Set a boundary and they will break it

Special to The Times

The fourth wall, that cozy invisible space between audience and actors, is about to be wryly breached by STO Union. Like any experimental theater, this Canadian group uses plenty of multimedia and irony to upend conventional storytelling. But their primary tool is the self-awareness -- even the discomfort -- brought on when audiences and performers aren't so neatly separated.

"There's a lot of discussion now about the kind of thing you can put on stage that will create a sense of communal experience," says STO Union artistic director Nadia Ross, who formed the company in 1994. "I think the old model of storytelling doesn't reflect people's experience of the world right now. Traditional stories rely on values: Things happen that affect the value, and then eventually the value is restored, but changed. The problem is, we can't rely on shared values anymore. So, to me, the area with the most potential is the relationship between the stage and the audience."

STO Union will be performing two U.S. premieres, "Recent Experiences" and "Revolutions in Therapy," at UCLA as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival. Both shows were written and directed by Ross and Jacob Wren, co-founder of Toronto's Candid Stammer and the co-artistic director of PME in Montreal. Citing influences as varied as Robert Wilson, meditation therapy and indie rock, Ross and Wren say much of their collaboration springs from disagreement. "It's kind of amazing how little we agree on," Wren says. But it's in that very gap that their plays take shape. "We wanted to find a new kind of work," Ross says. "One that doesn't have the feeling of one voice carrying things through. Jacob and I have very different ideas. But those oppositions are enjoyed and used."

"Recent Experiences" and "Revolutions in Therapy" turn subjectivity, especially its limits, into a kind of provocative pleasure. Each evening starts with the paradox that people often feel most when they cross the borders of their own ego. "A real experience is one in which you've gone outside yourself a bit," Wren says. "You've moved beyond what you knew before."

In "Recent Experiences," at the Freud Playhouse, that border is a physical one. An audience of only 78 sits around a large table with the performers, who time-bend their way across a century of a family's tragedies and confusions in just longer than an hour. Stories of missing fathers, of who loved whom, of how best to live, imperceptibly weave into a family history that is based as much on the misinformation passed down from parents to children as it is their fragile wisdom.

Inviting the audience into the same space as the actors has an immediate effect.

"There's initially a different level of tension," Ross says, "but the potential for intimacy is far greater." The audience's proximity to the actors "brings out a certain performance vulnerability. What you see is something quite different than the 'skilled performance' people associate with theater."

"Revolutions in Therapy" deploys deadpan question-and-answer sessions, as well as a faint tape recording of a sadistic shrink, to lead the audience playfully through the maze of one person -- played by several actors -- trying to connect: to life, the audience, herself. (Sample dialogue: "When you look out into the audience, what do you see?" "People." "How do they look?" "Some of them look open. Others look like they want to hurt something.")

Ross, who has studied meditation, based some of "Revolutions" on exercises from her practice. "One technique involves standing up in front of the group and working on aspects of your personality while being observed," she says. "There's a particular fear when you're faced with other people." But that anxiety, she explains, can trigger something else -- an acknowledgment of the unknown that everyone can share. "We want to help the audience go into a feeling of not knowing. To explore that feeling as a kind of force in itself. There's a sense of potential, and it's extremely refreshing. Both plays try to bring that feeling into the theater space."

They also seek to offer an alternative to the Hollywood narrative paradigm that is, as Wren puts it, "pounded into our skulls all over the world." He shares an anecdote about prize-winning Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, known for his radically unconventional approach to storytelling. "Kiarostami went to the Iranian film board to get funding for his next movie. They said, 'Well, we like the script very much. But could you put a car chase in the third act?' " Wren says, laughing. "That's what we're up against."


STO Union

What: "Recent Experiences"

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood

When: Opens 8 p.m. Dec. 13. Then 8 and 10 p.m. Dec. 15, 4 p.m. Dec. 16, 7 p.m. Dec. 17

Ends: Dec. 17

Price: $52

Contact: (310) 825-2101


What: "Revolutions in Therapy"

Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA, Westwood

When: 4 p.m. Tuesday and Dec. 14, 8 p.m. Dec. 16, 4 p.m. Dec. 17

Ends: Dec. 17

Price: $35

Contact: (310) 825-2101

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday December 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction STO Union: An information box with a story on STO Union in Wednesday's Calendar section gave an incorrect time for one performance. "Revolutions in Therapy" at Macgowan Little Theater at UCLA starts at 8 p.m. on Dec. 12, not 4 p.m.
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