In the past two years, Arcturus Theater Company has produced plays about a child with Attention Deficit Disorder, a World War I soldier reincarnated as a ghost, and a young girl’s experience with her newfound sexuality—to name a few.
In short, Arcturus explores what founding Artistic Director Ross Heath calls simply “topics that don’t normally come up in conversation.” Launched in March 2012 by a small group of DC area theatre enthusiasts, Arcturus was formed to present plays that, “engender sensations of joy, discovery, recognition, and even, at times, horror.”
Heath explains that these sensations “seek to bring the audience into another world, another realm of experience, but at the same time make it somehow attached to life, so that when they walk out of the theatre, they have changed.”
He identifies the company’s work as “human shows with a lot of heart.” He believes that indulging in taboo on stage not only encourages empathy from the audience, but normalizes the human experience of struggle. Heath explains, “Life itself is mixed with joy and horror, and sometimes it’s hard to deal with the more difficult aspects of life such as madness, cruelty to others, misunderstanding... The theatre experience will convey the idea that these feelings people have are normal.”
Arcturus seeks to empower audiences with emotional resources to move through conflict with greater ease. In 2013, they produced a trilogy of Beckett plays that addressed what Heath calls, the “loneliness, madness, and the problems we can have connecting with those who are closest to us.” What appears on stage provides audiences with examples of how to conduct themselves outside of the theatre. “If you’re trying to reach out...about some problem, and the conversation isn’t going the way you want it to,” Heath says, “don’t make a big tragedy about it, you know? Just go on.”
The idea of not indulging tragedy is as much a philosophical approach as it is practical. Arcturus’ productions are infused with humor and complex audio design in order to “make these ideas more palatable,” Heath explains.
For their current production of Theatre Piece—appropriately named after an untitled performance by experimental composer John Cage—the difficult topic of conversation will be the play itself. Described as a “playful, abstract circus,” the show has no plot, and was first conceived as a “happening” in 1952. Arcturus reimagines this multimedia work with the help of sound designer Evan J. Dice, who says he “created the audio foundation of the show strictly following John Cage's unusual and complicated instructions."
Not only will Theatre Piece provide post-show fodder for audiences, it serves as a creative experiment for Arcturus. Heath believes it will help the company “learn something about what it means to create something for an audience that doesn’t have a plot or traditional narrative arc, but that is enthralling at the same time.”
The plotless Theatre Piece supports Heath’s claims that Arcturus plays “stretch the boundaries of literature and theatre.” He admits, “I’m not saying every show we do is going to push boundaries compared to what other theatres are doing, but I think we’re more open to doing unusual, challenging works that the audience will relish. Sometimes we’ll abandon the idea of a traditional narrative; sometimes we’ll embrace it. We’ll do whatever we have to do to communicate what we want to communicate.”
One way Arcturus has chosen to communicate with audiences is through the genre of the radio play. They produced a stage version of Beckett’s Embers in early 2013, which will have its second iteration on Radio Fairfax on December 4.
Heath isn’t sure if the radio play will be integral to Arcturus’ identity moving forward, but he’s confident that they have a place in DC’s scene. “Some artists may disagree with this frame of mind that I have,” he says. “But to be blunt, we’re entertainers, and people who come to the theatre take time away from other things that they can be doing, and we want that time that they spend with us to be time well spent. So we’re entertainers, and the entertaining that we do is not typical DC theatre fare.”