The Hinterlands take Milwaukee back to days of vaudeville with The Circuit
See musicians, dancers, Juggalos (!), and more this weekend at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre.
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Performance art troupe The Hinterlands may hail from Detroit, but they’re no strangers to Milwaukee. The group brought its dance party/science experiment, Isaac Newton Is Our DJ, to town in 2010, along with a psychedelic Wild West Show, Manifest Destiny!, in 2011. This year, The Hinterlands are touring behind The Circuit, a genre-defying piece that celebrates, re-creates, and reinvents the tradition of American vaudeville. The Circuit will be staged Friday, October 18 ,and Saturday, October 19, at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre, as part of Alverno Presents’ 54th season.
In advance of the show, we talked to Hinterlands founding co-artistic director Richard Newman about vaudeville, Internet cat videos, Juggalos, and how the arts can be used as practice for broader social engagement.
The A.V. Club: What led you to vaudeville for your latest show?
Richard Newman: It’s a part of our continual exploration of American performance. For Manifest Destiny!, we were looking at the Wild West show, so vaudeville was a natural evolution of that. We’re looking at different forms of American performance and what makes them uniquely American—what parts of them still exist with us today, and how they’re still prevalent or not. The Wild West show had quite a bit in common with vaudeville, actually, and some people would say it’s a precursor to it. So for us, it was a clear trajectory.
AVC: What sorts of things from the vaudeville tradition still exist today?
RN: There’s quite a bit, and it’s not always where you think you’d find it. One thing we were looking at was the animal act, which is a classic part of vaudeville. What we came to believe is that the YouTube “cat video” is kind of the current trajectory of the animal act. It’s still a kind of performance, and it’s wildly successful. All of the elements of that animal act are still there in a lot of ways. In The Circuit, we look at those kinds of trajectories. The piece isn’t about re-creating traditional vaudeville, although sections of it do attempt to do that. But it spins off pretty quickly into where these different things have gone.
It’s also about looking at vaudeville as the beginning of this idea of a melting pot of American culture, and looking at what that means today. Not just our heritages, but the kind of chosen cultures we take on, and how we define ourselves both as Americans and within America.
AVC: Your events are very much based on an audience physically being with you in the same room. Is it difficult to do something like that when so many people consume performances online these days?
RN: It’s certainly a different thing. Vaudeville was America’s premier form of entertainment, and live performance is no longer that. In a way, performance is kind of a subculture now. But that doesn’t necessarily make it less valuable—it’s just reality. I was born in 1980, so I was never alive in a period when live performance was the main form. It’s always been an alternative to something else, whether it’s TV or movies.
I still think there will always be a place for live performance in one way or another, because people crave connection. You get a certain connection over the Internet, which is amazing. I’m not a technophobe, but at the same time, I think that looking to the past and how we used to gather and be together, I think there’s something to be learned there.
AVC: Blurring the line between artist and audience is one of your group’s main concerns. Why do you think that’s important? Does The Circuit fit into that tradition?
RN: There are these separations that we put up as people: I’m here and you’re there. Those are the kinds of things that allow us to pass judgment in society, and the kinds of things that separate us as a culture. Anything we can do to momentarily get past that is worthwhile, even with a group of like-minded people. Let’s be real, it’s not like our performances attract people across a wide range of, let’s say, the political spectrum. But it’s a kind of practice for those interactions. It’s not an “us” and “them” situation. We’re all in this together.
Clearly, in this piece, the audience is on one side and we’re on the other, because in order to explore vaudeville we have to work with the proscenium in a real way. For us, that’s a little unusual. We don’t usually engage so clearly with the proscenium and that kind of arrangement. But for this piece, we really wanted to be faithful to the form, to the form of vaudeville. That’s not to say it doesn’t get broken down, because it definitely does.
AVC: Detroit and Milwaukee are similar in many ways. How do you think the arts function in former “Rust Belt” cities that are trying to redefine themselves?
RN: I don’t want to over- or understate this. I think the arts are important in that they help us to expand our imagination about what something can be. And they provide an opportunity for people to gather in a space and be together. However, it’s also really important to have a broader engagement. I think it’s naïve to think that artists can just make art and have a huge impact on the city. They’re two different things and they’re related to each other. We don’t make political or activist theater at all, but in addition to our work as artists, we also attend meetings and events that are outside of the art world in order to stay civically engaged. I do think that artists often have the ability to think outside the box, and therefore can think of solutions that other people wouldn’t think of. They’re not always the best solutions, but they’re different.
AVC: So what should Milwaukee expect this weekend?
RN: [Adopts carnival barker voice.] It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before! It’s got it all! [Laughs.] It’s vaudeville, so it’s a variety of things. You’ll see dance acts, music acts, experimental percussion acts. There’s a Detroit-style dance called Jit, which you usually only see in Detroit. It’s a super-complex street dance. There are animal acts, and there’s a version of the classic vaudeville bit “Slowly I Turned.” You’ll see Juggalos! It really is a variety show for the Internet age.