By Annette Hinkle
At last year’s HarborFrost, one of the most talked about events turned out to be Zima – an allegorical scavenger hunt of sorts offered by Kate Mueth and her theatrical dance troupe Neo-Political Cowgirls.
Mueth, an actress, dancer and choreographer by training, loves reimagining the possibilities in performance. For Zima (which is Polish for winter) she has literally taken theater out of the box and transformed Sag Harbor into a virtual stage by populating its streets and businesses with whimsical characters. Their job is to offer participants subtle clues along a path to solving a poetic mystery which Mueth has devised.
For the uninitiated, Mueth explains how the theatrical scavenger hunt that is the backbone of Zima works. Participants start the hunt at the Main and Madison Street split where they receive a map with hints about where to go from there. It all revolves around a riddle — sort of like a game of hangman where dashes stand in for letters that make up words to solve the puzzle. But those words can only be determined by visiting various stops throughout Sag Harbor and correctly interpreting the gestures, phrases or subtle clues offered by the costumed actors encountered.
“Instead of finding objects, you’re getting information from each vignette,” explains Mueth. “It’s about retraining audiences to stop, just watch and absorb what you’re seeing in the moment, the gesture, the speech happening in front of you. You have to extirpate the information to fill in the riddles then go on to the next one.”
“It’s creating a puzzle,” she adds. “I kind of have the brain of a semiotician — what’s the story of how things are set up? I love seeing how audiences can experience theater in a new way.”
And Zima, incidentally, is as much for kids as it is for adults.
“I don’t make it easy – I want people to work hard at what they’re doing,” says Mueth. “Sometimes kids will get something adults don’t figure out. It’s a great way to figure out yourself too and using the other muscle in your brain.”
Last year was the first time Mueth and the Cowgirls (which includes a few cowboys as well) offered Zima, and she admits that there were some pleasant, but unexpected, surprises that arose from the interaction between participants.
“What I wasn’t expecting was this great sense of community with adults and kids alike loving it,” says Mueth. “All the participants came back and said ‘we had so much fun, because we were traveling with strangers all along trying to figure out the clues.’ An experiential friendship resulted and people met new people.”
“It’s nice to have a positive and unexpected way to form friendships,” she adds.
That’s exactly why Mueth is drawn to offering theatrical productions in non-traditional settings — like the streets of Sag Harbor. As a result of her vision, the total becomes more than the sum of it’s parts and it’s the sense of place that ultimately determines the success of Zima. This is a production Mueth finds is ideal for Sag Harbor, and one that would most likely not fly in a village like East Hampton.
“What’s special about Sag Harbor that’s different than East Hampton is I can walk in a store and talk to an owner,” says Mueth. “They have grass roots sensibilities, an idea of let’s make this work, it’s fun so lets do this together.”
“It won’t work if I have to talk to a corporate office in Manhattan or London,” she adds. “There’s a great energy that is had in the small town feel and the managing of your stores where they’re not closing up in the winter. It’s about community. Everyone who lives here needs that community. Otherwise the spirit is dead, the soul is dead.”
But Zima is about breathing life into the spirit of those who take part, and Mueth enjoys incorporating ancient imagery into the equation to arouse primal sensibilities. While last year, Zima focused on a riddle revolving around Old Man Winter searching for his lost love, Spring, this year’s theme is Greek mythology in the form of the satyr Pan who relentlessly pursues three nymphs.
“This is the story of Pitys, Syrinx and Echo — Pan was in love with all of them,” explains Mueth. “Pitys is turned into a pine tree, so Pan wears a pine branch on his head. Syrinx was turned into reeds, which are the flute Pan carries, and Echo’s voice was cursed so that she could only repeat what others said, a voiceless vibration letting you know you exist.”
It all has a bit of an educational component to it that Mueth enjoys sharing, and she adds that Pan is the root of the word “panic,” which is inspired by the legendary ferocity the satyr displayed when he was abruptly awoken from a mid-day slumber.
“He’s also half goat, so he’s imperfect,” adds Mueth who finds in the story analogies to life in the 21st century. “I love myth because I think it pertains so much to where we are today. I also love story which I think everyone in their own unique way can connect to. It awakens you and you realize you’re not alone, there’s a lot going on outside yourself you’re not paying attention to that has meaning. It brings meaning into our life.”
And winter, she finds, is a perfect time to do just that.
“The whole idea is to get people out into the winter and embrace it,” she explains. Winter is the time for nature, story and myth. We’re so plugged in and living at a rapid fire pace, we’re not absorbing story and letting it reflect inside us. An important part of being human — being comfortable in your own skin — is living a life that is aware.”
“Evolution is just being aware of the depths — you don’t ever evolve out of it,” adds Mueth. “This is about bringing back mystery, hopefully a little magic, community and an experiential awareness of being outside.”
“And hopefully, we’ll get a little snow.”
Zima by the Neo-Political Cowgirls runs from 2 to 4 p.m. this Saturday, February 9, 2013 as part of HarborFrost festivities. The action begins in Sag Harbor at the monument where Main and Madison streets split. Participants can start from that spot at either 2 p.m., 2:30 p.m. or 3 p.m. The full course should take about an hour.