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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Combat Theatre, eight shows in one


Writing and performing a play is usually a long process -- from actually writing the script to getting a director and actors to rehearsals to opening night. It could take months to years for one play to get off the ground. Well, what if that process was crammed into 24 hours? That's the challenge for all those involved in Bunny Gumbo's Combat Theatre.

"Combat Theatre is an evening of eight plays all written, directed and acted within 24 hours," says James Fletcher, artistic director and Bunny Gumbo co-founder. " The writers draw a subject from one hat and a location from another and have to produce a play based on those variables overnight. The actors and directors then have essentially eight to 10 hours to learn lines, rephrase, tech and then perform. The next day we do it all over again with eight new plays."

The 15th bout of Combat Theatre since February 2000 takes place Jan. 12 and 13 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

Fletcher says that the playwrights and the actors have the toughest job when it comes to Combat Theatre. The audience, meanwhile, has the chance to experience a performance unlike any other.

"There's a lot of pressure to perform. That having been said, the parameters set up for the writers can be very freeing," he says. "They're not staring at a blank screen willing ideas to come to them. For the actors, there's also a lot of pressure, but great fun as well. They often get to play against type and they are forced to make bold choices. Many of our actors have gotten subsequent work as a result of a director seeing them in a different light."

Michael John Moynihan has participated as a Combat Theatre playwright since 2002. He says it's high-pressure work, but he likes the process.

"Over the years I've come to understand that all art is about choices and limitations. Self-imposed or given limitations are an artist's best resource as far as what I do. So it is not harder or easier, but being given such limitations serves the short time allowed very well, I think."

Moynihan says that after surviving heart attacks, poverty and turning 60, he's glad he still has humor and the drive to pursue what he's loved to do since he was 8 years old.

"Life has changed in so many fundamental ways. Being in the arts is at once a blessing and a challenge in our society, even more now than when I was young," he says. "Being disabled, old and poor in the present America is a sin. On a day to day basis, limited mobility, energy, work and money have all been changes. And then there is pain, on a daily basis."

Moynihan used to write for both nights of Combat Theatre, but is unable to do so now. But he credits Fletcher's generosity, which makes his participation possible.

"Before my disability, my favorite elements of the Combat process were the first cold read through, sitting at a table with the actors and director. And then sitting with the audience at the performance," Moynihan says. "I rarely know what my play is actually about until the first time I hear the words spoken by the actors. And hearing/seeing the audience react to the play is very fine."

The first play that Moynihan wrote for Combat -- "Professional Courtesy" -- is the one that he considers the best.

"For me the Combat process is like an extraordinary and very intensive creativity/writing/learning/brain stimulation workshop/experiment. Not everyone is cut out for this sort of collaborative experience," Moynihan says. "Primadonas do not get invited back to Combat. There is just no time for any of the procrastination, power plays or human relations B.S. that longer processes can disintegrate into."

He goes on to say that he hopes as many people as possible will attend both nights of Combat Theatre.

"The writers, directors, actors and technicians who create the Combat performances are probably the most talented and gifted theatre people in to be on any Milwaukee stage at the same time and it only happens a couple of times a year," Moynihan says.

And since it's only around for a short period, Fletcher says that people need to get there early. Combat Theatre has a history of selling out and fast. It's because of the type of performance audiences are experiencing.

"The audience is treated to a performance unlike any other. There's an energy in the theatre that just can't be recreated in a regular show. The audience knows that these plays didn't exist 24 hours ago and may never be seen again.," Fletcher says. "And they are very much a part of the process. They suggest future subjects and locations and every now and then they end up on stage as performers. If they come the first night, they also get to see the writers come up on stage after the show and pick new subjects and locations for Saturday's show."

Combat Theatre takes place Friday and Saturday Jan. 12 and 13 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. The second Combat Theatre of the year will take place on June 8 and 9. Tickets are $18 at the door. As an added incentive for those participating in Combat, there is a contest to see which Combatant can bring in the most audience members. If you know someone participating, when you buy you're ticket say you're there to see that person.


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