This is the third post in a series of guest blogs about our upcoming production, The Ravagers, which will be presented at Tarnish and Gold on March 4th and 5th. See the first post by playwright Blake E. Bolan here and the second post by director Sarah Teich here.
Today's entry is from Rachel Nelson, an actor, Savage Umbrella member, and participant in the US workshops.
"So for this next exercise, I want you guys to improv a wedding night. Here's the twist: the woman is supposed to kill the man. He's supposed to rape her. Who knows what actually happens, but start there. Got it? Ok, let's get started." Welcome to your first rehearsal of The Ravagers.
This kind of stuff isn't exactly easy improv, especially with a room full of people who just met each other. In my relatively short time working with Savage Umbrella, I've figured out this is just how they do things round these parts: intense, straight to the point, and full of risks.
I find my partner, and we retire to the corner. We start talking about The Suppliants, the Greek myth this scene is pulled from. This leads to a conversation about relationships, about power, about submission, about intimate propaganda. It's an odd sensation to discuss these kinds of hot button issues two minutes after shaking hands. In a culture obsessed with boundaries, there is something intensely cathartic about this kind of conversation with strangers. There's a kind of relief in just letting intimacy not be weird.
As I write this, the members of Savage Umbrella are trying to hash out our mission statement, and the conversations around that process have made me realize that this sense of intelligent and relevant risk-taking is at the heart of how many of the company members think about theater-making. Our world is changing constantly: reality is being renegotiated and altered every time we turn on the TV, fight with a loved one, lose a parent, move to another city, and the list goes on and on. Increasingly, we are part of a global awareness, a tangled web of identities that leaves easy conclusions in the dust.
"An artist can show things other people are terrified of expressing," wrote Louise Bourgeois. No shit. The Ravagers is a perfect example of this: we are making a play about everything that I've always been terrified to directly address in personal relationships. There is something powerful about that. Even this early in the process, I find myself returning again and again to the concept of catharsis. A cleansing. A dramatic change in emotion. A purification.
In order for theater to to serve as an active discussion and response to the world, we have to be willing to redesign the format, to find new ways of making meaning. For Savage Umbrella, this means a lot of talking. It means a lot of reading. It means a lot of challenging (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoints. It means reexamining the hierarchy of theater companies. And sometimes, it means improvising your way through a doomed wedding night with a complete stranger.
So eventually everybody gets up and does their scenes. Many of them are excruciatingly intense: this is every kind of subject matter that is theatrically stomach turning. Beautiful moments and ideas are exposed, dutifully noted and recorded to send to Blake in South Korea to eventually (maybe) find their way into our final script. Eventually, a couple scenes emerge that are funny. There isn't any way to improv sex without it eventually getting hilarious. This room full of semi-strangers rolls around laughing for a while, and I'm reminded how cathartic that can be. There it is again: this idea of release, of changing the emotional status quo. Maybe it's possible that the theater of the future isn't just radical and emotionally wrenching and raw: maybe it's full of laughter. Maybe sometimes, it's just really, really funny.
This is the second in a series of posts about our upcoming show, The Ravagers, which will be presented on March 4th and 5th. Today’s post is from Sarah Teich, the director of the US cast.
It’s 7:30 in the morning. Admittedly, it’s not the crack of dawn, but I definitely sound groggier than the energized voice coming out of the computer. Then again, it’s 10:30pm in Seoul, so Blake’s day is wrapping up as mine is beginning. I try to sip my tea faster in order to get my brain up to speed, but the excitement of collaborating internationally with an innovative and talented writer seeps in quicker than the tea, and we’re off to the races.
My early morning Skype companion is Blake Bolan, who is currently living and teaching in Seoul, South Korea. She is deep in development on a piece titled THE RAVAGERS (for better-written-than-mine details on the origins of the piece, read her blog post here). THE RAVAGERS will be a full-blown production in Minneapolis this fall, and Blake is in the throes of generating material for her script. I am on board to help with this process, from over 6,000 miles away.
I fell in love with Blake’s work here in the Twin Cities at Bedlam’s 10-Minute Play Festival in 2008. I loved the sense of streamlined simplicity in her work that also had this capacity to arouse complex emotions. We worked as collaborators the following year for a Fringe show, LOVE ME OR DIE!; she as a writer and I as a performer. I found the process unique and invigorating – we all worked from the same source material, generated a variety of ideas, and she cultivated scenes and characters that were rooted in our findings as an ensemble.
Her process for THE RAVAGERS is similar, but with a twist (like a good drink, yeah?). There are workshops happening in Seoul and Minneapolis throughout the month of February. We are both using Aeschylus’ THE SUPPLIANTS as source material, with the politics of North Korea and South Korea informing the narrative. Each week, Blake brainstorms what material she wants to work on (ex: What is the backstory of the rift between these brothers? Is there an early-on romance that we see develop between two characters? What do the daughters dream about? What would be a terrifying quality that 50 brothers could possess?), and divides it between the two groups. We each work with our talented cadre of brave and creative actors, and then discuss our findings.
I am amazed by all the barriers that are instantly removed by technology. Workshops are documented in three ways – notes, photos, and video. At no cost (and who doesn’t love free?), everything is uploaded online, and we can basically sit in on what the other workshop group worked on, discussed, and created. Sometimes it’s actors pairing off and creating a scene through improv, other times it’s a larger scene living in Blake’s head that is staged. Sometimes it’s just sitting and discussing characters and plot points. Notes taken from these discussions are uploaded to Google Docs, and everyone is instantly on the same page (no pun intended).
It has been so informative seeing the work they are doing in Seoul; at our rehearsals we are able to take some of their ideas and build off of them, even though they workshopped those ideas across the country 14 hours earlier.
I am lucky to be working with an insanely skillful and inventive team of actors here in the Twin Cities, who show up every Sunday night ready to dive into whatever material is given to them that evening. They have been instrumental in bringing this story to life. We’ve had some great brainstorming sessions generating materials and questions, and now will be focusing on areas we want to bring to an audience.
We are really looking forward to sharing our work with a new group of people. We will be at Tarnish and Gold Gallery in NE Minneapolis at 8pm on March 4th and March 5th. Please come and give your feedback – we’ll even throw in some food and wine! Blake will be joining us as well, through the power of the Internet.
Let’s get Ravaged, y’all!
This is the first in a series of posts about our upcoming show, The Ravagers, which will be presented on March 4th and 5th. Today's post is from Blake E. Bolan, the playwright and a founding member of Savage Umbrella.
So, here I am in South Korea. It was my initial intention to stay here for a year, teach kids, pay some bills, and see what it was like not to do theater for awhile. It had been about 12 years since I had taken any kind of extended break from making theater - I can count the number of weeks I didn’t have a project on my plate on one hand. Being consumed by theater for all of that time made me think that I couldn’t get a good perspective on what I loved about it, what my desires are all about. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a performer, a writer, a director, an administrator. I didn’t know what it would be like to have my evenings completely wide and free, no all-consuming extra-curricular activity detailing every moment not spent at work or asleep. I wanted to see how other people live - hobbies, dates, television. So, I went to the other side of the globe with no intention of connecting with theater other than perhaps viewing it if the opportunity arose.
Can you guess how that experiment ended up? On one hand, I began to enjoy life in Korea more than I ever thought I would - the people, the FOOD (get yourself to a Korean restaurant as fast as you can and order … pretty much anything), the work, the living. On the other hand, it took me all of 3 months to know, once and for all, how much theater is an integral part of my life. The chance to look both farther outside myself than I am wont to do on any given day and also inside myself to the deepest regions. The sense of ownership in making something that really exists in this world. The delight of doing something that is fleeting and potentially interesting, funny, beautiful. The community that is built between the people who work on a project, and also with the people who take time out of their lives to experience what you’ve created, whatever their experience ends up being. Yes. Yes. YES.
I learned in those months whiling away the hours watching NCIS and eating too much fried Korean meat that every inconvenience, every frustration, every moment spent grumpily in a tech rehearsal really has been worth it. My sense of self is built upon my involvement in the theater, and I am reticent to imagine the self that I would have built without it. I am glad for the person that theater has helped me to become. It has taught me to appreciate the world at every turn - from dance to philosophy to the elocution of Korean 1st graders.
So, what does that have to do with The Ravagers? Once the lightbulb reached full brightness and I was ready to fully embrace the theater once again, I knew it was time to end my hiatus from Savage Umbrella. So, how does one get started working with their company again if they’ve just signed a contract to stay another year on a peninsula with 14 hour time difference to Minneapolis? She works with her cohorts to develop a long-term plan.
So, we decided I would write a show that I would direct in the 2011-2012 Savage Umbrella season. We had some discussions about how long the writing process would take, and what material I would be working from. I previously developed a short piece for the Minneapolis Pinter Studies based on the myth of Oedipus, and Laura and I talked about expanding that work. That got us talking about Greek plays, and Greek myths, and we realized that revitalizing an ancient play would be an excellent addition to the Savage Umbrella repertoire. We left Oedipus for another season, but landed on The Suppliants, the first known Greek play. It’s part of a trilogy, but while the entire myth survives, the text doesn’t. 50 brides, 50 grooms, and a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of room for exploration.
With that in our minds, a few days later, Laura asked me, “What’s the first thing that comes into your mind in connection with the play?” And I said, “The Chinese actors North Korea hired to be fans during the World Cup.” I think we were both puzzled by that for a bit, but as we discussed this connection gained some momentum. The 50 brides of The Suppliants act under the direction of their father at every turn, from begging for mercy from the people of Argos to entering into wedlock with the instruction to murder their husbands on their wedding night. They follow each and every edict set out by their father, who rules them and later rules Argos, their nation of refuge. All but one woman never waver, never question their father’s guidance. So, how can that be? How can you build a family of 50 daughters, no sons, no mothers in sight, and know that they will obey you?
Right here, right now, in my close geographic proximity lies the most secretive nation in the modern world. And there are similar questions. How does a father-figure leader cultivate the unwavering devotion of his country? How does a man convince the people of his nation to accept the assistance of others but to believe they are the only truly good, clean, pure people on the Earth? How far can charisma and a sense of filiall duty take an entire nation, an entire race?
Right now, Savage Umbrella is embracing the distance between playwright and company and embarking on an international collaboration. The idea for simultaneous workshops developed in order to engage artists in both my community here in Seoul and the community in Minneapolis with the questions of the play, the questions of politics, and the questions that arise in between. It’s just beginning, and it’s already one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on. There’s so much to explore, and there are amazing people on both ends diving in. Let me tell you, this is how to make a play.
This is what I was missing.