A few years ago Leda Hoffman went to Chicago's Theater Wit to see an edgy new production called Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play. During the second act of Anne Washburn's mash-up of "The Simpsons" and life after the apocalypse, Hoffman had already decided she would direct it in Milwaukee, putting her own spin on the material.
Her company, Luminous Theatre, doesn't produce a regular season. Instead the group does projects when they find a script they are passionate about and "when we have massive mounts of time to devote to it," she said. Since the company specializes in site-specific, "immersive theater events" that break down the barriers between actors and audience, finding the right space for the play was key. It took two years.
Bart Simpson and the Cape Feare Episode, Live
The first act of Mr. Burns takes place as a group of refugees gather around a bonfire after the modern world collapses, so Hoffman wanted to stage that portion of the play around a real bonfire in an open, desolate place. Acts two and three are set in the future, as the refugees morph into a traveling company of actors who perform episodes of “The Simpsons,” complete with commercials, to the best of their recollection. “We looked everywhere for the perfect, non-traditional venue,” Hoffman laughed. “But finding an accessible space that felt abandoned, that was remote and not too noisy, that also had a primitive indoor space we could use was a challenge.”
The Goat Palace
Finally the owner of a tow lot for a repo company came forward with his property; The Goat Palace in Riverwest. There was plenty of space for a real bonfire outdoors. The rest of the play was performed in an adjacent, unheated warehouse outfitted with borrowed chairs and benches, a scaffolding, and the innovative work of lighting and sound designers who faced a lot of challenges in this “post-electric” world.
Adding the Audience
The play ran April 20 – May 8 this spring, on several nights when the temperatures were unseasonably cold. So, who was in the audience? Did anyone show up? “That’s the best part,” Hoffman beamed. “Everybody came.” The provocative new play in a challenging, non-traditional location attracted the usual theater crowd — lots of actors and friends of the cast who like to see everything in Milwaukee. But it also got the attention of people who had never been to the theater. “There was tremendous word of mouth,” Hoffman explained. “People heard about it on social media, they started talking about it in bars, and suddenly the show was this weird, cool thing that they wanted to check out.” Since tickets weren’t sold in advance and audiences were asked to “pay-what-you-can” it was also much less formal than most theater evenings. “We had people come back multiple times,” Hoffman said. “There was one guy who lived nearby, and he just walked over some nights to see the third act. It was great.”
The Moral of the Story?
Hoffman spent the last two years as the Director of Community Engagement at the Milwaukee Rep, experimenting with ways that theater builds connection and empathy between people. But work with her own, unique company may have taught her even more about the power of sharing a performance. “The through-line of Mr. Burns is that storytelling matters,” said Hoffman. “And that was reinforced for me by the production itself. It says that no matter how bad the world gets, people are going to come together and share stories and be communal and build community. I believe that. I think that’s a very important way for us to get through tough times.”