Theatre as a First Resort

by Brendan McCall

in Global Citizenship

Post image for Theatre as a First Resort

(This post is part of the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.

More than a choreographer or a teacher, Mary Overlie is a philosopher.  When I got to study with her at the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University´s Tisch School of the Arts 20 years ago, I became aware of the self-created borders I had about performance.  Her Six Viewpoints provided a constructive framework to challenge my prejudices about theater, and to explore, analyze, and question the intrinsic vocabulary of what I do as an actor or director.  The practical exercises of the Viewpoints–tools that explore Space, Time, Shape, Movement, Emotion, and Story–showed me how to discover my individual creativity while simultaneously collaborate with others.  Mary showed me that the two are inherently linked.

The Viewpoints are a Theatre of Consciousness.  Ideally, it offers a perception into the horizontal relationship between these six elements.  What if an actor´s soliloquy was treated as just as important as how she entered the space?  What if the proximity of the performers–to the audience, to each other, to the physical architecture of the playing area–were studied as closely as the movement choreography itself?  What if each component of the collaborative act of performing were to be treated equally, consciously?  Mary´s teaching was an invitation to see what it was like to travel in a world without hierarchies, and see what could be created there.  For her, artists were travelers.  “Imagination is our passport,” she told our class, “and our ticket is wonder.”

Since graduating from NYU in 1993, I have done my best to apply that principle and  travel across borders in wonderment as consciously, and as often, as possible. With this starting point, new projects become opportunities to ask new questions, touring a means for dialogue and cultural exchange, teaching a chance to continue learning.

As an expatriate American living in Scandinavia, these ideas have been central to  Ensemble Free Theater Norway, the independent group I founded in 2010.  Dedicated to new work on a project-by-project basis, EFTN aims to link Norway with the rest of the world by creating opportunities for theatrical collaboration.  The group does not own real estate, nor do we work out of a single specific venue; this approach is implemented wherever the group chooses to be.  It is a theater without walls.

As a collaborative entity, EFTN purposefully works with individuals and groups with distinct creative expressions from ours, to challenge our own artistic views and to resist complacency or stagnation.  In Oslo, we co-produced Belarus Free Theatres production of their politically charged Discover Love at Det Norske Teatret; as well as The Borders Project, a piece combining music, mime, and clowning by Denmark´s Out Of Balanz.  Early next year, we will be collaborating with Rotozaza in presenting Ant Hampton´s interactive auto-theatre work Etiquette, where audiences are also the performers; and adapting Aaron Landsman´s Open House to be presented in multiple living rooms throughout the Norwegian capital, and performed in English and Norwegian.

In addition, we have facilitated educational opportunities for our Norwegian members, such as accepting residencies in the United States at Wayne State University in Detroit and Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center, and Latvia’s AIZ Artist Laboratory and the Beenhouse in Sweden.  These focused environments have fostered EFTN’s development of new work, broadened our professional networks, and introduced new artistic methods of working.  We have also hosted workshops in Oslo by veteran teaching artists J. Ed Araiza and Catherine Fitzmaurice, to help expand our learning as performers and theater artists.

In his most recent book, former President of the U.S. Fulbright Association Richard T. Arndt described cultural diplomacy as “the first resort of kings.”  Increasingly, EFTN has sought to participate in projects that exist at the intersection of theater and social activism, collaborating with institutions on issues beyond the field of performance.  For example, in co-operation with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, EFTN presented a reading of Belarus Free Theatre´s Being Harold Pinter at Oslo’s Black Box Teater, part of a strategy to call attention to the protesters imprisoned after Belarus’ controversial Presidential elections on 19 December 2010.  We helped produce a reading of Chantal Bilodeau‘s Forward in Norway last year, part of her Arctic Cycle of plays on climate change.   We also participated in Shinsai: Theaters for Japan (Theatre Communications Group and the Japan Playwrights Foundation) in Turkey, and NoPassport Theatre Alliance´s Gun Control Theatre Action in Australia.

These last pair of projects in particular inspired me to create the Belarusian Dream Theater project, supporting freedom of expression in Belarus. Twenty-five new short plays about Belarus were written by playwrights from Austria, Germany, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Belarus, and were presented simultaneously by more than a dozen participating venues in North America, Europe, and Australia on 25 March 2014 (Belarus’ Freedom Day).

More work will always lie ahead, as borders never remain fixed.  As I write this essay (22 March 2014), news reports announce that Crimea has been annexed from Ukraine.  Speculation online and over coffee about what will happen next–”Is this the beginning of a new Cold War?”–is everywhere.  I am currently in Vilnius working with the European Humanities University, Belarus’ so-called  “university in exile” in Lithuania who are collaborating with me and the Belarusian Dream Theater project.  Most of the students and staff I have met here are Belarusian, and while rehearsing brief conversations often arise about living abroad.  I ask if they plan to return to Minsk after they complete their studies; they wonder which is my home now, the United States or Norway. All of us are from somewhere else.  As rehearsals resume, and we return to consciously create worlds together out of our experiences and our imaginations, I feel that our collective journeys somehow inform this theater we make, one moment at a time.  Belarus, Norway, the U.S., all of these places and more are with us in our tiny rehearsal room in Lithuania.


Brendan McCall is a theater and dance artist whose work has been presented in over 35 countries on 5 continents.  His teaching appointments since 1994 include the Yale School of Drama, the New School for Drama, New York University, Danshögskolan (Sweden), Bilkent University (Turkey), and The International Theater Academy Norway, where he served as Rektor from 2008-10.  His articles have appeared in English, Norwegian, Belarusian, and French.  He was Manager of the Cummins Theatre (Australia) from 2012-14, and is Founder of Ensemble Free Theater Norway.  BFA with Honors, New York University; MFA, Bennington College; MPhil, University of Oslo.   www.ensemblefreetheaternorway.com

  • http://www.chekhovstudio.com Marjo-Riikka Makela

    Wonderful article! :)