My art springs from the desire to crack a code I haven’t cracked yet, to learn something, to get better at something, to fail and then get even better. I always hope to grow intellectually through any creative process, and I am drawn to projects that involve research whether it be scientific, historical, or research into the creative process itself.
In 2010 I received the TCG Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship to co-create a solo performance piece in collaboration with playwright Deborah Stein. The play, Chimera, is a highly theatrical examination of medical chimerism, the phenomenon of containing two different sets of DNA within one body. I heard a fascinating piece on NPR’s Radiolab about a woman who discovered that she was not the genetic mother of her own children.
She had absorbed a twin in utero and this ‘person’ who never happened became her ovaries. A mother myself, I was shocked, rattled and mystified by this story and I called Deborah right away. We set out to discover what the theatrical language would be to translate such a story into a live performance event. It made sense for it to be a solo performance, and it made sense to us that it should explore the relationship between the live performer, the audience, and an abundance of technology. In this way we would grapple with what happens when technology shatters our ideas of who we think we are.
For both Deborah and I, this project marks a return to a preferred collaboratively devised mode of working. I was a co-founder and Co- Artistic Director of Pig Iron Theatre Company, where Deborah had her start as well. In 2001, we collaborated on a piece with Joseph Chaikin, Shut Eye. Deborah wrote, I was a deviser and performer. The years working with Pig Iron, the experience working with Joe, give us a common language of a fluidity of roles- actor/director/writer/performer- as well as an ethos of open dialogue among the creative team.
We also have a mode of working that goes something like this: if it’s in the room it will be in the play. If it’s not, then it won’t. In other words, before we even know what the play is going to be, we are thinking about space, about costume, about sound, about video. And we have those elements in rehearsal from day one. For this process, that meant working with sound equipment- microphone, effects processor, speakers, and video- projectors, computers, a stock of images, and a set that transformed as we worked, and a trunk of costumes that we worked with and modified. Chimera has been time and labor intensive process for our entire team, a process of digging, drafting, repurposing, and refining over the past two years. It has also been one of the most deeply rewarding experiences of my life.
Two years ago, Deborah and I were given a fabulous opportunity by HERE in NYC to participate in their HERE Artist Residency Program (HARP) where we were given a chance to develop Chimera alongside the projects of our fellow resident artists. It has been a thrilling experience to develop work in residence at HERE, to learn from other artists who are redefining performance, and to have administrative and producing guidance to bring the work to fruition. HERE is a home, a hub, a hive for challenging new work as well as a springboard for national and international touring. It is also a place that is committed to pushing artists to take control of their destinies, to create a self-sustaining approach to making work.
We have also had a wider network of support for this project, folks who have shared resources and encouragement at every step of the way. We had our very first workshop at New Dramatists- our set is based on the architecture of their lovely downstairs rehearsal studio. We spent many months in Minneapolis workshopping with Workhaus at the Playwrights Centerand bringing our idiosyncratic collaboration into the Playlabs festival where we were able to cross-pollinate with artists from all over the country. Actors Theatre of Louisville sent us to the spectacular Perry Mansfield in Colorado who supported an intensive reconceiving of the costume and video designs as well as development of the script. We dug into the sound as part of Swarthmore Project at SwarthmoreCollege. All along the way, the show has grown through talkbacks with the incredibly thoughtful audiences in New York, Minneapolis, and Steamboat Springs.
A few months ago we landed in the rehearsal studio at HERE. After years of development we were entering into our final phase. We had the kind of rehearsal set-up that our team had been dreaming of: full sound board, speakers, body mic, three projectors and a massive computer to run them, costumes and the set on day one of a seven week process. It was inspiring. It was daunting. The goal was not to overwhelm the audience with our gadgets. It was to painstakingly explore what all of the elements could do, could say. To discover how sound speaks to video, how video speaks to the live performer, how I could exist with technology in a dynamic exchange. How all of the elements tell this odd, intimate, and complex story of a woman wrestling with her own personhood.
I have arrived at the first day of performances. I am so hungry to add the most important element in this event- the audience. Only now will we truly understand what we’ve made. I am filled with gratitude for this journey, and can’t wait to bring audiences along for the ride.
Chimera runs January 5-January 28th at HERE as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Tickets are $20.00 and can be purchased at www.here.org or by calling (212) 352-3101 or at the HERE Box Office (5PM until curtain on show days). HERE is located at145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street. For more info, visit www.here.org.
Suli Holum is a theatre maker based in Brooklyn, NY. She was a founding member and artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company. Off-Broadway: Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Courting Vampires, Live Girls, Lebensraum; Regional: Arena Stage: Born Yesterday; Humana Festival: At the Vanishing Point, Phoenix and work with The Talking Band and The Theatre of a Two Headed Calf. Her first original solo show, The Lollipop Project, was developed through an Independence Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship and a Shell Fellowship in Drama from the National Institute of Education in Singapore. She co-created and performed in Joseph Chaikin’s collaboration with Pig Iron, Shut Eye, with text by Deborah Stein. She received a Drama Desk Award for her performance in Israel Horowitz’s Lebensraum off-Broadway, and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday at Arena Stage. Her work has received development support from the Swarthmore Project, Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, The Orchard Project, The Playlabs Festival at the Playwrights Center, NACL, Perry Mansfield New Works Festival and Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Creativity Fund at New Dramatists, and through the HERE Artist Residency Program (HARP). Holum is a recipient of a 2011 TCG Fox Resident Actor Fellowship.
The Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships are funded by The William & Eva Fox Foundation and administered by TCG. The program is designed to support an individual actor’s professional and artistic development, to enrich relationships between actors and nonprofit theatres and to ensure continued professional commitment to live theatre. To learn more, click here.