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British theater company ‘Complicite’ takes U.Va. backstage with Q&A session

When it comes to live theater, performances can go one of two directions. Most commonly, productions take a straightforward approach, one featuring well-stocked sets, costumed performers and a linear plot. It’s effective, and produces quality performances. But British theater company Complicite grabs onto the opposite notion, believing theater does not have to be plain or traditional, but rather inventive — a place for creativity and new ideas. Complicite’s Richard Katz was at the Culbreth theater Friday evening for a Q-and-A session that was both informative and fascinating.

Katz began by giving a bit of background on the company, speaking with infectious excitement about its work. Complicite, which was founded in 1983, started off very small, with members using anything they could afford to create shows. Though these pauper days were less than fun to live through, they also gave rise to the company’s creative instincts, encouraging them to create inventive performances without relying on expansive sets. Once, Katz said, the crew simply placed a chair on the stage, saying it was a seat on a train rather than spending time and money on an building an elaborate set.

Over the years, the group grew and performed such adapted and original works as The Winter’s Tale, Mnemonic and most recently The Master and Margarita. Today, the company has grown into a prolific British landmark that uses various resources and technologies to create visually striking and movement oriented shows.

After giving an overview of the group’s origins and development, Katz answered questions about the wonderfully unorthodox way in which Complicite operates. He described it as “devised theater”, wherein the script is created by the entire company as they work.

“We quite often make stuff without knowing where we’re going,” Katz said.

The script gets written and rewritten, sometimes up to the day the show is first performed, he said. “You have to be very good at forgetting the past,” he joked, as very often an actor could see their part cut significantly close to opening day. Katz emphasized this was not a weakness, but a strength of their method, as it forced performers to dig deeper into their characters to discover real truths.

Drawing on their history of innovative interactions with their set, the company takes what otherwise might be straightforward set pieces and infuses them with light, movement and sound. Visual cues can be just as important to the story as the dialogue, so Complicite often used projectors to create vivid scenes involving everything from computer-generated images of fire to human heads.

The Q-and-A provided fascinating insight into an aspect of theater of which I had never heard and left a powerful impression on other audience members as well — much like one of Complicite’s productions, I imagine.