Alex Ates speaks with Whit MacLaughlin—the experimental theatermaker who ventured into the online realm before it became our norm—about the intersection between digital technology and live performance and pedagogy.
On March 12th, the 2019-2020 R&D Group was scheduled to meet at ART/NY’s midtown studios. I’d met twice before with this wildly inspiring group of writers, composers, and directors to explore their investigative theatre adventures since the beginning of the year. The Group had met throughout the latter half of 2019 with gifted curator and dramaturg, and previous R&D Group Director, Megan McClain. Even as I prepped Purell and individually wrapped snacks, we were all asking the same question: should we meet? SXSW had announced their cancelation on March 6th, Italy had just gone into a nationwide lockdown, the NBA cancelled its season the night before, and we’d all heard rumblings of limitations on gatherings here.
So that afternoon, we collectively made the decision to move our meeting to Zoom. It was the first of what would become, for many of us, our only source of connection to collaborators, friends, and family outside of our homes.
Following a routine check-in that inexorably took on a very different tone, we started to fall into an unnaturally natural rhythm. Crystal and Gaby shared material from their developing musical. We stepped into roles to read new pages, listened to a recording of Gaby singing newly arranged verbatim lyrics, asked questions, and gave feedback. After a day of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, our shoulders dropped. We shifted our focus away from the news. We gave our systems a chance to rest. We temporarily turned our attention to another time and shifted our energies toward – well – other problems, other stories, and each other. We found comfort in community.
This is a form of privilege. As upending, scary, and disorienting as all of this is, we’re in our homes. We’re finding ways to connect and create, even if just in spurts. Over our meetings since this all began, our initial check-ins have included (in addition to baking discoveries, rockstar students, and a rescue puppy) raw and honest evaluations of ethical invitation. Grief is nonlinear, and folks’ needs in response to grief reflect that. Everyone grieves differently, at their own pace, in their own ways.
How do we invite people into collaboration while making space for how they’re doing, especially if that might change at any moment? Though creative expression is uniquely challenging right now, the shared deadlines can be a welcome motivator. Though it’s impossible to fully turn off what’s happening through our windows, turning our attention to stories “with teeth,” as Darrel put it, and to the questions that otherwise drive us, can be reinvigorating. The cared-for sharing of deeply investigated stories is an act of love. Momentum is a sign of life. And community, as it always is with what we do, is a balm.
Every year, The Civilians’ R&D Group FINDINGS Series closes out the season. It’s a celebration of the discoveries these investigative artists have made, individually and as a collective, over the nine-month residency. Five of our six projects will be taking their findings-in-progress online. Once we can gather in person again we look forward to presenting the sixth, a wholly immersive and interactive experience.
From late May through mid-June, we’ll virtually present five thrilling, developing projects that share a common thread about how humanity perseveres and seeks out joy through adversity. These projects confront long-standing systems and challenge unconscious bias with empathy and humor. Their generative artists are compassionate, curious, vigilant creative warriors. If you’re able to and so inclined, we invite you to come as you are in your experience of this crisis and meet these pieces where they are in their many stages of exploration.
First up is Drown My Book by Matt Barbot. In 2010, Arizona House Bill 2281 banned Mexican Studies programs in the Tucson Unified School District by making it illegal to teach classes that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” and – dubiously – “promote the overthrow of the United States government.” A number of books were outright confiscated from classrooms, but one text confusingly caught in the crossfire was William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which touches on themes of colonization, indigeneity, and enslavement. Matt’s layered, wildly witty and charming play borrows and remixes words found in legal documents, public statements, interviews, and Shakespeare’s plays to tell an original story of high school resistance. R&D Group member Kathleen Capdesuñer thoughtfully directs a process initially intended to include devised work. Drown My Book will present on May 29th at 7pm. RSVP here.
Next is Candidate X, which explores the experiences of women-identifying people running for office in America. Created and directed by Ripe Time’s Rachel Dickstein, “Candidate X” is a dynamic cross between documentary theatre, dance, and eventually immersive spectacle. Thanks to its intuitive creator and her collaborators, composer Kamala Sankaram and playwright Aisha Zia, the shape of the piece has continued to shift with circumstances. We invite you to an open rehearsal exploration of this piece that celebrates the risk-takers who challenge the divisive politics and expectations of gender and leadership. Candidate X will present on June 5th at 3pm. RSVP here.
Crystal Skillman and Gaby Alter’s This Show Is Money is an ensemble musical exploring how our choices with the fictional creation called “Money” affects those around us. Written from interviews with people with a range of class backgrounds and financial experiences – from Wall Street traders to those in the Occupy movement, to those who work in the service industries, and those who benefit from the illusion of being wealthy in a get-rich society – this new piece asks: What is profit? Who profits and from what and how? And can the concepts of justice and money co-exist? It actively acknowledges money as a system of trust and wonders what can happen if we see those connections. Can we change? With gut-sticking music that lovingly honors its subjects’ cadences, this increasingly prescient musical has been both a delight and almost unsettling to witness grow over time in its exploration of America’s love affair with money. This Show Is Money will present on June 15th at 8pm. RSVP here.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes calls on his background in ethnographic research to weave interviews into original text within an adventure game journey for AFRIKAN•ISCH. From refugee and immigrant narratives to native-born stories, AFRIKAN•ISCH presents a rich tapestry of theatrical narratives created from ethnographic interviews conducted within Black communities in Berlin, Germany. One interview partner in particular inspired the exploratory path of a biracial, neurodiverse experience. What’s emerging is an epic interactive narrative laced in humor, candor, and a keen eye on how we represent others’ perspectives. Black Feminist Video Game, a play in the AFRIKAN•ISCH play cycle, will present on June 24th at 7pm.RSVP here.
Finally, Kate Douglas and Grace McLean’sAgainst Women & Music! is an exquisitely fun and twisted anachronistic chamber musical that explores the 19th Century perception that music was dangerous for women to play – or even hear. Through an aesthetic of dry politeness and absurdity, and with its wholly unique sound, the deeply researched Against Women & Music! delves into the entanglement of morality and order with women’s bodily autonomy. R&D Group member Whitney Mosery carefully guides the process. Against Women and Music! will present on June 29th at 3pm. RSVP here.
When we can gather in person again, Jason Tseng’s Sanctuary (working title) will immerse us in an investigation of the role citizens can and should play in the inhumane immigration detention and deportation system. Through interviews with volunteers and staff of the New Sanctuary Coalition, amongst others, Jason’s work on this piece had been increasingly driven by the sense of the power of being a witness. R&D Group member Michael Alvarez, who has a varied background in immersive and site-specific theatre, will collaborate as director.
Keep an eye out for more Extended Play pieces for a closer look at these artists’ investigative processes and methodologies. We’ll be sharing blog entries from each of our R&D Group members every week leading up to the Series.
We so look forward to sharing these projects with you. All readings will be free and will require a reservation. To RSVP to the Findings Series, visit https://bit.ly/CiviliansFindingsRSVP.
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Apply for the 2020-21 R&D Group
If you are a project creator or director, we encourage you to apply for next season’s R&D Group. Applications will open mid-May and will be due June 29th.