Death, as viewed from the other side

Butler students rehearse Terminal.

One of the best things that can be said about Butler Theatre shows is that they're usually not boring. Which is also to say that they're unpredictable, both on a single-show and season level. In the past few years, students have presented classical Indian theater and Balinese dance, Marat/Sade-style operettas and collectively devised reflections on the future, new works by Indiana playwrights and old works thoughtfully revisited.

That's why it's exciting to see that a classic work of the "experimental" Open Theater, Terminal by Susan Yankowitz, is opening this week at Butler's Studio Theatre. Unpredictability is, after all, built into the works of the Open Theater, a New York-based group active during the '60s and early '70s that emphasized improvisation, immediacy and communication between actors in the moment.

That sort of immediacy is also essential to director and Butler professor William Fisher's process. Here's how he puts it: "When I direct anything — and this is important to me as a kind of principle — I consider everything to be a new work."

But some works can become newer than others, which is the case with Terminal, a meditation on death and life first staged in 1969 (during the Open Theatre's heyday), then re-staged in 1996 in a version The New York Times described as "an alternately harrowing and humorous examination of how we embark on our final journey."

Fisher and his students worked from extant scripts and detailed descriptions of both versions of the play, but those descriptions emphasized that, as Fisher puts it, "these are just bones," a record of what happened during the performance, and not necessarily a blueprint for future stagings.

And so while Yankowitz — who visited Butler last year during a performance of Seven (Journeys), a documentary theatre project to which she contributed a monologue — has been available to Fisher as a resource, she's also been "hands-off," says Fisher, letting this latest version of Terminal take shape how it will.

Not that those "bones" of the play aren't important; Yankowitz's words are what attracted Fisher to the play and the playwright in the first place. "She's among the rare writers who I think have a real understanding of the process of making theater," Fisher says, calling her language "clear and strong."

The play is tied together, says Fisher, "by the convention that actors enter a stage and are in effect calling up the dead, inviting a possession to enact various stories." These actors never use the word "living," calling instead everyone's who not dead "the dying." They perform various texts, including the Mourner's Kaddish, a Jewish prayer often used during funerals, and a lecture on forensics.

But Fisher cautions that Terminal isn't "a downer. I hope people will be moved and I expect they will. And if this is a meditation or musing on dying and death, and we don't really know anything about death, it necessarily phrases questions or makes us aware of our relationship to living."

The lessons of the Open Theatre can be especially relevant to students who will have to make their own career paths upon leaving college, who can't rely on any script for guidance, says Fisher. "It's important for me that all participants — and that means students involved in the execution of the piece — take on a sense of authorship and responsibility for creating the piece. It's not about what do I tell them to do, and what does the text do — though I do direct the play, and we do have limitation and structures within which they're working."