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Sounds of silence

The Perot malting elevator, one of the handful of oxidizing industrial structures that constitute the cultural playground of Silo City, was built in 1907 and processed thousands of tons of grain into malt for businesses such as the Genesee Brewing Co. before closing in the 1990s.

Since then, few have entered the building’s upper reaches or those of its adjoining malt house, where grain once poured into gargantuan metal hoppers and filtered through expansive sifting apparatuses occupying several stories and thousands of square feet. That elevator will open to members of the public Thursday, when Torn Space Theater’s newest site-specific production, “They Kill Things,” opens a two-week run in and around the elevator.

“The building itself is a machine,” said Torn Space artistic director Dan Shanahan, who co-wrote and co-directs the production with his wife and creative partner Melissa Meola. “The Bauhaus would be in awe of it. There is nothing superfluous. It’s all about this function of processing grain.”

In Torn Space’s largest and most ambitious site-specific production yet, the elevator will become a light and sound-filled cathedral frequented by members of a fictitious society with somewhat violent tendencies. The outdoor space surrounding the elevator and the malt house, featuring a tailor-built stage, an old-fashioned sound system and several grazing farm animals, will feature its own series of installations and vignettes.

Audience members, Shanahan said, will be instructed not to speak even during the production’s brief intermission, and also encouraged to wear “blues, grays, flannels, denim and chambray.” A concession stand offering beer and food will be set up in the production’s outdoor area, but theatergoers must order by silently pointing at the menu. Attendance is limited to 200 for each performance, with audience members breaking off into groups and experiencing the production and its many indoor and outdoor elements from different directions.

It’s all part of the immersive atmosphere Shanahan, Meola and collaborators are hoping to create to help audience members feel they are a crucial part of the action.

Just exactly what that action is, and what it signifies, is open to interpretation.

The narrative of the production involves two shirtless, tattooed travelers (Matthew Crane and John Toohill) who have either wandered or been lured into a strange ritual performed by an isolated and vaguely Southern society. By pulling from Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the recordings of Willie Nelson and the bizarre story of the cult film “2,000 Maniacs,” Torn Space has constructed a kind of multimedia meditation on the nature of ritualistic violence.

For Shanahan, who led the company’s first on-site rehearsal at Silo City on Sunday afternoon, the visual highlights of the production are the sifting rooms – mammoth pieces of complex machinery that occupy two sprawling spaces in the malt house.

“I don’t think this room has a rival on this campus,” Shanahan said, using the light from his iPhone to illuminate the darkened floor. “These things would turn and crank and then grain would get sifted and fall down. So the audience will come into this room and the floor will be lit, and then the lights will go out and they’ll be in darkness, and then this will become a light and sound installation. I see this room as the quintessential cathedral for the society.”

The sense he and his collaborators are going for, he suggested, is one of speechless awe.

As he trudged up a steep and narrow staircase inside the Perot elevator leading to the rusted catwalk connecting the two buildings, he said, “it just feels like you’re entering into something spectacular.”



What: “They Kill Things”

When: Thursday through Aug. 22

Where: Silo City, 20 Childs St.

Tickets: $20, or $50 for VIP tickets

Info: 812-5733 or

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