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Iowa Residency

From Michael Rohd, Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre – our partners on TOWN HALL (working title), our new work-in-progress:

Iowa.
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.

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Virginia Tech residency and adventures

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?

See?

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.

Cranky One from Rachel Chavkin on Vimeo.

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.

In case you missed this…

An amazing short video created by Montblanc about the TEAM’s Mission Drift at the Salzburg Festival.

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Thoughts on the 10th

I am writing this listening to the music of Heather Christian (Mission Drift composer), which anyways always has me emotional. And of course the week has been hard and thinking and not thinking and not and sometimes also thinking about it. Between amidst and around things, in the shower, listening to NPR. I’m in the buzz panic of editing the Mission Drift DVD to send out, envisioning the life I hope the production will have, envisioning…

I’m not a big blogger, but I suppose I wanted my thoughts about the day, anniversary, to also be tied to the company – our company – which is my muscle. The main way that I am in the world. I do only speak for myself here though.

I am longing now to be in the west village closet that was our apartment in 2001, to be with the friends who moved in with us for a week because we lived on west 10th street and they lived over the bridges in far Brooklyn far Queens and we lived on 10th street and they’d come in for class and everyone sort of showed up for class and some sort of walked out away into Washington Square Park or somewhere else, and some sat wondering about blood banks and whether to donate. All these people with so much blood in their veins and no one to take it.

It’s very strange to watch things fall down that aren’t supposed to fall down.

And to then and now be so at a loss for words that language goes flat. And so you sit watching the television. Or, at least, I sat watching the television with the friendfamily that had moved in – getting that sort of feeling you get when all inner systems shut down and you’re just working, but this was the opposite of work.

This was stop. All look in one direction.

That – the feeling of all looking in one direction – feels far now. The TEAM has just begun zygote thinking about a new work we’re calling Primer for a Failed Superpower. Right now I’m thinking about it as a way to prepare my brain (and whoever else shares my inability) to envision a world in which America isn’t a superpower, much less the superpower. It’ll also be a love letter to our children (not that anyone is gestating yet, so far as I know) about what it was like to grow up in the 1980’s.

I’m thinking of sitting on a friend so that he didn’t punch in the face of a professor who said we deserved it. I’m thinking of Jon Stewart angry on the television, and realizing I wasn’t angry and suddenly unsure of whether I’d ever had an actual opinion in my whole life.

Wanting to make work that stops. Wanting to make work that moves. A bubbling under the skin and no where to put it. Eyes that itch and can’t sleep because the television is on and there might be news, so you watch.

Writing to say I am present, here, and thinking about it today.

-Rachel

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Dispatches from the British Press

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a fast and furious, crowded and amazing haboob of theatre and live performance of all varieties.  There are, literally, 2,500 acts ranging from stand-up comedy to modern dance, bagpipe rock groups to sword swallowers.  And of course, theatre ranging from highly compelling nearly wordless solo shows to (several) productions of Nunsense The Musical to Shakespeare and everything in between.

For the casual Fringe attendee, it can be daunting.  More than likely, it feels, the show with the catchy title and interesting postcard graphics that you’re considering seeing this afternoon because they’re aggressively papering the house in an effort to convince reviewers that it is already popular and well liked so get on the right side of history–is going to be a painful way to spend a seemingly endless hour and ten minutes. But there are gems out there.  You know there are.  You have friends who have seen them.  Or you’ve heard about them in the international press, or perhaps even caught one in it’s post-Fringe afterlife courtesy of a gem-hunting theatre producer.  But where are they?  They could be anywhere.

And thus there arose such a demand for reviews and other wheat-from-chaff sorting mechanisms that a reasonably well covered show running the duration of the festival might walk away from Edinburgh with a dozen or two published opinions of their hard work.  Because there are in fact dozens of organizations, newspapers, magazines, websites, bloggers, leaflets, etc., who are in the business of trying to help a choice-weary public fill their afternoons with fringe fair.  But now, of course, instead of having 2,500 shows to choose from, the casual observer may have 10,000 reviews to sort through.  If only there was some further level of filtration, some triple-distilled extra-smooth way of learning what, at the end of the doggone day, is worth seeing…

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me, your humble TEAM blog, to be of service:

Mission Drift review in London’s Daily Telegraph

Mission Drift review in London’s The Guardian

Mission Drift review in Scotland’s (Glasgow’s) The Herald (MD starts five paragraphs down)

If you are hungry for more reviews of Mission Drift or other Fringe fare, the printing presses and the internets are your oysters.  More postings and filtrations will live here as they come in, and of course there is always the “Press” section of this very website with a perhaps more complete list of things people have written.

Happy Hunting!

the TEAM

Blast from the (recent) past!

When we were in Las Vegas last summer, Libby and I conducted a short series of interviews – with each other – about our experiences there.  The idea was to do this periodically so that we could have a running commentary of the evolution of our impressions over the month that we were there.  And also to upload them to the internet in some form so that people could track our tomfoolery along with us.  In listening to them now, a few salient points emerge:

  •  We don’t really know what a podcast is.
  •  Podcasts are fun.  We will need to do more of these.
  •  Both of us, separately and on different days, ate corn dogs.

And with no further ado, please enjoy the first three TEAM podcasts!

bh

Brian interviews Libby, Las Vegas, early June 2010

Libby interviews Brian, Las Vegas, early June 2010

Libby and Brian at the Grand Canyon

 

Sardines: A First

I have had many firsts working with the group of misfits commonly known as The TEAM. I broke another person’s bone for the first time in a TEAM rehearsal.  I performed as a professional actor on an international stage for the first time with The TEAM.  And then we went to Las Vegas for a month together and I conquered a number of personal firsts including: my first visit to Las Vegas!, my first trip to a casino, my first time gambling for higher stakes than nickel-ante kitchen table poker, my first (and only) can of FourLoko,  my first non-ironic uttering of “it’s hot, but it’s a dry heat”, and my first visit to a strip club (The Library, it was called. It contained shockingly few librarians sexy or otherwise), as well as a few other firsts that I shan’t mention here due to the limits of propriety/legality.

And now as promised, here is the Sardine Post: the photo- and video-documented experience of a boy who grew up 18 years landlocked sampling his first ever tin of sardines.

This is not a cigarette shop. It's a seafood-in-cans shop.

Sardines! Octopus! Tuna! Mussels! All in tins and ready to eat!

Given the stakes of this adventure, I knew it was important to give myself every advantage.  The sardines were purchased at a sardine specialty shop in what appears to be the sardine capital of the world—Lisbon, Portugal.

After exploring the various styles of tinned sardines – smoked!; with lemon!; with tomato!; with spicy tomato! – I decided on a pack of whole sardines nestled in good old dependable olive oil.  Once purchased, the guardians of sardine culture carefully wrapped my new prize in a lovely themed paper and tied it off with a bow.  They did this not because a gift, but as if to suggest that any opportunity to enjoy sardines or other ugly tinned aquatic life was in itself a gift, an occasion to be celebrated by eating some sardines.

Sardines in their native habitat, a gift-wrapped tin.

Libby also had some knowledge to lend, a recent initiate into the world of sardine enjoyment herself. On the big day, she assembled for me all the necessary accoutrements – freshly sliced bread, a metric ton of lemon slices for squeezing atop the slimy bastards, and a small pile of sea salt in case there wasn’t enough ocean left in their fishy little bodies.

The result?  Aside from one mid-chew surprise, thumbs up all around.  But don’t take my word for it from the calm, cold light of the day after.  Please enjoy this new and improved video, artfully shot and sound mixed by Mikaal Sulaiman, in the living room of our flat in Edinburgh.

bh


Sardines! w/ music! from Brian Hastert on Vimeo.

Mission Drift homework

One of the observations commonly made about the TEAM’s work is that there are a lot of ideas at play in our plays. A review of Mission Drift in Portugal’s Público called it “an intelligent, urgent, cerebral show”, which suits us just fine!  After all, the mission of the company is to ‘dissect and celebrate the experience of living in America today’, and that experience is, as any waking American might tell you, a complex one.  The job we are attempting to do is take what can seem like an inchoate mass of theoretical, historical, and editorial ideas, wrap our arms around them, root them in the hearts and pursuits of humans, add a dash or three of pizzazz for the stage and make it a play.

This is a post about the first part of the process (although it continues throughout, to be sure).  For any TEAM project, once we have selected the larger intellectual/experiential sphere in which we’ll be partying for the next 1-3 years of development (i.e., “What’s the deal with American-style capitalism?”), we put ourselves through a kind of immersion therapy in and around that subject.  So for Mission Drift we essentially had two arenas ripe for research: Economics and Westerns.  We read classic texts of economic theories, we organized lectures on the finer points of the mortgage-backed securities crisis, watched documentaries about corporate influence and malfeasance, and listened to hundreds of hours of economics podcasts.  And on the other hand we watched westerns!  And read them.  And read books about them.  And histories of The West.  And theories about the mythological underpinnings inherent in stories of “The West”.  And so on.  The shared bibliography of influences for Mission Drift contains dozens and dozens of essays, articles, books, and movies consumed by one, some, or all of us.

I know the classic axiom of writing is “write what you know”.  And I get that I think.  But for me half the fun of writing new theatre in this way is to tackle something truly huge and perhaps unknowable, learn as much as I can along the way, and then wrestle with what we find.

How much of what we read, watch, or otherwise absorb winds up in our play?  Hmm, hard to say.  The slightly cheeky answer is all of it, right?  It’s all in there somewhere, in the bones of the people directing, designing, and performing.  Can I point to the lines that were inspired by Cormac McCarthy or Adam Smith?  Surprisingly sometimes yes, for instance the moment where Catalina renames Joris “The Wealth of Nations” is probably in some distant way related to Adam Smith, but a lot of times it’s just about giving us the confidence to weave a tighter dramatic fabric, and when we come across a tear know that there’s a lot more material around to look to.

And here’s a collage of a small number of titles from that bibliography that took an embarrassingly long time to photoshop together.

bh

Lisbon

First things first, please note the jaw-dropping view from the tiny balcony behind one of our apartments in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon.

The view of the river from our back terrace in Lisbon.

Second, Lisbon has the most amazing sardines anywhere. Third, WE SOLD OUT OUR THREE DAY RUN AT CULTURGEST! Mission Drift is a go!

The audiences have been exceptionally gracious and wonderful here. The language barrier has not proven to be any impediment to these crowds. The folks who speak English as a second or third language have said that they followed very easily, and others indicated that the humanity of the story was plenty clear, but they always had the supertitles if they needed them.

The feedback from the audiences has been truly gratifying and inspiring. A woman thanked me after the show for the experience, and for giving her so much to think about. When I asked what kinds of things, she said we helped her understand something about America, about who America is in the world today. And there is of course the fantastic twist that has us performing a play about capitalism in a theatre that is housed entirely within a big, beautiful bank, the Caixa Geral.

And of course it just feels great to be finding the rhythm of these characters, these journeys, and this play. Musical. Play with music. We are learning more everyday about this thing that we’ve created. One more performance to go this evening, and then tomorrow we pack up and take the train to beautiful Coimbra!

More updates to come as our internet access hopefully improves at the next stop. And keep your eyes peeled for the future blog post detailing and photo-documenting the truly gourmet sardine experience.

bh