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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

The Kitchen Table

I first imagined a Slow Theatre Movement at my kitchen table. The table is hand built with two 17-inch wide walnut boards cut from the same local tree by my friend at Trappist Caskets. It took a long time for that tree to grow. I sometimes wonder if the table knows it might have been a casket. Now, it’s a kitchen table with bread and people around it.  A meal. Conversation. The beginning of a play, the beginning of a theatre. I’m aware that everything I’ve ever thought of has been thought of before but it seems that at this moment in history, the world needs to return to some simpler ways of doing things. An acoustic and manual revolution. And it’s time to reclaim time.

Chekhov wrote that the task of a “writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.” Todd London has brilliantly stated some of the problems of American theatre in his books and recent Howlround articles.

I often repeat Buckminster Fuller’s famous quote “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Work towards beautiful solutions.

Sleeping Weazel

In 2011, in Boston, Charlotte Meehan re-activiated her theatre company, Sleeping Weazel, originally founded in downtown Manhattan with her late husband, experimental filmmaker David Hopkins. In its current formation, she introduces the company’s mission online and ends with an invitation:

We explore and engage novel approaches to developing, presenting, and exhibiting new art- multimedia theatre, interdisciplinary installations, performance events, music, poetry, and video/audio.

We develop work that crosses and confounds the boundaries of “mainstream” and “avant-garde” as well as boundaries between art forms. Based in Boston and fanning out virtually across the globe, our projects include individual and collaborative productions in the theatre, in DVD, CD, and Vimeo, at readings, audio-theatre concerts, and performance events.

We invite you to join us in shared vision of surprise, spontaneity, and discovery.

In its first year, they highlighted the works of Caridad Svich, Ruth Margraff, Suzanne Bocanegra, Lauren Kelley and others; enacted the Women in Action Festival, and showcased works of the next generation. Ken Prestininzi’s Birth Breath Bride Elizabeth was among their first productions. It moved to ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival and received rave reviews.

Model what you want to be.     

Tulips and Peppers

The Slow food movement is a global movement committed to food, community, and the environment. Founder Carlo Petrini writes about the day in 1996 he turned off a big-box store lined highway in Italy to eat at one of the many fine restaurants tucked away in the agricultural region it crossed. He ordered  peperonata, the famous dish made from the locally grown peppers of Asti. The dish arrived. It looked beautiful, but was tasteless. The chef, his friend, explained that the peppers were now imported from Holland. Each box contained 32 uniform and identical hybrid peppers perfect for export. Their colors were visually stunning and grown more cheaply because of intensive farming methods. Ironically, in what were once the pepper fields they now grew uniform tulip bulbs to export to Holland.

Fuck uniformity. Let’s have our dirt and our taste back.  

Theatre Oobleck

No director. New works. Free if you’re broke. Twenty-four years.

Theater Oobleck is a 24-year-old Chicago-based company that changes the rules of engagement in theatre. Their work has received critical acclaim locally, nationally and internationally. In recent years several productions have moved from Chicago to New York for successful off-Broadway runs.

On the company’s website it says:

Oobleck has launched 60 productions of idiosyncratic new works, all created and developed by members of the ensemble, working in concert to create a collective vision without an overseeing director.

They have, in fact, no directors. No artistic director. No managing director. None. They quote from an unknown source:

Putting the burden of innovation on the director is like putting the prime minister in charge of the revolution, for the director, insofar as he remains a director, cannot help but defend that kind of theater in which he has a place of importance, suppressing those ancient models of the theater which do not require his services.

Their goal is “to empower ourselves as individuals and as a collective.” And because the company invites its audiences in to engage with and change the play while it is in process, they also empower their public.

Audience as company.      

On Bread

The playwright and scholar, Andras Nagy, drove around Budapest with a half loaf of stale bread on the ledge of the back seat of his car.

Isn’t it stale? I asked.

Yes, he said. But anyone who lived through the war would never throw away bread.

When I was at Iowa for my playwriting MFA, I baked bread at the local co-op. It was copyrighted “artesian” bread, the new thing. Only in the U.S.A would we copyright our bread.

Now, I teach playwriting and bake bread at home. Mark Bittman published this recipe in the NY Times.  My version is slightly altered:

3 cups flour (choose the grain you like, grind your own)
¼ tsp. yeast (makes it active)
1 ½ tsp. salt (taste and worth it’s weight)
1 1/3 c water  (central ingredient/issue of the new world)

Mix. Let rise, covered, 12-18 hours. Shape and cover for two hours.

Heat the Dutch oven at 475 degrees ½ an hour before you are ready to bake. Or find a friend with a brick oven. Or build one. Bake it, break it, eat it.

Making bread is simple and cheap. Every step of it recalls playwriting and theatre practices.  This bread requires a long slow rise. Shaping is the final step. Most importantly,

Share recipes. Share the knowledge.  Pass it on.

Bread and Puppet Theater

Bread and Puppet Theater was founded in 1963 in downtown Manhattan as a bread baker’s theatre. It is one of the oldest, self-supporting, non-profit theatre companies in the country. An excerpt of Peter’s 50th anniversary letter he writes:

Bread and Puppet is based on bread baking and the not-for-sale distribution of bread at moments created by art, and these moments are created in opposition to capitalist culture and habit. Therefore the puppet show is not only a puppet show, but an eating-bread-together event. We ask our hosts not only for performing space, but also for 400 bricks, fire wood, and fire permits to build and use itinerant bread ovens as part of our productions. From the beginning of the Bread and Puppet enterprises we decided to make two types of shows: inside shows meant for the viewers inside, and outside shows for the unrelenting political street. Both types of shows address the urgencies of the day as they come upon us.

Peter creates work as if the world were ending–he was born in Silesia and was a child during World War II. He creates monuments to life, to beauty, to possibility. Brilliantly.  Constantly. He is a whirling dervish of theatre making.

But the performances allow the public to slow down. A circus in a field, a performance in a barn.  At the end of a processional a great sun goddess puppet comes up over a hill. And always, the puppeteers offer bread. A sacrament.

The world is made sacred again.

How do you live?

I ask every artist I meet how do you live?  How do you pay grocery bills, and make theatre, music, art, too? I believe we owe it to each other, and to the next generations, to be honest about this. So many of us are also teachers, housepainters, bread bakers. Some of us have patrons or trust funds. Some of us are broke. What are the “urgencies of the day”? How do we keep making art in an economy that supports commerce but does not speak honestly or openly about money? How do we keep hope?

How do you live?

What is a Slow Theatre?

Slow theatre is a way of making theatre and a way of living.

What’s the difference between slow theatre and theatre?  Time and resources.

In the commercial world, time equals money but in a creative world time equals possibility. Expansive and expanding realms of imagination.

How do we give people time? How do we share wealth and experience? How do we support the new and unfamiliar? How do we break through old structures, borders, territories? How do we go beyond what we imagined for ourselves and for each other? How do we lift up those who can’t go on any longer? How do we give what we most need?

Maybe we can start with bread.

Lisa Schlesinger is an international playwright and theatre artist/activist. Her awards include two CEC Artslink International grants, the NEA/TCG Playwrights Residency Award, the BBC International Playwriting Competition and a nomination for a USA Artist Fellowship. Her work has been produced in the U.S. and internationally. Her plays and essays have been published in American Theatre Magazine, Performing Arts Journal, Theater Magazine, Best Monologues for Women by Women II, Out of Silence, The American Theatre Reader, and the New York Times. She directs the Playwriting program at Columbia College Chicago.

  • Judy

    Lisa Schlesinger’s article is inspired and inspiring. She espouses the principles which have guided my own work but she has such an articulate and sensitive style through which she can share these concepts. I have always believed in a “poor theatre” where people can sit together and experience events unfolding before them. Here are some ways to regain those ideals. PS She was a classmate of mine at Iowa and I was her fan then, too.

  • Tim Habeger

    Many great thoughts here. Reconsidering theater in order to get to a place where it resonates more fully, can be a daily practice. This article is a wonderful inspiration.