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With "Art...Whatever," the Richmond Performing Arts Collective explores the creative process.

Art in Progress

Firehouse Theater, 1609 W. Broad Street
8 p.m., Thursday - Saturday
Aug. 12-Aug. 21 with previews Aug. 5-7
$7-$10 (previews, $5-$6)

The Richmond Performing Arts Collective has been a local leader in producing inventive and challenging original theater such as last month's feminist manifesto, "N.O.W.: No One's Winning." This month, RPAC treads still farther out onto the cutting edge with a collaborative exploration of the marginal arts called "Art...Whatever."

"We looked at people doing the more controversial works, artists who have pushed the boundaries," explains RPAC co-founder Ruth Naomi Feinblum, specifically mentioning people such as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and chocolate-covered performance artist Karen Finley. "When we started, there was no script, just concept."

Each member of the production — consisting of director Matthew Didner and five performers — was asked to research an area within the performing arts, visual arts, music or literature. They developed a thesis about that area and then worked with the rest of the group to dramatize the thesis in an interesting way.

"It's an exciting and new way to make theater," Feinblum says. "Matthew has been developing the process over the years. He puts a lot of trust in the performers and pulls on their strength. There's always room for discussion."

Didner explains his role as "guiding the process and working to shape it into a stage-worthy form." The result, according to Feinblum, is "a very hard show to explain."

For instance, the show will begin with an interactive piece called the "Critique-O-Matic" in which audience members will be asked to produce art of their own and then be subject to the criticism of the cast. "We want to give people insight into what it's like to be an artist," Feinblum says. "As soon as we let them in the door, they know they're in for something different. It's also a way to put them inside a creative process right from the beginning."

Intermission will feature an artist challenge, pitting audience members against a painter in a contest to create something that can be deemed "art."

Another piece, tentatively titled "The Meta-Monologue," was developed by performer Chris Harcum who headlined RPAC's spring show, "Some Kind of Pink Breakfast." His segment of the new show refers to monologists such as Spalding Gray or Eric Bogosian. Harcum contends that "the monologue form has been about stripping away the playwright and the actor from theater and finding out what happens when you reduce everything to the artist/audience relationship." "I wanted to explore the immediacy and the god-awful fear of all that," he says.

A diverse array of other topics will be covered including minimalism, women's poetry, multimedia art, music and public funding of the arts. Didner calls "Art...Whatever" an "artificial follow-up" to the first production RPAC ever mounted , called "Art Ensor," where he also started without a script, just a theme. "I wanted to see what would come out of the rehearsal process," Didner says. That show didn't turn out as the director planned because "many performers prefer to have everything already determined. [Developing this kind of show] requires more involvement from the performers." With the cast of "Art...Whatever," Didner says he found the talented and committed people necessary to make for an edgy, wacky, and profound

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