Cross Pollination Residency: November 9-15, 2015
MJ Kaufman, Adrienne Mackey, and Chris Forsyth brought storytelling and sound to subways and created poetic and trippy improvisations that explore music and language through the way they intersect with performers in the living moment.
They later held a follow-up week and a public sharing of their work in July 2016.
Three artists come together in a room. There’s Adrienne, theatre director/deviser; MJ, playwright; and Chris, guitarist and composer. They’ve met three times before, and started conversations about family and education, rigor versus personal impulse, event planning, making theater feel like a rock concert, and their inspirations. They talked a good amount, but decided to enter this room and this week together without any specific plans or goals. As starting material, each has brought something to share, an example of an artistic influence. These inspirations spur conversations.
Can anything ever be as formative as it is in your late teens and early 20s? You’re so open to exploration then. Later, you figure out your own approach to creating, and external pieces become less influential.
This flows into discussing how much control one has over the pieces they create once they’re out in the world, and how improvisation affects the quality of a piece.
There’s a perceived barrier to entry with many forms – you’re not supposed to be good at improvising on the guitar if you haven’t been trained in guitar. But is the real value of art in virtuosity of technique? So often, people are trained deeply in technique just so they can break the rules.
What are the rules of your form? Do you follow them?
Mostly, the answer is no. Not the way the rules are traditionally defined, anyway. But Chris, MJ, and Adrienne have all formulated personal “rules” for their creative practices, based on what they think makes good art.
Okay, so… What happens if you break even your own rules? Define your worst artistic nightmare.
For MJ, it’s a play in which one character has no subtlety in fighting for a big message that the audience already agrees with, while another character has no message/goal at all.
For Chris, it’s a song that’s trying too hard to be someone’s idea of “good” … Or something you could hear at the pharmacy.
For Adrienne, it’s a personal autobiographical memoir play that’s super sad and tries to make the audience feel bad.
Now let’s do it.
… … …
… … …
It’s really hard to make something bad on purpose. Chris’ song starts off “bad” in composition but ends up being pretty catchy and usable. MJ and Adrienne’s pieces are so perfectly cliché that they parody pieces of the same style that take themselves seriously, making them quite entertaining.
Conclusion: Bad art comes from a lack of intentionality. It’s most upsetting when the artist genuinely thinks it’s good.
A return to inspirations. A viewing of Ornette Coleman: Made in America, a psychedelic film about the life of the virtuosic jazz musician.
Then, more conversations…
Ornette Coleman and his circumcision. The children of intense living-in-their-heads musicians. Race in theater. European monoculture. And so on.
There’s a lot of sitting, waiting, thinking, silence. Often a lull in conversation comes, and the only noise is Chris noodling away on the guitar, a near-constant occupation. There are a lot of inputs today. Ideas are brewing, familiarity with each other and what matters to each is growing. The group hatches a plan to try overlaying everyone’s improv work together.
Where do music and text come together? So often, instrumental music becomes back-up to textual/storytelling-oriented forms.
Maybe a piece of theater has to be non-narrative for the music to matter. Maybe the playwriting and directing have to listen to the music more than the music responds to the mood of the scene. How do you equalize forms without flattening out?
MJ types. Adrienne warms up two actors. Chris plays guitar. After a few minutes, MJ prints a page and hands it to Adrienne, who slides it forward to the performers.
The characters are Ornette Coleman and Ornette’s son, inspired by the previous day’s documentary. Adrienne begins to direct the pages, trying different things. Then,
A: Am I allowed to ask you questions?
MJ: Huh… I don’t know. We have to make the rules.
It’s a new way of doing things, this instantaneous writing/directing/playing scenario. There aren’t years of technique everyone is expected to be following.
Adrienne directs the performers to stop treating her as the audience, creating a theater, and to just take up space. Chris and his music become a character in the room, rather than background, so the actors become aware of the sound and how their words relate to it. The story still feels like it has precedence, but when Chris pauses playing for a moment, the room feels massively empty.
Then Chris’ music becomes not just a presence but an actual part of the scene; the guitar itself is a character that the actors speak to. The music stays on the same emotional space even as the text changes, refusing to be reactive to the story. None of the satisfying emotional resolutions that are “supposed” to happen, do. Yet, the music still doesn’t have equal weight with the text.
A new experiment. MJ gives the actors a non-dramatic text and they read it slowly, allowing the music to swell in breaks in the language. The music holds weight at first, but once the story gets going, the text picks up speed and power and runs away with itself. This experiment doesn’t feel like theater. The rhythm of allowing space for music before going into a story instead feels more like a podcast.
How can you turn the idea of a podcast into an interesting live performance?
An earlier conversation comes to mind: music is very satisfying while driving, and podcasts are often also used to accompany a journey.
What if two actors and a guitarist ride in the backseat of a car and let the driver experience a live podcast? Like a performance piece for Uber or taxi drivers? How could MJ’s writing be more instantaneous/improvisational in its incorporation?
-So, are we riding around in a car today?
-Cars are a little small; we couldn’t all fit…
-They’re also unsustainable.
-…Yeah, driving a car around totally aimlessly is probably not a great idea.
-What if we do it on the subway?
Is it possible to get ahold of the microphone? Play music over the speakers? What if artists ride with audiences out to Frankford and then just get off and let them figure out what to do to get home? What about content?
There’s more interest in mood pieces and internal thought than in plot. Something that doesn’t demand attention in the way that most subway performers do.
There are lots of ideas and energy. Having a concrete idea gets everyone’s juices flowing.
On the Market-Frankford line, two actors talk casually about the meaning of the word “crescendo.” Chris takes out his guitar and starts to play. After a while, another actor starts a movement piece up and down the car. Our photographer gets on board to join us, but realizes she can’t take photos without revealing that it’s a performance.
An excerpt from the journey. Feel free to continue reading while you listen.
The people on the subway aren’t sure what to make of it, at first. They don’t seem to discover that the crescendo conversation and the guitar relate to each other for a long time. When an actor starts moving up and down the car, at first people seem annoyed. Then slowly, the car realizes that the pieces come together into one whole. The riders at one end of the car who can hear the conversation and see all the movement smile and take photos on their phones. One woman laughs aloud and eagerly points out what’s happening, wanting others to join her in the revelation. It’s a little magical.
Another attempt on the way back east, with some variables adjusted. This time is less magical. “I’m not playing this game,” says a woman in a business suit, swinging her legs into the aisle to block movement. The actors’ movement and conversation dwindles in response to her abrasiveness. Only the music plays on, and when Chris stops playing to put his guitar away, the man sitting across from him expresses disappointment.
An analysis of the subway data thus far:
- Improvised conversation between actors doesn’t incorporate MJ’s playwriting.
- The integration of the components wasn’t obvious to the audience, so the disciplines didn’t reach a point of equality.
- The train riders often didn’t realize they were an audience to our art.
How can the variables be altered to create more balance between the art forms? What’s the most effective use of the container?
-Maybe audiences need to feel like they’ve “opted in” to experiencing art.
-Maybe giving strangers a snack will show that the art is a gift.
-Maybe working in a subway station instead of on the train will maintain the sense of journey while being a little quieter, more controlled.
- “tell us a story – eat our art”
With a box of soft pretzels and a sign with the above slogan, a group of actors attempts to entice people to come trade us a story for a pretzel. People are a little wary, and few come up to the group. It feels a little too intrusive to people’s everyday patterns and expectations of their environment.
- Live Podcast
An attempt to recreate the live podcast experiment. Out in public, few people realize that there’s art happening around them, and the Walnut-Locust Station is still too noisy for the piece to be effective.
- Talking Across Tracks
A more dynamic approach to the live podcast idea: actors tell the story from opposite sides of the tracks. Sharing a non-dialogue based text makes it clear that it’s more than just a pair of people having a conversation. Again, the noise of the station is a little prohibitive.
- Do you want to tell us a story?
Another group takes the box of pretzels and continues the mission of exchanging a pretzel for a story. A more individualized tactic develops: approach people only after they’ve been waiting for the train for a while and look bored. The group gathers some fascinating stories of people’s travel experiences which somewhat capture the diversity of people that ride the subway.
- Giving a Gift
A reversal of the first experiment, back on the train. The group offers subway riders copies of MJ’s story along with a free pretzel. Many riders accept the story, but turn down the snack. Chris’ music sets a soothing atmosphere. A man recognizes his name in a story. It certainly doesn’t upset anyone, but the trio is unsure if it’s a form they want to pursue further.
No one really feels like going back on the subway. Chris, MJ, and Adrienne want to dig deeper into equalizing mediums in a less draining environment, with an approach that’s more intimate, genuine, quiet, subtle, circular.
There’s a projector in the room. MJ types text to Adrienne, and Adrienne projects the words for actors, adding movement and other directions in brackets. Chris improvises on his guitar.
The text is mostly abstract, but topics from the week’s conversations filter in.
The music informs the rhythm of the words, of the movements, of the mood.
The actors aren’t remembering and recreating text: they’re reading what appears in front of them. No plans. No filter.
Sometimes there’s no text at all. Sometimes there’s no music at all. Sometimes the actors just perform without direction.
No one of the three artists knows what the others are going to do until they do it.
This experiment could go on forever.
Above is a video of one of the long-form improvs. Below is the complete document of what the actors and Chris see unfolding on the projector, one line at a time. You can look at them separately or together, and figure out how the pieces fit.
In these improvs, it really feels like Chris, MJ, and Adrienne’s work is balanced.
Of course, like with all good experiments, finding an answer to one question only raises more: is it as fascinating to watch if you’re not part of the dynamic this trio has built in a week together? Does the visibility of the director and playwright affect how an audience understands/interprets what’s happening? Is there a way to offer audiences the experience Chris, MJ, and Adrienne have of seeing things they’ve been thinking about show up in the improv?
There’s always more to explore.
Special thanks to the actors involved this week: Emilie Krause, Ben Grinberg, Robert DaPonte, Jenna Horton, Maggie Johnson, MR Stine, Colleen Hughes, and Catherine Palfenier
MJ Kaufman is a playwright whose work explores themes of gender, history, and spirituality. Their work has been developed and produced at the Huntington Theatre, New York Theater Workshop, Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, Page73, Colt Coeur, Yale School of Drama, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Aurora Theater, Crowded Fire, Fresh Ink Theatre, New Harmony Project and performed in Russian in Moscow. They have received awards and commissions from the Program for Women in Theater, the Playwrights Foundation, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, Young Playwrights Inc., and the Huntington Theatre, where they are also a playwriting fellow. MJ received the 2013 ASCAP Cole Porter Prize in Playwriting, the 2013 Global Age Project Prize, and the 2010 Jane Chambers Prize in Feminist Theatre. MJ is currently a core playwright at InterAct Theatre, a resident artist at the New Museum (X-ID Rep), and a Resident Teaching Artist at Philadelphia Young Playwrights. Originally from Portland, Oregon, MJ attended Wesleyan University and recently received an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama.
Chris Forsyth is a lauded guitarist and composer whose work assimilates art-rock textures with vernacular American influences. Long active in underground circles, he’s recently released a string of acclaimed records of widescreen guitar rock, and in 2013, he assembled The Solar Motel Band, who have quickly developed a reputation as an incredible live act, provoking ecstatic comparisons to visionary artists such as Television, the Grateful Dead, Popul Vuh, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and Richard Thompson.
Intensity Ghost, the first studio album by Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band was released to universal acclaim in October 2014 on the No Quarter label. It’s been named one of the best releases of 2014 by Uncut (#34), the New Yorker, and Washington Post. Aquarium Drunkard called it “pure unadulterated guitar heaven – classic rock remade.” The Quietus said, “It’s just immense.”
A new 2XLP release with The Solar Motel Band will be released on No Quarter in early 2016.
In addition to Forsyth’s work as a solo artist and bandleader, he has been an inveterate collaborator with a diverse range of artists, including singer/songwriter Meg Baird, trumpeter Nate Wooley, analog synthesist Koen Holtkamp, and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez. He is a recipient of a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the Arts and resides in Philadelphia.