‘Wilderness’ Is Urgent, Fresh Theater

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A scene from "Wilderness," a production of En Garde Arts at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 15. Courtesy Kennedy Center.

If during the rest of the week — today through Sunday — you can get over to the Kennedy Center, you may want to stop in at the Family Theater, usually the site of children’s shows. Instead of theater for children, you will encounter a telling and surprising evening of theater about young people and their families.

“Wilderness,” a multimedia theater work featuring music, movement and video projections (including the use of Skype), is a challenging and moving journey into the lives of contemporary troubled teens. It tells the stories of six families — parents and their teens and slightly older offspring — taking on issues of addiction, mental health and gender and sexual identity.

The families — the challenged youths are played by six actors — and some of the real parents, who communicate by Skype with their children, are seen taking part in a group-therapy program called “Wilderness,” in which they deal with their issues in a deserted outdoor landscape.

There is, of course, no real wilderness. Video projections fill in the landscape on a mostly bare stage, but it is all nevertheless theater, albeit a very different (if not exactly totally new) kind.

“Wilderness” is the work of the En Garde Arts company, founded by the eclectic Anne Hamburger, who wrote the show with Seth Bockley. Bockley also directed the production, which began life at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Actually, it started to come to life almost two years earlier, when the multifaceted Hamburger began interviewing young people and their parents.

Hamburger, who’s led a life in all kinds of theater, has an unusual term for her role. “I like to think I’m an inventor, not directly a traditional producer,” she says. She has also been described as a serial cultural entrepreneur. She founded and became executive producer of En Garde Arts, which burst on the scene in 1985 with an immersive approach radically different from linear, narrative theater: documentary, multimedia-based and site-specific.

“Theater, I felt, should be performed everywhere, in various genres, not just the traditional stage. At that time, this was something new. It brought people together. It took place in the community, a room, an office, an industrial area,” she says.

For a long time, En Garde Arts was the first exclusively site-specific theater in New York. Locations included Central Park, the Penn Yards, the East River, the Chelsea Hotel and the the Meatpacking District. The company tackled such issues as AIDS and the economic disparities between rich and poor, in the process collecting six Obies, two Drama Desk Awards and an Outer Circle Critics Special Award.

A recent and spectacular success was “Basetrack Live.” A production dealing with immigration is in the works.

En Garde Arts was something of a leap for Hamburger, who was also executive director of Walt Disney Creative Entertainment, heading the development of large-scale stage shows. She brought major artists to the company, including Diane Paulus of “Hair” fame and Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre.

“Wilderness” is a different kind of project for her, in the sense that it sets out to shed a human light on what is a hidden, national issue, as well as a personal one. “Some of this, certainly, stemmed from my own experience with my son,” she said. “So, yes, personal feelings are involved.

“But, on a bigger scale, this is happening all over the country — parents and their children not communicating, young people communicating only with their gadgets and in digital ways, kids in trouble and not being able to communicate. We are not by any means trying to promote a particular form of therapy. The production is illustrating a problem in ways that we hope are moving and affecting and engaging.

“The audience for this is rather diverse,” she points out. “It’s beyond teens. It’s more about young people and their parents. So when you see some of the real parents on Skype, I think it’s really revealing and touching. I don’t think they have given up on their children. I think there’s this terrible frustration going on today between parents and children. So many families experience this. There’s this anxiety about not being able to connect to their kids and they don’t know what to do.”

Hamburger’s work, like so much out in the theater world today, in which institutional leaders are actively trying to reach new audiences, is at the forefront of the discussion. Here in D.C., in the Family Theater, there is a window of opportunity to catch an urgent and fresh type of theater with “Wilderness.”

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