Amanda Berg Wilson has presence. Tall, beautiful and warmly expressive, with the carriage of a dancer (she once trained with the Houston Ballet), when she walks into a room, you notice. And now her presence is being increasingly noticed in the wider theater world, where she has two major projects coming up. You on the Moors Now, which she directs for the Catamounts — the Boulder company she founded — opens on September 8; the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ next immersive project, The Wild Party , also directed by Berg Wilson, is scheduled to run October 11 through 31 at Stanley Marketplace.
The Catamounts has been around for six years, but it’s still hard to describe the group’s work. A Catamount production is quick on its feet; it has depth, unpretentiously communicated, as well as surprise. The script is inevitably new, hip and witty. “Theater at its most effective expands our imaginative scope,” says Berg Wilson.
In Jaclyn Blackhaus’s You on the Moors Now, four well-known literary heroines — Jo from Little Women, Cathy from Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet — do the unthinkable: They turn down marriage proposals. “This is a feminist piece,” says Berg Wilson. “It’s also about love and loss and who we think we are when we’re young versus when we get older. But it’s not political in an overt sense. The characters are seen through a postmodern comic lens: What if we put these women in the modern world being proposed to by condescending pricks?”
Food is an integral part of the Catamounts aesthetic. Every production features specially crafted beers, a unique cocktail and a dinner after each Saturday night show, specifically created to echo the play’s setting. The feast to follow Moors on September 9 includes shepherd’s pie with wild greens and a heather-infused craft beer. Berg Wilson believes food is essential to creating community. “I hate that space after a show — fabulous or mediocre or terrible — where everyone lingers awkwardly in the lobby, or has some contrived talkback or, worse yet, just gets back into their cars and separates from one another into the night,” she says. “Why not let a whole audience have dinner together? I mean, they just shared this weird transitory experience. They’re this instant community anyway — why not lean into it with a continuation of the experience? Plus, then the performers can meet the audience, which is just really lovely.”
For The Wild Party, Berg Wilson is exploring the concept of immersion: Does it consist of actors coming into the audience to banter or audiences flooding onto the stage? Getting people to sing along? There will be “screwing, drugs and bathtub gin,” she promises, “and the audience are the party-goers. We’re encouraging everybody to dress up. They can bring drinks in. There’s something about being up close to actors…. We look at screens all day. And there’s a reason people love immersive: I think they like not being passive. I’m trying to build a logical flow between sitting and watching and getting up to dance, to pace passive versus interactive.”
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In Chicago, where Berg Wilson lived for ten years, she ran a small company called Striding Lion. At the time, there was a lot of artist funding for at-risk schools, and “I spent ten years up-close and personal with some of the most challenged communities in the country,” she remembers. “I definitely found making theater with those South Side and West Side kids to be an inspiration — the realization that it can be this powerful tool for dialoguing about the character of a community. We made a ton of theater about them being kids from a ‘bad neighborhood’ that they loved nonetheless. But [it was] also sometimes an exercise in frustration. How much was this experience changing these kids’ lives, when they had so much stacked against them? And I was always conscious of the fact that I left the community at the end of the week, and the privilege that entailed.
“One group we led was selected to perform in a citywide showcase for the Daleys (who were still in power at the time) at the Chicago Theatre,” she continues. “It’s one of those grand and glorious 1920s theaters, first built as an opulent movie house. They were the only group that performed an original piece. It was a magical day, to be in a packed and beautiful Chicago theater, with kids who were getting to perform their own work for the mayor and his wife. The kids were bouncing off the walls with pride and glee when it was done. I have no idea if this changed the course of any of their lives, but I feel confident that they won’t forget that day and the thrill of the experience.
“Which I guess, in the end, is probably the most theater can provide...and is enough.”
You on the Moors Now, presented by the Catamounts, Friday, September 8, through Saturday, September 30, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 303-444-7328, thecatamounts.org.