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In the shadows of Silo City, live theater returns

Silence is golden

A masked performer in Torn Space’s SILENCE

Photo by Michael Thomas


At least one summer ritual took place live and in real time this year. Thanks to the safe, wide open spaces surrounding Buffalo’s grain elevators, Torn Space was able to mount its yearly Silo City production. Ever since these performances began in 2014, they have drawn a diverse cross section of Western New York, well beyond traditional theater audiences. It’s not surprising because this isn’t traditional theater. Though each production is different, commonly featured elements have included live or recorded music, film projections, living tableaus, and—most strikingly—audience participation of a particular kind. One doesn’t sit and watch one of these; one follows it, up and down stairs, across a field, or on a boat, if necessary. Often, the performances penetrate the interior of a silo, with audiences treading carefully through the cavernous gloom to watch a gowned singer, a pair of boxers, or a naked actor reciting from a prone position on the floor. Narratives exist, but they are disconnected, presenting poetic allegories rather than plot points.


For the 2020 performance, Silence, black Torn Space masks hung in a row on a long clothesline. Distanced tree stumps provided picturesque seating in a small, mowed field, surrounded by untamed fields. Masked actors in yellow moved among the audience throughout the performance, occasionally making silent requests for audience members to mimic their arm movements. Perhaps most interestingly, other performers could be seen in the far distance, carrying objects and moving about. While the continuous voiceover narration was evocative (mostly passages from the works of the poet, Rumi), the star here, as it often is, was the setting—this time, serenely beautiful wild meadows, with industrial remnants in the distance. Almost like religious services, the experience invited inward contemplation as well as outward attention.


In the advance PR for Silence, Torn Space artistic director Dan Shanahan stated, “2020 has shown us in vivid detail a world that is out of balance. Wildfires, a global pandemic, and Black Lives Matter have coalesced, providing a stark portrait of a society in need of change.”


But some things don’t change. We still need the chance to be immersed in a different reality that only art can provide. We need to be challenged by something more than the problem of getting groceries into the house. Theaters and other arts organizations are figuring out the 2020 way of doing that. Thanks to its unusual model, Torn Space had a head start.



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