PITTSBURG — The Pittsburg State University Theater program encourages audiences to come with an open mind while they view a living collage of American life — chicken dinners, yard sales, nerdy scientists and truckers — through their production bobrauschenbergamerica.
Pittsburg State Theatre will begin their performances of Charles Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica Oct. 19 through 22, in the Dottie and Bill Miller Theater inside the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
The play pays homage to the style of the mid-century artist Robert Rauschenberg who was known for his collages. He gathered items into a piece of art, all of which are a piece of everyday American life — including tires, newspaper clippings, umbrellas and more.
“We make specific references to actual Bob Rauschenberg artworks,” Director Linden Little said. “He used taxidermy animals in his collages, which were like a combination of painting and sculpture. “There’s a chicken, a paper mache goat that is a call-back to one of his artworks as well.
“Even in some of the clothing, the costume designers did an awesome job of bringing a Rauschenberg feel to it.”
Little said Rauschenberg had a long career of almost 60 years. He reached his height in the 1960s and continued to work through his death in 2008.
“One of the things from when I first started researching Rauschenberg is the first thing anyone who had ever encountered him said is ‘he was warm,’” Little said. “It was always a warm gathering, like family. His kindness preceded him and I think that is definitely evident in the work too.
“We want it to be an invitation to celebrate — even when exploring the darker things.”
Austin VanBecelaere, who plays a trucker named Phil agreed.
“I definitely feel like he felt his friends were family and that’s something that is definitely prevalent with all of the characters on stage,” he said.
The art, icons and characters will come together in a live-like collage, which the director said coming in with an open mind and not searching for a narrative will bring a unique experience for each audience member.
“Audiences shouldn’t come expecting a narrative or a story in the traditional sense, it is really like if you glued together comic books … there are all of these individual panels that make up this mosaic of American life — a collage on American themes, which really does reflect the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg and the writing style of Chuck Mee.
“It’s like a conversation between those with PSU Theater on top of that with our own voice.”
Stage Manager Paige Bowman said the past five to six decades will be shown through the production.
“It is just snippets of American life and what that looks like across the United States,” Bowman said.”It doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story because it is going to make you feel something either way.”
“We invite the audience to be open and have their own experience,” he said. “Narrative shows can make you cry when it’s sad and make you laugh when it is funny this is about opening up the experience so you have your own night at the theater.”
VanBecelaere said the challenge of playing a character which is to represent an iconic part of America was making sure to not be too stereotypical.
“One of the biggest challenges is making sure you’re not the biggest stereotype of a trucker you could possibly be,” he said. “You want to make sure you are coming across as a real human being.”
He said having an uncle who was a trucker helped him present a character that fit the role including the “open road” mindset.
“Another thing is trying to get into that open road mindset — that the open road is your home,” he said. “I love driving on the highways, so I had an easy time identifying with Phil.”
Not only is the show made possible by the cast’s identification with their characters, but also what is going on backstage — moving things around to make the collage work.
“There is a lot that goes on all of the time,” Bowman said. “We have a lot of work that comes from the catwalk and a lot of work that comes from the ground.
“There are a lot of moving parts and it's always moving — I kinda like that.
“We describe it as a panorama or a collage of some kind which is really bobraushenbergian.”
Little seconded her thought.
“For as many people as you see on stage, there are just as many people backstage catching all of the bits of equipment, trash cans and car doors and chickens and cakes that are coming on and off,” he said. “We can probably sell tickets to the show backstage just as we could the one on stage.
“Students do everything and help set up the framework and are the ones that run with it.”
Austin also agreed.
“I don’t think we can get away with this show without them,” he said. “The awesome technical people that we have… they are definitely essential to the show.”
Little said for this production, the Pittsburg State Theater is encouraging audience members to bring nonperishable foods for the food bank at Wesley House.
Want to go?
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, October 19 through 21, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, October 21 through 22 in the Dottie and Bill Miller Theater inside the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
Tickets are $12 for the general public, $7 for under 17 and over 65, and free to all PSU students, faculty, and staff with a valid PSU photo I.D. Tickets may be purchased by calling the PSU Ticket Office at 620-235-4796 or at the door starting approximately 30 minutes before each performance.
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.