About ten days ago I returned to Boston from one of my best creative and collaborative experiences in a long time. I am a person who really enjoys what I do, so these are strong words.
What I am talking about here is the Playwrights' Commons Freedom Arts Retreat. This was organized by our Fearless Leader, Cruise Director, and Theatre Facilitator Extraordinaire, Ilana Brownstein. The participants besides myself were Philip Berman, Amanda Coffin, Allie Herryman, Colleen Hughes, Emily Kaye Lazzaro, Tyler Monroe, Corianna Moffatt, Nina Morrison, and Jason Weber. I knew very few of the other participants going in, and no one very well. If I may be gushy for a moment, it would be very easy to go through all of these names individually and sing their praises as artists and collaborators. Instead I will praise the synergy created by bringing everyone together and tasking us with creating new work collaboratively.
The retreat was held in a huge house off of Pea Porridge Pond in New Hampshire. Eleven people in the woods for a week sounds as much like the start of a slasher movie or reality show as anything else, but there you have it. We began our official work on the first night with everyone presenting a piece of their work that they selected as a means of introducing themselves. It was clear early on that I was in good company. Some people shared finished products, some pieces of works in progress. My piece was a selection from Legacy, a one man show I am working that I've done a bit of work with through the Playwrights' Playground that Playwrights' Commons has been running with Company One this summer. I started it during my residency at New Repertory Theatre a while back and had put it aside in favor of my dissertation and am now coming back to it. It has some similar themes to my dissertation as it is in part about martial arts, so it's very interesting to come back to the subject artistically after having been intellectually engaged with it so deeply for so long. There were several other plays (of course), a puppet show, fiction, a song, and what can only be described as dinnerturgy. There were eleven of us so this was not a short process, though with the quality and variety of the work it felt like one.
The next day we began work on the group projects that defined the retreat. We were split into three groups with the task of getting to know each other and creating something out of what came of that meeting. My group included Colleen and Corianna, though we soon added Phil into the mix.
What we came up with is a heavy metal children's play.
This began with us deciding we should walk to one of the nearby beaches and work there. My companions were talking about what they would have made of being in the woods as children, and those images didn't take long to resurface once we started working.
Being that I was invited as a fight director and movement specialist, I had a pretty significant bag of swords and whatnot with me. Two sets of rapier & dagger, a katana, some bokken, Kali sticks, etc. And bubbles.
We started with looking at what was in the bag, and Colleen and Corianna getting a feel for what was in there. Somehow this led to trying to pop bubbles with a katana. Which for the record is not so easy. In part because if you cut fast enough you only get two bubbles. We started to take this image as a central point for a story.
I don't remember how or when it got introduced into the conversation, but the old adage that "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail" came up in relation to our work. We started to create a story in which our young hero must free the land from a great evil, and in the process finds a powerful magical sword. But learns that while the sword is a great weapon, it is not the solution to his final confrontation with the evil.
We started to chart plot possibilities and draft pieces of scenes and songs. Then we divided into two groups, Colleen and I were to write a plot outline/story, and Corianna and Phil were to write a song based on the fragment we'd drafted. When the style of the song was brought up the idea of "Metallica before they got haircuts" was put out there.
The next time we saw Corianna and Phil, they had created this piece of awesomeness:
This initial project was given about a day and a half. During that time the song was expanded, a scene was written, and the overall plot was refined. Each group presented to the rest of the participants and had discussions about the work at regular intervals, though the burden of perfectionism was lifted at the very start. That first project set the tone of the retreat for me in that the creative interactions were so generous and supportive that the biggest problem was choosing options from the embarrassment of riches that just kept flowing.
What was also great in that first project was seeing the incredible differences between what the different groups created. I'm not the first or the only participant to write a reflection of the experience and I've linked to the internet presence of the others. It's well worth it to read their POVs as well. There is also the Playwrights' Commons Blog, where the events of the retreat were being recorded as they happened.
The for the next project, we were split into groups of five. Our task was to go create a site-specific piece of theatre. My group this time was Amanda, Corianna, Emily, and Jason. After some exploration, we ended up back on the beach where my previous group worked. It was there that we decided that a dock that was a couple hundred yards or so away would contain the action of our story, while our audience would be hearing a narrative told on the beach itself. We wrote a ghost story about a pair of best friends, a boy and a girl who were fishing on the dock when the girl gets pulled in by her catch and drowns. The boy stays and waits for her, and dies waiting. Both their ghosts haunt the area. Her in the water, his on the dock. Never connecting.
Amanda and I played the boy and girl, Corianna and Emily were townspeople, and Jason told the story from the beach. We were able to hear him through our cell phones, we had one muted and on speaker. Some of our cues were verbal from his story, some of his were visual from us.
This piece involved me throwing Amanda into the lake with a modified pas de deux technique and her performing the rest of the scene from in the lake. Not something you get to do too often in a theatrical context. We were asked afterwards who had not done site specific work before. I was one of the people to raise my hand, but then I realized that I had done it once, in college, in a very different context. Back then it was a story created from T'ang Dynasty poetry and the location was picked because it best fit the story the director had decided to tell. This time we started with a location that we found compelling and then created a story that made the best use of the location we'd chosen. What I enjoyed most about creating and performing that piece was the use of space and distance. One performer was with the audience, and the rest were quite a ways away. Also in terms of spacial composition, the use of the lake and how Amanda and I compressed and expanded distance while she was in the water.
The other group's piece started with a long walk up a hill, to a rock formation at a busy (for rural New Hampshire) intersection that had the remnants of a torn down street sign, pieces of what looked to be a taillight, and other random odds and ends. Most of the cast was in place before us, and we followed Tyler up the hill. We heard them singing before we saw them, and the story took off from there. This was another ghost story (funny how site-specific work led to ghost stories), with Tyler's character being the only survivor of a car crash and the others being the spirits of those who died and were bound to the area. For me getting near the top of the hill and hearing singing was a wonderful transition. The use of the space was really striking in this piece, and by this I mean not just the rocks, but the walk to them. In that way it reminded me of Sleep No More (I saw it in Boston, I have yet to see the NYC version).
The next day began with a trip to Wildcat Mountain, which is home to New Hampshire's longest zipline at about a half mile. We went down the zipline, then up the mountain on gondolas to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. Those who were designated as designers were tasked with finding something about the days adventures that they wanted to use as the core idea of a piece of theatre. For me it was the relative immobility of bodies that were moving quicky on ziplines and gondolas and ski lifts compared to the dynamic positions the body takes while climbing up and down rocks on the hiking trail. Dramaturgs were then told to match up new teams for this new project. My team for this one consisted of Amanda as dramaturg and Nina as playwright.
After exploring several options (some of which I may have to go back and write myself, the sheer amount of ideas generated at this retreat was amazing), we crafted a sort of magical realism based meta-theatrical piece about struggling with self-doubt. The characters were an Author, a Character, and an anthropomorphized embodiment of self-doubt named Delete. The story starts on the second floor of the house and ends in the front driveway. The author (Nina) is writing a character (Amanda) who is tied up in a complex restrain wherein her hands are feet are both bound together, linked to each other, and also linked to a choke-collar in such a way that if she were to straighten her body, she would choke herself. The audience follows the Author as she writes/narrates the Character's attempts to escape. The first two times, Delete enters and restores her to the chair in some brutal fashion (I suppose I could write out fight notation here but I'll leave it to your imaginations). The third time they both get out of the house, and the Author fights Delete. The Author is able to narrate away his attacks, but then he invokes her writer's block, destroys her confidence, and narrates himself a sword that he pulls out of nowhere. As the Author lays dying, she frees the Character to fulfill her own destiny, and here we have a pen vs. sword fight ending with a pen through the eye. The Character is free. I believe that that was my first ever pen vs sword fight. For those of you wondering how this is done, the techniques were pretty standard. When we composed the fight I had a rapier and Amanda had a dagger, and then we replaced the dagger with a pen. The more interesting composition challenge in this was the navigation of the stairs by a character with limited mobility. This raised the stakes for the character and also made for unusual stage movement. This came from Amanda as dramaturg asking how someone might be restrained to a chair without actually tying them to the chair itself. The meta-theatricality and magical realism came from Nina as a way to make really unusual movement make sense in a narrative. I've been thinking about this piece and wondering how we might adjust it to fit in a more conventional stage as a ten-minute play. I also really want to see how a good prop/costume designer might envision that restraint.
The other two groups created a shadow-puppet show that played with perspective, and a multimedia piece about relationships and distance created by technology. Both were really great.
Our last groups basically formed around everyone wanting to work with people they hadn't really gotten to collaborate closely with earlier in the retreat. In my case it was Emily and Tyler. We began with a discussion of themes and elements we wanted to explore but hadn't had the opportunity to as of yet. Some of my thoughts were the idea of playwriting as a visual art (one of my favorite quotes about theatre is Edward Gordon Craig, "The dramatist is not the son of the poet, he is the son of the dancer."), and how very often in physical disciplines there is a conflation of endorphins and spirituality. Between the three of us, we started to really focus on Argentine Tango as a movement system and social construct. What then developed was a plot outline of what will most likely be a full length musical about class, gender, relationships, and self-fulfillment based around this dance. We presented a scene, a plot outline, and some of our ideas. This is another full-length in the works.
Now, some general thoughts about the retreat in no particular order:
The whole week was one constant shifting experience of creative synergy. Every collaborator I had the pleasure of working with was incredibly smart, giving, and creative and in every group the sum was always greater than the whole of the parts. This sounds a little cheesy, but everyone made everyone else a better artist.
One of the greatest things about the week was that everyone was engaged in active multidisciplinarity. Whatever role we were invited under was important, but everyone did everything in the creation of each piece. As someone who is deeply invested in the idea that artists should not be restricted to narrow categories the fact that we were all invested in each project on every level was amazing. All group work was created with equal ownership and responsibility of all the people involved in it.
When there were the rare creative conflicts and frustrations, they were handled with such grace, care, and goodwill that the resolution of the conflict could almost have stood alone as a work of art.
It was really gratifying to know that fight directing was being viewed as a design discipline that is valuable to include from the earliest stages of a project's conception.
I also rarely get to write with another person. Only twice before had I co-authored anything, and both times it was with someone who was already a close friend coming into the process. The experience of co-writing in a supportive environment with the people that I shared the retreat with where everyone was filling in everyone else's blanks is incredibly affirming.
Also important was the presence of dramaturgs as central figures in the creative process. The dramaturg is one of the least understood and hardest to define artists in the theatre. The benefit of having someone there each time who was focused on asking the most provocative questions and creating structure and focus and facilitating the creative dynamic cannot be overstated. This is not the first time I've worked with dramaturgs (I have actually done the job myself a few times), but it was the most concentrated experience of what such a person can do in the right circumstances.
The retreat happened in part because of a grant from LMDA. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them.