During the final week of the Mission Drift run in New York City, Heather Christian and I went over to the NPR Studios. We were both extremely excited, but Heather can testify to the fact that my face almost shattered I was so giddy. With eyes wide we followed Margot Adler as she gave us a tour of the studio. Almost everyone was out to lunch, but it didn’t matter. I saw the desk of Robert Krulwich. And we even waved at Zoe Chace and Chana Joffe-Walt from Planet Money.
We sat down with Margot and discussed the work, which she’d seen previously.
CLICK HERE to listen to the awesome story that she put together.
Over the past 2 years I’ve been one of the representatives from the devised theatre world at the American Voices New Play Institute’s Convenings (along with rainpan 43, SITI Company, Sojourn Theatre, Universes, Tectonic, the Rude Mechs, the Civilians, Pig Iron, and a TON more producers, individual devising artists, and ensembles – check out list HERE). The primary takeaways from that convening: theatre institutions have so many more resources than they think they do for devising artists, and it’s not all about money – think unused space, scene and costume shops, etc.; the devised theatre world is happily (and sometimes grumpily) defined by its DIY aesthetic and so any co-productions with institutions need to be crafted to preserve this impulse and way of working; none of us are able or much interested in creating a narrow definition of devised theatre. The initial Devised Theatre convening was a chance to discuss the challenges and practices of this work with a group often spread out and working hard on its own stuff, and as a small step towards the (slow) process of American theatres accepting this broad spectrum of work into the general new play/work conversation.
This weekend I attended a convening on “the 21st century Literary Office.” I believe I was the only devising artist there, and there were only a few playwrights, so artist representation in general was low, though not the focus. Dramaturgs and literary managers from around the country discussed the state of their field amidst changing technologies, the possibility of partnering and linking resources through a national database (controversial), the sprawl of the office’s tasks – from connectivity to script reading and season planning, and the role of the dramaturg/literary office in preserving the intellectual integrity of a theatre. Devised theatre seemed essentially nonexistent in this conversation. Our plays/productions/works/pieces are not to be found in the “piles” covering the desks and floors of literary offices; our work doesn’t live on the page. This isn’t intended as a complaint. I’m not sure – despite the fact that the TEAM’s work is drenched in literary references, history, and hopefully reflects a high level of intellectual integrity – that we belong in a place called the “Literary” office. Devised theatre, as I practice it anyway, is in part a reaction to the idea that a play should be able to be understood/experienced through reading. The page doesn’t have Matty’s sound, Brian or Libby’s or Kristen’s or Jill’s or Jess’ or Frank’s or Jake’s inflection or movement, Nick’s eroding landscapes, etc. which all share equal weight with the words we’ve written. And I actually don’t think this is specific to devised theatre, and would imagine many playwrights feel this way (they do, right?). The conversation seems to be slowly arcing from “new plays” to “new work,” and I think the distinction between playwright-driven and devised work is an unhelpful, and implies a false divide that is likely limiting or insulting to both playwrights and devisers.
Conversation continues on NewPlayTV and the wonderful HowlRound – to which Polly Carl reminded me I owe an article! It’s in-process…
Here we are, a little past the halfway point of our 4-week NYC run. If you haven’t seen the show yet, or are wondering what your opinion of the show should be, here’s a roundup of some of the things that have been written about Mission Drift so far in the New York City press:
Of all of the art inspired by the global economic crisis, perhaps none is as lusty and energetic as Mission Drift, the new musical by New York theater company the TEAM.
There’s a lot about the company’s new project to take heedless, heady pleasure in… Pleasures aplenty.
The New York Times
Mission Drift examines heady concepts without ever losing its heart. Thanks to strong writing and powerful performances, the TEAM never forgets to have empathy for their subjects… Mission Driftcaptures the zeitgeist while daring to suggest hope for the future.
We are thrilled to have finally begun our run of at the Connelly Theater of Mission Drift! This show is over three years in the making, and it’s been the most thrilling and challenging process in our company’s life. We started with the question, “What defines American capitalism specifically?” As Brian beautifully described in an earlier blog, we did research of all shapes and sizes, including moving to Las Vegas for a month in June 2010.
We now invite YOU to join that conversation. We hope you can join us post-show in the Shining City, our bar at the Connelly (220 East 4th Street). But we also hope you’ll share your thoughts here, about the work’s themes.
Our company’s mission is to make new work about America in order to generate dialogue about the country’s past, present, and future. So here’s space! Some kickoff questions:
Do you think there’s something different about American capitalism vs. capitalism anywhere else?
What’s your favorite Las Vegas memory?
Tell us your favorite Western and why
Or share any other thoughts the show raised for you. We’re interested.
A lovely article about the catastrophic capitalism of Mission Drift in the official newspaper of capitalists everywhere, The Wall Street Journal. Here is a link to the WSJ website, but if for you non-subscribers the full text appears below:
Of all of the art inspired by the global economic crisis, perhaps none is as lusty and energetic as “Mission Drift,” the new musical by New York theater company the TEAM.
“Mission Drift” explores the ideas and economics of American capitalism through two interlocking stories that span nearly 400 years: that of an immortal teenage couple from Dutch New Netherland traversing time and space in the pursuit of progress, and that of a laid-off cocktail waitress in modern-day Las Vegas romanced by a cowboy figure who is actually part of a Native American tribe displaced by the creation of that city.
And did they mention it’s a musical? The centerpiece of “Mission Drift” is a 20-minute song, dance and action sequence that passes through three centuries of American history, connecting the characters in New Amsterdam and Las Vegas.
“That’s one of the things that defines the TEAM’s work: Often things are getting crashed into each other that have no business being together, and hopefully through the course of the play we make it make sense,” said Rachel Chavkin, the artistic director and one of six New York University alumni who founded the TEAM (which is short for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) in 2004.
“Mission Drift,” the group’s seventh production, opens Sunday for a four-week run at the annual COIL theater festival at Performance Space 122 in the East Village, which co-commissioned the work with Culturgest in Lisbon, Portugal. The show made its premiere this summer in Europe, where it nabbed several awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
But bringing “Mission Drift” to New York, where the TEAM is based, has taken three years, some development twists and one financial crisis.
The company began writing the musical in the spring of 2008, with the intention of making a more fact-based work to explore “what defines American capitalism specifically, versus capitalism anywhere else,” Ms. Chavkin said. The group also wanted to incorporate the Western genre of cowboy novels and movies.
“We’re always looking at big conceptual questions but also different art forms or pieces of literature or movies we want to engage in some way,” she said. The TEAM’s last production, 2008’s “Architecting,” used the prism of “Gone With the Wind” to examine the ineffective reconstruction of post-Katrina New Orleans.
But as the TEAM convened to write “Mission Drift,” the financial crisis crashed down on its funding. The show was initially slated to launch in Edinburgh in 2010, but it was pushed to March 2011 at PS122, and then into 2012. But for a show about economics and its effect on culture, there was a silver lining.
“The economy collapsing in a big way was kind of the best possible thing to happen for the show, but also the worst possible thing to happen for the artists,” said TEAM member Brian Hastert. “What was a pretty condensed timeline for development became much longer. That was the underlying thing of the three-year development period: keeping our own feet to the fire when funding fell out from under us.”
It also led the company to shelve the fact-based approach in favor of myth-making and historical fiction. In the spring of 2009, Ms. Chavkin was introduced to “The Island at the Center of the World,” Russell Shorto’s account of 17th-century New Netherland. In the book, Mr. Shorto writes about two illiterate teenagers, Catalina Trico and Joris Rapalje, who were among the first European settlers in North America and parents to the first European baby born here; they are said to have upward of one million descendants in America. In “Mission Drift,” a fictionalized Catalina and Joris leave New Amsterdam and head west in pursuit of the American dream.
“Catalina and Joris gave us the opportunity to create our own kind of myth and explore what American capitalism is,” said Ms. King, who plays Catalina to Mr. Hastert’s Joris. “What would happen if we started in New Amsterdam and followed these characters in booms and busts across time and didn’t worry about the logistical problems of that in a story?”
“Mission Drift” is the TEAM’s first musical, but, in keeping with the company’s desire to engage different art forms, the songs aren’t necessarily narrative.
“The music functions almost as a beautiful space around the story and these moments of story that open up,” Ms. Chavkin said.
Composed by Heather Christian, the music is at times raucous and sly, at others mournful, fueled by gospel and blues. There are bugle calls and wild whoops and snatches of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” Ms. Christian plays Miss Atomic, a showgirl Herodotus figure who narrates but also interacts with the other characters.
In writing for Joris and Catalina’s itinerant pursuit of the American dream—and the reality of recession for Las Vegans in 2008—she said she “wanted music to encapsulate this ecstasy and excitement of ‘next’ as well as the bereavement. That’s why it makes sense to make gospel music, even though it’s not dealing with religion or a direct relationship with God.”
Underlying issues to contemporary problems are discussed, but the TEAM does not purport to have answers. “One of the great things about this company is that they’re addressing the broader, philosophical questions we need to address,” said Vallejo Gantner, PS122’s artistic director. “All of the big questions, the ones that can’t be answered coherently—they’re right in that zeitgeist. They lay out a lot of the problems there, but they don’t tell us what we need to do.”
We are tremendously excited to announce that a new documentary which has followed the creation process for Mission Drift (its many MANY ups and downs) is now in the final stages of production. An amazing woman named Paulette Douglas traveled with us from New York to Las Vegas, from PS122 to our rehearsal studio in Brooklyn, from Portugal to Edinburgh, and she’s got it all. Us beginning work as the stock market collapsed. Choreography that has morphed over three years. Characters killed and resurrected.
It’s kind of wild, and I’m not sure any of us are emotionally ready to watch what has been the most intense learning process of our company’s life, but we are thrilled.
From Michael Rohd, Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre – our partners on TOWN HALL (working title), our new work-in-progress:
It’s in the middle of the country, its (supposedly) purple, Field of Dreams is an ‘Iowa’ movie & its got some great Universities. Its one of the only states I’ve not spent time working in, and it’s a long drive across.
That’s a good bit of what I knew going in.
This past week Bobby Bermea, Rebecca Martinez and myself from Sojourn Theatre joined Rachel and Frank (and stellar intern Carly) for a research trip on Town Hall. We were hosted by University of Northern Iowa’s Oral Communication program and Sojourn friend Karen Mitchell of their faculty. We were also hosted, in other parts of the state, by TEAM friend Ryan West of West Music in Iowa City.
The residency was arranged so our two companies could have more time together, and so we could do prep work for our visit to the Iowa Caucuses. Which originally were scheduled for February 6…but Nevada moved. And then New Hampshire moved. So, like the next domino in a tightly packed set, Iowa moved. To January 3. Right during the tech period in NYC for The TEAM’s Mission Drift.
So this trip became important as research and also so that those of going back could work on the relationships that will allow the January time to be as productive as possible..
We taught classes, we interviewed individuals. We met with Democratic Caucus organizers who told us amazing stories from the 2008 caucuses, but also took us back through the years, all the way to the 1960 Caucus. One of our interviewees has been helping run the Caucus since then, and was able to discuss changes he’s witnessed. For the better, and the not so better.
We were invited to the County Republican Headquarters where we held one of several interviews with individuals who are at the heart of the Party in Iowa. These were especially valuable, as it can be so easy to take on this sort of project with lots of assumptions…people were generous with their time, candid and made it very clear that in January, we’d be welcomed at the UniDome for the largest Caucus event in the State- one where all 8 Republican candidates are expected to attend.
We also did some research at the Isle of Capri casino. Interviews. Observaton. Oh- also winning. We did some winning there. $75 worth. Which meant when Frank arrived that night to join us, we were able to all go out to Applebee’s for a meeting- and by meeting I mean a giant Ribs and Wings meal that was stellar, and almost paid for by our gambling loot. We talked, we planned…and we ate barbecue. God prep for our time in Kansas City, one of the nation’s barbecue capitols…
Speaking of Kansas City, mid-week, Rachel (and Carly) drove to Kansas City to speak at a new Works Fundraiser Kansas City Rep was hosting to help support their 2012-2013 season…which of course includes Town Hall. Rachel, by all accounts and to no surprise, did a great job representing our show and making the case for New Work in general. She drove 10 hours within a 20 hour span, and we were all grateful.
Worth noting- Those of us in Sojourn met Ryan West for the first time, and we felt pretty fortunate t meet such a smart, warm guy who is so obviously committed to both his home state of Iowa and the power of theatre to make meaningful contributions to civic life.
Also worth noting- every time our two companies get together, it feels like the fondness between us grows, great work happens, and I personally get more excited for the project, and more inspired by my new collaborators. Every time.
We will be together in a few weeks in Kansas City for a research trip. Between now and then, the work continues. A return to Iowa follows, some time in DC. And then more development in NYC. As Rebecca said when we left, ‘ I want to keep going now- I’m ready now.’ Me too.
Now that Mission Drift is finished (or as we in the TEAM like to say – “finished” -) developing and is moving into the performance and presentation stage, we can turn more of our attention to a few irons we’ve got in the fire. The next such iron is Town Hall, a collaboration between the TEAM and a terrific company based out of Portland, Oregon called Sojourn Theatre. Sojourn specializes in theatrical events that couple excellent stagecraft with community engagement, and the few occasions we’ve been able to get our gangs into the same space at the same time have proven very fruitful and highly enjoyable. The idea for Town Hall came from the town hall meetings in August 2009 when health care was the hot topic and all of a sudden the debate became absolutely frenzied and people began bringing guns to public discussion forums. Not firing them, not even necessarily talking about them, just brandishing them in plain sight. As is their right to do. Town Hall will wrestle with how we make decisions in a democracy.
But more on Town Hall in future posts.
This post is about our adventures in southwest Virginia, where last week Rachel and I met up with Michael Rohd, the artistic director of Sojourn, for a 5 day residency. We had a very full schedule, a tightly packed agenda of classes to teach, meetings to attend, rehearsals to hold and a workshop on devising to give, but somehow no idea what to expect. We knew that we would be working closely with a group called Building Home composed of undergrad and grad theatre students at Virginia Tech and members of the Blacksburg community who don’t make theatre pieces, though I was admittedly confused about what they did do and what we would be doing with them. And as is always the case when traveling to a new place to develop a brand new play, we just couldn’t know what we would learn until we learned it. This post is about some of the things we learned in Virginia.
First though, a breathtaking parenthetical. Something I didn’t learn per se but was thrilled to witness: We were nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains just in time for Peak Leaf Week. Such foliage! Sadly I didn’t have any sort of camera with me, a realization that broke my heart more with every damn beautiful tree we came across. So here is a photo of that area that I stole from the internet to give you an idea of what we walked out of our hotel into every day:
c'est beau, n'est pas?
Come on. Come on!
And in this Bob Ross-ian setting, what did we learn? Well for starters Building Home arranged for us to sit in on several community meetings to see first hand a small group of folks wrestle to make plans and strategies and allocate resources for a whole community containing many different interests. All extremely exciting for Town Hall devo purposes, but less fit for the post which is about adventures.
The music, the music was adventurous. Two of the members of Building Home are local Old Time music prodigies. Old Time music is a cousin of Bluegrass music, but far less, um, popular. Somehow Old Time music has maintained a rich tradition in the Appalachian mountains but hasn’t grown past it’s regional roots. It often involves a fiddle and definitely utilizes the banjo (the banjo being the only instrument of any note that developed in America).
Anna and Elizabeth, our two incredible musicians-in-residence for the week, gave us our utterly unforgettable introduction to this music. On our last night in town we took our rehearsal to Floyd, a small town about 45 minutes away from Blacksburg. We kicked off the evening at Anna’s big beautiful farmhouse for a potluck dinner. The first room we entered was filled with the kinds of stringed instruments used in making mountain music and several old Victrolas. We even stumbled across two wax-cylinder players, one of which said “Edison” on the side. Upon learning that I was allowed to play with this priceless relic of American and recording history, I joy-freaked out. And that is the state I maintained for the rest of the evening.
We had come to Floyd that night to witness the Old Time Music and Bluegrass Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store, but the most enlightening moment of music of the evening for me happened at the Pot Luck. Anna and Elizabeth introduced us to the cranky. Crankies are a form of musical story telling that I could describe here, but instead of bludgeoning the magic of the moment with a description that I don’t have the patience to try to find, here is a video that is worth 10,000 of my words. That is Elizabeth singing and Anna turning the crank.
There was a second, equally breathtaking cranky on paper instead of cloth telling a story too sad to print here. After we had asked our fill of cranky questions and eaten our fill of beef stew, it was time to hop the short hop into town for the festivities. Before we even stepped foot into the Country Store, we squeezed into the capacity-crowd barber shop next door where there was a group of local musicians jamming. Anna and her fiddle popped down onto the couch and wordlessly joined the jam session with band members that appeared on average 2-3 times her age, and after a song or two she drafted Elizabeth to join.
Eventually we made our way next door. The Floyd Country Store is the first retail establishment that I’ve felt an emotional connection to in a long while. The totally inefficient layout, the clothes (Rachel hasn’t taken off the flannel shirt she purchased since), the ceramic butter dishes that say “never too much butter”, the pumpkin milkshakes and the CD’s of local recording artists.
Michael, Brian, Rachel, Leo, Carly
None of us knew how to dance the kind of dancing that happens at a hoedown like this, flatfoot dancing it’s called, but that in no way impeded our zeal. And no one chided us for our incompetence, they grabbed our hands and dragged us out on the floor and gave us pointers as we went. Rachel’s main dance partner of the night was a farmer named Leo (pictured). As you could probably guess from the photo, Leo was a terrific and enthusiastic dancer who just happens to be in his 80’s. He made us all look slow. [The picture, L-R, Michael Rohd (Sojourn), me, Rachel, Leo, our fabulous intern Carly, and in the background is the band that almost gave me an asthma attack they were so much fun.]
And it just so happened that on this particular night a group of Afghanistan war vets on a perpetual anti-war bicycle tour of the south were in attendance. They had already played a set (they’re also a traveling bluegrass band!) that I regrettably missed, but the owner of the country store made sure to grab me for an introduction with the head of the group later in the night. His name is Jacob, he had long hair tied in a ponytail, a fair number of tattoos, was barefoot, and had served three tours in Afghanistan as a paratrooper. He was quietly charismatic and wildly articulate, and he mostly spoke about healing vets and opening a space to talk about war. You can follow their journey here, buy their CD or lend your support in any way you’d like. And if you’re in a town when the stop through, go visit. They are doing wonderful work and are not to be missed.
We were among the last to leave that night as is our way (The TEAM: ’til the end of the party!), and we hit the highway at 6:30 the next morning in what would be a 12-hour door-t0-door road trip home. The residencies for Town Hall will take TEAM and Sojourn members to Kansas City, Iowa, and Washington DC in the coming weeks, all of which promise to be exciting and hold their own adventures – particularly the Iowa Republican Caucus in early January – but the words of a woman I met at the end of the week in Shawsville, VA ring in my mind. Her name is Ruby and she is a 90-year-old life long Virginian. After she and I bonded over coffee and donuts for an hour at an early morning meeting and we were saying our goodbyes, she held my arm and said, “Y’all come back now”. That, Ruby, is a fine idea.