BooTown, “Home Of The Weird And The Wonderful,” Defies Definition

By | September 29, 2014
A scene from one of BooTown's recent shadow puppet shows. Credit: Tom Hynds.
A scene from one of BooTown’s recent shadow puppet shows. Credit: Tom Hynds.

The room goes dark, the crowd, silent. A light shines from the back side of a very rudimentary white screen, surrounded by a black curtain hiding the secrets behind it. A silhouette goes up, a guitar moans soulfully, and a story unfolds slowly and methodically through a series of silhouettes placed and moved gently on screen.

A near-full room of people lounge at old, wobbly tables, mesmerized, sipping their pints of beer or rocks glass of rum and coke and watch this small, but illuminated screen. It’s not quite theater, it’s not quite performance art, but it is something dream-like and intricate that is happening in the upstairs space in a popular Montrose bar.

Unexpected is the best word to describe a first-time experience with a BooTown production, especially one of their shadow puppet performances. The non-profit organization formed in 2007 is “dedicated to creating fun, original, collaborative theatre using interdisciplinary methods in non-traditional settings in order to cultivate new audiences,” according to their official mission statement, and if Wednesday night’s “Projectorphiles” show at Rudyard’s was any indication, they’re right on target.

“We’re using overhead projectors and we’re painting with light,” says BooTown co-artistic director Lindsay Burleson. “The way you can paint with that light will change an entire scene. You can’t turn on the television and see anything like that.”

Through slow fades, color overlays, special effects with water and food coloring and of course, those meticulously crafted puppets, each artist manipulated the light in ways that evoked a mood, an emotion or a thought in moments throughout three separate shows last Wednesday night.

“Someone once told me that once you adjust to this medium [shadow puppetry], and the fact that it’s slower paced, and little things mean a lot, you’ll get a lot out of it,” says Emily Hynds, BooTown founder and co-artistic director.

What’s also slow-paced is the time it takes to create the puppets themselves. Two pieces in Burleson’s performance of “Womb Rot” took upwards of 10 hours per puppet to create, all for a few moments on screen.

“For every one to three minutes of puppet show, it will take one to three days of work,” says Burleson. “That’s not counting rehearsal time, that’s counting build time.”

Though the preparation of such shows are time-intense, it’s just one of many performance formats the organization produces in a given season. While shadow puppetry has become part of their annual repertoire recently, BooTown is also the producer of recurring monthly events, the most widely known of which is their Grown-up Storytime series.

A performer reads a story at Grown-up Storytime in Rudyard's. Credit: Sean Askandari.
A performer reads a story at Grown-up Storytime in Rudyard’s. Credit: Sean Askandari.

“BooTown really grew up in Montrose,” says Hynds. “[The founders] graduated from college in ’07 and started BooTown that summer and immediately began Grown-up Storytime in the format that it is now. We’ve been hosting it at Rudyard’s since November of 2007.”

The premise is this: people send in stories. Other adults volunteer to read and perform those stories in front of a live audience every third Tuesday of the month at Rudyard’s. Fans pay $5 to get in and watch it all play out. Hilarity and fun ensues. It’s a formula that’s been perfected since the earliest times of BooTown’s history, and still draws a regular and dedicated audience once a month.

While Grown-up Storytime is now a self-sustaining Montrose ritual, a more recent BooTown production called Benshi is slowly catching on. Burleson says it’s a medium that started in Japan as a way to reinterpret Western movies for an Eastern audience that didn’t necessarily understand the culture or context behind the film. Actors and actresses would narrate silent movies through live dialogue, translations, sometimes inventing entirely new plots for their audience. BooTown utilizes the format in two ways: long-form self-produced performances and a regular monthly event called Neo Benshi where teams put together their own mini Benshi shows to perform in front of an audience. The latter serves as an educational tool that is also a self-contained series, similar to Grown-up Storytime.

“That’s what makes Grown-up Storytime so successful, is that everything is crowdsourced,” says Hynds. “We’re trying to do the same thing with Neo Benshi where you tell us what you want to do and we give you the format. They tell us what clips they want to re-interpret.”

On top of the eclectic mix of BooTown-produced events is the fact that many of them are held in different venues (hence the “non-traditional settings” part of their mission statement). While the regularly occurring Neo Benshi and Grown-up Storytime events have a set location — both of which are in Montrose — the original productions float between various bars, venues and open spaces throughout the city.

Credit: Asher Aaron.
Credit: Asher Aaron.

This gypsy approach to staging productions parallels BooTown’s ability to adapt, change and grow into something that is unlike any other organization in the city. Over the last seven years they’ve managed to remain an enigma; often classified as a theater company for grant-writing purposes, but otherwise nearly undefinable between the shadow puppetry, mixed media performances, crowdsourced monthly events and always-rotating slate of performance venues.

“We’ve been trying to phrase it as ‘theatrical and performative events,’” says Burleson. “But that’s just a mouthful, so we sometimes like to just say we’re a good time and a home of the weird and the wonderful.”

And much like Montrose itself, BooTown has always been and always will be wonderfully and refreshingly unexpected.

NOTE: The second-ever BooTown Bash happens October 25 at The Summit. The event is $25, with funds going to BooTown to help with upcoming productions. There will be food, drink, live music and even a puppet pageant where attendees can make their own shadow puppets and present them onscreen. The theme is mix and match — the perfect excuse to bring out those plaid pants and that polka-dot shirt.

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