The Real World, Theater Edition: An Interview with Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us to Home.

This week I had to interview two theater artists and playwrights, Cecilia Palmtag and Addie Ulrey who are both Core Artists with Ragged Wing Ensemble. Cecilia and Addie both developed pieces for the evening of short plays, “Destination Home”, now playing at The Flight Deck in downtown Oakland.

Both Cecilia and Addie had very interesting thoughts and perspectives on the craft of writing a new theater piece. Not shirking from the sometimes all-consuming frustration that comes with writing, both give their thoughts on sacrifice and perseverance during the times of creation and development. But, let’s get to it, because with two featured writers, this week, we still have a ways to go!

BJ: What drew you to theater and how would you describe your writing interests or voice?

CP: Utter necessity. The medium has a visceral potency that can’t be found anywhere else and can be deeply satisfying in the way that only direct experience can be. I’m interested in the breadth of a Shakespearean audience appeal, and work that is revitalizing to communal and ritual experience. Intellectual, emotional, and culturally significant themes drive my work and I tend to go for really big ideas.

One of my plays, Now! Now? Now. asked the question, “What are the mechanisms by which we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment?” There is a significant amount of humor and levity in my work, which is always helpful as the ideas can sometimes be very chewy and the audience needs breaks. Recently I’ve been writing stage poems (not to be confused with Slam poems). My current piece, Mother’s Fever Dream, is physically expressive, textually sparse and dense with meaning.

Cecilia Palmtag

Cecilia Palmtag

AU: I started as an actor. At some point I took a mandatory playwriting class, and realized I was obviously in some ways a writer. My friend Tadd and I were discovering this about ourselves at the same time, and at first we wrote plays together, or at the very least we were each other’s’ editors and first audience. Our writing styles were exactly opposite, so we were good teachers for each other. Tadd always wanted bigger, weirder, crazier. In his plays, Mariah Carey was being worshipped as a god while humans were devolving into animals while life-sized cans of coca cola were having babies. In my plays, someone opened a box of tea bags one by one and read the advice on the paper tabs. I wanted the poetic to be banal, and for not much to happen.

I tend to have a strong autobiographical streak in my writing, which I used to see as an amateur phase, but am now beginning to see as something I’m interested in in a deeper way. I still like the banal, but Tadd taught me to be less afraid of including things I can only imagine, to not be afraid of inventing and possibly getting it wrong. I’m interested in the place of the artist in the world today, and the romanticized idea of the artist. I’m interested in learning to make plays the way you might make a painting: starting with image, starting with materials.

Addie Ulrey

Addie Ulrey

BJ: What is your play about?

CP: A child alone in a car and a mother who in her attempt to heal others sickens herself. The reward of containment. The price of containment. Inheriting our parents’ gifts and burdens. Frogs. The central question which inspired Mother’s Fever Dream is, “How are we going to deal with climate change on a story-making basis?” What stories will we tell ourselves, what is the new myth for this unprecedented era that we can return to as things go from whack to… whack-er.

AU: My play is about quitting and failing. Well, it’s about “homing” obviously, so I guess it’s about where those concepts meet: quitting, failing, and homing. Is home the destination? Is home the place you must leave in order to reach the destination? Clearly home is both. The play follows two pioneers on the road to California from the Midwest during the 1800s, and they– well, am I supposed to spoil it? — they turn home. They go back.

BJ: How did you get involved in “Destination Home”? Had you written in this matter before?

CP: I’ve been writing one acts with Ragged Wing since 2012, and have been a core member since 2011. Proposals were being put forth last year and I submitted the concept of my solo piece early on. The development process is becoming more codified, and more closely resembling a typical drafting, reading and rehearsing process. In the past we called them “Fierce Plays” because we had ten days from first rehearsal to opening night. This time we had nearly three weeks! Pressure creates a lovely necessity, and the Fierce Play process primed me to be open to significant changes right up until opening.

AU: Ragged Wing chooses a season theme every year that in some way speaks to the phase that the company itself is in in that moment – a ten-year-old company that has been growing and changing especially fast in the last few years. I’ve been part of the company at Ragged Wing for four years now, so I’ve written on many of these themes: It’s About Time, Just Ripe, and now, Homing. Right now, I’m also in the process of co-writing a play with the youth ensemble of high school students on the same theme. Which is a totally different process because you’re trying to take their ideas and characters relating to home and help structure them into a story that holds acting opportunities for all the students. It’s more technical and less free-form. It’s a good exercise.

BJ: What was your initial idea and what did it morph into?

CP: It started with Ibsen’s Brand, a woman at the center of the earth sounding a huge drum, and a doctor who seemed to be the only one trying to cope with a mysterious epidemic. Approaching this project I knew I had about 15 minutes of stage time, and about two months to develop it. So after sifting through about 80-100 pages of raw material, Amy Sass’s Awesome Dramaturgy helped me focus on the salient, urgent, and totally relatable crisis of a child trapped in a car. The boxes were a powerful image that became central to the vocabulary, and doctor stuck as well. She encouraged me to follow where the script felt alive.

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, "Mother's Fever Dream"

Cecilia Palmtag in her piece, “Mother’s Fever Dream”

AU: So I was initially writing a totally different play. Like for about a month. And we got all the way to the point of our second draft reading, which was about a week out from the start of rehearsals and one month out from the opening of the show, and it became clear that the piece I was working on wasn’t going to happen for this show. It was getting too big in scope to fit well into this evening of shorts, and it required fairly specific casting which wasn’t coming together, a lot of things. So we made the decision to table that piece for a future date when a longer development period is possible. Which was kind of a relief, and seemed right. Except that meant I had one week to come up with something altogether new in time for rehearsals to start. So I spent a few days throwing a fit and saying, “no I can’t I won’t”, which morphed into, “okay I will write a play but it’s going to be all about quitting and failing”. The pioneers already existed from the previous piece, so they ended up getting carried over and used as the container for this new idea.

Addie Ulrey's "Making It"

Addie Ulrey’s “Making It”

We do a lot of fast processes at Ragged Wing, which has taught me a lot and made me more fearless I think as an artist. It produces a lot of stress though, and I was feeling so stressed out about the prospect of making a new piece from scratch that I basically decided I would try to make it my task to enjoy the process, even if sometimes that meant closing the computer and going bed, and even if that ultimately meant the piece itself would fail. Or that I would fail to complete it. That I would try not to let it become my sanity versus the piece. So I guess that’s how the piece evolved.

BJ: Was there anything about the process of creating a piece for “Destination Home” that pushed you as an artist or gave you additional insight into the creative process?

CP: The new element was creating and performing a solo show. In the later part of drafting and early part of rehearsing there was a blurred line between the two. I improvised scenes in my writing time and later developed them in the script. When the script felt stuck I improvised, when I had enough material I distilled it into something concise. The structure was Queen in this piece, and it took me almost two months to nail it. When I had the right props the imagery and language unfolded and intertwined in really satisfying ways.

AU: I’m looking at that paragraph I just wrote for the last question, and the phrase, “enjoy the process”. Which is a funny one. Because you don’t enjoy it like you enjoy lemonade, you know. Well at certain times you do. But what it really means is learn to enjoy the tumultuousness, because it needs to be tumultuous; that’s what you sign up for. It’s somewhere between meditative and volcanic. It’s not like knitting a sweater.

So that’s hard.

One thing I’m finally learning is to not be resentful of the massive amount of space a play takes up in my life. Every time I make a play, there is a long list of things I have to ignore in order to make it happen. I don’t exercise, I don’t see my friends. I don’t get to go to the movies and I don’t get to make dinner and I don’t get to say yes to invitations. And if I do make the mistake of saying yes, I probably will have to cancel at the last minute. And it tends to feel really unfair, and I start to hate the play. Especially because it just doesn’t seem like the product is going to be WORTH all this flaking out on people and skipping work and almost losing my job. But I’m starting to learn to see it as seasonal, as an ebb and flow: when the play is over, there is lots of empty space, and these things can flood back into my life again. And when a new project begins, I have to actively make space for it. Because it’s not like knitting a sweater– you can’t just fit it in around everything else. It needs a lot of space. That’s just how making is. It’s not efficient. Art is not efficient!

BJ: Any challenges or considerations that came up? How did you handle them?

CP: My big challenge was doing everything. Years ago I told myself I’d never self-direct again. It’s good advice. Being totally embroiled in all aspects is costly. It was a struggle to approach the material with fresh eyes. Hear the script like an audience member. Watch the performance like a director. Perform the play like an actor. In all stages, but especially now, I’ve had to consciously step away from the piece as a playwright in order to fully commit as an actor. One job at a time is much simpler than everything at once.

AU: What to do with actors in rehearsal when you don’t have any new scenes written for them, and the ones you do have need fixing.

Experiment with string. Figure out how many ways one can walk on an endless expanse and not make any progress. Cry a lot. Crying generally helps move rehearsal forward.

BJ: Any thoughts or advice for others who want to create and develop a play?

CP: Follow the heat of your story, which to me means the personally relevant pay dirt. Have really high standards for where you’re going, and surround yourself with people you trust to be kind and to tell the truth. Then let it go. Cut whatever you have to- pages, scenes, characters. Write more. And then more. Bow to the structure, or the action, or the character, or whatever is the Queen of your play’s kingdom.

AU: Well… it’s a map. I find it so relieving to not think of a play as primarily words, but as primarily occurrences. It takes the pressure of crafting dialogue that is clever without being obvious, is deep without being after-school special. It allows dialogue to be a tool among several, and be used when it’s needed. There’s also poetry, there’s movement, there’s silence, there are objects… and so on. You map what you want to occur. I also find it helpful to constantly go back to embracing the primitive-ness of theater (in this age). What can the primitive do well that the technological cannot?

BJ: Shout-outs or plugs for upcoming theater events, shows or performances?

CP/AU: Ragged Wing’s Destination Home! ☺ April 3 & 4th at 8pm at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland).

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The Real World, Theater Edition: Wolf Chat with Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe

Barbara Jwanouskos talks with two local playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their latest collaboration.

I had a chance to speak with playwrights, Amy Sass and Anthony Clarvoe, about their recent collaboration, REDWOLF, a story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood thatfollows a young woman’s journey from girlhood to wolfhood. The play is being produced by Ragged Wing Ensemble, which I recently joined as their Development Manager. Seeing theater, dance and art built on a constant basis around The Flight Deck (Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new theatrical home) has been an inspiration and a wonder.

I was curious about the collaboration between two playwrights and how that worked and how they approached this classic fairytale with a new twist. In the course of the interview, however, I learned about their approach to writing and their creative process.

BABS: What kinds of plays are you drawn to?

AMY: The poetic and surreal. I’m drawn to work where daily life collides with something that feels mythic or archetypal. I like plays where I can hear a strong element of music or rhythm to the writing; plays where I can taste the words and the spaces between the words… a sort of music to the language that makes me want it in my mouth. I am also drawn to work that has a strong sense of a visual world. I like plays that surprise me.

ANTHONY: Plays where people want things from each other right now and do things to try to get them. I admire language that is nuanced, densely layered and structured to resonate through the whole work. I love theater that demands and displays a high level of virtuosity, intelligence, and emotional availability from performers. But some of the most moving theatrical moments I can think of have been created by collaborations among designers and a director to create an evocative world.

BABS: What do you like to explore in your plays and how do you do so?

AMY: The unexpected. I like to explore the point where seemingly disparate topics or characters are in strong relation to one another. In REDWOLF, combining elements from Red Riding Hood with topics like Trigonometry and the building of a beltway- this unusual weaving together is fun for me. Surprising things happen.

Much of my writing makes use of myth, legend, and folklore. I have been creating female-centered stories for awhile now and I do tend to look at things through the lens of gender and power. This often leads me to writing in ways that challenge some dominant ideas.

ANTHONY: The intractable and irreducible conflicts and contradictions of human existence. Create a constellation of characters with different ways of being in the world, who are nonetheless deeply invested in each other.

BABS: Could you tell me anything about your creative process that has come in handy when writing plays?

AMY: Drawing, painting, cutting or ripping things up to explore the dynamics within the show visually. I’ll make a painting and then scribble stuff on the painting for instance. Creating some visual art related to the show helps me express some things texturally and instinctually and gives me a sense of the world.

Also, I do a lot of uncensored spewing. Some people call it ‘free-writing’. Some raw stuff comes out and that’s pretty fun and unexpected. And because I am a writer/director, at some point fairly early, I will share some raw writings with my ensemble and get the words on their feet. It’s easy then to see what elements ignite the performers and which things I might explore through nonverbal choreography.

ANTHONY: I don’t write in order. I often don’t know at first where a chunk of action will go, or even who will do it. I repurpose things a lot. At key moments I like to print out everything I’ve got, spread it out all over the floor, and walk around on it, spotting patterns and arranging accordingly.

This process started with Amy saying she was thinking about the color red. One of us brought up Little Red Riding Hood. That got us thinking about other stories with girls and wolves and woods. Being who we are, I read a lot of books about the archetype of the wolf and the woods in myth and folklore, and Amy went to the woods and visited a pack of actual wolves.

redwolf_girl

BABS: What about the process of making REDWOLF and writing as a team? How was that different than other plays you’ve written in the past and was there anything exciting that came up while working with another person? Perhaps even something that you might try to replicate in the future?

AMY: Co-writing is a totally new experience. It requires a lot of trust and a desire to learn each other’s language. For Anthony and me, it worked best once we discovered what each of our strengths were and created primary roles for one another. Anthony looked after dramaturgical structuring- sort of the architecture of the script. He’s brilliant at that. I looked after the central character’s arc in terms of her growth as a young woman and the ways in which we featured our ensemble of actors & designers. Writing with them in mind was a primary point to the work.

One really cool thing was sharing a project journal. We passed it back and forth and wrote in it and drew things and glued things in there and riffed off the other’s scribblings. It was a very exciting and unique thing to do. We could graffiti and deface and add to each other’s thoughts and prompts and images. This shared journal helped us define a language that was unique to the partnership by interweaving words & images.

ANTHONY: I’ve never co-written a play before. Showing raw material to someone else was a challenge. But I do a lot of teaching of playwriting and working with other playwrights on the dramaturgy of their scripts. Amy is able to write very quickly and freely, and she writes very personally, but with a strong awareness of myths and archetypes. That makes it easy to see strong moments that we could use in a narrative structure.

At some point we realized that Amy essentially should be in charge of writing our protagonist and the scenes Red was driving, and I should focus on the antagonists. And antagonism generally. Essentially, Amy wrote the angry sexy stuff and I wrote the grumpy nerdy stuff.

BABS: How did the REDWOLF collaboration come to be? Any anecdotes about its history that you would like to share?

AMY: Anthony and I met at a panel. We started talking and walking and discussing writing & theater. We have very different backgrounds but a sort of common risk-taking drive. I was wearing a purple furry hat and he stuck it on his hand and made it talk. We both grew up with puppets in our lives as it turned out. And for some reason that seemed important.

The decision to co-write felt like a strange whim. Almost like a weird dare. I don’t think either of us knew how much we’d need to pour into this, but we both wanted to do something totally out of our comfort zones. Shake things up. Which we did.

ANTHONY: Seeing Ragged Wing Ensemble’s work – when we met at that Play Café panel, RWE was performing in the park across the street from my house — and hearing about their process from Amy. In the context of the more mainstream theater companies with which I usually work, I’ve been interested for a long time in creating theater that was more physical and design-driven, and that’s very much the RWE house style. At first I was curious to see what Amy might do with a script of mine as a director. She was curious about my process as a writer. Writing a play together for her to direct wound up being the best way for each of us to learn the most.

BABS: For people that may be considering writing as a team, what advice would you give? Anything that made working together function well between you two?

AMY: You need to be resilient, consistent and honest. Co-writing is not frictionless. Really fantastic successful artistic relationships take time & real energy and you have to be able to weather conflict.

In co-writing, you show all your raw work to another person and your half formed ideas and your inarticulate mumblings and you have to find the common mutual YES in there. And the common mutual NO’s. The reaping of things can be painful. It can feel like dying. But it is also absolutely liberating. So I think it’s good to be ready to really get at the meat of a thing with someone. If there’s blood, use it.

ANTHONY: Establish, as early as possible, how to tell each other which ideas you agree with absolutely, which hold no interest for you, and which are intriguing but not entirely convincing yet. The hardest thing was when one of us would change our mind about something we had more or less agreed to. The best was when we couldn’t remember which of us had thought of or written something.

BABS: What’s your connection with Ragged Wing Ensemble? How did you get involved?

AMY: I’m the Artistic Director and Co-Founder.

ANTHONY: I’ve got a title like Resident Guest Associate Artist or something.

BABS: Is the process of writing and developing a play with Ragged Wing Ensemble different than other productions that you’ve worked on? How so? What special considerations or modes of operating did you need to use?

ANTHONY: I came to understand the writing as a kind of adaptation. But instead of creating a play out of a pre-existing piece of writing or a body of research into a historical event, we were writing a play based on a folktale, characters inspired by the talents of ensemble members, moments of physical action created in improvisation by the ensemble, discussions with the ensemble about the themes we were working on, and of course a bunch of stuff we made up.

AMY: We are very serious about physical training. We try to take things to our physical and emotional edge through this process. We like to see where our edge of daring is and push on it. In the development of a piece, it is important to let things be raw so we can watch and listen to what emerges out of the real time play and physical action. It’s a sweaty humbling thing.

BABS: Did the new space (The Flight Deck) inform any of the decisions you made about the story?

ANTHONY: It made us think about the power of place. A big theme of the play is the contrast between wilderness and mapped space. Demolition and construction, as opposed to organic growth, came up a lot.

AMY: It is amazing to create a design for a place where we get to fully inhabit and call home. We could not have done a design like this without The Flight Deck. We completely fill that space with a wild daring design and that has a great impact on the story since the story was created with opportunities for design spectacle in mind.

BABS: Do you think making theater in the San Francisco Bay Area is different than other places? (How so, how not so, or both?)

AMY: I’ve been here for 17 years making theater and before that I was a kid on the East Coast doing it. This place has access to both the urban and the wild. Somehow those two landscapes seem important to me. My work emerges from my experiences in vast spaces like the coast and more dense spaces like Downtown Oakland with all its wonderful architecture and murals.

ANTHONY: It’s different for me because as a freelance playwright I’ve always created my work in places scattered around the country, a staged reading here, a workshop there, a premiere and subsequent productions elsewhere. It’s very unusual for me to have a script go from first idea through writing multiple drafts through full production, all with one group of artists in a place where we all live.

BABS: How do you stay active as a playwright? (productions, readings, workshops, teaching, etc.)

AMY:I make sure to write and direct a new play every year. Plus having one or more in the slow cooker. With that in mind, I’ve created programming in our company geared toward the development of new works through Fierce Plays, One Acts & Park Festivals. We have an internal culture of developing writer/directors and a unique process of creative development within our ensemble. Also I am a Resident Playwright with PlayGround, a vibrant organization that has lots of opportunities to develop and practice as a playwright and to meet and engage with other playwrights. The relationships I have with artists like Anthony and my ensemble members keeps the spirit going with regards to writing.

ANTHONY: I’m at various stages of three commissions, teaching for four organizations, answering questions from people doing subsequent productions of a couple of my older plays, giving dramaturgical consultations to colleagues and students, and talking about projects for the future.

BABS: What are you working on now? Or, what would you like to work on next? Any fascinations, obsessions, or nagging interests?

AMY: A Whale’s Wake is a piece that was commissioned by PlayGround last season. It’s on its 3rd draft now. It is inspired by the death of my father and the death of a beached baby whale that I witnessed at Stinson Beach.

ANTHONY: Currently I’m writing the first draft of a commission for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania about the moment in American history when the Founding Fathers all turned on each other and the America we live in today was born.

BABS: What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given as a playwright?

AMY: When someone says “you can’t do X”- that’s generally the next thing I’ll try to do. This habit is either foolish or brilliant depending on the outcome.

ANTHONY: Roxanne Rogers, a director (and Sam Shepard’s sister) said: especially when you’re a young playwright, you’ll say yes to anybody who tells you they like your play. But before you do, make sure that you and the director are talking about the same play. Of course, co-writing the script with the director does get a lot of that danger out of the way early on.

BABS: Any words of wisdom for other playwrights trying to develop their craft, get produced and make connections with other theater people?

AMY: The main thing is to reach out. Go see some things. Then arrange a face to face conversation. Being curious rather than judgmental of someone’s work is a good thing. Asking questions and being interested will increase your network and show the way your mind works. That’s when partnerships start to happen leading to a mutual investment in each other’s creative growth and success. That’s an artistic alliance. For me, it’s less about producing your specific piece, and more about being interested in investing in you.

ANTHONY: Read all you can, plays included. See all you can, plays included. Act in plays. Learn how theater is made by watching and helping. Practice the skills of collaboration. Eavesdrop. Be always on the lookout for the dramatic and theatrical.

BABS: Anything else you would like to share, plug or shout-out?

ANTHONY: I’m teaching a course for PlayGround in Berkeley starting in November. I’m teaching courses at Stagebridge (if you’re over 50) in Oakland all the time. I’m teaching a course for the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco in the spring. I love helping other writers learn what is strongest in their work and how they want to build on it.

AMY: We built an arts center in Downtown Oakland. It’s super cool. The Flight Deck features a rehearsal studio, a 99 seat black box theater and a co-working office space plus a really fantastic community of artistic leaders from various disciplines. Come be a part of it.

redwolf

REDWOLF is playing at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway in Oakland) from now until November 8th with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, a Saturday matinee at 2 PM and Sunday at 7 PM. Pay-What-You-Can performances are: Friday, October 31 at 8 PM, for anyone in costume. Saturday, November 1 at 2 PM for women, followed by a post-show discussion, “The Wilderness of Sex: The Perilous Journey through Female Adolescence”. Saturday, November 8th at 2 PM for students and educators, followed by a post-show discussion, “Predator and Prey:In Bed with Red Riding Hood”.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and contributor. She will have her acting debut on November 1st at 8 PM at the EXIT Theatre for the San Francisco Olympians Festival opening party. She is a part of Just Theater’s New Play Lab 2014-15 class and will be sharing a one-minute play during the One Minute Play Festival hosted by the Playwrights Foundation on December 15 and 16. For more of Barbara, you can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Tuesdays With Annie: Tune In Next Week

Annie Paladino has something to say… next time.

So. here’s the story:

I was writing a new post about making theater in non-theater spaces. As you may or may not know, Time Sensitive performs in a non-theater space, an old church (now Sanctuary for the Arts) in which we built a stage shaped like a guitar. So I felt compelled to talk about it, as well as my other experiences with non-theater spaces (both as artist and audience).

So. I wrote.

And then I hated it.

Topmost reason being: this is the freaking THEATER PUB blog. What the hell am I doing, writing about theater in non-theater spaces (SUCH AS A BAR) as if it’s novel or as if I have some extremely unique experience. Bay Area theater absolutely ADORES non-theater spaces. There was even an excellent article in TBA magazine about it last year!

So. I scrapped it.

And instead, next week I will be bringing you an interview with Amy Sass, the writer and director of Time Sensitive (and Artistic Director of Ragged Wing Ensemble). And it’ll be the bomb diggity, I promise.

So. Until next week.

(And in the meanwhile — only two more weekends to catch Time Sensitive! That’s six more show, folks!)

(Belated) Tuesdays With Annie: STOP. COLLABORATE AND LISTEN.

Annie is very sorry that this post is not, in fact, appearing on Tuesday — she was too busy washing sunscreen out of her hair.

I got back last week from a whirlwind trip down and back up this looooooong state of California, to work on a solo performance in progress by Joshua Tree artist-in-residence Gedney Barclay. I came back exhausted, invigorated, awe-struck, inspired, existentially-minded, and, most of all, pondering the nature, value, and conditions of collaboration. Like with my last few posts, this week primarily I want to open dialogue and hear from you. So let me start with my own fragmented thoughts from the last few days:

Collaboration, by definition, requires at least two entities. I would also argue that the separate identities of these agents must be more salient than the collective identity of the group in collaboration. But surely this isn’t always true — what are the exceptions?

It’s pretty clear-cut that Gedney and I are separate entities. I am an actor-director-producer-SM based in San Francisco, who tends to work with several different companies; Gedney is a Philadelphia-based director-actor, who works primarily with her own company, No Face Performance Group.

But at the same time, there was a tiny fragment of our collaboration this weekend that felt less like a collaboration and more like a reuniting. Not to get too sappy about it (TOO LATE), but this piece marks our 20th collaboration as theater artists — the first of which was when we were both 9th graders. In the almost 12 years since then, we have had many actor/director collaborations, a few actor/actor collaborations (my Varya notably cockblocked Gedney’s Arya in a 12th grade production of The Cherry Orchard), and various other relationships, from director/dramaturg to actor/stage manager.

I don’t quite know how to explain the difference, but my instinct is that is has something to do with translation. In short, for Gedney and me, there’s no translating needed. Generally, in any artistic collaboration, you’ll spend some amount of time translating. Not that you’re speaking literally different languages (though sometimes that may be the case too!), but rather you have differing (or even contradictory) language to describe an emotion, a mood, an action, a meaning, or a style. Often due to culture, training, idiosyncratic imaginations, generational differences, or something more nebulous (ZEITGEIST??), these disconnects in communication can be agonizing, particularly when one or more parties fail to recognize what is happening. You’ll leave rehearsal in a huff, frustrated that your actors just CAN’T take direction/your director just CAN’T give intelligible directions/your assistant stage manager just CAN’T get that prop on stage at the right time.

And so in many ways, speaking the same language (so to…speak…ah shit) in a collaboration is GLORIOUS. It’s luxurious and feels effortless and is, frankly, just ridiculously efficient. I was able to give Gedney notes like “in this last text you have a tic, I think it’s lifting the left side of your mouth” or “don’t let the foot die,” and she could ask me questions like “is this folding too whiskey dick?” and we both understand each other 100%.

But at the same time, I’ve really come to value and appreciate these little acts of translation in collaborative relationships. Sometimes you have to resolve them almost by brute force, or sometimes you come to an elegant third option that you both understand, but most of the time, in my experience, the result is synergistic, a greater, more surprising, more original and interesting product that either of you would have arrived at alone. I frequently think about a particular scene from Cutting Ball’s production of Pelleas and Melisande (for which I was the Assistant Director), which was singled out by many reviews as a highlight of the show. The director had a very clear idea for the scene, but he handed it over to the choreographer first to work on. Her proposal was very different from his idea, and they each greatly preferred their own version of the scene. The final version, however, was a muddled cocktail of these two singular visions — not a clean synthesis, but almost a patchwork quilt of two very different styles and aesthetics. And it WORKED.

I don’t have any answers here. I don’t know if one collaborative mode is inherently better than another. I don’t even know if I can coherently define “collaboration” without two dozen caveats. And all I’ve done here is ramble (per usual). So as always, I turn it over to you. I don’t even have a clear question in mind, but just want to hear thoughts, experiences, and musings. What is the nature of collaboration to you, in your experience? What value does collaboration offer for you, in your work? And under what conditions does collaboration occur, or what are the necessary conditions for fruitful collaboration?

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Rehearsal photo from Via Negativa

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You still have time to catch her on stage in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive, and you can always find her on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Let’s Get Physical (Or, Why I Haven’t Gone To The Gym In Two Months)

Annie Paladino continues to have feelings about her last two months in the Bay Area, and continues to need to talk about them.

Let me assuage your fears right off the bat: I’m not going to even TRY to define or even accurately describe “physical theater.” I know what it means to me but trust me when I say, you don’t want me to go there. At the very least, it would cause me to start using words like “phenomenological” and “corporeality” which I suspect would make this blog post slightly problematic. (Uh oh.)

But I would definitely say that the piece I’m currently rehearsing for, Time Sensitive, should be described as “physical theater”. And as I am in the middle of 14 straight days of rehearsals/previews leading up to opening night, the “physical” part of that phrase is rather salient to me right now. So I’m going to talk about it. But because I am, how shall I say, TIRED AS FUCK, it’s going to be in list format.

This will probably be enlightening and/or cause you to think I’m an uncoordinated idiot.

TEN THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED DURING REHEARSALS FOR TIME SENSITIVE

1. Multiple hours learning and perfecting a box step/uppercut combo (plus jazz hands). Important imagery to help get the jazz hands positioning right: “HOLD TWO LIMES IN YOUR ARMPITS AND JUICE THEM!”

2. Excitingly rainbow bruise, obtained while attempting a two-person, slow-motion backflip.

3. Three days of complete inability to walk down stairs after a six-hour Saturday rehearsal consisting entirely of crouching and standing rhythmically

4. Among the many physical challenges posed by this process and my character in particular, wearing high heels is at the top of the list.

5. Despite not having been to the gym in at least two months, I am more in shape than I was when rehearsals started.

6. I was punched in the mouth. Or rather, I sprinted into my castmate’s outstretched fist during a moment of intense choreography.

7. On one page of my script, gestures and movements are noted by letter (A, B, C…) with a key on the opposite page – it goes all the way to Z.

8. It’s a regular occurrence for someone to fall off the stage.

9. On a whim, I ordered three jars of Tiger Balm from Amazon last week. It’s already coming in handy.

10. According to my boyfriend, a few nights ago in my sleep I exclaimed, “Use the full crash pad!”

Until next Tuesday, folks. And if you’re wondering about point #10…you’ll just have to come see the show to find out.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. Time Sensitive opens April 18th, and runs through May 18th — find out all about it at http://raggedwing.org/show/show_detail/28. You can find Annie on Twitter @anniepaladino.

Tuesdays With Annie: Processing Process

Annie Paladino is leaving the Bay Area in two months and her last local theater project is about to open. Unsurprisingly, she’s got a lot of feelings, and she wants to talk about them. 

I want to talk about process. Actually, I want YOU to talk about process. But I’ll get things started, okay?

Let me backtrack: Hi, I’m Annie. You may (not) remember me from last year, when I wrote a lot of nonsense about performing for the first time in the Bay One Acts festival. Well, I’m back. For the month of April, you can find me here every Tuesday. For the next couple weeks, I’ll probably be talking about Time Sensitive, for which I’m currently about to head into tech week. Or, honestly, whatever else I’m thinking about.

Oh and another thing: I’m moving away from the Bay in June. So, the subtext of all this is likely to be: SAYONARA, I SHALL MISS THEE, LET ME LEAVE YOU WITH THESE PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM (AND/OR FOLLY).

Anyway…back to process.

Artistic process is one of those things that, unless you’ve been inside it, is a total and complete unknown. In the theater community, we all have a general sense of what a rehearsal process “looks” like. The timeframe may vary slightly, but things are actually surprisingly standardized. Casting, first read through, table work (an obtuse way of saying “script analysis,” basically), blocking (move there, sit here, jump on the couch over there), then a couple deeply traumatizing “stumble-throughs” (does anyone even attempt “run-throughs” anymore?) before ambling into tech week, at which point all anyone wants to do is tap dance on stage or make lewd jokes over headset (what, you don’t?).

But to anyone outside our community, the process of getting a play ready for performance is nothing short of a mystery. This was made very clear to me recently when I was talking about Time Sensitive to a coworker at my day job. I told her that we had started rehearsals in early January but the show didn’t open until mid-April, adding, “so obviously it’s a very long rehearsal process, which is nice.” She was surprised, and remarked that, for all she knew, that was a totally standard amount of time to rehearse a play. I further described how we started with only a few rehearsals a week, building up to more and more frequent rehearsals each month, with built-in weeks off to rest and recharge. And again, if I hadn’t implied that this was somewhat unusual, she wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

I wondered about this a few weeks ago after going to see Mugwumpin’s The Great Big Also at Z Space, an experimental piece with a longer-than-usual and atypically-structured rehearsal process. As an audience member, I personally knew this going in, and could clearly envision what this process was like. Most of the rest of the audience likely did not have that knowledge. And so the thought occurred to me — are our experiences markedly different?

So here are the questions, for you, dear readers (reader?). Primarily: why do we adopt an atypical rehearsal structure and/or timeline? Is it to produce a deeper and richer end result? Is it for the artists’ sake (and I mean that sincerely, without any condescension)? And secondly: if you are a theater artist, what are your feelings on process? Maybe you had an amazing non-traditional or extended rehearsal process. Maybe you are a director and you have your process down to a science. Maybe you wish you could work on a play for a year; maybe you wish you could start rehearsing a new project every three weeks.

As for the process I’m current in the middle of, we’re nearing the final stretch of what has been somewhat of a marathon. But I’m sitting at home tonight, not in rehearsal. Even though next Sunday is our first day of tech. In fact, I have (almost) this whole week off; it’s the last of those built-in breaks I mentioned. I’m of two minds about it: on the one hand, I’m ecstatic about the sleep (SLEEP, GUYS!!!), but on the other hand, I’m so anxious to keep working and start tech that I can’t truly relax.

So here I sit, spending way too much time having so many FEELINGS about theater. Help a gal out. Hit me in the comments.

Annie Paladino is an actor, director, producer, and stage manager. You can see her on stage (eating a SERIOUS cupcake) in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s Time Sensitive starting April 18th (more info here). You can find her on Twitter @anniepaladino. 

Field Notes from a BOA Virgin: Highly Scientific Data — I Haz Dem

Annie Paladino continues her report from the BOA front lines… 

So, BOA 2012 happened.

No, wait, just kidding! It’s STILL happening!

What DID happen was that, in less than a week, two full programs composed of 10 amazing one-act plays were loaded-in, teched, and rehearsed (lather, rinse, repeat). This past Sunday, both programs had their first performances. Since the play I am in, Maybe Baby, is in Program 2, I can only speak from that experience- which was LOVELY!- but seriously: just try to imagine TEN CASTS AND CREWS getting their shit together, tech-wise, in like, 4 days. Oh wait, YOU CAN’T, because IT SOUNDS IMPOSSIBLE. But… it happened! I promise! With little-to-no heartbreak, tears, hair-ripping, etc.!

Let the following facts and figures fill you with awe:

– Number of set changes in Program 2: 4

– Number of times we rehearsed the set changes during dress rehearsal: 3

– Number of actors in Program 2: 23

– Ratio of men to women in Program 2: 6:17 (including two separate plays with a cast of just two women — this is significant and awesome!)

– Sweat-intensity level in the overwhelmingly crowded backstage area: off the charts

– Average number of eggs cracked during each performance of Maybe Baby: 4-6

– Yolky-stage rating for the weekend: low (only one incidence of spillage)

– Number of teapots used in Maybe Baby: 9, plus one teapot-dog-puppet

– Average number of pushups done by the women in Maybe Baby (myself included): 20-25

– Number of splinters in bare feet thus far: ZERO, despite vigorous mash-potato-ing (the dance step — no actual cooking involved, sorry) (knock on wood)

– Number of bathrooms for the cast, crew and audience: 1 (plus one secret bathroom for cast/crew shhhh!)

– Number of minutes I have personally spent waiting in line for the bathroom: 15… so far

– Injury rating from the weekend: I may or may not have given my scene partner a fat lip during fight call before dress rehearsal

– Personal excitement level for seeing Program 1 (which I expect to do this weekend): SKY HIGH

– Number of performances before the cast of Maybe Baby reverted to high school theater and started trading back massages backstage during Act I: …zero

In sum…you don’t want to miss BOA 2012.

Until next week…

A.M.P.

PS. Wednesdays and Thursdays are PAY-WHAT-YOU-CAN: perfect for all you broke-asses!

Annie will be back next Tuesday with more sassy backstage commentary. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about BOA 2012, check out http://www.bayoneacts.org for showtimes, tickets and more!