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I used to have a job where for two days twice a year, our entire department had to come in early and spend eight consecutive hours in seclusion in a rented conference room. Because these semiannual privations were held not in the ersatz, pedestrian-unfriendly industrial park where we all worked, but in a chain hotel in a different pedestrian-unfriendly industrial park located near our office, they were called “retreats.”
That was a misnomer. These sessions were a retreat only from the tiny measure of privacy we were afforded in our cubicles on ordinary workdays. We spent most of these interminable “offsite” meetings engaged in team-building exercises in which a professional corporate trainer would assign us problems to solve and give us big tablets on which to write our big ideas. There were no wrong answers, we were assured. There were no stupid questions. Time passed slowly. It wasn’t like being a coal miner or a prison guard or a Walmart employee with a pre-existing medical condition, but it was pretty bad.
Toast, the long-in-development new show from the merry pranksters of the devised-theater troupe dog & pony dc, brings those unhappy memories of sticky notes and breakout sessions back in a fun-obviating flood of resentment, possibly because literally a third of the show is sticky notes and breakout sessions. It may come as a surprise to a group that identifies its staff in the program as “ringleaders,” “conspirators” and so on just how much their new happening—it’s really more like a performance-art encounter than a show—has in common with too many others I’ve attended orchestrated by people with titles like Executive Vice President for Strategic Branding Initiatives and Multi-Platform Synergy.
Of course, I was paid to attend those seminars. (I was paid to attend Toast, too.) Is Toast meant to satirize the inefficient and resentment-breeding but still pervasive Magic-Markers-and-breakout-sessions ethos of idea-nurturing? Unclear. If intended as satire, it needs to be 75 percent as long and at least 250 percent as funny as it is in its still-evolving present state. If not intended as satire, then I don’t understand its intentions.
The premise sounds fun: Everyone in the audience has been summoned to a meeting of The Order of Wind and Lightning, a benign cabal founded by Benjamin Franklin—not a member of the insidious There Are No Dumb Questions and No Wrong Answers school of consensus-building, I’d bet my bifocals—that for centuries has worked from the shadows to steer technological innovation in a way that enlarges all humankind.
The lineup of actors varies from performance to performance, as do the venues. I confess I arrived at this one, in the library of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, a few minutes late. The ensemble had decorated the library with a number of lovingly detailed science-fair-style displays on things such as “The Definition of the Technium.” We were treated to a charmingly made-to-look-archaic video by Theodore Lee Jones and Linsay Deming, wherein the very funny Joshua Drew explains the order’s raison d’être. There was some amusing but not quite funny infighting among the various members of the order, caparisoned for deepthink in long vests and flowing scarves or, alternatively, paisley pants and knit berets and multiple wristwatches. Performers and spectators were stuffed into the same little corner of the library, the actors walking among us and resting their fingers on our shoulders as they waxed philosophic about how technology should serve humankind. It sounded a lot like the Apple Watch video.
Then one of them clasped my face between his palms to emphasize a point. I’ve forgotten what the point was because it, along with every other trace of his monologue, was instantly overwritten in my brain by a reflexive urge to slap his hands away. Professional decorum prevailed, but: Do. Not. Touch. My. Face.
Eventually, the cast members held up signs, and audience members were directed to gather around the one with which they felt the most kinship: I chose the sign that read “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” If I had it to do over again, I’d switch my allegiance to the one that read, “I’m rooting for the machines.”
During the 30-minute breakout session (!) that followed, each small group was directed via a procedure involving free association and, yes, sticky notes to try to invent an “innovation platform.” I played along, suggesting something like a charity version of Airbnb but for offering hungry strangers meals in private homes. By the time this was filtered through our group leader, played by Tamieka Chavis—who explained to us that her own “innovation platform” was a coffee shop, because coffee makes people feel good in the morning and thus more likely to sprinkle sunshine upon those they encounter—it had become some purely conceptual means of alleviating hunger that wouldn’t actually, like, feed anybody. No wonder we didn’t fare as well during the subsequent group presentations (!!) as the team that proposed to build an oven that was also an iPad. In hindsight, I should’ve suggested we clone a unicorn that was also a kitty.
After all that, there was another, less funny video to sit through before we were released, plus two separate instances of standing in a circle holding hands, and several interminable seconds of clapping and chanting as a group.
Theater often mistakes mere annoyance for boldness and provocation. The enthusiastic, imaginative artists of dog & pony have always labored to subvert the theatrical contract, wherein the audience sits quietly while actors who pretend they can’t see them recite lines. But if you want to disrupt the orthodoxy, you need to replace it with something better. Toast, for all the care and thought that’s gone into its preparation, doesn’t do that. I have no doubt devising and performing it has been fun and creatively nourishing for the artists; with endless opportunities for audience interaction and improv, it offers more Hey, Ma! I’m an actor! Look at me, acting! moments than any other game—and Toast is a game, not a story—in town.
Its benefit to the audience is less apparent. This is like watching a professional athlete stretch or a musician play scales: We understand that this kind of exercise can aid the creation of something we might actually want to experience, but this feels showing up for dinner only to find the host has laid out a bunch of ingredients and is pushily soliciting our advice on what to cook. I can’t explain why the 2,500-year-old theatrical model, in which we watch an actor navigate a narrative while pretending to be a fictitious third person, is a more reliable empathy-generator than the Toast model, in which the audience is made to spend half the “show” talking to one another about how to improve the world. But it is.