Textile artist Bird Ross sits across a small café table from me manipulating a stuffed dark-green frog larger than her hand. The frog, playing the role of The Night Owl, confronts a four-inch-tall fabric snowman, dubbed The Newcomer about his intentions in The Forest. This is all part of the latest production of Ross’s “(Very) Tiny Table Top Theatre,” being staged for me at The Victory, a tiny coffee shop on Madison’s East Side.
“What is it you want?” Ross says in the frog’s faux-baritone.
“I want the box,” she squeaks back in the snowman’s shrill, pre-pubescent voice. She’s referring to a small lemon-yellow prop.
“I need to have what’s inside,” she continues.
The yellow box with the hinged lid is empty, which contributes to the dramatic arc that Ross and I work through in creating the 4-minute drama, which she captures on her cellphone.
Ross’ participatory performance returned me to a childhood playtime experience. The only limitations were those of my own imagination. With three characters, a setting, an action and a conclusion picked from a recipe box of choices, Ross and I together created a little morality play using a random collection of small toys to examine life’s true values.
I got all this for the price of a cup of coffee (and I got to keep the cup.)
Ross’s tabletop performance was part of the Café Allongé project, mounted by UW-Madison professors Michael Peterson and Laurie Beth Clark. The project operates under the moniker Spatula & Barcode.
The concept is the academic pair’s contribution to the 2013 Wisconsin Triennial, an exhibition of Wisconsin visual artists that opened Sept. 21 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ross is one of installation’s 16 performers, a list that also includes Peterson. All of them offer one-on-one performances at 16 coffee shops throughout Madison. For the price of a cup of coffee (the cost of admission) and a willingness to think creatively for an hour or less, audiences of one to four can take part in a creative process that is the work of art.
“I like the idea of art as temporary,” says Bird, whose husband Tom Loeser teaches art at UW. “After each production I pack up my stuff and go home, and the only thing left is a lot of food for thought.”
“That’s probably the best description I’ve heard of what we do,” says Peterson, whose 20-minute production “Short Order Long Pull” starts at the drive-up window of Cargo Coffee on South Park Street. Variations on what Peterson describes as “an automotive lecture-demo about extraction” are available for those who arrive by bicycle or on foot.
The inspiration for Café Allongé — named after a French espresso drink made with a slow pull of water through finely ground coffee — has been years in the making for the academic pair, who have become well known locally for their creative kitchen collaborations. Blurring the line between art and eating, Peterson and Clark have given elaborate dinner parties in their home for 20 years that have morphed into a form of performance art often focused on the edible.
“We decided we should be getting professional credit for all this creative energy,” says Peterson, associate professor with the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama. Clark is a professor of non-static art forms — video/performance /installation — at the UW-Madison Art Department.
“One key feeling we have is that, for us, the social interaction of every piece is the actual core of our artwork,” says Peterson. “This our 15th project and first public work we’ve done in Madison.”
Spatula&Barcode, a name that pays homage to the program’s roots in food, has also mounted smaller-scale programs in Germany, Morocco, the Netherlands and Croatia. The Café Allongé concept was first tested a few years ago in Montreal.
While some performances are highly whimsical like Ross’s, others have political overtones. Theater Research grad student Megan Marsh-McGlone has attracted a lot of attention with “No Keener Revelation,” a 20-minute treatise on the importance of breast-feeding. The performer may either breast-feed her daughter Morgan or pump her breast while sitting at a table with her audience at Mother Fool’s Coffee House on Williamson Street.
Some sessions are esoteric, such as artist Dale Kaminski’s “Touching the Infinite.” During the 25-minute session, Kaminski and his audience of one will use Penrose tiles and a soundscape prepared according to the rules of hocket, a form of polyphony practiced by a Congolese horn section, to construct an aperiodic tile pattern while sipping tea at Dobra Tea on State Street.
Some sessions are personal, such as UW art professor Douglas Rosenberg’s “Breakfast with My Father.” For each session, the artist invites up to four men over age 50 to have breakfast with him at Mickie’s Dairy Bar on Regent St. in an attempt to recreate an experience he had with his father as a child, one that fosters male intimacy, community and ritual. Rosenberg buys the breakfasts.
In January, Peterson and Clark are traveling to Uruguay to work with scientists attending the annual conference of the South American Institute of Resilience and Sustainability (Clark sits on the group’s board). The couple will involve the scientists in exploratory performances related to sustainability topics.
In the meantime, the artists continue to perform in Madison coffee shops through early January. By all accounts, both the performers and their audiences are having a good time, and Peterson has urged his performers to add more dates.
For more information and to sign up for a Café Allongé session, visit cafeallonge.net.