Storytime with a twist

SoLow Fest 2018: Company Aiello and La Voce delle Cose's 'Unconscious Theater Machines'

2 minute read
Spectators and Manipulators enjoy the show from either side of the tiny curtain. (Photo courtesy of La Voce delle Cose.)
Spectators and Manipulators enjoy the show from either side of the tiny curtain. (Photo courtesy of La Voce delle Cose.)

Company Aiello’s SoLow Fest production of Unconscious Theater Machines collapses boundaries between installation and performance, visual art and theater, spectator and performer. It is a brief (10 minutes), accessible immersive theater experience, devised and constructed by La Voce delle Cose, an Italian theater company.

The namesake machine — which combines an MP3 player, two pairs of headphones, and a variety of small props with a makeshift puppet theater — is easily portable. Angelo Aiello of Company Aiello explained that La Voce delle Cose devised the work by drawing upon theatrical traditions and styles including puppetry and commedia dell’arte, and filtered them through participatory, democratic theories of performance. The concept that anyone can perform and tell stories is unusual and empowering.

Here, Unconscious Theater Machines occurs on the back patio of a South Philadelphia home. However, the machine can be transported to a range of locations, such as a museum, performing arts venue, or library.

It reminded me of the Little Free Libraries, those take-a-book, leave-a-book exchanges popping up around the country with the mission of promoting reading and community. I have seen charming Little Free Library boxes outside private homes and in public parks, though Center City has only a few. La Voce delle Cose’s theater machine is just as populist and even more radical.

Mystery and magic

Audience members choose between the roles of Manipulator and Spectator. Each dons a set of headphones. Spectators listen to recorded narration of a familiar story while watching it unfold live in front of them.

Simultaneously, Manipulators perform the action as directed by a recorded voice. In an interesting twist, Manipulators do not know what story they are performing: they simply follow audio instructions to move objects around the small set at certain times.

I played both Manipulator and Spectator, and I recommend this to everyone who visits Unconscious Theater Machines. I won’t spoil the fun by revealing what the story is. However, I will say that when it was my turn to be Spectator, I identified the well-known story within seconds. The story itself takes only a few minutes to watch or perform.

The novelty for Manipulators is becoming part of the theater machine to tell a story to Spectators, even though you don’t know what story you are telling. The surprise for Spectators is how effectively Manipulators portray the story’s plot and characters despite not knowing what they are.

Similarly, it was striking to see everyday objects, such as a tissue and a nail file, become evocative props in a performance. Clothespins are heroes and villains who love, fight, and cry.

Unconscious Theater Machines offers a new take on performance and rethinks the role of the audience. Like the Little Free Library, I hope to see more forward-thinking, community-building, boundary-breaking experiences like this in our city.

What, When, Where

Unconscious Theater Machines. By La Voce delle Cose, performed by Company Aiello. SoLow Fest. Through June 21, 2018, at Casa Pepper, 10th and Snyder Streets, Phildelphia. [email protected].

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