Enhancing the excitability of the whole machine

The Catamounts get you out of the theater and into the wild with ‘Rausch’

Jason Maxwell as Dionysus in The Catamounts production of 'Rausch'
Michael Ensminger

Friedrich Nietzsche considered art the “healing balm” for the human condition, the highest form of relief for existential dread, world-weariness and, if you will, “spasms and agitations of the will.”

Art saves us, Nietzsche says, because it induces rausch, a state of intoxication, an emotional rush that creates a sense of strength and fullness.

“Art reminds us of states of animal vigor,” Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power. “It is on the one hand an excess and overflow of blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of the animal function through the images and desires of intensified life; — an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.”

And yet the very thing that art gives us is the very thing we need to make art.

“For there to be art,” Neitzsche wrote, “for there to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: Rausch. Rausch must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine: else there is no art.”

Which brings us to The Catamounts, Boulder’s adventurous theater company practically dedicated to enhancing the excitability of the whole machine. In collaboration with the Denver-based Control Group Productions dance troupe, The Cats presents Rausch, an immersive theater piece that explores the intoxicating nature of… well… nature.

Michael Ensminger
Betty Hart as Persephone with an audience member from ‘Rausch’

“[Rausch] really means loss of self, the high concept of ecstasy, and we immediately realized that is one of the main reasons we go out in nature, to dissolve a little bit, to realize how much bigger the world is,” says Control Group’s Patrick Mueller, who co-directs Rausch with The Cat’s co-founder, Amanda Berg Wilson.

Rausch takes an audience of just under 50 people on a journey, from a “nondescript shopping center parking lot” (Wild Woods Brewery) to an undisclosed piece of outdoor space on the outskirts of Boulder. Based on Greek mythology about the return of spring, Rausch tasks audience members with guiding the goddess Persephone on her annual journey back to the land of the living from the Underworld, where she spends half of each year. “Honored initiates,” as audience members are called, meet the key players in Persephone’s life: her distraught mother Demeter, her nefarious husband Hades, the vain (and hilarious) Narcissus, and her mortal love, Adonis.

As with all The Catamounts’ productions, Rausch carries its signature integration of music, dance, food and, perhaps most importantly, drink. Wild Woods is serving up a specially crafted brew for audience members: an imperial ale, inspired by Demeter, the goddess of harvest and grain. You can even take some 32-ounce “camp cans” with you on the bus to enjoy with fellow initiates. In fact, you should, because that’s what it’s all about: intoxication. It’s about that feeling of hedonism, The Cat’s Wilson says, because that’s rausch.

Wilson has been exploring what she calls “the outer edge of inventiveness of American theater” for pretty much all of her professional life, from Austin to Chicago to Denver. In the past two years, Wilson has taken a deep dive into immersive theater with two productions with the Denver Center for Performing Arts: as a cast member in Sweet & Lucky in 2016 and as director of the jazz musical The Wild Party in late 2017. Mueller — who acted in Sweet & Lucky and choreographed The Wild Party — has similarly explored the immersive theater space with Control Group productions such as the site-specific CAVE / dances made to be viewed in the dark, and this year’s site-specific [Colony 933].

Wilson says she saw a “hunger” for immersive theater after the two DCPA shows, and thought it was time an independent company like The Catamounts took on the challenge of not only bringing more immersive theater to the Front Range, but also of taking it out of a brick-and-mortar theater entirely. Aware of the enormity of the undertaking, she approached Mueller to collaborate.

Together they applied the lessons they learned from Sweet & Lucky and The Wild Party to Rausch: smaller audiences, broken down into even smaller groups, working through a non-linear story.

“There were certain seats in The Wild Party that if you sat in them you had the most amazing experience,” Wilson says. “But as you sort of got into the periphery of the show, even though we directed the hell out of it to try to bring those people in, there was only so much we could do.”

Michael Ensminger
Patrick Mueller and Tara Kelso dance as Hades and Persephone.

“I’m really proud of what we did with The Wild Party in terms of audience engagement, but there’s just no way fundamentally to have 200 people in a space to feel like your experience is unique and chosen,” Mueller adds.

“It’s like any house party or any round table discussion: once you get past a certain number, people start to become invisible,” he says. “At a certain point the whole group starts to function very differently; it’s not individuals sitting there anymore. I think that’s definitely part of the immersive experience that audiences are so hungry for is that desire for the unique experience.”

And unique Rausch is. The experience is engaging through and through, from the camaraderie that begins to build between bar patrons at Wild Woods who realize they are about to board a bus going God-knows-where, to a folksie sing-a-long of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” to smearing clay on your face with Persephone and snapping selfies with Narcissus. It’s wild and weird and fun and surely Nietzche would approve.

And don’t worry; everyone is a little nervous the first time they rausch. The trick is to just let go.

“There’s this funny thing that happens when we fall in love or when we experience ecstasy — suddenly we feel ripped open and free and immediately we want to capture that feeling and hold on to it and control it,” Wilson says. “And that’s sort of our relationship to the natural world, too. It is this totally untamable thing, and yet we’re constantly trying to get on top of it. If I want people to take anything away from the piece it’s that feeling of not being able to control something — we should embrace it. And maybe in doing so we’ll have greater respect for our love of nature and our love of other humans, if we could just lean into that ability of just letting go.”

On the Bill:  Rausch — presented by The Catamounts and Control Group Productions. Wild Woods Brewery, 5460 Conestoga Court, Boulder. From the brewery, audiences will be transported by bus to an undisclosed location.

Tickets start at $30, rausch.brownpapertickets.com