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Miranda July Unveils Somebody App; Try it at the Walker

Public spaces can seem pretty alienating these days. Take a look around—on the bus, in the park, on the street, even at the dinner table—and it feels like most everyone is focused deep into the rabbit hole of their phones. This fall, the Walker will participate in a new project from the genre-defying make-believer/people-connector Miranda July that seeks to turn our love […]

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Public spaces can seem pretty alienating these days. Take a look around—on the bus, in the park, on the street, even at the dinner table—and it feels like most everyone is focused deep into the rabbit hole of their phones.

This fall, the Walker will participate in a new project from the genre-defying make-believer/people-connector Miranda July that seeks to turn our love affair with our cell phones into real-life, face-to-face interactions with strangers.

Today at the Venice Film Festival, July launched a free iPhone messaging app called Somebody, along with a short film about how it might be used.

Somebody uses GPS to find other app users in close proximity to the people you already know. Instead of sending your friend a text directly, you’ll ask someone else nearby (likely a stranger) to deliver your message, in person, to the recipient. Want your message to be a singing telegram, or to couch it in air quotes? The app’s interface also includes actions to assign to your stand-in (or you can create your own).

Anybody can use Somebody at any time, but the technology relies upon having app users close to one another. To encourage experimentation with the app, July has established a first wave of “hotspots” at several art centers across the country, and the Walker is proud to be among them.

So, join us at any Target Free Thursday Night in the next two months (leading up to the World Premiere of Miranda July’s New Society here on October 30 and 31), as we play with strangers using Somebody. And we’ll have somebody else (a real live person!) on hand to help answer questions.

As July says of Somebody, “I see this as far-reaching public art project, inciting performance and conversation about the value of inefficiency and risk.”

For loads more information and to download the app, visit somebodyapp.com.

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luciana achugar: Cultivating Communal Vibrations

Focusing on energy and vibrations in space, the Walker-commissioned OTRO TEATRO will extend choreographer luciana achugar‘s philosophies surrounding dance and the female form. The Uruguayan-born, New York–based artist incorporates notions of collective experience and ritualized movement, bringing performer and audience together. A professional dancer and choreographer for nearly two decades, achugar will premiere OTRO TEATRO […]

Photo: Gene Pittman

Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Focusing on energy and vibrations in space, the Walker-commissioned OTRO TEATRO will extend choreographer luciana achugar‘s philosophies surrounding dance and the female form. The Uruguayan-born, New York–based artist incorporates notions of collective experience and ritualized movement, bringing performer and audience together. A professional dancer and choreographer for nearly two decades, achugar will premiere OTRO TEATRO at the Walker on February 27.

Throughout her career achugar has embraced dance as a means to create a sense of communal awareness. Intentionally spelling her name without capital letters to diminish hierarchical power, her choreography reflects the same passion for equity –her work lacking the traditional, established soloist roles. She told Curator Michèle Steinwald that she believes “everything should be a collective.”


Homogenizer Hybrid, Canada, January 2004

OTRO TEATRO will expand upon the feminist perspective achugar presents in her compositions. She challenges socially constructed standards of beauty and elevates the female form by concentrating on movement from the pelvis. The women in her 2004 piece A Super Natural Return to Love wore blue factory uniform smocks, storing red paint in the pockets that leaked through, and was later spread onto the white set backdrop. Celebrating the female experience, achugar’s work focuses on the sensuality – not sexuality – and pleasure of movement and the body. Her development of feminine expression aims to channel energies and cultivate communal vibrations.

achugar draws on the use of ritualized sound and movement to encourage a social bond between the audience and the performers. Patterned and repetitive sequences strengthen and clarify the dancers’ emotional intent, and empower the audience to actively engage with the performance. Recurring sounds construct an otherworldly, meditative space in which the choreography comes to life.

For her 2010 work PURO DESEO, she composed a dark and haunting duet with long-time collaborator and OTRO TEATRO set designer Michael Mahalchick, utilizing repetition of sound and action to articulate “performance as an incantation.” A spiritual tone resonates through many of her works. In PURO DESEO, both male and female voices alternately sing short, insistent melodies reminiscent of the chants of Tibetan monks. A single bell rings again and again, vibrating like the singing bowls historically used in Eastern meditation and healing practices. As achugar and Mahalchick pace, crawl, and reach upward across the dimly lit stage, a mysterious and dark energy vigorously appears.


PURO DESEO, The Kitchen, May 2010

Integrating a performance’s surroundings also affects the relationship between vibration and energy exchange. Steinwald wrote of achugar’s productions, “Each completed work takes on a ceremonial tone, acknowledging the agreement, we as audiences and artists have together, within the inhabited theatrical experience.” Like attending a church service that allows the congregation to share the same space physically and mentally, achugar endeavors to create an environment that both performer and spectator occupy, transferring energy to one another. OTRO TEATRO, for example, will metaphorically take place “in the ruins of a collapsed theater.” This work will actualize the performance space into which we, the viewers, will enter and participate.

An exploration of movement, sound, and perception, achugar’s OTRO TEATRO will provide a window into feminist expression in a vibratory landscape. Her past works’ engagement of the spiritual mind and imagination has redirected rhythmic and ordinary elements to produce meaningful, provocative exchanges. Continuing in a tradition of experimental and socially aware choreography, the ritualized patterns and communal consciousness that have served achugar so well will lay the foundation for her upcoming world premiere.

luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO opens February 27–March 1, 2014 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

The Craft of Recovery – Birth in Progress

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Genevieve Muench and Renée Copeland of Hiponymous share their […]

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Photo: Amy Fox

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Genevieve Muench and Renée Copeland of Hiponymous share their perspective on El Año en que nací / The year I was born by Lola Arias. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

As we look back on our four weeks of intensive theater-going, we find appropriate the retrospective tone of the Out There Series’ concluding performance. El Año en que nací / The year I was born, a play directed by Argentine director Lola Arias, was created for and with Chilean performers who were born during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The piece starts with a birth-year roll-call, delivered with a virile, militant tone from a megaphone. The performers stay seated in school desks until their name is called. They then run in circles, as if on a track, with their birth-year patched on their back. They line up, one by one and deliver succinctly what was happening politically in Chile the year of their birth. Instantly we are hit with some themes of time-travel, order, information, keeping track, and contest.

There are many technical elements used as vehicles of the stories, such as projectors, microphones, photos, lights, and sound-bites. The stage is hemmed in on each side with shelves stacked with props, yet the environment is most dictated by a line of lockers on the back wall–which appear to be holding cells for all of their stories–and a projector screen pulled down and set up center stage. The stage is backlit by neon tube lighting, so a lot of action/mobilizing of props is obscured. Sometimes implements and instruments in the environment are shifted to portray a scene more vividly; desks and guitars become doubly useful as gun imagery, or a ladder becomes a podium, yet the people always stay the same. Lola Arias employs a number of theatrical practices and techniques that help to reproduce, as an address to the audience, some aspects of the original dialogue, action and metaphor that developed during the creation process. Arias collaborates with both trained and untrained performers. The company holds the principle that anyone can act, a theory that is ostensibly in the vein of Theater of the Oppressed, a practice rooted in the belief that people have the capability to act in the “theater” of their own experience. The performers take turns leading us through their historiography, as they unabashedly locate themselves as carriers of their own stories.

Occasionally, however, performers are asked by the current main storyteller to act out a family scene, or that of a shooting. The other performers oblige by assuming choreography, a tableau vivante depiction of the scene that is simultaneously being described in great detail by the narrator. Strangely, the pairing of bodies and words has little effect on the experience for us as viewers, in terms of the potential for emotional impact, for it is done as clinically as any 2D visual aid, to the point that the use of their bodies (or is it the words?) feels completely perfunctory. Perhaps the dissonance lies in that even as the performers are playing out another role for a moment, they remain undeniably themselves, inescapably authentic.

For most of the play, the energy, synchronicities and confrontations of the performers are strictly on a frontal display, projected out towards the audience rather than between themselves. The work, which fixates on historical/personal narratives, articulates itself heavily through verbal delivery, often leaving the bodies of the performers behind. As dancers and choreographers, we (Hiponymous) ached with the desire to see the stories told through the body more. An all-out dance number is installed somewhere in the first third of the show and we are left dumbfounded as to why. It is worrisome to think that maybe the dance (and perhaps the few live songs strewn throughout) was only used for transitional texture, a wash of movement for the sake of a textual break. If there was another meaning, beyond the group replicating a somewhat self-aware, cheesy dance number from Chilean television past, it was lost on us. The performers danced with a variety of expressions on their faces, ranging from pure enjoyment to coyness to self-involved to deadpan. The lack of uniformity would not be so troublesome to us, if we felt those deliveries were intentional or directed that way. Instead, the dance seems inconsequential. Dance is a field dedicated to, and reliant on, metaphor. If we recognize our bodies as sites of history, identity and commentary, and ourselves as viable, poetic story-tellers, then we can sustain the integrity of our personal truths long after our voices give out. For such important subject matter as this piece, we wondered why not imbue the performers’ movement with more agency, whether they decide to use those gestures for satire or sincerity? Why not develop that power?

An interesting tension around authenticity comes to the foreground when the performers are asked to stand in a line that demonstrates a scale of their parents’ political ideologies from leftist to right. They are asked again to make this line from poor to rich, and again, light skin to dark. These moments are exciting as they display raw discussion and uncomfortable categorization. They make problematic conventional archetypes, smashing the binaries of bad guy/good guy, survivor/murderer, resistance/police, as often both extremes reside within one person’s family. Another line is formed in the dark. Each person lights a match and begins to tell where s/he was during the blackouts. One says she was in Mexico City and her match is instantly blown out by the person next to her. We begin to see how, in a quest for the more “authentic” story, those with exile histories are silenced more abruptly. Thus, the front-line survivor story receives platform priority. The sensationalism of the survivor story never fully takes over, however, and while their approach is never self-exploitative, the tailoring of drama reminds us of our particular cultural lens. How big does the story have to be to receive American viewership? Has our need for spectacle become our only entryway into compassion and action?….(“My god, that’s horrible….is anybody doing anything about this?!”)

El Año en que nací winds us through a tormented private and public history. Ultimately we are left in the present with an understanding of the current social climate of Chile and this generation’s hopes and ambitions for their country.

 El Año en que nací / The year I was born by Lola Arias runs through February 1 in the McGuire Theater.

Cue: Human Life and Habitual Endings

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Genevieve Muench and Renée Copeland of Hiponymous share their perspective […]

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Photo: Karen Linke

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Genevieve Muench and Renée Copeland of Hiponymous share their perspective on Public in Private/Clément Layes’ Allege. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Public in Private/Clément Layes’ Allege is a humorous, contemplative, and startlingly graceful solo that will leave art-makers excited to explore and reinvest in the mundane richness of everyday objects and surroundings. Completing tasks in unconventionally habitual ways, Layes slumps around the space with a small glass of water balanced on the nape of his neck. He reacts to this burden with a complacent air. His physicality is outlandish, a seemingly cobbled-together body of aesthetic, training, and function: his turned-out walk is clownlike, he stands with an armadillo hunch, and his arms continuously extend from his body like runway carpets gracefully unfurling. He has the dexterity of a primate, certain in his ungainly body. While his face is positioned uncompromisingly to the floor, his fingertips take on the function of expressive eyeballs, making contact with objects with a matter-of-fact touch. We witness his successes and quickly identify him as an expert. His lack of showmanship allows us to normalize the experience and we come to expect his proficiency.

From the very beginning, Layes plays with our expectations. The stage lights come up, we wait tensely for an electric tea kettle to boil. The unpredictable certainty of that moment is comical. Layes enters with a series of actions that evokes and reinforces our tendency to predict. He marks with thick electrical tape an “X” on the floor, which traditionally in performance marks the spot where an event will take place, be it human or prop. The marking of that spot is not only its own event, it signifies that Layes will fulfill a relationship to this place in the future. Thus, before action even begins, we are given markers of expectation. Layes directs starts and stops with the tech booth, cueing spotlights and music (always David Byrne’s “Like Humans Do”) to highlight how a spectrum of scenarios can be executed with the same elements, such as a table, a plant, water bottles, and several low ball glasses.

Layes performs nuanced feats adeptly, sometimes with an earnest, willful physicality, yet mostly with attractively perfunctory efficiency, and upon completion he discards his props with ambivalence. Layes’ sense of detachment in performance mirrors Byrne’s omnipresent lyricism that reminds us that the many anxieties of life can be small when approached with a bird’s eye view. Similarly, it seems Layes’ corporeal successes depend on a calm, objective approach. That physicalization of objectivity reads as a kind of sparse, circus performativity, but that simplicity soon sheds away as he uses gestures that are imaginative and symbolic in nature, albeit born from the logistics of juggling water on his head. While Layes’ elongated use of temporal space is often out of necessity (unruly props!), there are moments in which his environment is more controlled and thus his play with props and time are trivial choices made intentionally to toy with our desires as viewers.

The performance, though delivered by a Frenchman, has the English title of Allege. Though we expect to read the word with an accent and imagine a piece full of light, cheerful themes, the English, especially American, implications of the word “allege” bring us to courtroom lingo, priming us with a lens of incredulity. This is all designed for many great reveals. Especially later in the piece, once he begins to claim and attest to the nature of the things in his environment, we are reminded of the title and its connotation, and yet we are charmed by his language, captivated by his revelatory assertions of what “that” is, as he points to yet another object we have been obsessively watching him move with. We imbibe his labels more than passively–passionately, willingly. His success in stimulating and imprinting lasting meaning in our perceptions is proven when an hour after the show, as we discuss the piece, we still refer to the towel as the “dream,” the bucket as “limitation” and so on. Go see this show if you are in the mood for an intelligent yet humble lecture demonstration on ways to jump-start the performing artist’s sense of wonder while having no illusions about our collective ending: that X, that promised culmination that nobody knows but everybody anticipates. As David Byrne says, “I WORK, I SLEEP, I DANCE, I’M DEAD.”

Clément Layes performs Allege  January 23-25 at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

Spoiler Alert: Penis Penis Penis

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The […]

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Photo: Shinsuke Suginou

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

A wildly entertaining trip written and directed by Kuro Tanino, The Room Nobody Knows, performed by Tokyo-based theater company Niwa Gekidan Penino, is a partially dissected dream, full of blatant and elusive symbolism. The set design is based off of the traditional Japanese Noh stage, but developed as a top/bottom duplex, squeezing the actors and action into comical proportions. The main character, Kenji, explores the dream-like apartment with desire and whimsy, luring the viewers into every nook and cranny of the architecture, which glorifies phallic, masculine forms. A small cannon sits in the corner. The doorknobs, coffeetable, chairs, and erect holders for the Shakuhachi flutes are all shaped like penises. And then there are the handmade penis figurines of Kenji’s beloved older brother in four archetypal renderings: “The avant-garde you, the revolutionary you, the feminine you, the pop you”. Kenji’s idolatry of his brother becomes an obsession and preparing for his older brother’s birthday completely distracts him from his high school studies, which he has been dizzily tending to for 27 years.

The upper room of the duplex is occupied by Kenji’s alter egos, one with hog ears and the other with sheep horns. We meet these characters first as they assist in assembling the penis power room. They move through the tight quarters, revealing tableaus like pieces in a game of chess. They furnish the older brother’s birthday party with erect penises, as gift offerings, and are a comedic presence as the “Elves of Unpaid Labor”. There is nothing subtly phallic, only obvious, graphically polished models of penises with perfect curvature. The mounted room of phallic power is a blatant depiction of what are often subliminally placed markers of a culture’s patriarchal agenda. And yet, as a culture, we also habitually laugh at the sight of penis forms. With a phallic-filled stage and Kenji’s dueling alter egos, Tanino’s psychological fantasy world becomes an environment rich with duality and sexual frustration.

The ways in which gender and sexuality are explored are stimulating…intellectually, that is. On one hand, it is very enjoyable to watch the two brothers express affection, amorously, earnestly pressing their bodies into one another, holding faces in hands, looking into one another’s eyes with declarations of love. On the other hand, the scenes are ripe with taboo (homoerotic sibling love), and the exposed vulnerability that comes along with that keeps the audience from responding too favorably and the performers from going much further than bold verbal and physical insinuations.

While American audiences are used to witnessing theater in which the Asian or Asian-American male body is often thrown into one-dimensional, emasculated roles, the Walker audience becomes privy to refreshingly complex representations of Asian men through Tanino’s direction of these two brothers. This is a play that tells the story of two bodies, full of agency and yet fraught with deviant tendencies that are personal to them and informed by their past accomplishments and future ambitions. Of course, on top of all that, it’s all just a dream. And yet, dreams are linked to subconscious truths. Thus, it’s easy to see that the monumental things in Kenji’s waking life will remain erect.

Niwa Gekidan Penino performs The Room Nobody Knows January 16-18 in the McGuire Theater.

Balancing Act: Clément Layes on Performance, Philosophy, and the Art of Play

Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by […]

Clément Layes "Allege"

Clément Layes. Photo: Dieter Hartwig

Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by making a game of them, pushing them to the point of absurdity, merging research and performance, logic and phenomenology. As with the glass of water, he creates a balance with elements from his training in dance, theater, circus, and philosophy, while still refusing to be defined or confined by categories.

Allege is a performance and a question. As Layes writes on his website:

It is not an art for the future nor a culture for now. It is five hundred quotes disguised in few plastic bottles. It is not a geometric demonstration. It is not about Clément Layes, it is not a rock concert although it would be great, it is not only happening, it’s also unhappening, it is not ambivalent.

In advance of his visit to Minneapolis, I had the chance to chat with Layes over Skype to learn a bit more about his eclectic background, the philosophical inquiry in his work, and how Allege came to be.

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Clément Layes in Allege. Photo: Karen Linke

What was your creative process for Allege? How did you come up with the ideas for this piece?

It started with some research I was doing with objects, particularly with glasses and bottles of water. I was working with a few other performers at the time, and we started practicing balancing a glass of water on our heads — which is not so easy to do! But I realized that there was very interesting potential within the structure of the glass. I wanted to explore how I could constrain myself in order to not be able to dance like we would expect a dancer to, but rather to move in a very specific way that would be defined by the constraints we had created — in the first place, the glass of water. So that’s how it developed. It wasn’t something that was planned; it was more ongoing research about these constraints and these objects.

On the topic of constraining structures: you’ve studied philosophy, and it seems to find its way into many of your pieces. How does philosophy figure into your work?

First of all, I am not a philosopher. But I have a great interest in philosophy, and for me, creating a performance is not so much something that is meant to entertain people, but rather to create some thinking in the audience. And not just conventional logical thinking — I see performance as a way to experience the world through the senses as well. I was very influenced by the phenomenological thinkers, the type of philosophy that invites one to come back to the experience of things. The question for me, particularly in performance, is how to find strategies to re-engage with the world, how to rediscover the things we actually know. By rediscovering them we also discover how the inscribed knowledge we have accumulated can be made dynamic again.

I’m also very interested in the creation of systems. This is maybe not so much about philosophy, but it’s something that is very present in bureaucratic systems and so on: we endlessly create systems that constrain us in different manners, being totally ineffective. I was curious to see what is produced on stage if I do this to a kind of extreme absurdity.

You have an eclectic background in circus, dance, theater, and philosophy: how does your background contribute to your work?

It’s a very strange path. I did theater and circus in high school, and later I pursued philosophy and circus. I was a juggler — it was my first specialty. At circus school I also did all kinds of acrobatics and trapeze, but my main interest went very soon to dance. I had been struggling in between circus, philosophy, and dance, and somehow I ended up only doing dance and attending dance school.

What’s interesting for me is that it took me around ten years to finally be able to combine these different elements of my background on stage and to make them play together without excluding elements of one or the other. And because they are so different in terms of form and aesthetics, I feel like part of the creation I’ve been doing in this performance particularly was to find ways to make those interests merge into one specific form that was satisfying for me.

In this sense I think the performance speaks a lot about categories, about how we organize categories — which to me is very complex. I started to reflect really precisely on the category of dance: what does it mean if I, as a creator of dance, place myself in the dance category? Am I not keeping myself within certain boundaries which are defined by the institutions with which I work? So now I try not to think in those terms, not to define myself while I’m working.

That actually was one of my questions—“Do you have a way to describe yourself and the work you do?” It sounds like from what you’re saying, you don’t really describe yourself as doing just dance, or theater, or circus, or art…

Exactly. I cannot escape being defined by others and particularly by institutions, because there is a need from theaters and critics and so on to define something for the audience. But in order to have the chance to create something new, I have to take care not to be defined within these frames. For example, I find that dance and visual art actually have a lot in common, but they are created in two categories that are very strongly socially divided, in terms of the practice and the people involved. In dance, we tend to be dependent on the dance studio and can only access it for a certain number of hours per week or month, and only in relation to a production. That is, dance as a practice is defined by the time frame of the rehearsal schedule. This is the opposite of practice for visual artists: they have the studio, where they can work every day without having to produce something. Now I am trying to create a space where I can work whenever it’s needed, to not only function in order to make a production, but to also be able to try out things, to research without being bound to make a piece.

One of the most important aspects of Allege is “play,” as a way to deal with these categories. I never take a very serious approach, but more a kind of childlike way of working: putting things together and seeing what happens in order to decide the next step to take.

Clément Layes "Allege"

Clément Layes in Allege. Photo: Dieter Hartwig

Your company, Public in Private, also seems pretty uncategorizable. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Jasna Vinorvski is one of the main members and a co-founder with me. The primary thing we do is create performances, but since it’s a young company, the idea is to also develop it as a collective. We have worked with performers, visual artists, musicians, theater makers, etc., but often just for the creation of a production. The next step for us is to have a group that would be linked to Berlin, or to people passing through there, doing ongoing research and thinking and discussion, on a very playful basis — it doesn’t have to be very serious or academic — about how to position ourselves as artists within the contemporary scene. Because the artistic act is not only on stage, it’s not only something that relates to the stage itself, but it’s also a way to enter into the social context in which it is happening. We are working on a project we call the “Private Theater,” as a way to deal with these questions, and to involve more choreographers and artists in our discussions.

Clément Layes performs Allege at 8 pm January 23–25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater. Stay after the performances for a post-show reception with the artist (Thursday, January 23), a Q & A with the artist (Friday, January 24), and a SpeakEasy discussion with local artists and a Walker tour guide (Saturday, January 25).

Join Clément on Saturday, January 25, 11 am1 pm in the McGuire Theater for Inside Out There. This charmingly philosophical workshop creates theater and choreography with everyday objects. Each participant is asked to bring an object that they use daily to imagine what dreams it might imply, invite, or induce. Open to all. $6 ($4 Walker members).

Building The Room Nobody Knows

As a part of Out There 2014: New World Visions, the Walker presents Japanese performance group Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows, a personal, psychosexual account of the competitive strain between two brothers. The piece is rife with Freudian imagery, with phallic shapes forming much of the set and props, as company director Kuro Tanino intersects […]

As a part of Out There 2014: New World Visions, the Walker presents Japanese performance group Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows, a personal, psychosexual account of the competitive strain between two brothers. The piece is rife with Freudian imagery, with phallic shapes forming much of the set and props, as company director Kuro Tanino intersects his experience as a practicing psychiatrist with his work on the stage. Intricate, surreal sets are a hallmark of Niwa Gekidan Penino’s shows. Works of art on their own, their sets are often opened as miniature exhibits before the narrative or characters that inhabit the space are even conceived. Of course, the process of setting up such a space is equally as detailed as the space itself.

This time-lapse video shows the set’s careful recreation at the show’s North American debut at the Japan Society in New York City. This construction (and deconstruction) will happen a number of times over the next few weeks: the Walker is the second stop on a tour that also hits On the Boards (Seattle, WA), FringeArts (Philadelphia, PA), and the Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, Ohio).  Audiences at the Walker will be placed on the McGuire stage with the performers for an intimate look at this symbolic world and its story. (For another chance to interact with director Kuro Tanino, consider Inside Out There: Niwa Gekian Penino, an acting workshop that will perform a surgery in silence.)

In a recent interview with the Walker, Tanino provided some advice for his audience: “Please build a house and have a room in your mind somewhere. Put your secret emotions, curiosities you can’t tell anyone, and your dangerous illusions there. The room will instantly be filled, almost to the point of exploding. Lock your room then, and open the door with the key after you see the show.” This set, bursting with these curiosities and illusions, is such a room, and he has left his door wide open. See how yours compares.

Niwa Gekidan Penino performs The Room Nobody Knows Thursday, January 16, at 8 pm (SOLD OUT) and Friday and Saturday, January 17-18, at 7 and 9:30 pm in the McGuire Theater. Very limited seating.

Wide Scope, Sharp Focus: The Intensive Care of John Malpede

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on the opening night of Wunderbaum & LAPD’s […]

John Malpede in Hospital . Photo: Steve Gunther

John Malpede in Hospital . Photo: Steve Gunther

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on the opening night of Wunderbaum & LAPD’s Hospital. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

We were all talking about our opinions regarding Obamacare five years ago, and for better or for worse, we are just now beginning to see how Obama’s Affordable Care Act is playing out as a solution to the US healthcare crisis. Hospital kicked off the Walker’s Out There series last night, taking the stage with dance, video, music, and personal narrative, a sensationalized performance about how healthcare is an unpredictable component in the lives of many Americans.

Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) collaborates with Wunderbaum, a Netherlands-based theater collective, and their initial presentation is a disorientating and intensely configured stage set-up. Rows of office desks span the length of the space, a gurney sits in the foreground, and the outside frame is a shuffle of mic stands and video camera tripods. For some time we sit and are reminded of walking through the narrowing hallways of the medical field. The performers independently move about the stage, some with drive and others with a lack of clarity. Two actors hold an intelligible conversation behind a fixed camera, mic and projector, and a woman wades toward the gurney as others pace back and forth assembling tools, putting on hospital coats and pushing papers from one desk to the other. The scope of the stage is broad and the mild-mannered performers steady our points of interest. There is a quiet normalcy about their pace, their tone, raising doubts within our viewership as to when the show has started. Papers are dropped: was it a stage direction? What follows instills that yes, we are witnessing every detail of a performed narrative. The show, in fact has already begun. No, you don’t have time to run to the bathroom.

A sudden chaos erupts in a dramatic, ER-like scene and the audience is brought to the birthplace of an average white American. We meet John Malpede, LAPD’s artistic director, who has been an active recipient of both the US and Netherlands healthcare systems during his lifetime. The chosen protagonist’s identity (straight, white, male) is frustratingly representative of the dominant narrative, which the creators are seemingly aware of; as the play develops, the intensive focus on Malpede becomes more clearly framed as an ironic choice. The story’s perspective, however, inevitably becomes a larger address on the health care issues facing both countries. We predicate Hospital’s intent with buzz words around single payer healthcare, tax payer split agendas, and American individualism; it’s here that the work starts asking probing questions.

Through both fictional and factual presentations, Hospital asks, what kind of political mobilization will it take to achieve a sustainable, national healthcare system? What would that free system look like? The performers never pause to answer these questions, but rather move through embodying an array of characters: medical professionals, lovers, politicians. They nudge the audience through John Malpede’s true life encounters with the healthcare system, taking time to elaborate at junctures where Malpede disputes the voices of debt collectors and insurance representatives. The narrative reveals itself both on- and off-mic, and with the spirit of street theater the performers are generous with their direct, linear storytelling. It’s the rapid changing of characters, camera frames, and pace of performance that become metaphor for how people get lost in the shuffle of the system. With what they’ve coined as a “ficto-mentary” mode of delivery, LAPD and Wunderbaum desire to show us, in many ways, that the main character’s story is interchangeable with others who participate in broken healthcare systems, not once admitting outright Malpede’s evident privileges. The buzz words start up again at “hipster-ism,” Jim Crow, and Skid Row, which the performers use to ask the audience to consider the privilege of claiming individuality and importance within the system. While Hospital asks more questions than it could possibly answer in one hundred minutes, let alone one’s lifetime, the rigor and dynamism of the performers grounds us. They offer us a creative and imaginative contemporary framework, so that relating our personal experience to these systemic issues becomes tangible and devising solutions seems feasible.

Wunderbaum and LAPD perform Hospital January 9-11 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

How Theater Can Help Shift the Narrative of Homelessness

Before the 1980s, the word “homelessness” did not appear in newspapers. It emerged in the popular lexicon to describe the visible results of Reagan’s decision to withdraw billions of federal dollars from affordable housing allocations — a decision that, along with other factors, quadrupled the number of people sleeping on the streets in most American […]

220 glimpses of utopia, Skid Row Los Angeles (UTOPIA/dystopia)

LAPD, 220 Glimpses of Utopia, an “outdoor utopian movement chain” in Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2007

Before the 1980s, the word “homelessness” did not appear in newspapers. It emerged in the popular lexicon to describe the visible results of Reagan’s decision to withdraw billions of federal dollars from affordable housing allocations — a decision that, along with other factors, quadrupled the number of people sleeping on the streets in most American cities.

With this word we’ve put into existence a thing, which is actually not a thing. It’s a lack of a thing. This lack is depicted as a person with a cardboard sign or a shopping cart, on a park bench or under a bridge. (Try doing a Google image search of “homelessness” and you’ll see what I’m talking about). The story we’re telling about this picture is that individuals have circumstances that lead them to become homeless. We think it’s always been this way and maybe always will be. We imagine we have a choice to give or not give but other than that there isn’t much we can do.

Meeting the immediate needs of people in crisis will save lives. But if we want to unravel this crisis then we have to unravel the story. Theater can help us do that.

My belief in this statement stems from ten years working with the zAmya Theater Project of St. Stephen’s Human Services bringing together people who’ve experienced homelessness to tell stories and through my work as a founding artist and performing director at the radical community-based Bedlam Theatre. zAmya, like many other similar companies, have been inspired by the work of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), which this weekend performs Hospital, a collaboration with Rotterdam’s Wunderbaum, as part of the Walker’s Out There series. Both LAPD and zAmya use theater to change the narrative of homelessness.

"There's No Place Like Home" Presented by zAmya Theatre Project. Starring Caroline Mannheimer as Dorothy, Chloe Azure Lindsay Lamberson as Toto, Melisa Johnson as Traveler, Richard Brinda as Scarecrow, Savanna Eileen Antiel as Rusty, Corey Walton as Gambler, Greg Tromiczak as Husband, Arminta Wilson as Lindy, and Marvin Howard as Wizard. Photo: Dan Norman

zAmya Theatre Project’s There’s No Place Like Home. Photo: Dan Norman

LAPD’s name alone suggests they’re here to reframe the narrative around homelessness with ironic authority. While echoing the moniker for another vexed service institution in the area, the Los Angeles Poverty Department is a theater by and for the people of Skid Row, a neighborhood that hosts the largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. For nearly three decades the company has used the arts to promote social change:

We create change by telling the story of the community in a way that supports the initiatives of community residents. We want the narrative of the neighborhood to be in the hands of neighborhood people. We work to generate this narrative and to supplant narratives that perpetuate stereotypes used to keep the neighborhood people down or to justify displacing the community. We want to create recognition of the community and its values.

In advance of their Out There performance, I spoke with LAPD founder and artistic director John Malpede and associate artistic director Henriëtte Brouwers about how they’ve used theater to unravel the subject of homelessness, introduce new images and ideas, and change the way a community, a city, and ultimately a nation address this issue.

Malpede begins the conversation much as I launched this article. “This is what I tell the young people these days: What started as a blip on the road to a more humane society has become a permanent fixture. So we need a new way of looking at it. We’re up against the dominant political narrative. It’s our work to change that narrative because you can’t rely on people’s compassion.”

LAPD’s approach to this charge is to immerse itself in Skid Row, serving as an instigator and a connector, focusing on the neighborhood’s assets, creativity, and culture. In conversation with Skid Row residents, the company generates ideas for projects that are fleshed out in weekly rehearsals through improvisations, writing and movement exercises, research and dialogue.

State of Incarceration @ Highways, Santa Monica, 2010. Photo: Jeseca Dawson

LAPD, State of Incarceration at Highways, Santa Monica, 2010. Photo: Jeseca Dawson

Even though LAPD is “the nation’s first theater company comprised of primarily homeless people,” its members don’t really use the word “homelessness” much. Instead they focus on the policies and systemic issues that impact Skid Row. In fact their body of work, if studied as a whole, teaches a lot about the societal conditions that create and perpetuate poverty and homelessness — through aesthetics and form as well as content.

The zAmya Theater Project is located in the Twin Cities, where there is no Skid Row. We do, according to the Wilder Foundation, have an estimated 6,711 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. A vast network of agencies and advocacy organizations — including St. Stephen’s Human Services, which “houses” zAmya — work to meet the needs of these people. In this community context, we hold workshops to generate ideas and material, drawing inspiration from specific issues that are politically or socially pertinent to people experiencing homelessness, such as the creation of the Hennepin County Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and the foreclosure crisis.

When I asked Brouwers how she thinks theater helps make social change, she noted that the qualities required in making a piece of theater are the same qualities needed to approach the problems of our communities: creativity and sensitivity. “Every project asks for its own form, content, process. Not one set of tools,” she notes. A look ay LAPD’s work demonstrates how the form, in addition to the content, is part of the way the narrative changes.

In LAPD’s UTOPIA/dystopia, dance eroded gentrification by physically connecting Skid Row residents with people in neighboring communities. State of Incarceration explored the penal system by immersing the audience in a jail environment while guards patrolled the room and ex-cons told stories. Agents & Assets explored drug policy; based on a transcript from a 1998 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on allegations around the CIA’s involvement with crack cocaine in LA neighborhoods, the work featured Skid Row residents deeply impacted by the epidemic in lead roles.

A workshop at zAmya Theatre Project at St. Stephens.

A zAmya Theatre workshop at Wesley Church, Minneapolis

Agents & Assets employs a technique Malpede refers to as “recreating imbalance.” He describes the tension that’s created by contrasting the words of the power elite with the life experience of the performers; the tension is unresolved, like the situation itself. Through the piece, audiences confront that play of power, which leads to a shift in the narrative: now we’re talking and thinking about power — who has it, who doesn’t and how it operates — instead of the disempowerment around homelessness.

The most frequent question zAmya gets after a performance from audience members is, “What can I do?” I asked Brouwers how LAPD handles this question.

“We hardly ever get that question,” she replied. “The question is already answered, in a way: there are many ways to deal with the problems and issues that are already on the table. We are very careful to avoid making the homeless the subject and object of the conversation, but instead we focus the discussions on everybody in the room: an exchange between actors and audience about a certain issue, often with experts, panelists (either actors or invited experts such as historians, journalists, researchers, academics, or policy makers). Our actors are the experts on the issues, because their knowledge comes from lived experience and often is also informed by policy — and research. Often what’s on stage aren’t personal stories, but a culmination of experiences of the community. We never have ‘talk-backs’ with the audience asking the actors questions like, ‘What was it like to be in this performance?’ Our starting point is that the audience’s stories are just as interesting as the actor’s stories.”

LAPD brings the audience in as a player. Instead of looking at homelessness as a problem someone else has, the performances implicate everyone. Quite directly. Often, audiences are a diverse mix of the public, people in poverty, policy makers, law enforcement, city employees. They succeed piece by piece in generating a community of problem solvers.

LAPD’s most recent project, The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere, made room for Skid Row residents to change the image of the entire neighborhood — with the city of LA as the audience.

As with many of LAPD’s works, the idea for the piece arose during research for a previous project.

Brouwers recalls: “KevinMichael — one of our members who has been in recovery for over 30 years, and has now more than 10 years sobriety — spoke about how he was upset when the Los Angeles Times interviewed him and wrote an article about him as if he were a hero who got clean and sober all by himself, whereas we all know that to stay clean and sober you need the support of a community. So many people do just that in Skid Row, because it is the biggest recovery community anywhere!”

The show used personal accounts to dive into the theme of recovery – people in it, recovery programs, counselors, meetings, and the vast mutual support network that exists on Skid Row. If you saw the show, chances are you saw recovery in a new light. But the narrative shifted even if you didn’t see the production. “Others started to speak of the Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere,” says Brouwers. “I heard it at LA Community Action Network rallies. And when we have our Festival for All Skid Row Artists, people refer to our community using that term when they announce each other or speak about it in their poems and writings.”

LAPD, UTOPIA/dystopia, REDCAT theater, Los Angeles, 2007

LAPD, UTOPIA/dystopia, REDCAT, Los Angeles, 2007

The show demonstrated its power recently when the developer of a mixed-income housing unit bordering Skid Row obtained a liquor license. LA residents showed up to protest, citing both LAPD’s production and the neighborhood’s growing reputation as the “The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere.” The decision was reversed. While the struggle continues (a beer and wine license is now in question), LAPD will likely continue the conversation with a new piece about it.

What’s essential about this struggle is who is articulating its shape. In LAPD’s work, the authority comes from those impacted by poverty, without moral judgment. This is revolutionary when it comes to working with a population that is consistently judged and labeled – “given life sentences,” as LAPD refers to it, as “homeless, crack addict, welfare mom, bum.” In LAPD, everyone has equal voice. The lens shifts from the image of an individual who got themselves into a difficult situation and refocuses on empowered communities making change.

Through the work of LAPD we are hearing a different story now about “homelessness.” In the audience, we’re hearing that homelessness is not the real issue; rather a gross imbalance of power and distribution of resources that has historical and political roots is. We’re seeing poverty not as a something to look away from but to look toward for solutions. We focus less on individual choices and more on the choices we’ve made as a society that have led to this crisis. We learn how, in one way or another, we’re all responsible for the way the system operates. With this narrative shift in all of our hands, the conversation and the circumstances can both change.

LAPD and Wunderbaum perform the Walker-commissioned new work Hospital during Out There 2014, January 9–11, 2014.

Wunderbaum, Healthcare, and the Power of Fiction

Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday. A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. […]

Wunderbaum & LAPD’s Hospital. Photo: Steve Gunther

Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday.

A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. My home was a short walk from Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. In college, I interviewed people living there for papers on economic justice; afterwards, I worked full-time with Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-collaborative ensemble based in the same vicinity, through which colleagues introduced me to the work of Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). Over the course of those years, I followed and was very much influenced by various LAPD projects, such as UTOPIA/dystopia and the Skid Row History Museum. My first short play ever produced was based, in part, on the Skid Row community.

Needless to say, I was excited to learn that LAPD would be coming to the Walker with a new project, Hospital; the news felt like a convergence of homes past and present. But I was intrigued to see they’re collaborating with Wunderbaum, a performance group based in the Netherlands. I knew LAPD had done a variety of national and international collaborations over the years, but I had never known much about that aspect of their work — and I didn’t know anything about Wunderbaum. Who is this group, and how did LAPD wind up working with them? How does LAPD’s work, which I associate so strongly with a specific geography and population, change when it’s created with Dutch artists coming from their own historical, cultural, and artistic context?

I contacted Walter Bart, a founding member of Wunderbaum, via Skype to hear more about Wunderbaum’s work and their process with LAPD.

Rachel Jendrzejewski: I’ve read some information online, but can you tell me a little bit about Wunderbaum, in your own words?

Walter Bart: Definitely. First of all, the company is fully collaborative. In Holland, there was a very popular movement in the 1960s and 1970s toward collective work. Groups of actors started creating work based on improvisation, without writers and directors. Wunderbaum works like that. It was founded in 2001 by five actors (myself included) and a set designer. This collaborative approach is a pretty big way of working in Holland now, especially among younger groups. Of course, it’s challenging; you have to be responsible for everything yourself. We often invite other people to come serve as outside eyes.

Jendrzejewski: From your website, it seems your work tends to have a social focus, not unlike LAPD. Is that accurate?

Bart: Yes. For example, over the next few years, we’re developing a project called The New Forest, which is a fictional alternative society focusing on topics like healthcare and the law. We’re gathering a community of people and making a fictional documentary, as if this alternative society really exists. Through this work, we’re brainstorming new systems and connecting people together. We bring in scientists and other speakers to give seminars on topics like space mining, green energy, wind power, alternative economies like Bitcoin — various bottom-up initiatives. We’re working with fiction because we believe it helps people to think big. When everything is fiction, people don’t feel like they have to come up with “real” answers to the problems we’re exploring; and as a result, they use their imaginations more freely.

WunderbaumCrop

Wunderbaum’s New Forest project. Photo: Jaap Scheeren

Jendrzejewski: How did you meet LAPD and decide to work with them?

Bart: We met John Malpede [LAPD’s founding artistic director] through a project that we did about the LA–based visual artist Paul McCarthy, who made a controversial statue of Santa Claus for Rotterdam. In our performance, a fictional character travels to LA to take revenge on McCarthy. We brought the piece to REDCAT in LA, and John wound up acting in it. We all liked each other a lot so we decided to collaborate. Also, our companies have certain things in common. For example, Wunderbaum works with many actors who aren’t trained as actors — people from neighborhoods where we’re doing work. So we began an exchange. LAPD came to Holland for four weeks, and we went back to California for four weeks.

Jendrzejewski: Do you have anything equivalent to Skid Row in the Netherlands?

Bart: No, we have nothing like that. It’s really crazy. But when we came to Los Angeles, the LAPD actors took us around to meet their friends and contacts — and we found out it’s actually a pretty warm neighborhood, in some ways. There’s good stuff happening. For instance, they took us to a church that does karaoke every Wednesday! Of course, I don’t think we ever would have found places like that without their help.

Jendrzejewski: So the two groups started doing this exchange. How did you land on the healthcare system as the subject for the piece?

Bart: It’s interesting. Things are changing in Holland; we’re moving to a more privatized, free-market system, where you have to find your own insurer – similar to what happened in the US. Meanwhile, the US has been moving toward this new, more social system. So we were interested in that juxtaposition. At some point, we decided to tell John Malpede’s story – from his birth to the present, his whole biography – because he’s dealt with a lot of weird stuff when it comes to healthcare! The piece ends with kind of a future perspective, what could be. In Holland, we have this alternative model emerging, Buurtzorg. which basically means “neighborhood care.” Community-based groups are trying to organize care in more personal, less centralized ways. The result is better quality of care, yet it’s also cheaper.

RADAR L.A.- HOSPITAL A collaboration of Los Angeles Poverty Dept

Wunderbaum & LAPD’s Hospital. Photo: Steve Gunther

Jendrzejewski: It sounds like a big moment of change in the Netherlands – and as I’m sure you know, things seem to be changing by the minute in the US, too. You already performed a version of this piece at least once already, at RADAR L.A., right? Has the piece changed since then, to reflect current events?

Bart: Yes, it’s still developing, changing as the system changes. We performed in both LA and Rotterdam, and we learned a lot from those experiences. As we continue and as the systems in both countries change, we evolve aspects of the piece.

Jendrzejewski: Can you talk a bit about process? How does your company normally create work, and then how do you then create work with this group from a completely different culture?

Bart: Yes. Making this piece was a little bit different from our normal way of working. As I mentioned, Wunderbaum has been together more than 10 years, so we know each other really well. We make everything through improvisation and we have a strong vocabulary. With LAPD, we spent a lot of time trying to understand each other. It wasn’t always easy bringing our styles together; we come from really different backgrounds. But basically we just kept sharing ideas and building a new vocabulary. We still used improvisation a lot: we would create these short acts, vignettes, present them to each other, then layer them together and see what happened. We also drew on hospital dramas like ER. In fact, the birth scene at the beginning of the piece is copied exactly from ER. Interestingly, ER isn’t too bad in terms of accuracy. We asked some doctors to watch it, to tell us what was realistic and what was not, and most of them were pretty impressed by the quality!

Jendrzejewski: Can you think of a specific moment when the process, with the two groups trying to understand each other, was especially challenging?

Bart: Irony has been a big discussion throughout this process. In Wunderbaum, our humor can be very ironic. But that’s not always LAPD’s style. John says in the performance, “In Skid Row, there’s no place for irony; everything is real.” It’s been really interesting to think about that concept in this process—what’s funny and what’s not for people in different contexts. While generating the work, we would bring things to the table like Reagan, communist jokes, all those mental institutions that closed in the 1930s, which is how a lot of people ended up on Skid Row… and the question has been, how can we tell these stories in ways that are meaningful for everyone involved? Can you use irony and humor? It’s hard.

LAPD and Wunderbaum perform Hospital January 9-11 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater; it is the opening event of the Walker’s 2014 Out There series.

 Join the artists in the Balcony Bar on Thursday, January 9 for a post-show artists’ toast. Stay after the performance on Friday, January 10 for a Q & A discussion with the artists, moderated by Dr. Angie Erdrich. After the show on Saturday, January 11, all audience members are invited to join a SpeakEasy conversation about the work, facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Susan Spray and local artists Evy Muench and Renee Copeland.

Inside Out There: Saturday, January 11, 11 am–1 pm. Actors from LAPD and Wunderbaum invite you to join them to improvise a new alternative healthcare system.

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