I’d Follow Kamchàtka Anywhere

kamchatka-bioThe Pied Piper’s tune was so irresistible that rats followed it to their deaths, and the children of Hamelin skipped after the Piper into a mountain tomb. Kamchàtka exercises a similarly spellbinding – though, thankfully, not fatal – allure. Eight members of the Barcelona-based theater troupe are here for La Jolla Playhouse’s WithOut Walls (WoW) Festival, which opened yesterday and runs through Sunday. Last night, where Kamchàtka led, I followed. And the journey raised juicy questions about dissolving the fourth or possibly the fifth wall and turning theater into life.

It was love-at-first-sight when Kamchàtka appeared on the plaza outside the Forum Theatre. Each of the performers – five men and three women – wore a shabby gray overcoat and carried a suitcase (the boxy kind without wheels, for those who remember them). Immigrants from a poorer, less confident country, they glanced around timidly and moved as a group, taking small, careful steps. Silently, through their expressive faces and gestures, they enticed people to play with them – marveling at the mobile phone one man handed them, gently approaching a fascinated but shy little girl.

Moving on to the Taper Plaza, they got people to lie on the ground, using the suitcases as pillows. A woman got into the game, placing French fries in the mouths of the people lying down. (Bonus food review: The fries, from the God Save the Cuisine food truck, are outstanding.)

Kamchatka (which I find myself thinking of as a single entity) headed toward the street, leaving the festival for the world. That was when things got edgy and really interesting. Forming a cordon in the street, they blocked a campus shuttle bus. It wasn’t clear to me if they wanted the driver to let them get on the bus. She didn’t open the door. (She was in the left of two lanes, and there are probably rules against opening the door in traffic.) She wanted to keep going. They didn’t get out of the way. One of the men climbed into the bus through the driver’s window, clambering over her. She picked up a phone, making a complaint – though I’m speculating, because she couldn’t be heard. And this wasn’t just  brief clowning; they persisted for at least ten minutes.

Among the couple dozen of us who’d gaily trooped behind Kamchatka, several people were laughing wildly; some even started a chant, “Let them in! Let them in!” Maybe they really thought this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen, but I suspect the laughter was partly nervous. The bus driver was just trying to do her job, and did she feel angry? threatened? like she was being made the butt of a joke? It’s one thing to get pulled into street theater when you’ve gone someplace intending to experience theater, even if the performers breach the fourth wall and come to you. But what if you’re in the real street, and you’re not having fun but feeling bullied?

I felt bad for the bus driver; I hope that, for her, the incident will be one of those rotten days that turns into a great story later on. Nevertheless, I loved it that Kamchatka didn’t just enchant me but made me squirm. I wanted to hear their conversations afterward – did all of them felt fine about “playing with” the bus driver for so long, or did some wish they’d stopped? I woke up at 4:30 today still thinking about it. And I was going to rearrange my schedule to see them downtown at noon today, but found out it wasn’t happening. Maybe they’re in jail; there were several police cars outside the theater when I left last night. Now, that would blur the line between art and life.

Kamchatka is scheduled to appear again at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Festival Village (the public areas outside the theaters). There’s no admission. Just be there and look for eight waiflike people carrying a bit of baggage.


  1. Gary on October 6, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Thanks Janice for this sincere and heart warming post about our show. It was an interesting and fun show that one…as a matter of fact every single show we do ends with a long conversation, evaluating what went well and what went not so well during the show (we’ve been doing this for over 6 years now). That’s the only way an improvisation show like ours can improve and evolve, and indeed, the conversation after that particular show was interesting and the whole ‘situation’ we found ourselves in with the bus driver was discussed, but alas, with no clear conclusions, other than hoping no harm has ben done to anyone. The last thing we would ever want is to make someone feel uncomfortable or at risk, and part of the insight we gain from each show is about how different cultures deal with certain situations and how people all over the world accept, or reject, the extraordinary, the different…so, aside for learning a lesson as ‘actors’ about the limits which we should or shouldn’t cross (and we realize that perhaps we did cross the line here, and are sorry for that) the real question for us is not about whether the bus driver felt like she was part of the show or was being mocked, which she wasn’t, the real question is – as a human being, what prevented that bus driver from opening the bus doors and letting 8 innocent immigrants into her bus? when one thinks about ‘getting into trouble’, could’t one avoid a lot of it by acting more sensibly, instead of blindly obeying social rules which are aimed at scaring us, instead of making us feel more secure? why is it that people put aside their humanity and tenderness (and sense of humor, for that matter) when putting on their work uniform? just think about it…nothing in the world would have ‘happened’ if she did open that door and let us in, and continued on her way. That’s why for us Kamchatka, isn’t just about ‘theatre’, its about trying to defend humainty and trying to fight the fact that all over the world we, as a race, seem to be continuously building walls and rules which defy common sense and which alientae us from each other and which create suspicion and mistrust, instead of doing just the opposite. That said, isn’t it great the La Jolla Playhouse has created this wonderfull event with the clear intention off breaking down these walls?

    • Janice Steinberg on October 6, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Dear Gary,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my review. My ideal for arts criticism is that it deepen and expand the conversation started by a work of art. One of the wonderful things about your encounter with the bus driver is the way it reverberated; in addition to writing about it, I got into discussions about it with people at the festival Friday and yesterday. I’m honored that you’re engaging in the public conversation, as well. I think it’s great that you and the other performers didn’t reach a clear conclusion about what happened with the bus driver, because it was complex. What you say about people putting aside their humanity when they put on their work uniforms and blindly obeying rules resonates. As for people putting aside their senses of humor, I wonder if a deeper issue is our lack of a sense of play, that sacred activity that – at least in this culture – we seem to consider only appropriate for children; as adults, our play gets structured into sports or working out, often undertaken with the same grim determination as climbing the corporate ladder. (I teach classes in a dance-fitness practice, Nia, and it’s interesting to see how uncomfortable some people get when we do “free dance” and I encourage students to connect to one another.) There’s also a question of perception. From your perspective, you were “innocent immigrants,” and I think that’s how your appearance – the shabby overcoats and modest suitcases – read to festival-goers. But I wonder what the bus driver saw when she looked at you.

      And yes! it’s fantastic that the WoW Festival has created an environment – physical and conceptual – in which this kind of conversation occurs. I really do want to follow you guys anywhere. Any chance you’ll be in Paris at the end of November or Tel Aviv in early December?

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