Starting next week, our school will go back into the rehearsal mode, and I and fellow Contemporary Drama student and director Sara Katzoff will go into the process of Rachel Chavkin and The TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland. The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment, originally) is a devising ensemble striving to challenge, question, and discover notions of “American-ness” in all of their work. From their website:
The Guardian once described us as “theatrical excavators of American culture, American dreams and the American psyche.” Combining aggressive athleticism with emotional performances, our work crashes characters from American history and mythology into modern stories, drawing unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable connections across time to touch the raw nerves of the current moment.
Through the collection of images, text, videos, and other source materials surrounding a certain topic, the group devises under the supervision of a director to shape a piece of theatre. Well. Since freshman theatre ensemble, I have a bad habit of seeing the word “devised” and putting up a big PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign at the front of my brain. I go back to the arguments, the half-baked ideas that were essentially performed raw, and the lack of purpose in creating. I was self-aware of my immaturity in the process and craved guidance and leadership outside of my peers. But as I did research on The TEAM, and the absolute badassery of Rachel Chavkin, I’ve become inspired. Inspired, I say! I love their mission. I love Rachel Chavkin. I am so excited to jump into this process. For me, it goes back to responsible art-making and collaboration.
In 2014, Jeffrey Mosser wrote a series of essays for Howlround about the nature of ensemble and devised theatre. His article “Ensembles: How to Model One?” specifically addressed the collaborative process of The TEAM and helped me break down those age seventeen unjustified prejudices I had developed against the craft. Their process starts horizontally until almost entirely fleshed out in writing, then morphs into a hierarchical structure of director/actor/designer. Though they create together, it is understood that ideas and projects are going to be produced through the lens of Chavkin, which creates a unity of thought as the process moves forward. Mosser summarizes core values:
Find your tribe.
Play your strengths.
Develop a timeline.
Showing up is half the battle.
Grow as you need to grow.
Essentially, work with people you like, who have different strengths, develop ideas around a topic/concept/lens that is exciting to everyone, think of a goal (that can change), make sure that decisions are made by the artists involved, know who should “take the reins” and know that the work is going to be one aesthetic performance, do it as many times as possible in front of people, stay aware of what the ensemble needs as a producing body, and get people to help pay for stuff.
Easy peasy! Not really. But when it’s laid out like this, ensemble devising seems like something I could actually do, and well! Which leads me to the excitement of taking a piece that has already done the hard work of script creation and places it in our team’s lap to make our own.
Specifically, Particularly in the Heartland dealt with the ensemble’s feelings about the cultural moment of 2006, and we are in 2018 producing it. Because of the nature of this company’s work, we are able to see what they started with, recognize the evolution of a country and its politics over a decade, and still be able to stage this play with a sense of awareness and immediacy. Looking at The TEAM’s other work, this consistently rang true for their productions. Rachel Chavkin, speaking about the nature of her directing style in general, I think encompasses the purpose of the company and the pieces they create:
My job is to create a culture that can produce the events of that play,” she explained. “So for each play, the culture is going to be different, and that culture includes how we speak and how we move…The audience has to be a part of that culture, because otherwise they won’t get it, they won’t feel it. That doesn’t mean they have to be inside of it, but it means they have to be part of it—meaning they have to feel it in their bones.”
(from American Theatre, “Rachel Chavkin’s Great Comet of a Career”)
I look forward to leaping into the creation of a culture in this new way.
(If you want to read more about Particularly in the Heartland, I was also taken by Kristin Leahey’s article “Broadening the Theatrical Palate: Rachel Chavkin and the TEAM.” Also, I am hardcore crushing on Rachel Chavkin.)