Before the universe flashed into being 14 billion years ago, nothing existed but a group of crazed theater directors looking for something to do.
This is perhaps the least bizarre concept in Les Plasticiens Volants' production of "Big Bang," an immersive theater production involving enormous puppets floating over the crowd. The experimental French theater company, in its first trip to the United States, will bring its new show to Artpark on Sept. 2 as part of the venue's season-ending spectacle.
The day will also feature a performance from the Los Angeles-based inventor and musician William Close, who will temporarily turn Artpark's amphitheater into a giant instrument by running more than a dozen strings from the stage to the back of the theater and into the landscape beyond.
These unorthodox performances from artists with international followings represent a tonal shift for Artpark. Under Executive Director Sonia Kozlova-Clark, who took over in 2016, the Lewiston venue is attempting to re-establish itself as an incubator for experimental and often environmental art forms, as it was for a fertile period of its history in the 1970s and '80s.
"Bringing these kinds of world performances and performers to Western New York elevates everybody. It gives people a sense that they're part of global larger community and I hope it makes them feel part of this community," Kozlova-Clark said. "I hope they realize that we're important enough to see this stuff. We're important enough to see it and be part of it."
"Big Bang," conceived by Marc Bureau and performed by about 30 members of the company, will feature enormous roving puppets floating high above the crowd.
The puppet designs feature strange, sperm-shaped objects, illuminated planets and a disconcerting cloud – representing those restless theater directors – that appears to be made out of dozens of oversized human eyes.
It's all part of a concept about the creation of the universe, told in reverse from the present day to the moment of the Big Bang and – in a thought experiment only an experimental French theater company would suggest – before.
"We propose a trip through space-time," said company manager and "Big Bang" co-director Fabien Chamakoff in a phone interview from the company's rehearsal space in the south of France. "The show is about astrophysics and the similarity between astrophysics and life, and how to find your spot."
Some of those puppets and concepts in the show, Chamakoff said, include "strange planets and comets," "spermatozoids which can create other planets," "supernova and other galaxies" and "strange monster characters."
The company, which was founded in Paris in 1976 and has performed at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, the Tour de France and dozens of popular European festivals and events, is venturing outside of its own comfort zone for this performance. Its shows have previously been grounded in concrete reality, at least relatively speaking, featuring undersea worlds or exploring the terrain of the moon.
"It is a new form, a new shape of performance because our old performances were more about animals, dragons, birds," said the show's creator, Marc Bureau. "We are very curious about the reaction of the American audience. We hope they will be surprised."
Also surprising to audiences will be the similarly immersive performance of William Close and his Earth Harp Collective in the Artpark Amphitheater. Close, who has performed at the Colosseum in Rome and the Seattle Space needle, sees his work as a fusion of music and architecture.
"Frank Lloyd Wright said that architecture is frozen music," Close said from a phone interview while driving in downtown Los Angeles. He was on his way to Oregon to watch the recent eclipse. "I've always really loved that idea and the idea of making music with the architecture."
Close's "Earth Harp," which he creates anew at each venue he performs in, began as a rebellious exercise against the strictures of established musical forms and instruments.
"When I first started building instruments, I was interested in building instruments that didn't have any rules," Close said. "I'm fascinated by the science side of it and the experimenting side. Everything comes out of experiments."
The "Earth Harp," which Close will play with backup from his group of touring percussionists and other musicians, began with him running strings across his apartment. Around 2000, he expanded by running strings across a canyon south of Chicago. And soon, he began playing venues around the world, from concert halls on a cruise ships to a skyscrapers in Singapore and Los Angeles.
Close was also on America's Got Talent in 2012, earning rave reviews from the judges and making it to the final round. (He lost to a pair of dog trainers.)
"We'll literally take that amphitheater and turn it into a giant instrument. Technically the audience is inside it, but they're watching it."
He said the sound is much like a cello, but with an entirely different kind of resonance depending on the venue he's playing it.
"The whole reason I do this and travel the world playing a giant harp is that the sound is amazing," he said. "We've had some really powerful experiences. The sound is from around you and it encompasses you."
As for performing at Artpark, an institution with a history of supporting artists whose work interacts with the environment in new and unexpected ways, Close said the venue couldn't be better suited to his concept.
"I'm excited about Artpark," he said. "It's a fusion of landscape and architecture. And the whole place is about making and presenting art."
William Close and the Earth Harp Collective perform at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 in the Artpark Amphitheater, with an encore performance planned for 9:30 p.m. Plasticiens Volants performs "Big Bang" at 8:30 p.m. The rain date is Sept. 3. Tickets are $10 to $35. Call 888-223-6000 or visit artpark.net.