Open Flame Theatre is an all-transgender/gender non-conforming theatre ensemble based in Minneapolis, MN. Founded by Walken Schweigert and Katie Burgess in 2009 under the name the Unseen Ghost Brigade, Open Flame creates outdoor, site-responsive operatic performances about rewilding and the inherent power of transgender people. Through live music, dance, large scale climbable sculptures, and circus arts, Open Flame opens portals into surreal other-realms where the power of the imagination is released and reclaimed as part of the larger struggles for justice and freedom from colonization and the culture of capitalism.

the Garden is set to premiere September 24th-26th and october 1st-3rd at philadelphia community farm.

Mark your calendars and stay tuned for ticketing information.

In the meantime, consider supporting Open Flame Theatre with a donation!

About Open Flame

Who We Are

Mission
Open Flame Theatre creates original, multi-disciplinary performances rooted in the queer/Trans experience. Through exploring the surreal and fantastic, we seek to liberate the imagination which we recognize as a vital part of the larger struggle for justice and freedom.

History

Open Flame Theatre began as the Unseen Ghost Brigade, a Minnesota-based traveling theatre troupe founded by Walken Schweigert in 2008. In 2010 the Unseen Ghost Brigade created a circus-influenced tragicomedy called Death on the Mississippi that they toured down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft. The mission was to provide free theatre to communities along the Mississippi and explore the historical impacts of industry along the River. In six months they made it from Minneapolis, MN to Caruthersville, MO. This same year, Schweigert and Katie Burgess created Gut Wrenched and Rising (GWaR), a surrealist and autobiographical performance about lived trans experiences. From these two performances (Death on the Mississippi and GWaR) was birthed the “Rewilding Cycle”—a fantastical operatic triptych about uprooting oppression and imagining liberated futures.

In 2012 Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA—an internationally-renowned theatre ensemble, founded by Stacy Klein—offered Schweigert a mentorship in the development of The Wastelands, a traveling folk opera inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio and first performance of the “Rewilding Cycle”. In 2013 Schweigert founded Children of the Wild to create The Wastelands using the process and training practices developed by the Double Edge Ensemble, inspired by the work of Rena Mirecka and others from Eastern Europe and South America. Children of the Wild was the first-ever company-in-residence at Double Edge Theatre’s Farm Center from 2012-2016. It was there during those four years that The Wastelands was developed with Katie Burgess and other artists under Schweigert’s artistic direction, as part of his and Katie’s mentorship by Stacy Klein and Carlos Uriona.

The Wastelands premiered in the spring of 2016 and then toured for six months across the Great Lakes region, shared for free in public everywhere it went. As part of this journey The Wastelands was performed in Holyoke, MA; Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Lorain, OH; Mackinaw City, MI; Detroit, MI; Duluth, MN; and Minneapolis, MN, in collaboration Great Lakes Commons and a wide-range of social and environmental justice organizations.

In 2017 Children of the Wild was renamed Open Flame Theatre and returned to the midwest. Open Flame Theatre is now in residence indefinitely at Philadelphia Community Farm in Osceola, WI, and in November 2017 began work on The Garden (part two of the triptych, inspired by Dante’s Inferno) for which Schweigert received a JFund Award (now ACF Creates) from the American Composer’s Forum to create.

The Rewilding Cycle

The Wastelands

The Wastelands is a traveling, surrealist folk opera inspired by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison’s The Architecht’s Brother and Dante Aligheri’s Purgatorio. Guided by a queer, skeletal Virgil, The Wastelands takes audiences on a journey through a netherworld of seven terraces, based on the seven stages of grief. The Wastelands explores how to survive in a world which no longer provides, and ultimately asks the question: how do we find hope in despair? 

The Wastelands was developed at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA and premiered in June 2016 and toured along the Great Lakes Basin — from Buffalo, NY to Minneapolis, MN — from June to October 2016.

Everywhere our civilization goes, it leaves skeletons in its wake: ruins of factories, overgrown landfills, clear-cut forests. All across the United States we see these ruins, these wastelands, but with this empty devastation there’s always something else partnered with it; wild beginning to heal what civilization has destroyed.

How and why this rewilding happens, not just in landscapes, but also in humans, is the central story of The Wastelands. We believe these wastelands exist within ourselves as well as in the visible world; the forces behind a profit-driven culture, and its privileging of certain populations over others in a system of extreme control, have done great damage to people, individually and collectively. We believe in the need to evolve and grow beyond a culture that turns the world into commodities, because the inevitable consequence is that we commodify and objectify ourselves.

We believe that a first step in rewilding is beginning to have hope that other ways of life are possible – that we are not trapped in a culture where the value of life is based solely on utility. Our performance is not about proposing a program for how to do this; we are not trying to convince anyone of another system to replace what we have. Instead, we are asking the questions: What else is possible? How does one find hope in despair? What does it mean to rewild oneself and one’s community? What are the wastelands, and how can they transform into the wild, in the world and in ourselves?

The Garden

“The Garden” is an original queer, surrealist opera conceived by Walken Schweigert and created by Open Flame Theatre. The culture of capitalism attempts to control nature in order to utilize it. “The Garden” investigates white-supremacist and colonizer culture’s desire to beautify, manage, and control nature (which, of course, includes people) and reveals the horror that ensues when it does.

For our all-transgender ensemble, this performance is ritual act to reclaim all the parts of ourselves we are told are shameful and monstrous. The heart of this performance asks: how do you uproot oppression? This question is a journey; one that begins with looking at how internalized transphobia manifests in us as individuals, and in our communities.

Our story follows Hayden (played by Walken Schweigert), a trans witch who journeys into the underworld to barter with the Devil (played by Katie Burgess) for the life of a friend who was killed in a hate crime for being trans. The “hell” Hayden encounters, however, is not the one they expected. They become the main course at a bounteous banquet served in their honor, elegant aerial silks become constraints, a gorgeous bride is also mad with grief. In this hell, terror is intermingled with beauty, until Hayden begins to question if everything they’ve been taught to fear is beautiful? To save their friend they must confront their own demons, harness their own power, and discover that the Devil wears Hayden’s own face and doesn’t represent the monstrous evil they were told she does…

The world of “The Garden” is one of decadence, furnished with satin, delicate woodwork, and elegant facades, underneath which hides nightmares. Our set includes a 27 x 10 x 14 foot tall aerial rig made out of scrap metal specifically for this performance by metal workers in Detroit. Seven performers use this rig to tell the story through music, acrobatics, mask, and aerial silks.

The music itself branches into new styles, composed by the Detroit-based, queer, witch-pop band Crune (made up of Open Flame member Walken Schweigert and Matthew Ryan Surline). Using theremin, violin, synthesizers, cello, and hurdy-gurdy, the opera is orchestral-techno-metal with experimental vocals. The audience sits on either side of the rig, watching each other watching Hayden as Hayden discovers and embraces their own power: playing the violin and the hurdy gurdy, singing upside down from silks a dozen feet in the air.

From a queer/trans perspective we are exploring the ways in which we have internalized transphobia in a patriarchal, white-supremacist colonizer society and how that causes us to feel fear, shame, or disgust for the things that give us our power make us beautiful.  It ultimately asks the question: what do we need to face, bear witness to, accept, and embrace about ourselves in order to live and love freely and truly?

One cannot escape from The Garden by running from or denying one’s fears. The only way to conquer our fears is to face them. The only way out of hell is through it.

The Wilderness

The Wilderness is an outdoor, site-responsive, surrealist opera imagining liberated futures. This performance incorporates live music, dance, circus arts and poetry within an operatic framework. What does it mean to decolonize our societies and live in relational rather than extraction-based communities? What is the relationship between liberation and the wild?

The third performance in the operatic Rewilding Triptych, The Wilderness is an investigation of the relationship between liberation and the wild. The premise of the triptych is that what is at the root of systemic oppression is the impulse from western, capitalist, colonizer culture to control nature in order to utilize it. The Wilderness explores the kinds of cultural fabric we might weave to render this system of control powerless and obsolete, and what kinds of community power we can build in its place.

The first part of the triptych, The Garden, asks how do we liberate ourselves from internalized, interlocking systemic oppressions (e.g. transphobia, and white-supremacy)? Part Two, The Wastelands, asks what is rewilding, and how is the process for bioremediating a contaminated industrial lot similar to and different from healing collective ecological grief? The third part of the triptych, The Wilderness, asks how can we learn from the wild what a diversity and abundance of liberated practices/worlds/communities could look like? 

This outdoor performance will take place in wilderness areas (state parks, etc) and will follow a choose-your-own adventure format. Using poetry, live music,  and aerial silks hanging from trees, the audience navigates their own fantastical journey led by the performers on branching paths. The audience will be able to decide their own fate along the way, which determines different scenes that will be performed in the glens of the woods, painting a unique portrait of a liberated potential specific to each audience who views it. 

Journal

Calendar

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Upcoming Performances

THE GARDEN IS SET TO PREMIERE SEPTEMBER 24TH-26TH AND OCTOBER 1ST-3RD, 2021, AT PHILADELPHIA COMMUNITY FARM.

Stay tuned for ticketing information.