If you’re conditioned to think that powerful, provocative theater can be found in New York, and in minor contributions in Chicago and Los Angeles, it’s obvious you haven’t been to the Mode Theater in Waterloo, Wisconsin—population 2,800.
Surprisingly, Jinx Davis and her partner, Andy Pizer, do not advertise the theater’s productions. They started out by inviting friends, and then slowly compiled a mailing list, now consisting of around 8,000 names, half of which reflect rural households. But the Mode’s main drawing of power, from the patrons throughout the Midwest, is strictly from those who have attended, then enthusiastically told others of the unusual oasis in the midst of the cornfields.
For those who come, even that loyal core of patrons who don’t miss a performance, often seeing the same play over and over again, there is a feeling of personal discovery, of putting down first footprints. Indeed, this is riveting theater, where gut-wrenching plays, performed in a stylized salon atmosphere, and serving as a home base for Jinx, Andy and their three sons, is the only place like it in the country.
I was one of those who had heard about it from a friend. This person had become so enthralled by the Mode’s seemingly mystical powers, I agreed to indulge her request to see what I’d been missing, by making the thirty minute drive east of Madison the next time the Mode put on a production. (Productions usually run with the seasons, four sometimes five times a year.)
“It’s hard to explain what is going on there,” this friend pointed out. “expect to feel nourished like the theater has never nourished you before,” she continued. “Talk about getting caught up in a performance! This is where life and art are intermixed, and where explorations of how and why we treat each other the way we do, is at center stage. You’ll see what I mean. Be prepared for a hotbed of emotions to wash over you. And then a release through new-found friends wanting to engage you in animated conversation. As for Jinx herself, she is a master at feeding the soul. Oh, and one more thing, Jinx and Andy have made the theater their home. Literally. Wait till you see it.”
Talking Back to Real People
I was skeptical. Great theater in the cornfields? Food for the soul? I also knew that this live performance theater was also often home to controversial subject matter. I had been alerted to the fact that the performance I was about to see, “Miss Jinx Teaches School,” an interactive play about an abusive teacher, fell into this category.
Driving through the tiny hamlet of Marshall, then past Waterloo’s Trek bicycle headquarters, I arrived at the town’s main intersection, then took a right onto Monroe. One block down I saw the old stone movie house, and the name Mode Theatre on the marquee. Why is the Age of Enlightenment happening in Waterloo, Wisconsin, I wondered? Later, I asked Jinx this question. She theorized about the geographical coincidence of the Mode being situated in America’s heartland, and the impact it has had upon awakening the consciousness of so many. “I live in a town whose existence for the past 60 years has been of serial complacency,” she said. “Yet we are pulling in half the households. I like to think that the theater has helped generate an eureka, an awareness, in this tiny town in the midst of the cornfields. It has created a sense of urgency and thrust, compelling people to react. You wouldn’t feel that same sort of driving need to connect if we were doing this in New York or Chicago. In fact,” she goes on, “I think the Mode has survived because it could only happen here.”
I would later learn Jinx took enormous risks to find that out. Theater can be a powerful vehicle when it combines thoughtful, reflective dialogue and is able to connect with the audience on a number of levels. But when you’re selling emotion, you’re also in the business of taking risks.
When the Mode opened five years ago, Jinx trusted the integrity of her work, but was also cognizant of the fact that her sensitive portrayals of interesting, albeit, often disturbing characters, including the abused and abusive, could result in difficult experiences for her audience. The idea was to allow people to experience a sense of freedom and intimacy at the same time. Atmosphere was important—so she and Andy transformed a decrepit old movie theater into a splendid performance space. “I knew that we couldn’t do what we needed to with ‘the fourth wall’ up,” she says, “so we devised a salon sort of space where we could be heard by real people, not by elitists or pseudo-intellectuals.”
“This 1937 movie theater had been abandoned for years,” says Jinx, “when we decided to rescue it and transform it into a residential, rotating art gallery and performance space.” The renovation took two years, with Andy at the helm of the rehab work. When they first met, Andy had just bought the theater and was about to convert it to mini malls. “Not over my dead body,” Jinx told him, “a theater is a theater.” Andy listened, and for patrons who now experience the theater’s first-rate productions, they’re glad he did.
Jinx, who holds a master in Fine Arts and left behind a successful career in TV and radio, was ready to take on this weighty project. “It was time,” she said, “to do something from the heart.”
The Mode draws from all walks of life, from farmers to lawyers, sitting side by side in a 3,000 square foot performance space on white plastic chairs amidst a gallery of glorious art. Gradually, they began to understand what Jinx Davis was trying to do. Gertrude Stein would have been proud.
Still, some are incensed by the storylines, original material written by Jinx, with subjects ranging from class status and religious freedom, to racial prejudice. Jinx’s probing of multi-cultural issues has enraged some, but the majority become energized and challenged to see thing from a different perspective.
“We’ve received a small number of calls in the middle of the night—a few yelled at me for passing as black, which I did on a journey through the South in search of inspiration and understanding of my stories,” Jinx says, “But interestingly, when we ask people if they want to be taken off our mailing list, only about ten or so a year say yes. The remainder are adamant about staying on and keeping up with our work.”
I get frightened even thinking about what Jinx is doing—inviting the general public into her home, then encouraging them to roam about at whim. As is that were not bravery enough, the centerpiece of the evening is—a typical Jinx performance is true grit and all guts.
Going in, I knew this was going to be a different experience. After all, how many people do you know who perform one-person plays in an imaginative theater setting, which also doubles as their home? But what I hadn’t expected was to come away feeling like I couldn’t get enough of this place.
The mood was set in the candlelit lobby with an enthusiastic welcome from Andy, then an invitation to hang my coat in their upstairs bedroom. Living in a theater translates to living within large spaces. Which further translates to fun for theatergoers who are encouraged to explore the building’s expansive rooms. If a door was shut, it was off limits, but from what I could tell, only the teenage children’s doors were inaccessible.
Making my way up one short flight of stairs, I moved through the former projection room, now a brightly decorated kitchen. Then down a few stairs, through the living room to a gargantuan bedroom loft. Here, a long horizontal pole, suspended from the ceiling, reflected Jinx and Andy’s clever use of space. Purpose: to hold an army of coats.
The pole had me hooked. I was anxious to look around this unconventional home. Interestingly, I immediately felt like the guest of a friend, no guilt had surfaced for snooping about and glancing at artfully displayed hats, gowns and jewelry, framed art and other artifacts, all vying for attention and oozing drama and excitement within these walls.
I passed Jinx in costume, talking with audience members in the hallway. She’s not “backstage getting ready,” I thought, but instead is out here connecting with her audience moments before she goes on stage. I would later find out she is so comfortable with her art that she sometimes weaves the second half of the play together, after intermission, as she goes along.
Speaking of intermission, the $12 price of intermission gives you an opportunity to indulge in sinfully rich pies, cakes and tortes, bowls of candy and other goodies—during the break or before the show.
A Woman of 10,000 Voices
Miss Jinx is a Hitler-like character that screams at her students (audience members) and demands respect from those who loathe her character. She is power-hungry and out of sync with the real world. It is uncomfortable sitting in this audience, because, unlike traditional theater, we cannot hide in the dark. There is no protection here from Miss Jinx. Some are booing the character; one is throwing a drained coffee cup at her as she insists on throwing him out of her school. There is no complacency in this room; she has made us feel, and we have reacted.
After the performance, Jinx stood in the hallway, sharing hugs and listening intently as audience members divulged how the play affected them. I told her I was mesmerized at her energy, but could only imagine how draining it must be to give so much as both writer and performer.
I also asked her why she had taken on such an exhausting form of art. “I’d die if I didn’t do this,” she answered. “I simply have no choice. The art has chosen me, not the other way around.”
There were four of us who drove back to Madison. Unable to turn off the performance, we talked non-stop about power when it spins out of control, as it had in “Miss Jinx Teaches School,” and how victimized we felt as we sat in her classroom.
I have been back the Mode Theater several times since the first thought-provoking experience. There was “Walk the Walk” billed as a “humorous & heartfelt walk through life,” and “Smile”—a lighthearted evening honoring great women in comedy including Anna Russell, Moms Mabley, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. Before this performance, Jinx stood before her audience and took another risk—sharing personal heartache. She said many of the audience knew she had taken some time off. No one seemed to be looking for an explanation, but she wanted to share the nuances of her life with us anyway. “I took time to heal,” she said, “from the pain which came from disengaging myself from my family.”
This is the sort of embrace, which goes out to Mode Theater patrons and reaches deep inside the soul. It’s the sort of thing one family member might say to another. And that’s what I couldn’t put my finger on before now. Why the Mode feels so different—and that is this: The atmosphere allows you to feel instant integration into a warm, extended family.
Andy’s goodbye at the door also characterized the Mode’s flavor. “Thank you for having the courage to come,” he said, “and for allowing us to share our home.”