15 Commitments (+ Counting) and the Context For Them
Note: THIS IS A LIVING DOCUMENT AND IT WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND CHANGE.
The events of this past week, and this past spring, which pile upon the raw sedimentary layers upon layers of violence done to Black people in America since 1619, are devastating for this company of artists, in addition to the country.
WELCOME: I want to say at the outset that I would be honored to share this with artists and audiences of color broadly, and Black artists and audiences specifically (and to hear thoughts in return!)…and/but also I hope my Black colleagues are prioritizing taking care of themselves and their loved ones today, and being cared for in return. These thoughts and commitments have ended up primarily directed at white colleagues. The TEAM was founded in 2004 by 6 white artists, and I believe our history of perpetuating systems of white supremacy and our subsequent work to address that unacceptable reality, and to decolonize ourselves and this company, are likely all-too-familiar to many colleagues, ensembles and institutions. My hope is this is of practical use to them.
Enormous gratitude to those colleagues & collaborators, Black and POC, and white, who have helped me shape this.
CONTEXT (feel free to jump ahead to commitments): I am writing this as the Artistic Director of the TEAM, an ensemble founded in 2004 with the goal of making work about American history, mythology, and the present moment. We acknowledge that collective liberation is not a state, but an ongoing struggle to do better, be more just, interrogate our practices and assumptions, and be willing to make regular changes to how we do things in the face of what we find we’re doing well or poorly. We believe that racial diversity is inseparable from and core to excellence. We are now deconstructing our company’s membership structure, and figuring out how to re-constitute ourselves collectively. We are a collaborative writing ensemble, that creates via a consensus-driven process rooted in the belief that the total might be greater than the sum of its parts – so it REALLY matters who is in the room.
I am also writing this as a freelance director who works to create spaces that are not simply inclusive, but pro artists of color, and in particular pro-Black.
In the coming days, some of the artists who have worked with the TEAM may also write-down/film thoughts that we will post – we want to amplify those collaborators who may want to speak, but we also don’t want any of our collaborators of color, and Black-identifying collaborators in particular, to be called upon to do any labor that it is incumbent upon white artists to do.
The TEAM is now making a new work called Reconstruction, which involves over 25 artists writing/making/performing/designing, about half of whom are white-identifying (ie “people who have come to be known as white”) and half of whom are artists of color, most of whom are Black-identifying with either African American or Caribbean American heritage. For Reconstruction, we are focused on the question of intimacy, which for brevity’s sake I will here define broadly as a deep and shared understanding of ALL that makes up a given interaction between humans in America, including all those sedimentary layers of racism and violence I referenced above. We’re interested in intimacy, and IF and HOW it might be possible – between people of color, between Black people, between white people, and between a white person and a Black person – in an America that has been and remains lethally anti-Black.
To work on this piece:
We have taken anti-racism workshops as a company, and have hired a facilitator (herself a person of color) who is providing guidance as a “process chaplain” through the intensely demanding process for our new work, Reconstruction.
We have tried to ensure that whiteness is de-centered as much as possible in a room still led by a white director, and I would say we have often failed at this point. Though authorship is truly shared quite equally in a TEAM work, in the past my taste has been a kind of final decider, and that feels inappropriate for this piece…
We have invented and participated in rituals of healing and mourning and exorcisms.
To continue work on this piece, and to continue forging a truly pro-Black arts space I propose we commit to:
Commission a Black scholar to track our process from here forward, and ensure her independence in witnessing, analyzing, and critiquing both what is successful and unsuccessful about our attempt to create a pro-Black arts space within a white-led institution. We will make her writing available to the wider field, with the goal that it will be of use to other institutions and ensembles.
Interrogate our pay structure and discuss what Reparations mean for the TEAM specifically. We have always paid everyone collaborating on a show the same as a company, which I think has tremendous merit. But also we have come up against the fact that the emotional labor of this work is particularly draining on the artists of color and Black-identifying artists in the room. How should we meet this? Should they get paid more? Should we allocate additional funds to be donated to a social justice organization(s) determined by the artists of color so that their added emotional labor is tied directly to funding that is meaningful to them? For discussion.
Always present the finished work Reconstruction in tandem with a significant anti-racism workshop for the community (at least a weekend long)…We will also discuss whether it’s better this workshop precede or follow the production.
Ensure meaningful racial diversity in our audiences, with a focus on Black audiences, and think as deeply about the design and dramaturgy of the audience, as we do about the piece itself. Beyond ensuring affordable tickets, and guaranteeing that no one will be turned away for lack of funds, examples we will look at include the “Black Outs” that were such a beautiful, vibrant part of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, and the equity Taylor Mac and Niegel Smith and team built into the audience re-arrangements during 24-Hour Decade.
We will also discuss how to ensure impact on our white audiences, because I want Reconstruction to be of use in bringing change, which includes instigating
Develop a new company structure, including potentially abolishing or radically re-conceiving the idea of “membership.” We’ll develop a model that is collectively envisioned by our artistic community and representative of the racial make-up of the country that it’s our mission to interrogate, with an emphasis on equity and amplifying previously underrepresented voices.
Additionally, in my freelance theater life I have committed and/or do commit to:
I will ensure that no one is the only one of “themselves” in the room – whether that’s a trans or Black artist, or an artist with a disability (and of course, thankfully, NONE of us are ONE THING!). I will also ensure this type of determination remains nuanced and is not left to my white-gaze alone, because that leads to assumptions and erasure all too often of multi-racial artists and light-skinned artists of color. I will also not lose sight of the intense reality of colorism in America (and globally). ALL of this must be thoughtfully factored into every decision made about staffing and casting.
I will invite people to bring their WHOLE selves to any room I lead, allowing the artist to determine their boundaries in the room.
I will ensure that every creative team I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
I will ensure that every cast I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
I will use my highly privileged platform as both a white woman and a successful director with a high degree of visibility to advocate for equity with clarity, without sentiment, and with real practicality.
I will not use the word “diversity” in a sloppy or coded manner, but instead be explicit when I am talking about racial diversity (vs. age diversity, economic diversity, gender diversity, etc). Further I will be clear and cognizant of whether I mean artists of color broadly, or Black-identifying artists specifically, etc.
I will not accept jobs that I feel are better held by an artist of color, which includes frank discussions with writers about their goals and values. This does not mean not working with writers of color or helping to tell stories about characters and communities of color, by any means. But I commit to being fit for and engaging in transparent conversations about what I can and cannot bring to a project.
I will support my white colleagues with both love and clarity, as we begin or continue deepening their practice of decolonization.
If I fail, I will acknowledge that failure and continue forward.
Thank you for reading. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me with any thoughts, critiques, or questions. Rachelchavkin@gmail.com.
Our friends at the New Ohio are launching a new film festival for indie theatre artists branching out into film, and we’re delighted to have The TEAM Makes A Play, Paulette Douglas’ documentary about the making of Mission Drift included as part of the inaugural lineup. If you haven’t caught a screening in the past, the film follows the 3+ year saga of developing our original musical about American Capitalism: living in a foreclosed home in Las Vegas, workshopping in New York (including at the old Ohio), London, and Portugal, and the (many) ups and downs in between.
Tickets are cheap and the seats are limited. We hope you can join us!
I am honored to be representing the TEAM this week in St Louis for the “28 Hour Plays,” for which playwrights and actors from around the country are joining with St. Louisans to write and perform in 80, one-minute plays in reaction to Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson in 2014, the ensuing unrest, and the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
I have met and gotten to listen to some of the most extraordinary people in the last four days. On Wednesday night we got to hear Elizabeth Vega talk about her activism as an artist in Ferguson and beyond. Her organizations ROOT COOP and Artivists are a complete inspiration and she is a demonstration of how to live life right. Marty K Casey has been unbelievably generous in showing us St. Louis through her perspective, and her Show Me Arts Academy is an awesome assertion that the Arts can actually save people. Basmin Red Deer’s entire world outlook and contextualization of the unrest in Ferguson has been something of a paradigm shift for me. I feel incredibly lucky to know about these women and to become familiar with their work.
Elizabeth Vega talked about a perception that the movement has died down, and cautioned the world not to mistake the quiet laying of the foundations of a sustainable movement for the end of the movement. It is very much alive here in the center of the country.
One of the other playwrights here is Nikkole Salter, who many of us in the TEAM met in 2006 in Edinburgh when we were performing Particularly in the Heartland and she was in a two-woman show also at the Traverse. When she remembered who I was she said that seeing Heartland was the first time that she truly felt American. In the last four days I have begun to understand for the first time something about what it is to be American. And it is beyond unsettling.
When asked by a visiting playwright whether she had any advice for theater artists who might fear that theater isn’t enough, an activist here replied, “do it anyway”. That struck me deeply. I have met people who are doing anything they can, and dedicating their lives to a movement, in the belief that the world can get better.
After compiling, editing, and proofreading for nearly a year, we now have in our hot little hands an anthology of five of our plays, hot off the press from Oberon Books in London. And we’re throwing a party! Join us for an intimate evening at one of Brooklyn’s most delightful local independent bookstores, BookCourt. We’ll read excerpts, take questions, drink wine, and sign books like real authors do.
Saturday, January 31st at 7pm
163 Court Street, Brooklyn
Over the month of December, as the TEAM celebrates its 10 Year Anniversary, the company will share their favorite memories from the last 10 years.
There’s a lot of eggs in Particularly in the Heartland. There are six glitter filled eggs for New Years (hand blown each day into large bowls filled with raw egg. We ate so many omelettes on those tours our company cholesterol was at an all time high). There’s five raw eggs for audience members to throw at Anna Springer and one for her to crush on her forehead in a lesson about consequences. One raw egg to be blown directly onto my face during the Biblical alien invasion, and of course one hard boiled egg to be stored in my mouth for ten minutes and magically appear upon waking up human.
Jill accompanied by Anna and Todd’s hands.
Thank god for awesome stage managers to help coordinate all this.
The mouth egg was my personal responsibility, though. It had to be just right- not too big (ten minutes playing dead in a wheelbarrow is a long time to keep an egg in your mouth. I lived in fear of getting a cold and not being able to breathe through my nose) and not too small (if any of the cast living through The Rapture bumped into the wheelbarrow I’d swallow it). There was also the matter of actual hard boiling- sometimes on tour we were without kitchen. I remember once boiling an egg in the top of an electric tea kettle- not recommended.
After the raw egg was blown on my face, there’s a music sequence where Anna and Todd wash me off. I’ll never forget the day we forgot to put water in the bucket. Being dry rubbed with industrial sponges on my egg covered face is a vivid sensoral memory. The way my costume smelled after dozens of eggy shows was also…vivid.
We performed Heartland over 100 times, and I’m proud to say I played Tracy Jo each and every time. It took awhile, but I can eat eggs again now too. – JILL
Each month (ish) for the next year, TEAM members are taking turns interviewing a fellow artist in the company. In our first post, Jess Almasy interviews Jake Margolin about joining the TEAM, meeting his husband, and making art about America.
Jess: pls state your name for the record: :)
Jake: Jacob Orion Margolin
when did you join the TEAM?
I joined the TEAM for Particularly in the Heartland which I think was 2005. I was in transit from somewhere (California maybe?) and because Rachel was in Edinburgh with Shocks and Give Up! Start Over! she let me stay at her place in Inwood. When she returned from Scotland we got to talking about the next TEAM project and I got involved.
what made you want to join?
The TEAM was a bunch of my best friends, and I was psyched to be included on a project that they were all working on.
what was your first TEAM project?
Officially I guess it was Particularly in the Heartland, although we created HOWL originally in college and that later became a TEAM piece. While I know that the TEAM started in 2004 with Shocks and Give Up! Start Over! (neither of which I was involved in) it has always felt to me like the company was a continuation of the work that many of us were doing together at NYU, specifically starting with HOWL which was our first foray into devising work collaboratively.
what was that like?
What was Heartland like? Well, one really big thing that happened with Heartland happened towards the end of the first development process. We were looking for a set designer and Rachel had seen a bunch of things that a guy named Nick Vaughan had been designing up at Columbia (where Rachel was going to grad school) and she invited him on to design Heartland. The first day that I walked into that basement rehearsal room at Shapiro Hall I was smitten, and Nick and I got married almost exactly two years later. It’s hard to remember how it felt making Heartland . . . I remember at times thinking that we were really coming up with something new and really touching the pulse of something, and I remember at times feeling like we were just barely keeping our heads above water and just kinda muddling through it all. There was an extraordinary hours long “open session” at a Chashama space – an abandoned bank in Queensboro Plaza – where such wonderful things were created like the Sarah Springer/Audience Q&A and a wild ship ride on rolling office chairs (the latter did not make it into the final production . . .)
Jake Margolin and Kristen Sieh in Particularly in the Heartland, 2006.
And then the piece ran for a long time and we continued to develop it for years. There was staying in the Salvation Army Campus in London (which was actually very beautiful) and long bus rides with show laundry. There was extraordinary press in major newspapers which felt so edifying. There was the tour through the UK with such highs as spring-time in Kendall with lambs bopping around on pristine fields and such lows as the Peckham Lodge in London.
It was my first experience of being taken seriously as an artist by people who I didn’t know – both people like presenters and press as well as people like audience members who didn’t know me from Adam. And that was huge, and I suspect is a large part of why I have continued in the arts for the last decade.
why do most of the roles you play right now get named “Chris”? :)
Just to clarify a bit, the last few roles that I have created for the TEAM are named Chris. That started with Mission Drift – I think the point of that name was that it felt so normally American. Kind of like “Jake” or “Mike”. And then I’ve been trying to compartmentalize the various different strains of my work and to step back a bit and look at them as continuations of a line of inquiry. So my work with Nick (we make installation art together) has all been organized under the umbrella of “A Marriage . . . ” a series of installations that deal with how our same sex marriage fits into the iconography of the American Dream. And with the TEAM I wanted to start looking at all of the roles that I created for it as different attacks at the same question of “what is it to be an American right now” (which is of course basically the TEAM’s mission statement anyway) and specifically a continued exploration of “American Masculinity”. I also don’t think this fundamentally means anything – I am a dude making theater about America, so obviously everything I make in that context is an exploration of American Masculinity. So maybe this is just semantic, but I want to be looking at my contributions to the TEAM as a single body of work, and naming all the characters I make “Chris” feels like an overt way of doing that. I don’t think it really changes what I make any more than calling all of my visual art “A MARRIAGE” changes what I make there, but it provides a frame through with to look at all of that work. Maybe someday I’ll make a retrospective catalog of Chris. Like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, or something.
what is your interest in your independent career? what are you working on?
My independent career is making visual art with Nick – “visual” in a pretty broad sense in that it incorporates every media we can get our hands on and performance. In that work I’m increasing interested in how to be engaging directly with the subjects of the work. For example in A MARRIAGE: 1 (SUBURBIA), our installation at HERE last spring (that featured a series of stunning vignettes written by TEAM member and interviewer Jessica Almasy), we did a documentary style series of interviews with icons of the downtown queer performance world and teens involved in LGBTQ issues in which we had them talk about gay marriage, suburbia, nostalgia, and the mainstreaming of queer culture. I loved making that. When the show went to North Adams, MA in September we used 20 students at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in a day long performance action in which we read the 13 days of oral arguments from the California “Prop 8” case into clear plastic bags, capturing that breath in an enormous sculpture of text.
PERRY V. SCHWARZENEGGER: TEXT AS A VOLUME OF BREATH, part of A MARRIAGE: 1 (SUBURBIA) at HERE, 2013
We’re currently working on A MARRIAGE: 2 (WEST-ER) which is all about the West and explores the gay history of the Wild West, a part of that history that I grew up knowing nothing about and through researching this show, am increasingly excited about. I didn’t know that the 19th century West was full of queers. I always bought into the hollywood version of the hetero cowboy. The first parts of A MARRIAGE: 2 (WEST-ER) will go up at the Invisible Dog Art Center in March and April of 2014.
how has working with the TEAM fed or factored into this work?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Outside of my work with Nick, The TEAM has been the main place that I have worked creatively and thought about aesthetics and narrative and political art. So I can only assume that everything that I think artistically is formed in so many ways by my work with the TEAM. Practically, I know everything I know about the administrative side of the arts from the TEAM. And the support that we’ve gotten from TEAM members has been huge, and no small part of what has kept us making work. It is of course hard to distinguish what of that is “the TEAM” and what of that is that many of our best friends are members of the TEAM.
what makes you interested in the TEAM today?
I am so interested in how the company evolves as its members continue to pursue and excel at ventures outside of the TEAM. I am thrilled by how the process of making the plays changes as the members themselves change.
what do you consider your interest in America / making art about America?
I think I use the idea that I am making “art about America” as a way of acknowledging that my world view is particular to being an American. By which I just mean that everything I write or create is necessarily about America because that is my context. I think that similarly to how white people often mistake our interpretation of the world as the neutral or universal perception (relegating everyone else’s to minority identity politics or something) it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the American view of history or the current world is somehow the standard view. Everything I make is similarly through the lens of being a gay white man, not because I think it is better or anything, but because it is who I am. I’m reading Samantha Powers’ A PROBLEM FROM HELL about the American response (or lack thereof) to genocide in the world in the last hundred years. I am so struck by how much we continue to behave in the same way as a country. That fundamentally we don’t evolve much.
as you look back on the last ten years, how have you changed as an artist, or alternately how have you strengthened your committed ways of being, with or without knowing it?
I’m not sure that I am more committed in my ways of being now than I was 10 years ago. I have more, and deeper doubts about being an artist than I did 10 years ago.
One way that I have changed is that I think I’ve grown from really trying to do things “right” according to some perceived structure of what “good art” is to really trying to find my own voice and be true to my own agenda as an artist.
where do you see yourself in 3 years OR what would you be really happy to imagine?
I’m trying to become comfortable with the fact that my projections for what I’ll be doing in the future have proven consistently wrong. I hope that in 3 years I am proud of whatever I am doing and that it is adding some good to the world. I also hope I’m making a bit more money and have kids. But three years is really very soon. It takes three years for the TEAM to make a play. It takes three years for Nick and I to make an installation.
what have you learned from other TEAM members?
I think it is impossible to codify that into a single answer. It’s like wondering what I have learned from my family. Everything ranging from the mundane of learning how to create a computer file to the big things of learning how to function ethically in the world.