process

An interplay between effort and ease: Lauren Rile Smith and Francois Zayas

Lauren and Francois

The latest “blind date” from Cross Pollination! Today we meet:

Lauren Rile Smith (trapeze, circus arts)

Francois Zayas (music, composition, percussion)

Muscularity mixed with grace. This was a theme that emerged in both their applications.

lauren door 1Whether expressed through a virtuosic solo on maracas or the twisting expertness of a trapeze act, this pairing grew partly from a sense that both acrobatics and jazz are art forms that require intense training, years of study in almost formulaic muscle memory, in order to achieve a sense of freedom and flight in the moment of performance. They are also both mediums that depend on deep trust – of the instruments/objects used to perform, of the people who join us in that performance – in order not to falter and fall.

Francois: “Through all the years of my career I have experienced the benefit of collaboration with other artists many times. This is something that I seek out in francois maracasmy everyday life and constitutes an essential part of my creative process.”

Lauren has mentioned to me in the past that she is often seen as unique in her work for being a woman who acts as an acrobatic “base” or support (a position usually occupied by male performers). It strikes me that perhaps (though I will admit to having had only the first tastes of the banquet that is jazz music) it is also unique to have a percussionist as the leader of a jazz ensemble. In this way both of these creators strike me as participating in tradition while simultaneously innovating within it. It also seems as if your part in your artworks creates a kind of foundation, a ground floor on which everything else can be built.lauren trapeze

Lauren: “I see a powerfully interdisciplinary potential in circus, as an art form that straddles genre, from dance theater to variety-hall burlesque.”

And there’s a parallel too in the way that their works re also a vehicle to express personal identity: be it in the way we are allowed to see a female body moving through the air or in the awareness of how one’s Caribbean roots can be expressed through pulsating waves of rhythm.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Lauren: feminist, muscular, inventive

Francois: Unique, thoughtful, Cuban

francois drums close

Credit: Alan Jackman

This was a conversation that wove its way through all these things and more: Lauren talking about the way that the aesthetics of ballet are sometimes necessary in trapeze but sometimes not, Francois talking about how standard jazz improvisation has become a default that people expect but might not really strengthen the composition of the music.

Thanks to both of you!

– A

Audible Pictures, Visual Music: Nick Cassway and Elizabeth Huston

Nick and Liz

Cross Pollination Coffee Dates continue with a profile of two more amazing artists. Today we meet:

Nick Cassway (drawing, portraits)

Elizabeth Huston (harp, contemporary music)

One of the things I really liked about Elizabeth’s application was her questioning of how visual media can (perhaps may need to) enrich the experience of her music. I loved this statement in particular:

“My experience as merely a musical performer and producer isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

sky harp 2What better attitude towards tackling collaboration between genres than this? And it’s clear in her samples that this is already an avenue of exploration. She a musician thinking about the future of her music genre and she’s created a body of work that explores how visual performance can help a modern audience interface with a classic art form. From what she shared, it looks like most of that exploration has thus far been with other live performance genres (there are some great dance clips in particular in her sample) and it made me wonder what would happen if the visual media that her music confronted wasn’t also in motion (or at least not in an obvious way)?

Similarly, I liked the way Nick is testing the way his audience’s interface with his work. He creates his images fast – drawing multiple illustrated versions of real life photos in rapid succession and then combining them into the final product. His pieces in some cases are also not simply static two-dimensional objects, but works that change with the passage of time (as in the installation at Eastern State Penitentiary) or with perspective (as in his “Into the Woods” series). And in this way he strikes me as a visual artist perfectly primed to explore a collaborator whose output is performance-based.

He included this in his application:

“I am also interested in how one medium translates into another – what is lost and what is gained, what language about process, creation and critique are shared and what is untranslatable between mediums.”

into the woodsAnd this is almost to the letter the initial spark that caused me to create the Cross Pollination program in the first place. I had just finished a conversation with a peer artist, a modern dancer, and thought:

“Wow. Their starting point, their sense of narrative, the frames with which they view their work are SO different, even though theater and dance are so similar in most ways. What would it mean if I had to make performance for an audience in the way a visual artist does? What about if that person had to think of their ‘static’ object as moving through time and space?”

In our meeting it was quickly clear that all three of us are solid in our current artistic methodologies but really interested in the possibility for what can happen when we aren’t just stuck in our rehearsal room, studio, or practice hall. Both had previous experiences that they shared working with a person outside of our discipline – for example Nick with a performer in creating that Into the Woods series, Liz in an avid search to combine visual components like dance into her performances – and discovered a totally new kind of thing based on the collaboration.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Liz: Alive, Multi-Discipline, Engaging

Nick: Graphic, Uncomplicated, Funny

CasswayJustinLaserThis trio also seemed interested in figuring out how to make our work interesting and useful to current audiences by hooking people in with something novel – glow in the dark paint in Nick’s illustrations, a shadow play with Liz’s music, involving the audience more directly as a character in mine. That we all are intrigued by the way that we need to make sure our work isn’t just for our peers but for a lot of different people feels really ripe. We also talked about trying to really stretch ourselves past the limitations of our current ideas of collaboration. I came away really interested in getting performance (theater, music) to unseat the idea of theater as a time-based performance and think more like a visual artist – with a sense a presentation that can be interacted with in lots of ways.liz harp long

At one point we were talking about the satisfaction with trying a totally new form – me taking up the piano, Liz talking about the feeling of playing recorder for the first time and Nick saying he’s always wanted to try his hand at the banjo. Nick joked that our residency time could be employed making a “band” out of these and I said, “You joke, but what if?”

And though we all laughed at the thought, I bet if I proposed it, I bet they’d be willing to try it out.

Which I think is a really great sign.

– A

Cross Pollination begins…

Hey all,

So it’s been a bit.

And though we haven’t had much time together in this space, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to the Philly arts community in the past few days than I have in the past year. Monday marked the very first of the Cross Pollination “coffee dates” – meetings in which the folks selected and grouped together after the initial application round meet up and see what kinds of chemistry might result. I’ll be doing A LOT of these in the next couple weeks. If they keep going like they have been, the CP team will be in big trouble because we’ve found some really kick ass creators out there in the Philly landscape and choosing half of them to move on is going to be a daunting task.

abeepollen1Tomorrow I’ll begin profiling the groups that I’ve met with. I’ll be lucky enough to be an equal participant with all the groups that are brought together as part of this – the third leg of all the trios that move on. And because I don’t want to be the only one to get to see the wealth of awesomeness, one of my big goals for the Cross Pollination project is to share the creative research that happens at every step of the journey. So expect a lot of thoughts about how other genres can teach us about our own work this summer and in the months beyond.

I thought that I’d start at the beginning, with myself, the only common thread through all the projects.

We received 90+ submissions for this project. Only 30 artists/ensembles, 15 pairs, were selected to meet in person with me to see what kind of a trio we might make. Each one of those folks wrote something in their application that sparked myself and the reader panel to know more. And since they did all that work, before we met I too created an “application” that I sent to them. It explained my work and impulses to pollinate using the same questions I’d asked them.

Cross Pollination Application

Name: Adrienne Mackey

Artistic area(s) of practice/expertise: Theater mostly, with a little writing and voice in the mix as well

• A bit of writing

Using 400 – 800 words on this form or another attached sheet write about why you’re interested in Cross Pollination: What makes you want to participate in this project? Do you need to shake up the way you make stuff? What makes you want to work with artists from other disciplines? Is your current process open to change?

I wrote the grant that is funding Cross Pollination on a whim.

I’d received funds from the Knight Foundation previously for another project called “Outside the (Black) Box” in which I staged theatrical works in unusual spaces including a show at Eastern State Penitentiary and another that toured to science lecture halls all over the city. And because this foundation had never done it before, I figured there was no way they fund me a second time.

So I used it as an opportunity to imagine a kind of ideal artistic experience: one that allowed me to meet a huge number of new and diverse creators, one where I got to spend substantive time, was well paid and had access to any resources I might need, and most importantly had the chance to do some research and development without the pressure of any finished product. As a former lab chemist, I approach my creative “experimentation” with a scientist’s sensibility: I ask questions I do not yet know the answer to and then carry out research that delves into the inner workings of my subject of study. And it’s funny that it was while working in a lab that I discovered directing live performance was going to the thing I would commit my life to doing.

I say live performance because when most people think of the word “play” they tend to imagine red curtains and “please unwrap your candy” speeches and sad family members sitting on beige couches talking about their relationship problems. That or Elizabethan doublets and “To be or not to be.” And while I don’t mean to say there isn’t value in those kinds of experiences, the kinds of work I’ve been making for the past decade tends to look and operate differently. I usually ask a bit more of my audiences than sitting back for an hour or two and watching. I want them to sing, I want them to move, and sometimes even choose the way they navigate the experience they take part in.

And yet, while I love creating and directing these kinds of projects, I’ve also always been a bit of an artistic omnivore. I studied classical opera as well as some pretty “out there” experimental approaches to voice. I’ve acted professionally and currently sing back up vocals in a funk band. (I’m the one in the middle with the big hair). In the last few years started writing the words my actors speak and also composed nearly 50,000 words on the state of the arts in Philadelphia and beyond. My directing works have always been an outlet for my interest in other topics – quantum physics, American labor history, science fiction, racial tensions between communities in Philadelphia – and the form these works take are often inspired by other mediums I encounter in researching them.

So in a way, this project is my chance to formalize that process. It’s my attempt to find other people who have developed skills in one area and want to see what they can learn by smashing them up against another’s. It’s a way to remind ourselves that there’s always more to learn, always new directions in which to grow.

• A bit of everything else

1)   Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:  Scientific, Muscular, Surprising

2)   Work samples:

Share a bit about your work. This can links to audio recordings, video clips, a digital portfolio or website, press coverage and/or writing samples – basically, whatever you think best represents what you make. Feel free to also include information on any upcoming show/reading/performance!

Last fall I created a piece at Eastern State Penitentiary for the FringeArts festival called The Ballad of Joe Hill. I love working in spaces that aren’t theaters. Something about discovering the story of the place and how it’s architecture helps convey the emotion we’re after is really exciting to me. Below are a couple of my favorite photos from the show (all credited to the amazing Kyle Cassidy):

brad trial

hilda suitcase

reporters

hilda hall

For the NPR nerds out there, WHYY also had us on RadioTimes with Marty Moss-Coane to talk about the piece and its historical context.

Here’s a photo for another play I created in 2010 called SURVIVE!

box survive

In this one I really wanted to create a theater experience that communicated the massive, incomprehensible size and complexity of the universe. So we had audience and performers moving through 20,000 sq ft of space in a “choose your own adventure” format. A person saw one of 128 different possible unique viewings of the show’s material, and any one person only able to see about a quarter of the play’s content in a single viewing.

Here’s a video trailer for that. And you can check out more pictures here.

And last I’ll share a little bit of my most recent play Welcome To Campus. I created this show in residence at Drexel University (where I teach) and the piece was a traveling “tour” of the campus performed by student actors. The students brought the audience across 2 miles of the campus giving tours of their own lives in the places these events actually occurred – classrooms, dorms, the gym, etc. We also had a second set of performers out in the landscape that magically manifested whatever the person was talking about. In one scene an actor talks about having to cut a friend out of her life who started drinking and spiraling into a negative lifestyle she was comfortable with and as the tour walks by you see a series of students all having the same phone conversation based on the event the guide is talking about. You can catch another profile on NPR, this time on Newsworks, here.

One of the things I really liked about this piece was a collaboration we had with a photographer and graphic artist for objects used in the piece. We weren’t allowed to use official Drexel schwag (our “fake” tour was NOT administration approved) so we created our own folders, maps, tour guide bios, gave audiences a “voucher” for the dining hall (continent on their submission of an application for admission). Kate Raines, a photographer friend, did a brochure style photo shoot of these kids that we used in a power point that started off the show. You can see some of the photos of the students doing their best to look happy and productive.

campus 1

campus 2

campus 3

campus 4

And at the very end of the show the audience is surprised to walk out onto the main stage of the theater building as they hear “pomp and circumstance.” Their names are called as they received “diplomas” (actually the show’s programs) as they “graduated” our play. Crowning achievement of this show was when an actual Drexel applicant and his parents came to the show and said that this was exactly what they wanted to have in a tour when trying to look at colleges.

Thanks for reading. Looking forward to meeting you!

– Adrienne

What exactly is “devising” anyway?

Hey folks, something a little different for today.

This past Sunday I gave a presentation on “devised” theater for Directors Gathering. As I sat down to prep for the evening, I realized that for so much of my career I’ve defined my work (or had it defined for me) as a series of oppositions. My work tends not to exist in a traditional space. It tends not to take a linear form. It tends not to let the audience sit back and passively observe.

As I started trying to describe this “style” of work I kept asking myself, rather than thinking about what it isn’t can I articulate was it is?

The short answer is yes, I can.

And because I was so pleased with the reply that I found in answer to that question, I thought it would be worth sharing with you.

So here it is…

A

 

Where we go from here

Hey all. It’s March 31st and the official end of my month of blogging here on the topic of gender parity in theater. I recapped the other day some of the projects that this month has inspired and begun, but I also wanted to say a couple things not only about those specific projects but about a few bigger picture things that have slowly amassed over the course of this month on a larger, perhaps more philosophical level.

One of the lessons I feel like I’ve taken away from this month of work is the sense that it’s important to keep perspective on two scales – the very small and personal and the very large and grand.

I find for myself that when I get too stuck in the minutiae of my own little world and my own little perspective on that little world, I can miss solutions or a sense of possibility. It’s easy when we are used to seeing something all the time to assume that it will always have to be that way. There are trends of inequity that have persisted for so long they have become banal and commonplace. And so in listening to other creators, in gathering voices of women artmakers en masse, by looking at my field as a whole and branching into other mediums as well, by looking at this problem not just as a personal one but a community-wide issue, I feel like I’ve gained a feeling of possibility, of mobility that I haven’t had in a while. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture has made me say more forcefully there are things I see in my community that are not acceptable even if they are common.

Simultaneously, I have also gotten better at tasking myself with small concrete things that I can do in and hour or two with a few people. I have become more able to say, “What can I do right now to make a step towards a larger goal?” rather than getting frustrated at an inability to fix everything in its entirety. I have felt easier in making a step forward, even if it is imperfect or not totally complete and saying that something good and finished NOW is better than something immaculate that takes months to perfect.

Another lesson learned is the power of a system that can handle multiple points of entry. One of the most awesome things about the Awesome Lady Squad is the fact that there are projects starting to gain momentum that I am not the sole driver of. Projects that I am appreciative of but may not have the expertise or immediate interest in prioritizing. If the Squad is to succeed I think our responsibility must be shouldered by many. Because the truth is some day I’m going to get busy with a project or a life event. Or there will be (maybe already is) more to do that I have time to oversee. And one of my core beliefs is that we will do so much more if we all trust each other to take your idea and run further with it than you knew was possible.

And last, I’ve realized that there is nothing more powerful that one human looking another human in the eye and doing your best to speak honestly and listen to each other.

That sounds mushy.

It is.

But man, is it also effective.

I’ve written thousands of words about these issues, spent hours trying to articulate exactly how I’m feeling and what I want to communicate. And yet, one of the most impactful moments I’ve had was when I sat down talked with some other creators about how their choices affected me and listened honestly and openly to their response.

If there is anything that I take from a month of work trying to advocate for female artists it is this: we have to be brave enough to start saying what we actually think and feel. To do so assumes that real and substantive change is possible. It assumes that our views are valuable enough to be heard and flexible enough to absorb response.

It is hard to tell someone, especially someone you admire and care about, that their actions might have consequences they do not intend. It also feels like the closest I’ve come to actually shifting the way someone will think and act in relation to this topic in the future.

And in this way, let me share where I go from here:

I will continue to work with The Awesome Lady Squad in the coming months. I’ll keep you abreast of those changes.

I will return to many of the questions about sustainability and how to engage in a long and happy life as an artist.

I will send some focus to other special interest groups and work towards a community that is aware and equitable in all aspects.

I want to encourage us, Philadelphia, to start engaging in these harder conversations. The ones that scare us. The ones that are uncomfortable. The ones that might mean we really have to rethink some of the ways we do things. These are the ones that will make us the city that others look to. These are the things that will create a more sustainable and strong community in the future.

Feeling the renewing possibilities of the imminent spring,

A

Cross Pollination Unveiled

spLOGOIs there anything lamer than quoting a David Foster Wallace commencement address to help make a point about artistic awareness?

Probably not.

Which I guess means I’m going to do one super lame thing today. And right after, do something else that’s super not-lame to counterbalance.

Ready for that quote?

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,

‘What the hell is water?!’

The point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about…

– David Foster Wallace

As artists, working in different genres, sometimes in sub-sets of genres, sub-sets of sub-sets of genres and so on, there are lots of givens about how we work that we take for granted. There are times when the way our work is made seems so self evident that it is almost as natural as breathing the air around us.

Sometimes our working methods can be like the water.

One of the greatest gifts that came from my time a few years back as a Live Arts LAB fellow was to have the chance to talk to my fellow fellows who were dancers. There were more than a couple sessions as a group where it actually blew my mind a little to learn that some of the assumptions I make about creating were totally different than theirs. Things that I take for granted were sometimes just not part of the conversation these other amazing artists were engaging with. Sometimes things were the same but employed in different ways. Sometimes the focus and priority were radically different.

There were times these conversations reinforced my assumptions about art, made me that much more sure in why I did things the way I did. Other times it inspired me to shift my own process and just try what it would mean to create without certain conventions about narrative or structure or audience responsibility. In all cases, these conversations made me more aware of the water around me. Gave me choice about what kind of givens I was swimming in.

I finished that LAB period thinking:

“Wow. If the creative process for two mediums that are almost identical in most aspects can be so different and thought provoking, what would it mean to have this conversation with creators who are even less alike?”

And also:

“Can a visual artist teach a singer something about music? Can a chef give a dancer a chance to unseat their idea of what it means to move? Can a light designer change the way a writer thinks about their words?”

And then finally:

“I really want to find out the answer.”

And luckily, thanks to the Knight Arts Challenge, I found a means to do just that. The result is something I’m calling Cross Pollination. It’s a project that actively seeks a way to dump water all over the floor. It’s a chance to explore without the pressure of a full performance or product. It’s a chance to get paid (and reasonably well, I might add) to open up one’s horizons and cross breed with another artist. It’s a chance to find some crazy mutt hybrid mash up that the world has never seen before. It’s a chance to find out more about the water you’re swimming in.

And I’m so so so excited to begin.

Want more details? Click below. It’s all in there…

Cross Pollination Artist Application

And if you ever need to quickly get to that application without searching the blog just CLICK HERE!

And of course a HUGE thank you to the John S. and James L Knight Foundation for making this amazing project happen.

Enjoy!

– Adrienne

52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 2

So first off I want you to know that I’m aware it isn’t the second week of 2014.

I have been reading a play a week. I’ve just been a little backlogged in getting thoughts about them onto (virtual) paper. And I say this mostly because I am super judge-y of folks that start grand resolutions and barely complete the opening stages. And because I assume everyone in outside world is the same as the voices in my mind, I want to appease your judgments.

Clearly, there are times it’s a dark place in my brain.

Anyway.

For the second week of the year 2014 I read The Play About My Dad by Boo Kellebrew. For the uninitiated, a reminder that I’m intentionally not reviewing these works (you can read about why here) but instead free associating on the theatrical elements or ideas this play proposes or makes me think on.

The Play About My Dad is indeed, as the title suggests a play about the playwright and her father. It is also about Hurricane Katrina and the way in which we think about epic disaster on both the very small and personal and very large and overwhelming scales. The piece weaves past and present by jumping between conversations between the playwright and her father, ostensibly writing the play for the audience in this moment in front of us and three other perspectives on Long Beach Mississippi, a town very close to the Gulf and massively affected by the storm. The three other stories center around Essie – a woman who raised Larry (playwright Boo’s father), Neil and Kenny – a pair of EMTs who knew the family when Boo was young, and Rena, Jay and Michael – a family who are caught literally and figuratively over their heads when they try to ride out the storm and who meet Larry (a doctor) when they arrive at a local hospital.

Unlike the play from week 1, this piece is satisfyingly messy in lots of ways and doesn’t wrap up storylines in neat packages. There are little bits scattered through the play – the rift between Essie and her daughter – in which the playwright hints at connections between these characters and the turbulent relationship between the playwright and her father. The show is clearly a metaphor, but an incomplete one, one that seems not wholly processed or understood. I liked this about the work, that like most of us, our deepest interpersonal relationships are not ones that we often have completely sorted out and that this complexity is brought into sharp focus most when we are confronted with extreme calamity.

From the moment it begins there is a meta device at play in this play, one in which the playwright’s father is supposedly speaking to the audience. We hear “Boo” (the playwright’s same name) tell her father to stop putting on his “acting” voice. Later the same character points out the theatrical devices (changing lights to indicate shifts in time) that underpin the staging.  “What a funny thing,” I thought as I read, “to draw my attention to the insincerity inherent in acting by one who is in fact acting and therefore inherently insincere themselves.” I looked up the show’s past production to note that in fact the performer was not the playwright’s father (nor did the playwright appear onstage) a fact the audience would ostensible know. It requires a fair amount of mental calculus I think to ask us to become aware to some aspects of the “falseness” while still blissfully suspending our disbelief for others.

This theater trick, one that happens a lot, falls under a category I call: The Betrayal of Fiona Shaw. A while back I saw her at BAM in Rime of The Ancient Mariner. At the start of the piece Ms. Shaw emerges from the wings in a track suit and tennis shoes. She walks out into the house and begins to talk with people one on one. Some are clearly friends she knows, others are strangers she greets and chit chats with. It was literally electric in its effect on the audience. It was one of the most amazing moments of theater I’ve seen in recent memory. She began to bring up men to the stage, one at a time, to try on a hat and strike a pose, ostensibly to take a small part in the story she was about to enact. Her simple presence, us knowing who she was and the fact that she was out among us made the entire room focus their attention like lasers on her. Small children’s arms almost pulled out of their sockets as they vied for a moment onstage. Men around me furtively chatted with their wives about whether they ought to throw themselves into the selection pool. It was fabulous.

And then. And then. And then.

And then Ms. Shaw brings up a guy with a super fake looking trench coat. He clearly has never worn such a coat in real life. She goes through the same motions but this time there’s something awfully rehearsed abut the proceedings. All of the energy and immediacy is gone. I notice he has dance shoes on. I look in the program and I can see there is a second performer in the picture of the show. And he looks exactly like this guy.  Back in the performance she pretends as if she is dissatisfied and has him sit, not back in his seat, but in the front row while she selects a few more.

This, what I can now see is a charade, enrages me. All the things that I loved about the moment before now seem fake and tainted. I feel as if I have been tricked and I want to expose the trickster for doing so. So when, as I knew would happen, she goes back to the young dancer man with the shoes and the bad coat, I am nothing but smugly disappointed that I knew the whole thing was a lie.

This is the Betrayal of Fiona Shaw.

It isn’t that theater requires me to pretend. It’s that you take advantage of that generous instinct when you expose or undercut the fantasy with such antics but then require me not to go too far. Get me to think that I might get to be a part of the stage show, then make me feel foolish for have invested the energy to believe I could be in it.

Ms. Shaw’s Betrayal made me want to point out that I know that the actor playing Larry is not actually Boo’s father, nor is Boo actually Boo. Would it be impossible to truly put that person onstage? Maybe… There is something compelling about a “non-actor” (as one sees in some characters in a Wes Anderson movie or a piece like Beasts of the Southern Wild). As a group we discussed what it would be like in a play like this to work with the actual father, discussed the trickiness of this, because unlike a movie you not only have to pull this moment out of someone but get them to do so consistently, over and over again, that this is the endurance power that a theater maker needs.  We settled on a wish for another layer for the work that says “I’m not actually the father but I’m going to act as if I am.”

What is barely indicated in the play is sound, a recurring fascination of mine, an element I think would also change this work intensely. I hear the sound of the storm as I read this play and I imagine it coming from everywhere. Again like the previous week’s play, the sense of the rhythm of this world as created by sound that surrounds the space, makes it more than a disengaged visual and binds the bodies of the viewers into the space. Unlike the previous week, the sounds of this world seems to need to be human sized and I kept hearing a chorus of voices rising and falling in layers of sound beds as the piece continued.  In this vein, I love the idea of a performance in a place that was as anti-theatrical as the instinct to put the father onstage, to expose the workings. Perhaps it is a room where we see all of the things that make the play happen, capitalize on the power of theater to transform the pedestrian into the magical. Or perhaps we are in a space where there are dark corners and things that can hide unseeable but in plain view. Either way it feels like entrances from wings and “offstage” undercuts the feeling that all of this is happening right now around and among us, that there is no escaping and that we as the audience, just as the characters are bound to ride out this experience until its end. There are no places we can escape here.

Throughout the reading of it, this work made me think about the texture of water. Its undulating, slow amassing, its pelting cold, its fetid stagnation. Water is everywhere in this play – both in the imaginations of the characters and increasingly surrounding them as the story continues – and as a stager of plays I kept thinking, “In performance what would be more powerful if that presence were real or implied?” For the pair of EMTs stuck in an ambulance marking the level as it slowly raises around them, I really really wanted to see and feel real water. And contrastingly, with the family stuck in their attack, I wanted just the opposite – water that is implied through light, through sound, a presence that is ominous and lurking, but never actually visible.

There is something delicious about water in a theater space, an element that feels simultaneously alive and inhuman, one that is so incredibly un-controllable. Its presence en masse seems almost decadent. Why else do we coo at the thought of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in a pool? It feels like some of the purest kind of spectacle, almost cheap in its ease at satisfying our craving for theatrical effect. While discussing this play I came across a company that created a silent version of The Tempest for DC-based Synetic Theater.

Try and tell me that without the water that production looks half as interesting. In college, I created my first devised work on the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. It was one from the Zimmerman Metamorphoses actually and tiny Adrienne was so hungry to create in her own rehearsal room the lush grandeur that I saw in that production (three times, no less). In performance one of the buckets of water that we had placed onstage slipped out of the performer’s hands and covered the theater floor in an inch of standing water. The scenes that followed – one lover fighting another not to leave, a god destroying a tiny boat as its occupant’s families watched, the transformation of a sail into the giant wings of a bird – were all utterly transformed as water clung to the bodies and fabric. It was the moment I learned that as creators we must must must accept our lucky accidents. That we must be open to creative gifts that we haven’t planned. It elevated the thing I was trying to tell in a way I didn’t know I absolutely needed.

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Theater always looks better with water. (Hey that’s Ben Camp in college!)
 

But I also wonder if that kind of clear and poetic and beautiful water is the same water of Kellebrew’s play. The kind of water in these pictures does indeed seem somewhat cruel but it is also achingly lovely. It, like a Baudelaire poem, is an image whose savagery is blunted by its beauty. And so perhaps to give us that poetic water is an easy out, a way to shield us from the real horror of such an experience. The other thing that I felt so intensely in this work is the suspense of waiting. Early on in the play, the semi-omniscient Kenny reveals that today is the day that he and Neil will die. In another space, this could be maudlin or silly, but here it truly sets the tone of anticipation. Of the sense that one’s outcome is determined and all that is left now that the wheels are in motion is to wait and wait and wait.  So I wonder if the staging, like the play, doesn’t also require us to wait for that water, to want to feel its beauty at the same time we fear its power and perhaps, as Essie is released near the end, to use that loveliness when we need it most: in the midst of our most difficult moments, when we need to create poetry out of the depths of our despair.

And I think that’s about it for this one. Week three soon to come!

– A

And if you want a little bit more info about the playwright you can get her bio from her company CTown here:  http://www.collaborationtown.org/whos-who.html