SELMA — At rare times, when you’re lucky, you walk into a space in which you feel as if you’ve catapulted into a creative epicenter. You never know exactly when or where such a moment will materialize, but it’s memorable when it does. I imagine it like being able to look over a city or region, almost as if it were a thermal map, and seeing bursts of artistic collaboration across the landscape flare like oil wells under a nighttime Texas sky.
On this Wednesday evening, just minutes before a run-through is about to begin of the little-known and fascinating 2012 show “35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” which opens Friday, I know I’m in an innovative hot spot: the Selma Arts Center.
Just consider the artists at work.
Up there on stage, with his baseball cap on backwards and bouncing in time to the music as he runs the actors through a problem area, is director Dominic Grijalva. After showing formidable directing chops in Selma productions of “In the Heights” and “Heathers,” he’s set his sights on the rarely staged “35MM,” which requires not only a keen sense of storytelling but cutting-edge video and graphic skills. Next to him on stage is Michael Flores, one of Grijalva’s longtime collaborators, who is just coming off a solid stint choreographing “Heathers” for Fresno State. In this show he’s a triple threat: co-director, choreographer and actor.
Then there’s the cast, young and inspired, made up of some of the local theater community’s most promising actors: Will Bishop, Kindle Cowger, Miguel Gastelum, Sabrina Lopez and Shawn Williams, among others in the 11-person ensemble. (Perhaps the most important thing a director can do is inspire talented people to audition.) Behind the scenes on the technical side is Juan L. Guzmán, one of the prime movers in raising the artistic reputation of the Selma Arts Center. Oh, and don’t forget the live, six-piece band in the corner.
“35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” through July 1, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. $19, $17 seniors and students
All this talent will be needed to pull off “35MM,” which is not a standard book musical. It isn’t an adaptation of a movie or book. Nor does it have a traditional narrative in terms of a story from beginning to end. Instead, this work, with music and lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver, is considered a song cycle. There are 14 songs, each one a self-contained scene with distinct settings and different characters. If a more traditional theatrical experience can be likened to a novel, with its narrative and characters stretching through the whole book, “35MM” is more like a collection of short stories linked only by larger and more oblique themes.
Then you add one of the show’s biggest creative sparks: Each song is accompanied by a photograph created for the show by Matthew Murphy, Oliver’s creative partner and husband. Some of the photographs, we’re told by the pair, were inspired by the songs. And other songs were inspired by the photographs. We never know exactly which. Connections between the photographs and the songs can be literal. Others are more abstract. But that’s part of the appeal (and challenge) of the show. As an audience member, you have a great deal of leeway in terms of adding your own interpretation into the equation.
Be prepared for an outing with a modern and edgy feel, with contemporary characters wrapped up in such intense feelings as love, loss, nostalgia and betrayal. Through the whole show, the idea of art — making it, experiencing it, dismissing it, embracing it — is never far from the surface.
“It’s all left very broadly for the audience,” Grijalva says. “The way the scenes are interrelated is subtle and open to interpretation. What’s so interesting about this show is that there’s no specific arc between the songs. It’s up to you to make the connections.”
Flores adds: “I think people can take away the inspiration that people get from art, and what we take away from art each day.”
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If all this sounds a little too abstract, like going to a modern art museum and gazing at a series of beautiful but weird paintings requiring you to make esoteric interpretations, rest a little easier. The pop-rock-influenced songs are exuberant and hummable, and for the most part they build fun little worlds that are easy to dip into and comprehend. (Sure, there are a few where you just have to go along for the ride without really knowing what’s going on, but they’re in the minority.) Take, for example, the song “On Monday,” sung by Cowger.
A young woman falls for a guy, played by Jeremy Hitch. He seems interested but standoffish. She’s rarin’ to go. “You wouldn’t let me kiss you,” she sings, pouting. He plays hard to get. She gets depressed. Is there a chance for the relationship to work?
The photograph that goes along with the song sets an emotional palette for the piece: We don’t see any faces, just the detail of a man’s arm stuck into the pocket of his pants in a closed-off, standoffish posture. (The photograph is projected in pieces onto two large screens on stage that are accompanied by nine smaller screens hanging at various levels like photo frames.) A woman’s hand reaches out for him, almost connecting but foiled by the pocket. It is a quick glimpse of an unequal relationship.
One of the interesting things about staging “35MM” is that a lot of latitude is given to the director, Grijalva says.
“It’s a song about a woman who’s coming on too strong,” he says. “My interpretation is that it’s about a girl who’s underage and trying to come on to an older man. He kind of leads her on, but at the end of the day he lets her go.”
Grijalva put his own stamp onto the production in many ways, from expanding the show’s treatment of GLBTQ issues to increasing the number of cast members (there were five in the original production) and added staging to give it more than a concert setting.
At one point he expands the scope of the show even outside the theater. For one big production number, “The Ballad of Sara Berry,” about a high school prom queen battle gone horribly awry, Grijalva gathered a contingent of local actors at Buchanan High School and with the help of filmmaker Kyle Lowe did a “Tarantino-style movie” in noir style. That film will be projected during the show and combined with live dancing.
“35MM” hasn’t been produced very many times, but one thing’s for sure: There’s never been a production quite like this before.
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Before the dress rehearsal begins Wednesday night, Grijalva asks the cast to work one of the most complicated numbers, titled “Why Must We Tell Them Why?” Essentially the song is asking: Why do artists feel the need to explain what they do? Why does art need to have its own story to make it more accessible to viewers? Why can’t we just experience art for art’s sake?
The two featured performers in the piece are Brandon Valdez, a painter, and Flores, a dancer. During each show, Valdez speed-paints a real painting on stage, with cast members handing him brushes and paint, while Flores and a group of dancers work through a choreographed number. Both men are on square movable platforms moved by the ensemble. There’s a lot of spinning, dancing and painting going up there on stage, and the intricate movements need extra rehearsal.
At one point, one of the movable platforms seems sluggish. “Something’s wrong with these wheels,” Grijalva says.
“Can we just turn it the other way?” asks Flores.
“Is that cool with you?”
As co-directors, Grijalva and Flores have tackled the show with one mind. Grijalva asked Flores to take on the title of co-director midway through the rehearsal process when he realized how much of the show rests on the choreography. It’s another example of that fire of creativity burning brightly in Selma these days.
Some artists work alone. Theater is a collaboration. “35MM” brings together singing, choreography, graphics and photography, painting and even film. Beyond the individual human stories told in the show, the broadest theme is clear.
“It’s a show about art,” Grijalva says. “We’re all artists in our ways. So are the audiences who come out and support us.”
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