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Memphis Flyer The Freaks Come Out at (Mid)Night

By Mary Helen Randall

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  It's five after midnight and the TheatreWorks is packed for...Well, no one is really sure what is going to happen. That's the beauty of the Freak Engine, a monthly series of late-night alternative performances, featuring performance art, improvisational comedy, dance, music, and torturous human tricks.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beholders expecting a traditional night out at the theatre might want to stay home. Last month's show featured a variety of acts, from a modern-dance duet by members of Project:Motion to a satire of film noir, as well as a "heavy metal band" singing the praises of mom's eggplant.

The Freak Engine series is the brainchild of Tom Kirby, a member of Memphis' professional modern-dance company Project:Motion. Kirby began the series as an outlet for short performances that might never be seen outside a classroom or workshop.

"There is a lot of creativity out there," says Kirby. "Dance and theatre students have never had an opportunity to perform their original pieces, and now they can."

Miriam Ragland, manager of the TheatreWorks building and Freak Engine performer agrees. "The Freak Engine is the ideal performance for TheatreWorks. It was created as a home for experimental theatre." Bill Baker, director of the Wild Card Theatre Company, is also an essential element in the success of the shows. Baker's improv troupe is composed of about nine core performers who meet for weekly workshops, and are regulars on the TheatreWorks stage.

Not only are students and various local talents invited to perform, the audience gets into the act as well. At the beginning of the show Baker weaves his way in and out of the audience, inviting onlookers to write a line or random thought down on a piece of paper. Later, the lines will become the "script" for the performers.

"Improv is definitely riskier than traditional theatre, there's no question about that," says Baker. "Traditional theatre is about polishing and working closely with the director, whereas improv requires the actor to think on his feet. Audience participation and momentum are key. We try to make the most of the fact that the audience and the performers are in the same place at the same time."

One of the most important aspects of the series is that each show is unique. The shows are divided into about seven different acts, some of which are actually interactive games that the audience participates in. Audience members will shout out ideas for characters and scene locations, and the improv group, without a moment's hesitation, begins creating a story. This seat-of-the-pants creativity is exciting for the audience, because things could go wrong at any moment. "I think that the group would agree that during one of the first Freak Engine shows we screwed up. We weren't coming up with anything funny, and the pieces were just not falling into place. It happens sometimes, but I believe failure is essential from time to time. It keeps us on our toes," says Baker.

In addition to improv skits, the audience is also treated to dance pieces that range from modern dance to creative movement. Kirby is also famous for his Houdini-esque "stupid human tricks" that make those on David Letterman look like Captain Kangaroo.

"At one show Miriam [Ragland] and I put live rats in our mouths and let `em wiggle around for a while. Next time I'll probably do that trick where my head is wrapped in cellophane so I can't breathe, then I'm locked in a box and try to escape. You're not going to see this stuff anywhere else," promises Kirby.

"People don't think that live theatre is fun anymore, and we want to prove them wrong," says Kirby.

Aside from the fact that the group is doing something that they enjoy, there is a much more serious issue at hand. The Freak Engine series also serves as one of many fund-raisers for the TheatreWorks building, which has been hit with an unexpected $10,000 property-tax bill.

A state ruling in 1996 declared that nonprofit art groups exist for entertainment rather than education, and therefore are no longer exempt from personal and property taxes. The TheatreWorks building's value is estimated at $250,000, and consequently owes around $5,000 yearly in taxes. Ragland estimates that the property tax will take away about a quarter of the theater's annual budget, which comes from grants as well as fees paid by individual companies and performance groups renting office and practice space in the building.

"The taxes are putting a very serious strain on us,"says Kirby. "Although we are not going to let this shut us down, the threat is always lurking around the corner."

The Freak Engine series can be seen the first Friday of the month.

"You'll get your money's worth for the $5 admission price, and midnight audiences are usually up to mischief," promises Baker. "You just never know what could happen."

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