tortoise.

“El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco (The Past is a Grotesque Animal),” Mariano Pensotti, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jan. 26–28

Performed on a constantly rotating turntable stage, Mariano Pensotti’s play traces the intertwined lives of four “porteños,” as the residents of Buenos Aires are known, over the course of a decade.

The play begins in 1999, when the characters are 25, and unfolds over what was a tumultuous 10-year period for Argentina. The country endured one of its worst economic crises, at one point saw multiple presidents come and go in a matter of weeks and continued to grapple with the aftermath of its Dirty War of two decades earlier, when thousands were “disappeared” by the state.

The plot moves between fiction and documentary, and the four actors move between four sets as they depict brief moments from the characters’ lives.

Go see it

“Out There 2012: Global Visionaries” runs through Jan. 28 at the Walker Art Center. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday. Inside Out There workshops are 11 a.m. Saturdays. For tickets or more information, call the Walker box office at 375-7600 or visit