Topical takes from a film shoot, in ‘Homeless Garden’ at Avant Bard

The audience becomes a participant-observer in this project-in-progress: live filming of a modern adaptation of Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard.'

This is not a review of Homeless Garden.

Probably best to start there, to echo the approach Avant Bard brings to this unusual project. From their marketing material to a reminder as you walk into the performance space, the box office and creative team are quick to remind paying audiences that this is not a theater production. They are not putting up a play; they are welcoming you to participate in an open filming session.

So what is “this” then? Well, because this article is now written and exists, I suspect that it too is part of the experience of creating the Homeless Garden project. Such creative inclusiveness seems to be one of the many thematics that Director Kathleen Akerley (also screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor) mentions to the audience, who are now active participants in the 90-minute experience that Avant Bard has put together.

Sara Barker in filming of ‘Homeless Garden.’ Photo by Kathleen Akerley.

The project, for the audience at least, resembles for the most part a lecture, or seminar series, where the professor walks students through how they film certain scenes. As audiences arrive, they are treated to a dark room. As the lights go up, we see the bare-bones setup: actors in their own clothes, not costumes, the lights set bright for the cameras. An audio operator is ready to give the signal when a shoot can begin.

As Akerley introduces herself and the project, we are informed in the first moment that this is less a production for the audience and more a participatory seminar. There’s talk of camera work, choices made, and a brief explanation of why actors cannot speak as loudly on this film set as they would on a theater stage. And yes, as an audience member, you will be prompted to ask questions about the process.

Homeless Garden was originally developed in New York, in collaboration with Refracted Theatre Company and director Graham Miller in 2020. The format for this project was conceived as part of Avant Bard’s 2023/24 season. Minnicino’s play is a modern adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard by playwright Matt Minnicino. Minnicino is exceptionally good at reshaping pretentious works into very entertaining adaptations, marked by witty quips, contemporary themes, and relatable storytelling. His A Misanthrope produced by Avant Bard in 2019 was very well received.

So why the shift from stage to screen? The decision was driven by unforeseen challenges to the company (including lack of money). Akerley’s ambition to weave the story of Homeless Garden into a larger cinematic narrative reflects not only a response to these practical challenges but also a desire to delve into contemporary issues facing both American theater and Avant Bard. Avant Bard has faced economic challenges in the last few years — much as the characters face loss of their home in both Homeless Garden and Cherry Orchard — thus propelling the move from theater to film.

TOP LEFT: Jordan Brown as Sosh; TOP RIGHT: Sara Barker as Liv; MIDDLE LEFT: Kate Kenworthy as Ani and Rachel Sanderson as Val; MIDDLE RIGHT: Louis E. Davis as Hermes, the ‘AI’ mannequin, and Matthew Pauli as Leo; BOTTOM LEFT: Louis E. Davis as Hermes; BOTTOM RIGHT: Lucy Redmon Connell as Tro, in ‘Homeless Garden.’ Photos by Kathleen Akerley.

At least for the press showing of the project, this was forefront in the conversation: how do small theaters survive and thrive? Akerley is an engaged, direct, and driven artist. She shares a story about how her art can be quite abstract, almost too much for a family member who comments (and I’m paraphrasing): “This work is a bit much for me when I’m just getting out of a full workday.” Akerley’s commitment to the art is not lost on me in this project: where the message behind the piece supercedes the need to be audience-friendly. This puts the show in a very discussion-forward engagement. Between moments of filming a snippet of the full work, Akerley led the audience through a discussion of what makes theater: Do you need a set? Could you use AI to help you design projections?

Although it is cool how these conversations connect to Minnicino’s work — Homeless Garden, like Cherry Orchard, touches on such topics as the value of ownership, money troubles, and the inevitable onslaught of modernity — the lesson in Minnicino’s play that is trying to be practiced is the great anxiety over how to evolve, how to adapt and how to let go.

In Homeless Garden, the Cherry Orchard character of Firs is incorporated as an AI — represented during filming by a mannequin (voiced by Henrietta). In both plays, this is a forgotten character. What a fascinating take on how we dehumanize the people who maintain the lives of the privileged and, in the modern take, how we disregard the value these technologies might provide.

The ‘Homeless Garden’ sound stage. Photo by Kathleen Ackerley.

What would observing this project-in-progress mean to you, a potential audience member, hoping to invest in a moment of levity, entertainment, or art? From where I was sitting, it felt like mostly Q&A, with the audience an active participant. If, as an audience member, you like talking or learning about film and theater, are familiar with the history of the company, and enjoy being filmed, you might enjoy this. (You can opt out by not signing the release form and being seated out of camera range.) Whether you participate or not, the production team promises a link to the finished film before it gets sent out on the festival circuit.

For audiences expecting a traditional evening of theater-going, this experience may miss the mark. For Avant Bard, though, Homeless Garden feels like the next step toward evolving and adapting and letting go of old ways of creating art.

Running Time: 90 minutes, although since this is a filming project there is a chance for a late start.

Homeless Garden filmings will take place through May 25, 2024 (Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.), produced by Avant Bard Theatre at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Purchase tickets online. General Admission is $40. Half-price tickets are available for seniors, veterans and active duty military, and general students. As part of a commitment to making art available to all, Avant Bard offers pay-what-you-can tickets at Saturday matinees, complimentary tickets to all Arlington middle and high school students, and half-price tickets for their parents/guardians.

The program for Homeless Garden is downloadable here.

A list of which parts of the play are being filmed on which day, plus synopses of The Cherry Orchard and Homeless Garden, are available here.

COVID Safety: Mask-required filmings are Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, May 19 at 2 p.m.

Homeless Garden
By Matthew Minnicino
Directed by Kathleen Akerley

Louis E. Davis, Rachel Sanderson, Kate Kenworthy, Matthew Pauli, Sara Barker, Henrietta, Danielle Rhodes, Jordan Brown, Lucy Redmon Connell

Caroline Johson: First AD
Alyssa Sanders: Lead Producer
Sara Barker: Co-Producer
Bess Kaye: Intimacy Choreographer
Camera Operators: Mirko Almosd, Madeline Krieger, Séamus Miller, Ash O’Keefe

Avant Bard unveils groundbreaking film project: ‘Homeless Garden’ (news story, April 22, 2024)


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