It’s 9pm. Truth be told, I am torn between wanting to surrender to watching a film with my partner and cat (the epitome of comfort) versus wanting to work on this post (pushing around words without knowing where they will take me, the labor and uncertainty and exhilaration of articulation). Both appealing options, but one is very cozy while the other requires going out on a limb, opening myself up.
I’ve been noticing this negotiation between ritual and risk, stability and disruption, in every facet of my life lately. I reckon that’s because it’s a big theme in my current collaboration with dance-theater ensemble SuperGroup (Jeff Wells, Sam Johnson, and Erin Search-Wells). This project really started several years ago; I was collecting stories from acquaintances about transit. I wanted to marry my years working collaboratively with communities through Cornerstone Theater Company with my years spent in Poland exploring language and the boundaries of form. I interviewed people from the many different places in which I had lived, asking about their experiences in transit (literally, on trains, planes, buses, cars), with the intention of intertwining their stories into a play for bus lines. It was an exciting challenge; but when the time came to write, it didn’t work. I couldn’t find my way in. Everything I wrote felt phony.
I ditched the early drafts and went back to the original stories themselves. I realized I loved them because they encompassed not only experiences in transit but also transition. Geographic, physical, professional, political, and spiritual transition. Moments of epiphany, life change, if only recognized in retrospect. I decided to shelve the writing, but continue collecting stories, now opening it up to the broader idea of transition. Moments when people decided to make a change, or found themselves facing a change that they couldn’t control. The stories kept coming, specific, layered, nuanced.
In 2011, I moved to Minneapolis on a Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellowship. For a few months, I stayed with friends I knew through Cornerstone. In the time since I’d last seen them, they had formed SuperGroup; and as I got to know their work, I realized we were on parallel paths of performative exploration. Thinking about dimensions of human experience besides event-driven narrative. Exploring sensory experience and bodily knowledge. Trying to understand how these things complicate concepts like “identity,” “community,” and “culture.” My fellowship included some development funds, typically used to pay a director and actors for readings; but I asked the PWC if I could reroute those funds to movement and text explorations with SuperGroup. They said yes (reasons I love the PWC), so we did just that. A collaboration was born.
I had talked to SuperGroup about wanting to find a way into those transition stories; movement suddenly made sense as the way forward. We decided I should write a very rough “draft” of text, SuperGroup would come up with movement structures based on the text, and then we’d layer them together and see what happened. I gave myself permission to not use the stories in an overt way; instead I started looking at their layers and the collection as a whole. I started noticing themes, patterns. Rather than pointing to predictable milestones, for example (love at first sight, broken hearts, births, deaths, graduations), most of the stories focused on smaller, mundane moments. Fleeting conversations with strangers. Staring out windows. False alarms.
I wrote a bunch of material, meditations. SuperGroup generated structured improvisations, gestures culled from the language, exercises based on associations, etc. We played. We became curious about the function that seemingly insignificant moments play. How little moments accumulate into big moments, create that tension between stability and risk, collect into enormous rippling effects like climate change. We wondered, what might we learn by digging further into these patterns?
Fast-forward a full year of development. We’ve been digging persistently and look forward to sharing the first iteration of this piece, it’s [all] highly personal, as part of the Walker Art Center’s Momentum: New Dance Works 2013. All four of us are performing and have recruited three additional cast members. I wrote the bulk of the text and SuperGroup has steered the movement, but we’ve all contributed to all aspects of the piece. Outside rehearsal, we’re making our own costumes and an origami-inspired set, writing music, and fundraising like mad. Both the process and what’s emerging from it are unlike anything I’ve made before—tessellations of text, sound, movement; strange happy accidents; unexpected emotion. It’s extremely gratifying to sense the piece cohering into something distinct, visceral, alive.
I’m not attempting to judge whether our work is “innovative” in the grand scheme of performance history; but I am contemplating the fact that this buzzword, “innovation,” ultimately just means doing the work. It’s a pretty modest ancient concept; Mirriam Webster’s definition reads, “to make changes : do something in a new way.” That’s it. Ask questions; pursue answers; make, do, risk, change. Sometimes I think we’ve put “innovation” on a pedestal, reserving it for luminaries like Steve Jobs, when in fact, at heart, it’s pretty basic. Just do the work.
So here’s my question for all of us – if artistic innovation is a priority (and I reckon that it is), how might TCG theatres keep evolving to facilitate it? Not just new plays, but new play processes? Not just “ensemble-devised work,” but all kinds of artists in all kinds of configurations we can’t imagine yet? How can we do the work of making ourselves open to these things? Do we start by revolutionizing nonprofit arts administration, so that structures can flex and flow more to support ever-changing processes? Can we brainstorm some good models for inspiration in the comments below?
I think again about that tension between security and risk. It’s never absolute, but I know many artists who would benefit from more stability and organizations that might earnestly enjoy some disruption. How can we be more intentional about helping each other find the sweet balance?
Rachel Jendrzejewski is a playwright and performance maker based in Minneapolis. She has written, performed, and otherwise collaborated on theater, film, music, visual art, and multimedia projects throughout the U.S. and internationally. Her collaboration with SuperGroup, it’s [all] highly personal, will premiere in the Walker Art Center’s Momentum: New Dance Works series from July 11-13, 2013. She holds an MFA in Playwriting from Brown University, where she studied with Erik Ehn and Lisa D’Amour. http://rachelka.com