On the blacktopped roof of Silo City’s American Warehouse, a bombed-out husk of a building filled with crumbling concrete, twisted metal and broken-down machinery, a percussionist dressed in a smart black suit sent a single drum-beat echoing off the surrounding grain elevators.
Two boxers emerged on cue from the twilight. They wore white T-shirts, one printed with the icon of a stag and the other with a coiled snake. Before a rapt audience, they duked it out to a clattering soundtrack of cymbals and snares. As the sun dipped into Lake Erie, the color of the silos dimmed from ochre, to rust, to black.
This was the final scene of a Thursday night preview of Torn Space Theater’s newest site-specific, multidisciplinary production created by the company’s co-founder and artistic director Dan Shanahan. But it was barely the most spectacular.
“Storehouse,” which aims to present all the stages of human life through a series of installations and performances in and around the warehouse, is an explosion of what “theater” means. More than perhaps any other production in the company’s storied history of pushing boundaries and defying definitions, it forces viewers to rethink and expand their own ideas of what theater or performance can be.
David Hooper, a boxing instructor at KC’s Fitness and one of three boxers who performed in the show, said he was blown away by the rooftop scene. Though he described himself as “not an artistic person,” his description of the experience begs to differ.
“It was powerful,” he said. “To hear that music in the background and to have a master and a student really be in the ring? I got goosebumps up there, just being able to witness it.”
Last summer, Shanahan and his many collaborators wowed audiences with “Motion Picture,” a production that involved a battle reenactment, gargantuan digital projections on the side of a grain elevator, a galloping horse and an actual helicopter timed to fly overhead.
This year, short of calling in the Air Force, Shanahan employed seven cheerleaders and one football player from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, three boxers from KC’s Fitness, a coterie of video artists and a small army of actors, dancers and assistants dressed in hazmat suits.
As visitors prepared to enter the show – it’s set up like a haunted house, with groups of 50 people entering at timed intervals – they’re treated to a strange high school pep rally set to a hip-hop soundtrack. The cheerleaders’ routine starts out traditionally, but soon breaks down into a strange, fractured pantomime of the high school experience.
Inside, scenes have been pre-set in several rooms, on several floors. In one, a group of evidently angry hooligans ride around on bikes, swing from ropes and jump off crates and boxes. In another, a crew films a trio of blackened mannequins huddled around a table in what looks to be a post-apocalyptic high school cafeteria.
One jaw-dropping installation features a shaft of brilliant light emerging from a metal contraption and refracting off a series of mirrors that fracture that shaft into a spider web-like network of criss-crossing beams. (Check your nearest Instagram feed for pictures.)
The grandeur and disrepair of the warehouse by itself is astounding, a ruin pornographer’s perfect nightmare. Every room holds a fresh spectacle of Buffalo’s decline suspended, a la Pompeii, from the series of gargantuan, rusted-out turbines hanging from the ceiling of one room to the cavernous, graffiti-filled corridors that lead from one scene to the next.
In one room, a scene between a mother and son played out against a single window looking out on a pockmarked old grain silo. The concrete surface of the silo was so picturesquely distressed that it was easy to imagine that the window was not a window, but a frame for an abstract painting, and that the swaths of chipped-off paint running across the silo were brush strokes.
Shanahan is less a director in the traditional sense than an artist who has simply chosen tools like light bulbs and human actors over clay or oil paint. His major gift is in creating indelible images, the best of which linger in viewers’ minds like vivid dreams for years to come.
His use of Silo City as a backdrop and his inclusion of untrained actors, horses, helicopters, boxers and film projectors speak to his desire to radically retool our expectations of what’s possible within the language of theater. One Twitter user, commenting perceptively on the production’s combination of performance art and its definitively Buffalonian location, called the show “Matthew Barney meets Tim Russert.”
Many performances claim to be “multidisciplinary,” but that usually means the incorporation of a few projections, the insertion of the odd dance number or other half-measures. The creator’s central allegiance almost always shines through.
Rarely is the experience as cohesive as in “Storehouse,” which demonstrates what’s possible when you ignore definitions. By combining the distinct languages and traditions of cinema, theater and performance art in the service of one overarching goal, Shanahan and his collaborators open up a brand-new world, which in turn is enticing a brand-new audience.
Regardless of whether you consider yourself an “artistic person,” it couldn’t hurt to take a trip to Silo City tonight for one of the final performances to see if any of Shanahan’s images stick. You may find out you like theater after all.