from ICON - Iowa City/Cedar Rapids - March 26, 1998

In the cheap seats

No Shame Theatre presents the experience of experimental theater for a buck

By Andy Hettinga

As a three-year veteran of the University of Iowa's theater department's rebellious offshoot No Shame Theater program, Robert Frisch must have known he was charting undiscovered territory as soon as a lone actor, scheduled to perform an improvisational piece at the end of one of last year's performances, brandished a wooden toilet plunger as his only prop. The writer/actor/board of directors chairperson could only watch in horror as the unidentified male artist, after abstracting the numerous physical possibilities of the object, decided to go for the "full monty" by dropping his pants and attempting to sit on the business end of the besuctioned plunger.

"He was a little tense," Frisch recalled with an admirably maintained straight face, "so he couldn't quite make it. We don't normally have many sodomy pieces."

Clearly, No Shame Theater has come a long way from its humble beginnings, when its performances took place in the back of a member's truck with motorcycle headlamps for lighting. Born of a graduate exercise called Midnight Madness, No Shame's goal at its inception was to provide different performance opportunities for anyone and everyone who wanted them, as well as an entertaining (and cheap) theatrical alternative for audiences. Eleven years later, the anything-goes freedom and experimentalism that have always characterized this wild bastardization of improvisational performance and theater have remained.

A few things have changed, however. For one thing, the shows have moved to the more friendly confines of Theatre B in the Theatre Building. Performances run every Friday at 10pm when the university is in session, and though the cost of renting the space from the university in recent years has prompted the board of directors to finally start charging admission, you can still see it all for one dollar. The guidelines for pieces have changed a bit, too, but anyone with a creative idea and a strong threshold for embarrassment can still perform in No Shame. The only request made is a written script or outline, originality, a five-minute time limit and a promise that the piece will not damage the theater space or performers. In short, Frisch said, "we're not going to stop you because of quality or content concerns. We almost never even read over the scripts--we want to keep it as experimental and open as possible. That's kind of the point of No Shame."

This open format makes for a dizzying array of theatrical approaches. Some come to perform autobiographical monologues, exorcise personal demons or spout off political opinions. Some perform on a dare from friends. Some are writers testing a scene or a character for the first time, relying on the intimate and extremely vocal nature of No Shame's audiences for the tell-all reaction that will let them know if the piece is bomb or gem. Some are dancers, some are poets, some are musicians, some are performance artists--there's even the occasional self-masochist. It is this eclecticism, this openness, Frisch said, that is part of what makes No Shame such a unique theater experience--for the performers and, more importantly, for the audience.

With material like this, you would think the performances would be packed. For many years, the group enjoyed a healthy cult following that brought a faithful audience and talented writers week after week. But in recent times, however, it had appeared that No Shame was in a bit of a slump. Lagging attendance (due, say No Shame members, to the higher number of performances in recent years taking up more of a theater major's precious time) and the loss of mainstay writers and actors to graduation was creating both serious money problems and a letdown in the length and variety of performances.

"Basically, two years ago they had two people writing five to six pieces every Friday," said No Shame board member and veteran writer/actor Mandi Lee. "People didn't want to see the same show every week." All of these things prompted speculation that the theater was petering out. But according to Lee, rumors of No Shame's death have been greatly exaggerated. This year, attendance has risen back to 100-150 people a night, mostly as a result of an influx of new writers and new types of performances. The rising number of musicians, dancers and prose writers becoming involved has breathed new life into Friday nights at Theater B, Lee said. Also new to this year's No Shame--the broadcast of taped performances on local cable station PATV, which has also undoubtedly contributed to the broadening of the theater's audience and the increase in interest.

The highlight of the No Shame experience, though, comes at the end of the season with the "Best of No Shame" performance, this spring tentatively scheduled for May 1. This "greatest hits" night features the most popular, unique, funny or especially effective pieces from the previous year--and provides the participants of No Shame an opportunity to hone some of the rough edges. Last fall's event (slated for broadcast on PATV periodically throughout April) included everything from some genuinely hilarious sketches on relationships, the afterlife and the WonderBra to a guitar-strumming pig impressionist to full frontal male nudity. Now that's a lot of entertainment for a dollar. But Lee warned not to skip the regular performances; after all, the spontaneous moments that are the essence of No Shame can't be duplicated in an end-of-the-year repeat.

"Actually," she added, "I'm a big fan of those rough edges." In the end, what's most important about No Shame for Frisch and Lee is what's most important, possibly, about the experience of experimental theater in general. "I think what's really great about No Shame is that every night is a different grab bag of performances," Lee said with a smile. "Some nights, you say 'well, I only paid a buck'--and some nights, you witness a moment of genius."*

(C)1998 Icon Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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