Who needs a stage? Control Group defies space problems

Yale’s only experimental theater ensemble, Control Group, has had a couple of run-ins with the police.

“They were a bit confused as to what we were doing and tried to stop the show,” Control Group artistic director Sarah Holdren ’08 said. “Apparently experimental theater can be a little loud, as it well should be.”

Begun in fall 2000 following a failed Sudler Project, the Control Group was established when its founding members discovered they all enjoyed the creative freedom of an experimental theater ensemble. Today the group still tries to broaden definitions of what performance and theater are. With its constantly moving shows, Control Group manages to avoid the problems other campus troupes have recently experienced finding space.

Consisting of writers, dancers, actors and musicians, the Control Group either performs original material or puts a spin on a more well-known scripted productions — such as performing “Little Red Riding Hood” (called “She Looks Good in Red”) while walking their audience around New Haven at night.

“The great thing about the group is we can take anything we want from the conventional world of theater and we can play with it,” Holdren said. “We take these works and try to find a new angle on them, tear a little hole in them, and step through to the other side.”

The Control Group often uses surrounding areas as their stage. By rejecting a standard stage and set, the group explores various aspects of theater as well as the bystanders’ reactions. They have performed on Cross Campus, in Street Hall, in the attic of the Fence Club and in the courtyard in front of the Off-Broadway Theater. Last spring, the group put on an all-night show about memories called “This Room is Full of Rooftops,” directed by Holden, changing location three times from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Holdren says there is no typical Control Group show because of the group’s philosophy of constant change and vitality.

“A lot of theater is run on schedule, dictated by the space, materials and period,” Holdren said. “The Control Group tries to break through a lot of those boundaries by creating a group in constant flux, always finding new ways to work.”

For the Control Group, it’s not enough for the audience to see a play; they must experience it as well.

“We try to encourage audience participation whenever possible,” Control Group producer Marie Ostby ’07 said. “We did a short winter show in January, when we led the audience all over Street Hall playing theater games with them.”

Sometimes during intermissions, Control Group interacts with the audience in character — a technique Gabe Smedresman ’06, an avid fan, called “a great way to stretch the role of the actor.”

“Basically, what they do incredibly well is make you feel uncomfortable in your role as audience, which is very rewarding,” Smedresman said.

Though the Control Group may not be appreciated by all Yale students, their willingness to push the boundaries of orthodox theater has attracted many admiring fans. Smedresman said he admires the group for its exploration of unique aspects of theater that traditional groups won’t touch.

“It’s some of the only theater that’s not pretentious and traditional at Yale,” said Lane Rick ’07, who attended a recent performance. “I think not using a theater is a thing to embrace, because it helps you come up with new places to perform.”

Fans do not seem to mind the mobile aspect of Control Group performances, either.

The first show Smedresman attended was held in the attic of Fence Club, he said, speculating that the location was chosen in part to hide the show’s small bonfire from the appropriate authorities. Smedresman added that the “fugitive aspect” of Control Group is always appealing.

“It allows for a lot more creativity and a lot of opportunities to use the audience in different ways,” Ishaan Tharoor ’06, who has gone to many shows, said. “It becomes a really dynamic, almost community experience, because they are so innovative and they do a lot of interesting, clever things with the medium of theater.”

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