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Warning: Play may cause introspection

We like to think we're immune from pop culture, or at least that we can choose to be. It might saturate our surroundings, but we don't have to let it affect us, right? Wrong, says the cast of "Attemptonmylife," a uniquely original dramatic ensemble piece that opens Thursday at the Helms. Director Kate Porter, a fourth-year College student, leads a group of 10 students in this unsettling and thought-provoking exploration of the similarities between literal madness and the overpoweringly maddening effects of mass culture.

"We're extremely used to being totally subsumed under images, washed with images all the time. That's a kind of schizophrenic experience, except now, we've become accustomed to it," said Porter, describing what she calls "cultural schizophrenia."

To examine this topic, the play rejects the traditional model of a set script with fixed roles and turns instead to the ensemble model. As Porter describes it, "you start with a couple of concepts and then create a collage."

She and her cast began with an interest in literal schizophrenia and the way in which it appropriates both mind and body. Then they began to see how the media does similar things - in essence, how it creates us.

"The culture, in many ways, has appropriated our minds and bodies, too," Porter said. "So it's teaching us how to think, what to do, what to say, what to wear, how to be."

Her approach led to a collaborative effort in which the group's improvisational sessions helped create and mold the script. This ensemble technique creates a gripping, intense experience for the actors and actresses as well as for the audience. Instead of adjusting to a fixed role that clearly creates someone else, the actors find it hard at times to separate themselves from their characters.

"We get to adapt the show to ourselves instead of adapting ourselves to the script," said cast member Michael Trimble, a second-year College student.

"We're using different facets of ourselves and different personality types that will match up with the people who are watching the show," added fellow cast member Logan Byers, a second-year College student. "I think that makes it hit home for more people."

With the help of Liz Bernard's striking lighting design and Jenny Sawyers's minimalist set, which uses suspended mixed-media panels inspired by the modernist French painter Piet Mondrian to accent themes of light and filtering, the play pushes an agenda of heightening awareness. It slaps the audience in the face in the hope that it will pay more attention to the mind-numbing and conformist pressures of mass culture.

"What I want this show to be about is our experience living in this culture and the ways in which we are created by the culture," Porter said.

This especially is crucial now, according to Porter. The events of Sept. 11 made that horrifyingly clear.

Listening to other students' reactions to the early reports of the terrorist attacks, Porter said she became appalled at the inability of most students to have authentic reactions that were not saturated with media influences.

"What I heard more than anything was, 'It's like 'Independence Day,'' - the movie," she said. "And that really disturbs me, because we have obviously intelligent college students who, on some level, if only a superficial one, are unable to distinguish between a film and our contemporary reality. That is terrifying to me."

But the project is not about Sept. 11, at least not literally.

"It was what got me thinking about this project, but then it moved to other things - the more general way that the media has control over us," Porter said. Rather, it's more about the ways in which our collective reaction to Sept. 11 wasn't really a new cultural experience, she added.

To do this, the play uses direct references from popular culture.

"The media has a way of appropriating things we'd say normally and turning them into advertising jingles," said cast member Adam Segaller, a first-year College student. "If, for example, I say, 'I love you man,' that's a Bud Light commercial. It's no longer 'I love you, man.'"

Catch phrases and jingles populate the script. But they seem a little too familiar, at times, which is all the more proof that mass culture has a schizophrenic hold on us.


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