Were you one of those who braved the rain this year to take in Northern Spark? Well, then, clear the decks this weekend because there’s something pretty magical going down in Lowertown, and you’re going to want to be there. “The Big Lowdown,” jointly presented by Bedlam Theatre and Live Action Set, is billed as a “roving Lowertown adventure.” I attended Wednesday’s preview performance and can attest: It’s also wonderful.
This collaborative public art project is funded, in part, by grants from ArtPlace and the state’s Legacy Fund. “The Big Lowdown” brings together more than 10 separate short performances and a bevy of independent artists to create a series of site-specific scenes, all within a few blocks’ radius of the newly restored Union Depot. In a “St. Paul Forum” interview on SPNN, Bedlam Lowertown’s Lucas Koski says the idea started as a riff on the theater’s popular 10-minute play festival.
Here’s how it works: Visitors convene in the Union Depot waiting room before the performance begins. (While you wait, you can play ping pong or challenge a friend to a game of giant, Alice in Wonderland-scale chess, Connect Four or Jenga.) Promptly at 8 p.m., Live Action Set’s Noah Bremer, the creative director of “The Big Lowdown,” divides the gathered audience into 12 groups of no more than 40 people; each group is given a set of directions and the task of finding the assigned “roamer” – part tour-guide, part character actor – who will shepherd them along the neighborhood byways, leading them from performance to performance. Everyone then heads out of the depot and into the evening to track down their waiting guides.
My small cohort was led by “roamer” (and longtime friend of Bedlam) Barry Madore, who awaited our arrival in a nearby playground, meeting us with a lantern and a warm greeting. In short order, he hustled us along to our first stop of the night, “The Dead Post Office” – Tyler Olsen’s spooky, completely silent, participatory performance: a way-station for unsent and unfinished letters by and for the dearly departed.
We chatted amongst ourselves and got to know one another a bit – a couple of us knew some of the performers; one simply happened upon the whole enterprise, a New Yorker in the Twin Cities for just a few days, out exploring the city sights and in the mood for a spontaneous adventure. We made our way to Union Depot for a dance work, “between place(s).” In front of the depot’s grand columned entry, we sat to watch a spotlighted duet, two men enacting the traveler’s distinct sense of vertigo when encountering a new place, the unmoored feeling of arrivals and departures, missed connections and awkward reunions.
There, we happened upon a young family (including the most delightfully game toddler you’d ever want to meet). We had a mini dance party with the performers, and our little band grew by three as we left for the next stop.
From there, we ambled through the neighborhood, passing through a series of theatrical vignettes activated upon our arrival: a Nigerian folktale spun for us in the basement of an old warehouse-turned-loft space; a resonant ode to memory and the traditions that bind generations together and keep them apart, sung for us in the skyways; a surreal, hopeful scene, set in Mears Park, about parents and children and the desperate urge to do better by those we love; two forlorn brides sitting at candlelit vanities at the dead end of a dark alley, prettifying themselves for the performance of their lives.
This is creative placemaking at its most effective. “The Big Lowdown” – with all its shaggy, earnest, unexpected and enchanting spectacles – accomplishes so well what City-Artist-In-Residence (and, as it happens, one of the event’s designated “roamers”) Marcus Young calls “strange-ing the normal.” I know it will be a long time before I’m walking those familiar streets thoughtlessly again, without imagining these stories in their shadowed corners.
“The Big Lowdown” will run for just one weekend, with three roving performances (August 23, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m.) lasting about two and a half hours each. Tickets are $15 each, and you’re encouraged to reserve a spot online: http://bedlamtheatre.org/event/the-big-lowdown/. Find more information about the show on Bedlam Theatre’s website, or via the Facebook event listing: https://www.facebook.com/events/547756188603791/.