Control Group Productions takes over the Aurora Fox for a unique night backstage
I’m not sure what I just experienced, but I liked it.”
That’s what I was thinking to myself as I left the Aurora Fox Saturday night following a “showing” of Cutting Room Floor — an immersive theatre experience that combines film, dance, a kind of scavenger hunt and a whole bunch of other elements to create … something. Neither fish nor fowl, musical, drama or comedy, Cutting Room Floor comes from Control Group Productions and it’s a perfect, somewhat unsettling diversion for the Halloween season.
But it is not, mind you, a haunted house kinda deal — although it does have some elements of that. The setup is that the audience is a group of interns arriving at the historic Aurora Fox theatre to help with a production of The Beast (basically Beauty and the Beast). After meeting house manager “Uncle” Andy Sutherland (Control Group artistic director Patrick Mueller) and a couple of wacky ushers (Chelsea Frye and Nicholas Caputo), the “interns” are ushered into the auditorium and shown a well-done, black-and-white alt-history film about the Fox Theatre (which really does have an interesting history, although probably not quite as “Area 51-y” as the film suggests).
As the Quonset hut that is the Aurora Fox famously did in 1981, the film bursts into flames while the action morphs into a rehearsal of The Beast. The director is Jean Marie la Poubelle (Bailey Harper), and she’s none too happy with how things are progressing with the two leads (James Brunt as The Beast and Catlin Seavey as La Belle). And she also turns in her seat to chide the interns for not understanding French.
The scene the two are rehearsing proves to be a sort of recurring nightmare, since it’s never good enough for la Poubelle and it’s repeated over and over throughout the evening. The catch is, we don’t have to keep watching it because we’re on the move.
A well-orchestrated mess
I love wandering around backstage in theatres. Everything back there is in service to the pretty picture shown to the audience, so the underbelly is often a glorious mess. Shit hangs from the walls everywhere, more shit is stuffed in every corner. Crummy old chairs and beat-up tables serve as the everyday furniture for cast and crew, and posted signs and warnings about this and that appear everywhere.
It’s into this organized chaos that we interns were escorted. Control Group has taken over the Fox and turned it into a fun house cum escape room, with well-placed lights, video monitors and various tour guides moving things along. A suitably creepy and interesting music mix is piped into every area.
To keep it from being an overly large crowd, the interns are split into several groups, and each group has its own journey sequence throughout the theatre and the various waypoints. (At one point you’ll need to don a hardhat, so there’s that.)
The Aurora Fox Arts Center has been in existence since the 1940s and been a live performance venue since 1985. As such, there’s an astounding array of crapola for Control Group to play with. Back in the props area, they created a labyrinth of sorts, a series of separate chambers chock-a-block with old lamps and figurines and filing cabinets and mannequins and organs and manual typewriters and costume pieces and even a battered old Dodge pickup truck.
Although we were supposed to be finding some objects on a list we were handed, I found myself mesmerized by all the stuff and I don’t think I was a very good intern. When I look at an assortment of that kind of theatrical detritus, my mind wanders to all those past productions and I try to imagine what show used that dusty music box, that old book, that ugly chair.
Amid all this, the characters pop in and out. Sometimes they’re offering instructions or moving us to the next stop. Others perform vignettes that just add to the confusing atmosphere: The three legit dancers — Seavey, Harper and Camille Delaney as La Lumiere — have fun creepily showing off their moves in a stairwell, atop some filing cabinets, against an exit door. They mostly exist in a nether realm, staying silent and only tangentially acknowledging the existence of the interns.
At one point we wound up in the dressing room with Brunt, who expressed his frustrations about the rehearsal to us and quizzed us about our own lives. We also meet “Leading Man” Ricardo Gaston (James Lopez), who provides much of the comic relief as the egotistical actor upset that he doesn’t “win” against The Beast. We lean the most about his back story through an amusing series of video clips shown to us in the dressing room.
A dazzling feat of production
The level of coordination to make this all happen is impressive. As the groups move throughout different areas of the theatre, lights have to come on, characters have to appear, a video needs to be cued — there’s a lot going on. By the time things wind down and the cast meets the interns back out in the lobby (after their curtain calls on film, which was a nice touch), they all looked pretty spent.
At some points during the show, I don’t think I was alone among the interns feeling like we’d been in one place too long or were unsure what we were supposed to be doing (if anything). Since Cutting Room Floor couldn’t be truly rehearsed without an audience, my guess is there will be quite a bit of tweaking over the course of the run to tighten things up a bit. At the same time, if the goal is to have people a bit unsettled, then a fair amount of uncertainty perhaps fits right into the formula.
The way to go into this experience is with a completely open mind. Don’t expect anything — just go with it. I feel like I learned how to enjoy this show fully only about halfway through it, when I started focusing on the individual tableaux and quirky elements rather than trying to ascertain what the big picture was or what the story should be.
It’s not that kind of thing. In some respects, Cutting Room Floor is a celebration of how well theatre people can create an entire world and tell all about it in 90 minutes. The hard-working cast and crew deserve major props (pun perhaps intended) for creating a wholly unique and entertainingly weird night out.
Because so much of what made this so interesting and entertaining was what went into all the prep and ultimate production, here’s a rundown of who did what in Cutting Room Floor:
Rehearsal director: Bailey Harper
Environment design: Catlin Seavey and Christine Woods
Sound design: Nicholas Caputo
Video design: Daniel Sharkey
Lighting design: Brett Maughan
Costume design: Irene Joyce
Sourcing/set dressing: Catlin Seavey
Flower install/set dressing: Lindsay Pierce
Stage management: Christine Woods
Asst. stage management: Leah Cardenas, Brandon Gonzales
Electrician: Brett Maughan