The enduring influence of singer, songwriter and author Woody Guthrie, remembered for classics such as “This Land is Your Land” and “Pastures of Plenty,” can be found in the very fabric of American folk music. His work, which includes hundreds of songs and several publications, paved the way for the protest music of the 1960’s and is credited with shaping the folk music genre as a socially conscious form of expression.
Beginning on March 16, members of the University of Houston’s American Roots Ensemble, called Cougar Roots, and the Open Dance Project invite Houstonians to take a step into Guthrie’s world with their immersive performance “’Bout a Stranger.” Audience members are encouraged to interact with the set, while dancers and musicians perform around them. The production, created by Open Dance Project founder Annie Arnoult and Moores School of Music professor Dr. Garreth Broesche, transforms the stage at MATCH (Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston) into a three-dimensional space complete with overflowing bookshelves, typewritten pages and vintage radios piping music throughout the theatre.
Arnoult said this approach allows the performance to unfold around the audience. “We’re moving away from the conventional divide between audience and performers, giving [audience members] a fuller, more engaging experience.”
Central to “’Bout a Stranger” is Guthrie’s experience traveling Route 66 with “Dust Bowl refugees” — American farmers and unemployed workers who were forced from their homes during the extreme drought and dust storms of the 1930’s. In addition to an original score created Dr. Broesche, Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads and other famous works will be performed live by Cougar Roots.
“The music is integral to his story,” said Dr. Broesche. “I think the themes in these songs will connect with today’s audiences because there are a lot of shared impulses.”
Arnoult added that the choreography draws inspiration from Dust Bowl-era factory and farm workers, using repetition to highlight task-oriented movements. “We start with small, mimetic gestures and expand them to expose the physical effort behind each movement,” she said. “We’re drawing parallels between the workers’ bodies and our own.”
“‘Bout a Stranger” opens Thursday, March 16 and runs through Saturday, March 25, 2017. For more information and tickets, visit MATCH. The following month, Cougar Roots will also present an ensemble spring recital in Dudley Recital Hall on the UH campus.