Musings on my Upstate experience so far…

Since coming to work at Upstate Theatre Project I have had the opportunity to come into contact with several brilliant community-engaged artists and practitioners, and I have been able to work very closely with Delcan Mallon, co-founder and Artistic Director of Upstate. I have been immensely inspired by these people. What is more is that I have been able to dialogue about the work that is happening; the inspirational stories, the setbacks, the planning, archiving. I’ve also been able to see the differences in how projects are funded in Ireland, as well as how individual artists support themselves.
The most significant thing that has stuck out to me is just how integrated with the community Upstate is. This is not only a company that invites participants from the community to take part in creating work. The company doesn’t work one way. Since being here I have observed Declan taking an active part in the community. He (and I) attend meetings with a group called Culture Connect, who are dedicated to bridging connections between immigrants and the Irish people. In the three weeks I’ve been here we have also supported launching events for other arts organizations, as well as community centers, and fundraisers for local youth centers. This experience has just fully made me realize that working in community-engaged theatre is not about just engaging with the community for the purposes of making art, but about engaging with the community in every way – this is especially true for a company that is based in one place. However, the artists from Dublin that come down to facilitate/direct for Upstate have also become intertwined in this community, despite the fact that they do not live here. It makes me think about just how strong the bonds and connections that are made during the process of creating art are. I feel like it isn’t really such a bad thing that I become so fond of the people I work with and grow to care about them so much. Looking at the examples I have seen in the past three weeks, I feel like it can only lead me to be a stronger practitioner in this field.
Last week we had a meeting with Louise Lowe. She has been highly recognized for her work, and luckily, she works with Upstate quite a bit. The meeting was concerning the project she is going to work on for the upcoming season. The theme is going to be “home” and the initial concept was that it would be a piece for females only. What was interesting during this meeting was all of the considerations that were coming into play. Declan is very excited about site-specific projects and has been wanting to do a piece in the “ghost properties” that were built during the Celtic Tiger and now stand empty because the economy just dropped. He was in talks about getting access to an apartment building, however, Louise was concerned that there may be people in the community that would be highly disturbed, and was that something the company wanted to contend with? Apparently there were many people who had paid deposits on that building of 25,000 euro who lost all their money and were never able to move into their homes. How would they feel if suddenly a theatre company had access to the apartment they paid for and never got to move into? How would that change/shape the piece? Additionally, due to the economy and men being out of work in the construction industry, more men are staying at home and fulfilling the traditional “female” role in the family. How does that change the piece? This meeting lasted for several hours and it was conversation like this going around. Such exciting ideas, considerations. It really brought to light the delicacy of this work; that you really must take care because peoples’ lives are impacted and their feelings must be considered. It also brings to light questions of just how “political” you want to be with a project.
In the past 2-3 days I have spent time viewing and editing footage from precious Upstate productions, interviews with the participants from various productions, and footage of the rehearsals. Time and again, the participants state the significance this experience has had on their lives. Many state their shared ownership of the pieces with their fellow participants and speak to the power of finding their creativity and how important it is that they are heard. Its inspiring beyond words. A great, and amazing side-effect of this kind of work are the bonds and the communities that are built during the process. This is done over a long period of time through a series of workshops. Something that keeps sticking out to me though is participants acknowledging and being grateful for this newfound community, but then saying that they thought too much time was spent in workshopping, “playing games to get to know each other better.” Isn’t that interesting? However, if you take that away, you are taking away the community-building…which is a side-effect appreciated and valued by all. Despite going through an amazing process with a group of people, it seems that the end-product is what becomes the most important…atleast during the time of the interviews (which have all been right after the production). I wonder if perhaps these people were interviewed years later, they might speak more about the importance of the process…certainly they would have more memories of it. …just a thought…of course, I am biased. I have ALWAYS loved the process of making art more than the actual performance. Even as a child it was the process I loved most and now, remember most…growing in an art with others, others who became friends….some of the dearest I have…playing and experimenting with the art form…it makes me sad that somehow this beautiful process has simply become a race to get to an end-product – as if that is all that matters…just as in life…people seem to be rushing through everything, and while doing so, life is passing them by.


Kindur: The Adventurous Life of Icelandic Sheep

Still from Kindur

I had the wonderful opportunity today to attend a performance of Kindur: The Adventurous Life of Icelandic Sheep by TPO Company of Italy. It was encouraged that I go to see it because it was an example of TYA…and seeing as my degree emphasis is TYA….the logic goes to follow…the show was recommended for ages 5 and up.
When I walked into the theatre space, it was a conventional proscenium stage space. The stage was bare except for a white mat taking up most of the floor space and a curved, white freestanding backdrop. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the performance, but had heard and read good things about it. After experiencing a performance, I am definitely a fan and am amazed by the artistry that is being presented to and for the youth here.
All in all there were about 3 lines of narrative text in the very beginning of the performance. After that, there was no dialogue. Everything was relayed through dance, movement, music, and visuals. Upon entering the space, each child was given a small heart that resembled sheeps wool to pin to their shirts. When the actors entered the space, they were wearing these same hearts. As each actor/sheep entered the space, they began to interact with beautiful projections that were displayed on the floor and the backdrop behind them. At one point, everything went dark and their hearts began to glow…I then realized that ALL the hearts that had been given out to the audience were glowing too! Throughout the piece there was a large amount of engagement with the audience. The actors came out into the audience, welcomed children onto the stage with them to interact and explore the world, the audience was asked to respond physically and verbally to the piece…it was incredible. Each movement and image, each moment was so inherently interesting…I could see and feel the children around me leaning forward, eager to find out what would happen next. Interestingly, there were several moments of frozen silence…and even then, I would venture to say that the performers didn’t lose anyone’s interest.
What was interesting about the performance also was watching how the children engaged with the performers and projections on stage – and how the show seemed to adapt and react to what the children were bringing to it. The show itself was extremely responsive to the group, leading me to believe that although these sheep go to the same places in every show, each journey is very different and unique to the audience that is experiencing it.
A very cool technical aspect of the production was that there was some sort of sensory camera that detected the actors and audience’s movement and would create images on the screens correspondingly…I know that I am not describing this accurately enough, but it was incredible to watch – and another way of engaging the audience, especially those who didn’t feel comfortable heading up to the stage.
As I think back on this experience…and I have truly not had another like it, I wonder why it is that I HAVEN’T seen anything like this in the US yet? What is it that we are scared of? There are a lot of theories running around in my mind…but…I will save that for a later discussion and simply revel in the delight that was this performance! I found a clip on youtube that I will share in this post that will hopefully show some of what I have been describing:

what was knocking around in my head last night…

When I was asked two years ago what my thoughts on devised theatre were, my eyes widened and my head began to shake from side to side to indicate my complete lack of knowledge in this field – or so I thought. As I have learned more about this illusive term I now understand that I instinctively understood what it was and how it worked, in fact, I had been doing it for a long time…only, no one told me that it had a fancy title. With that said, how do we define it? It is an idea, it is a way of working that allows for so much freedom that no two processes are the same. Process. That is one thing that all devised performances have in common; there is an equal (if not greater) emphasis on process as there is on the product. What else then helps to define and shape what devised theatre is? Another common factor is that it is always a group of people coming together to share ideas. Collaboration is a key factor in devised performance; the idea of a collective genius as opposed to the individual artist savant that is often seen in more tradition forms of theatre in the roles of the playwright and director. Devised performance also usually draws from multiple art forms for inspiration, although this is not a hard and fast rule. Utilizing these nontraditional means of creating, another common factor that all devised pieces share is that the end-product is unknown. Until the group arrives at the “end” together, the final product is in flux and is open to change, which is an exciting and scary aspect to devised performance. At the current moment I am racking my brain for more, but am just about to head off to sleep. Tomorrow I start my first day of internship at Upstate Theatre Project…this summer promises to be very enlightening and I can’t wait to take in all that this amazing company and group of people have to offer!