Back to the Work: Tom Bouckaert

Back to the Work, our project with Lippitt House Museum, aims to reveal the human fingerprints that cover our world, specifically because of work concerning construction (read: houses), manufacturing (read: textiles), and maintenance (read: cleaning). We are also connecting the past to the present by revealing history to be the accumulation of practices that have brought us here, rather than a tidy timeline of isolated events. In order to do all that, we're both researching who labored in the house at the time of its construction in 1865, and interviewing the people who labor in Lippitt House today. 

On Monday we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Tom Bouckaert, Vice President at Bouckaert Industrial Textiles. We found Tom through Ann Conway, the Director of the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, which honors the industrial history of Woonsocket, historically centered in the French Canadian culture. (For more on the Museum and our interest in it, you can read an older blog post here.)

We met with Tom on a Monday afternoon in the Museum, which is closed on Mondays, allowing us to have a cozy chat in the display of a classic triple decker.

Tom spent years on the floor of textile mills -- first his father's in Chicago and eventually his own in Woonsocket. Along the way he teamed up with Northwest Woolen Mill, which is one of the last textile mill in Rhode Island.

Talking with Tom for this project was a treat. Just like Marie and Dave, Tom is passionate and articulate about his work. He had incredible things to say about listening to the machines, mentoring future generations of American workers, and seeing the textiles -- made by humans! -- everywhere. From dollar bills to Kleenex, textiles are in more places than you can imagine. Though he hasn't officially worked on the floor for a long time, it's clear that his never-ending curiosity about how to improve and tinker and make better these sophisticated pieces of machinery is what keeps him going. Not surprising for a guy who went to school for aerospace engineering. . .

What struck me most in the interview is how specialized our lives are; how expert we become in things if we work at it. Sharing this expertise changes the way I see the objects all around me. I hope we communicate that to all the people who come experience the final product. This built environment was made because of people like Tom who have devoted their lives to the tireless work of figuring out the next solution.

Back to the Work: Marie Alfred

It can feel so good to be ambitious. Three months ago I was sure I was going to write a blog post every week about all the progress we were making on this project -- because indeed, every week we were progressing. 

But alas! Living life and also writing about life is harder than you think. And so, this love overdue blog post details a very important aspect of the work we've been doing on Back to the Work

Should be dated, early December 2017 ish.

Meet Marie

Back to the Work, our project with Lippitt House Museum, aims to reveal the human fingerprints that cover our world, specifically because of work concerning construction, manufacturing, and maintenance. We are also connecting the past to the present by revealing history to be the accumulation of practices that have brought us here, rather than a tidy timeline of isolated events. In order to do all that, we're both researching who labored in the house at the time of its construction in 1865, and interviewing the people who labor in Lippitt House today. 

The woman who cleans Lippitt House Museum is Marie Alfred. She runs her own cleaning business, as well as a dog walking business called Dog Troopers -- which she says you can always remember if you're a Star Wars fan. She's only been cleaning the Museum for about a year. Before that, the small staff took care of the cleaning themselves. When the current director, Carrie, took over she reorganized things a bit and created a staff position who would be in charge of events. Once Lippitt House Museum started hosting events, the clean-up became too much for the staff and there was enough extra income to necessitate hiring Marie and her team. 

 

 

Marie has gotten a reputation for cleaning historic homes specifically. Like Dave Painter, she is self-taught, very passionate and incredibly knowledgable. In our hour-long chat about her work and the house I learned more about what it takes to clean a historic home than I thought possible (Biggest personal take-away: stop using Murphy's Oil). She is ambitious, industrious, and kind, and talked about how she's in the process right now of expanding both of her businesses and hiring more people. In listening back to our conversation, I was hit with the way she described the sensitivity needed in a house like Lippitt; that in older homes you have to take greater care. I'm sure that all of the people she hires next will be trained to be great caretakers of great spaces.

Marie was also gracious enough to agree to lend her voice and perspective to the project, which we'll edit together into something you can hear when you come. Marie isn't someone who craves the spotlight, and so we are extra honored to have her take part, and are sure you're going to learn a lot by listening to her talk about her life and her work. 

A Trip to Tomaquag Museum

It can feel so good to be ambitious. Three months ago I was sure I was going to write a blog post every week about all the progress we were making on this project -- because indeed, every week we were progressing. 

But alas! Living life and also writing about life is harder than you think. And so, this love overdue blog post details a very important aspect of the work we've been doing on Back to the Work

Should be dated, late November 2017 ish.

A Trip to Tomaquag Museum

Following our journies to Slater Mill and Woonsocket we took a trip to Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI. We weren't sure exactly how visiting Tomaquag would inform Back to the Work, but we know that tracing any kind of history on this continent is impossible without first acknowledging how people lived here before colonization. This hold true for investigating material culture and manufacturing. We wanted to be reminded of the kind of manufacturing that was happening in this region for thousands of years before Slater built his mill in Pawtucket.

Tomaquag is a space dedicated to the Indigenous history and present-day lives of the people who have always lived in what we today call Rhode Island. It was the perfect place to learn more.

The interior of the Tomaquag Museum

We happened to choose a Saturday where Tomaquag was showcasing a Narragansett artist, Yolanda "Yani" Smith who was doing a live demo of traditional quillwork. Watching Yani's painstaking work to create beautiful barrettes, baskets, and earrings with porcupine quills put a whole new lens on what it would mean to own something that was made with such human skill and attention to detail. She described how her relatives would gather quills traditionally by throwing a blanket over the porcupine and then collecting the quills, but said the ones she was using were store bought. She also hasn't gotten into hand dying them yet, but is curious.

Yani working at Tomaquag

Some of Yani's work.

Tomaquag is a relatively small, but dense museum and we were lucky that the director Lorén Spears was there that Saturday, and ended up giving us an impromptu tour.

Most notably for this project, Lorén talked about traditional basket-making and what an immense process it is from start to finish. She is a basket-maker herself, but says she usually buys the already-processed raw materials because otherwise she'd have to charge $500 for a basket due to all the extra labor. She said people always want her to say she did all of it -- the harvesting, the color dying, and the weaving -- but that no one wants to pay for that extra work. It's pretty easy to see how we have come to devalue the labor that it takes to make objects because of industrialization. I thought of all the random baskets in my house that random gifts and things appear in. I don't even think about the baskets, but if it took me a week's pay or a month's work to make one I probably would. And if I couldn't have a basket without that kind of labor, I would surely care a lot about the basket I eventually acquired.

And here, just because it's rad, is Lorén with Michelle Obama. 

Back to the Work: Dave Painter

Back to the Work, our project with Lippitt House Museum, aims to reveal the human fingerprints that cover our world, specifically because of work concerning construction, manufacturing, and maintenance. We are also connecting the past to the present by revealing history to be the accumulation of practices that have brought us here, rather than a tidy timeline of isolated events. In order to do all that, we're both researching who labored in the house at the time of its construction in 1865, and interviewing the people who labor in Lippitt House today. 

Lippitt House Museum is cared for by an incredible artisan named Dave Painter*. While he is currently transitioning from being the resident restoration specialist and do-er of all things that need doing to the Property Manager for Preserve RI, he still has plenty to offer about what makes Lippitt House so special. 

We met with Dave a few weeks ago to see if he might like to be involved in the project. We were delighted to discover a kindred spirit full of passion, and got to work scheduling our official interview. Last week Jed, Andy our sound and video designer, and I recorded an hour-long conversation with Dave while sitting in the Lippitt House library. Dave's passion for old buildings and for the artistic skill it took to build them and that it takes to maintain them is contagious. 

We wish we could share the entire conversation, but in the end, Andy will edit the whole chat down to about 10 minutes for visitors to hear. Maybe we'll be able to release some of Dave's other stories eventually. I especially love hearing him talk about the importance of old windows, why you should paint your ceilings a color other than white, and the sled he restored as a kid in rural PA. I'm sure you'll love hearing those stories too.

 

*Dave Painter got his name because of years working on construction sites with many guys named Dave. There was Dave the Carpenter, Dave the Electrician, etc. Our Dave was always Dave the Painter. When he arrived at Preserve RI, they decided to drop the "the" and just call him Dave Painter.

A Trip to Slater Mill

Back to the Work, our upcoming project with Lippitt House Museum, is sending us on a wild chase around Rhode Island, discovering the path of industrialization. Last weekend we took an incredible tour of Slater Mill in Pawtucket, which as their website says is "recognized internationally as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution." The tour was an in-depth look at the journey Samuel Slater took in his lifetime from frustrated English would-be entrepreneur to inventor of a factory system that changed the way our country and the world did basically everything. 

What follows is a photo and video essay of the tour, led by the wonderful Dee Gustafson. By the end, Jed and I were pretty convinced that the Industrial Revolution didn't actually save any human energy. It just put the energy into different places.

A Trip to Woonsocket

On Saturday Jed and I met up with our friend and collaborator Emily at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, RI. We were on a path of discovery to learn more about the people who worked in the Lippitt textile mills in the turn of the 20th century for our upcoming project with Lippitt House Museum, Back to the Work.

The Museum is dedicated to the French Canadians who moved to Woonsocket to work in the mills, and it certainly offered a lot of interesting insights into what the Industrial Revolution meant to everyday life. From the mechanization of work changing literal day to day existence to the changing psyche of moving from a product-driven society where you are paid for something created vs the amount of time spent working, the museum's exhibits gave us a lot to chew on.

Because Back to the Work is about looking at the work that sustained the Lippitt House originally and what that work looks like today, we took advantage of a gorgeous afternoon in Woonsocket after the Museum, and walked down to the building that was the Lippitt Mill. Today it's been converted into a home for low-income seniors.

We found a plaque on the side of the Lippitt Mill (now apartments), but it's been so worn away that we couldn't read it.

It's impossible to walk the streets of Woonsocket and not see the trail of industrialization and then what happens when industry leaves for more profitable pastures. 

This is the back of the Lippitt Mill building. You can see how the low doorway was once a tunnel for the river to move under the mill.

Eventually we grabbed dinner at a Thai restaurant in Woonsocket (that also sells  chicken wings) and talked about what we wanted to do next on our Lippitt trail.

It turned out to be a rural neighborhood surrounding a nature conservancy. Researching later, we discovered that the conservancy was Henry Lippitt's son's farmland which is now surrounded by a subdivision that was built up in the middle of the 20th century.

We decided while the sun was still up to travel to an area on the map we found near Cumberland, RI called "Lippitt Estates."

This Lippitt hunt made the Lippitt Mill in West Warwick irresistible.  It closed in 2010 and is in the process of being converted into something new, and so is boarded up and hard to access -- plus by the time we got there it was dark -- but just driving past it and the twisty streets of West Warwick confirmed our desire to be back next Saturday along with a trip to Slater Mill in Pawtucket

It's hard to say  exactly how all of this will manifest in Back to the Work, but we know that the opportunity to feel these locations in our bodies and glean what we can from the trajectory of industrialization is something that will no doubt inform our multi-sensory installation. We've wondered how to bring this work into that house, and by taking ourselves to the places where the money was made that financed the house, it seems impossible to do anything less.

New and Familiar

The PVD-contingent is digging into a new project with the Lippitt House Museum in Providence, RI. Funded by the RI Council on the Humanities, we are collaborating with this historic home on how to offer an experiential tour that is guided without an expert offering answers or reenactors pretending that the past is present.

There's so much about this project that is asking us to rethink our process -- in part because there are no actors and in part because we are collaborating with a new organization -- but there is still that incredibly familiar feeling of following interest in order to create the work; of deep consideration of our audience's experience; of research into the past resonating with the lives we hope to influence in the future; of leaping into the unknown and realizing that we can do anything because we are the one's making it.

A few mornings ago after a deep visioning session, Jed said, "I always have to remember that the best part of making my own work is that I get to decide what I'm interested in. I can make it about exactly what is obsessing me, no matter what the prompt is." Truer words were never spoken. See you at Lippitt House in the spring of 2018.

The Sea Pageant Happened

More videos and photos will follow, but before the day fades too far from our minds, we wanted to send you an update.

Photo by Stray Creatives

100 performers came from all over the state, and met for the first time in the ballroom at Easton's Beach at 11am. We had only one large group rehearsal, but because of their collective commitment it was as if they'd been practicing together for months.

Photo by Shea'la Finch

Photo by Jeannine Chartier

Our visual artist team executed an incredible sand design while the tides went out, people assembled on the beach to bear witness to the spectacle, the Eastern Medicine Singers kicked off the day, and we began the only public sharing of this vision as the moon eclipsed the sun. The weather was perfect, the sky was clear, and everyone offered the ocean all that we had worked for months to achieve.

After it was over, everyone shared eclipse glasses, jumped in the water, and enjoyed the planetary delights.

And now, we are resting, planning, and taking stock. There are a few ways you can still participate in and/or help The Sea Pageant:

  1. Our documentation team is crowd-sourcing photos and video from the day. We are putting together a book for The Providence Athenaeum, as well as trying to see the day from as many vantages as possible. If you'd like to share anything, please email theseapageant@gmail.com. 
  2. Our crowd-funding campaign hit its goal, but we can keep receiving donations for another month, which will go to cover all those costs that we incurred along the way that we couldn't budget for, like gas mileage, performer snacks, and photo copies. If you would still like to offer this project some funds,  donate here.

  3. Thanks to WRNI for the great preview of The Sea Pageant. We are so glad for our story to be shared with your listeners, and we encourage you to listen here. 

Photo by John Bender

Enjoy the rest of your summer. Be generous. Love and support each other. Never doubt your ability to make our collective experience on this planet one of joy, creativity, fascination, truth, and possibility. 

On Flocking

A major experiment in The Sea Pageant is flocking.

We start every rehearsal with a flocking warm-up. On the day of the show all 100 performers will flock together. Rarely do we talk about what flocking is.

I learned the term flocking in grad school, but was exposed to it in various rehearsal processes before that. It's always been something we speak little about in terms of its technique, but feel a lot about it in terms of its internal centering power. Most people I've worked with recognize flocking as an important way to drop in, connect with your partners, and warm up your body, letting your mind slip away from the driver's seat.

Bringing flocking to The Sea Pageant performers has caused us to challenge our thoughts on how to teach flocking, especially as something to perform. When flocking is a warm-up that you discover, it has a magic edge as you gradually feel what it means rather than understand it. When you turn a warm-up into a performance, you have to ask for something specific, which is the opposite of gradually feeling.

It's hard to describe what we are looking for to the people who are inside of it without destroying it, and so I find myself repeating: listen to each other, take the lead when it's given to you, follow with simplicity, make your partner successful, and seek forward momentum.

If you happen to come to The Sea Pageant, when we get to flocking section, keep in mind that the performers are all improvising. They don't have a plan for which corner to go to or who is leading. You may wonder, how are they doing that? How do they know when to turn? Remember they are listening to each other, making each other successful, moving forward, turning their minds off, and following instinct. I have no idea how it will look, but from the inside I hope they enjoy the ride.

Rehearsing The Sea Pageant

We are deep in rehearsals for The Sea Pageant, and normally at this point in a process we would be spending ~30-40 hours/week in the same room with the same people slowly moving forward, understanding new things about the work. The Sea Pageant is not normal, however, and instead we're going to different places all over the state every day -- most of the time outside -- teaching basically the same thing to a new group of people. In some ways it is very very simple, and in other ways. . . Well, totally not.

In April we held drop-in workshops, which is how we created all of the sequences that are now part of The Sea Pageant. This amounts to: The Slow Sequence, Dry Then Wet (a chant song we don't have recordings of), The Wild Ocean Dance (Group Leaders only), and Crowded in a Dinghy (song and dance). There are also two sections that have to be invented by the performers: Individual Expression, responding to the prompt "Of the shifting of the planet" AND the Group Expression (which is created with no prompts by the group, with the suggestion that it be 1-min long)

In June we enlisted 10 group leaderswho were each tasked with getting 9 other people to join their group, so that eventually we would find 100 people. We asked them to schedule 4-6 rehearsals in total and to decide when and where they would be. There are three lead artists who know the whole piece really well, and are assigned in some combination to each group's rehearsal. As Group Leaders made their schedules, we mapped out our summers, so that at every rehearsal, there's a lead artist with the Group Leader. Together we teach the piece, answer questions, address group-specific needs and creation, and offer a consistent experience. We have a really crazy google doc to keep track of it all. It looks like this:

On August 21, 2017 at 11am all 100 performers will arrive at the ballroom at Easton's Beach. For the first time they will all meet each other and we will have two hours to rehearse together. At 1:30pm everyone will go outside and perform The Sea Pageant on the beach as the solar eclipse starts. There won't be any amplification or music that tells the performers if they're together or not; there aren't any counts to rely on or backstage areas to hide behind if you mess up. If the performance all falls apart, so be it. We keep reminding ourselves that no matter what, The Sea Pageant is actually happening now. It's already a success. August 21 is just the excuse. 

And figuring out what we do August 22, 2017 is the real question. . . 

Your Eclipse Questions Answered

The Sea Pageant is in less than a month. Our one-time-only, one-hundred-person, all-ages, all-abilities unison performance on First Beach in Newport on Aug 21, 2017 during and because of a solar eclipse is nipping at our heels.  Rhode Islanders from many walks of life, are busy rehearsing all over the state, prepping for the big event. . . 

BUT WAIT. WHAT IS A SOLAR ECLIPSE?

  A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun causing a shadow to fall on certain portions of the Earth. 

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun causing a shadow to fall on certain portions of the Earth. 

The last time North America saw a total solar eclipse that stretched from one side of the continent to another was June 8, 1918, crossing from Washington State to Florida. This path is roughly similar to the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, which is why some people are calling this the 99 Year Eclipse.

And if you're thinking, wait a minute! I know I've seen an eclipse before, you are correct. You probably have. There have been many solar and lunar eclipses around the world since 1919, but this is the first one to stretch across the North American continent in 99 yearsThe Washington Post has a really good article about all of that -- and when the next eclipses are going to happen.

 What it's going to look like all over the contiguous US. Newport, RI will be around 60% totality.

What it's going to look like all over the contiguous US. Newport, RI will be around 60% totality.

Will my eyes be okay if I look directly at the eclipse?

No. You definitely definitely definitely should not do that. It's apparently very bad for you, even though it seems harmless. We have a few suggestions on what to do instead of looking directly at the eclipse:

1.Don't Look.
This might seem difficult, but we are making The Sea Pageant for the ocean, and we are not involving plastic or human-created goods because the ocean doesn't need anymore of that. This has led some of us to wonder what if we human beings just aren't supposed to be looking at eclipses? Maybe that's our biggest issue as people: we think everything is for our consumption. What would happen if we honored something the only way our bodies are able to?

2. Wear Special Glasses.
Okay, so you want to look. You can't help it. Understood. I would guess most of you feel that way. In that case, you want to use a tool. A lot of companies make special eclipse glasses you can purchase on-line. We encourage people to team up on purchasing a bulk batch because the more you buy, the cheaper they get. Try Eclipse2017.org or check out the NASA eclipse site, which has lots of useful official information.

3. Use Your Hands and/or Paper.

No matter what you do or where you are, we hope you take a few minutes to look outside and remember that we live in outer space, and even on a Monday afternoon, that's pretty amazing. At a rehearsal this weekend, Group Leader Suzu said she's excited to be marking the event with such a big action that she's going to remember for the rest of her life. We are too.

How to Make a Sea Pageant

Photo: Rebecca Noon

Step One: Dream about it for three years. Look at the ocean. Really look. Imagine what it wants from you, if anything. Ask it what it needs. Really ask. Listen. 

Step Two: Look at a calendar. Discover a solar eclipse is coming and will pass over this continent. Realize it will not be full totality by the piece of ocean nearest to you. Decide that it's okay. Your ocean still wants what it wants.

Step Three: Start talking about it. Get people excited about something happening a long time from now. Realize that people love anticipation. They will need to think about this one-time-only performance for the ocean and ask a lot of questions. Their questions are the key.

Courtesy of the Providence Athenaeum

Step Four: Accept the Providence Athenaeum's invitation to be an Artist-in-Residence. Research the ocean and Rhode Island's relationship to and history with the ocean in a historic library. Build relationships with librarians (especially Kate). Don't be afraid when people who come to your salon are angry or confused about the history you present. Listen to their questions and try to understand why they are angry at your reporting. It's hard for us to remember how much the ocean has gone through. 

Step Five: Talk to the people who manage the beach. They will want to know what this is all about. It might be tempting to do it without permission, but resist this lazy temptation! Don't assume you know who cares. Invite everyone to bring their questions, especially those who are in charge of this section of ocean. They will be excited about your common interests.

Step Six: Hold drop-in rehearsals. Invite everyone you know. Tell them they can invite anyone they know. When they come, start by asking questions. Sample questions are:

  1. What is The Sea Pageant?
  2. Why are you making a Sea Pageant?
  3. Tell us a true story about the ocean.

Step Seven: After you've listened to each other's stories free-write on a shared piece of paper. Then warm-up together. Feel silly, get out of breath, make joyful noises, make contact with each other's playful bodies. Once you are warm, look at the words on the paper and each person choose one. Make a repeatable movement phrase. Teach it to one person and learn someone else's. Combine movements. Combine groups. Keep doing this until everyone knows everyone else's movements and all of the phrases are in a sequence. Some names of sections in our sequence are: Clara Mermaid Hair, Casey Sandcastle, Starfish City.

Step Eight: Rehearse on the beach. This might feel scary, but in the end it will be the best way to understand what you're doing. Make eye contact with the ocean while you practice. Don't worry about the weather. Remember that the ocean doesn't care if it's rainy or too hot or windy. Deciding to be outside no matter what for the whole rehearsal will change your relationship to the ocean and the earth. When people approach you with questions, make sure you have something to offer. We always have small flyers and buttons. 

Step Nine: After awhile you'll be able to ask the people who've been coming for awhile if they'd like to be a Group Leader. You might think everyone will say no, but you'd be surprised. A lot of people will say yes. (A lesson you will keep learning is that a lot of people like to say yes)

Step Ten: Write a song with friends. Make a dance with other friends. These will be things you can put on the internet and people who can't get more involved can learn them and then participate on the day-of. This is also a good way to get friends involved with skills like songwriting and dancing. Bring your friends brunch and make it fun. Making art for the ocean can be really fun.

Our flyer

Step Ten: Support your Group Leaders. Help them make Groups and find rehearsal space. Go to their rehearsals and teach the movements. Let them invent new ones and also modify the ones you invented so that they can all do it safely and comfortably. Remember that the ocean doesn't want perfection. It is wild.

Step Eleven: TBD, this is where we are so far. I could pretend to know more, but I don't want to pretend about this kind of thing. Ask me next month.

The Audience Laughs at the Clown - The Bouffon Laughs at the Audience

Hey folks. Glad to be home in Juneau as the First Folio is on display at the new State Museum and Theatre in the Rough is in the midst of making Juneau, AK the only city to read the entire First Folio aloud while it's in town! Hazzah. I am returning from two incredible workshops at my new favorite retreat, the Celebration Barn, in Maine. I was fortunate enough to attend thanks to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Individual Artist Grant program.

The Bouffon and the Ecstasy of Mocking with Giovanni Fusetti was a powerful journey into the ancient human energy of parody. An extraordinary pedagogue, Giovanni took us into a deep remembering (to put memories into the body once again) of the joyful passion of mocking our fragile lives. The fantastic creative energy that can be generated by a cohort of artists opening to the heated flow of improvisation was restorative.

Spymonkey's Creating Clown Material with Aitor Basauri was equally challenging and rewarding. Another deep examination of the performer's power to create visions for an audience to dream. Though this work opened more questions for me as to where I go next, paired with the bouffon workshop I have been renewed and coagulated - inspired for the next level of creative work and the next projects!

Celebration Barn
Celebration Barn

Collaborating with Manton Ave

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When Jed and I first entered the Providence theater scene we were enthusiastically advised to volunteer with The Manton Avenue Project. We jumped into our first MAP production in 2010. Jed played a rich man who went to Wal-Mart to buy a computer and I played a dog who who was also a lumberjack. Over the years we continued to volunteer when we could, and our mutual affection grew. Eventually Strange Attractor even purchased a button maker with MAP, which cemented our bond in commerce.  At some point committing to the MAP schedule became difficult. Show after show came and went without us, while we made our own shows happen, knowing we couldn’t be everywhere at once and that both of our organizations were contributing to the health of Providence. Anytime I’d apologize for not being able to volunteer MAP's generous director Meg Sullivan would say, “Don’t ever apologize” and give me a big hug.

When Marc Boucai at AS220 created the Community Live Arts residency, Jed and I knew that Before We Begin would be an interesting project to propose. A personal artistic experiment requiring large-scale space demands, it was the kind of non-play play that would be fun to create in the unjuried uncensored environs of AS220. That the residency required 30 volunteer hours with a non-profit was a bonus. We decided to ask Meg at Manton Ave to collaborate.

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The young playwrights at Manton Ave took to our physical playwriting techniques with more enthusiasm and joy than many adults. We asked them to find empathy with the physical world around them -- to become sugar cubes melting, fire growing and being extinguished, balloons being blown up and let go. For young playwrights who routinely create characters from animals and inanimate objects, these leaps of empathy were pure joy. After one class we reflected with Meg about her incredible kids, and she said people will sometimes say that MAP teaches young people empathy, but after the past several years, she’s come to realize that the kids don’t need to learn empathy -- they teach it to us.

Now we’re in the theater, on the verge of this new batch of plays, created using physical theater techniques with audience interaction, written in the woods of New Hampshire, in the MAP Clubhouse in Providence and with the input and care of adults who are more than willing to let these young playwrights lead the way and will assist in telling their stories with generosity and love.

MAP3.jpg

Jed and I keep remembering that we ended up here because we decided to make a play, and that play was accepted into a residency program that asked us to go farther than our show. Making Before We Begin was incredible, but by volunteering with MAP this summer, we’ve extended that creative impulse well beyond the walls of our own performance. While we wrap up our own Community Live Arts Residency this weekend, we can’t help but imagine all of the other projects upon projects that will happen in Providence because of this multi-layered opportunity, and we hope all of them have the multi-layered heart-opening process of creation that we have.

Before We Begin: Flat History

The Before We Beginroom is coming up like these things do: one wall at a time. As theatre-folk, when we say "walls," what we mean are "flats," ie, fake walls that create space. These are common base-objects in lots of plays -- particularly when you're using black boxes that need help defining the performance space and creating architecture. We're pretty lucky that we have some storage at our house so that when we finish a show we can actually store the flats and use them again. Each show, however, wants a different scenic feel, which means that unearthing flats is like a trip through your past shows. By the time audiences see Before We Begin, of course all of this will be covered up, but right now in the Black Box I can personally see the ghosts of three past shows on these flats.

This flat still has the painted scene from last summer's Idle:

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You can see it in action here with actor Clara Weishahn in the show:

IDLE9.jpg

These flats still hold the colors from 2012's A Terrific Fire. The colors had fantastic names like "creme brûlée" and "hot watermelon. We were obsessed with them while making the show, but I can't remember them now. Anyway, here they are the flats today:

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And here's some in their original incarnation.

This is the green (like, "majestic forest" or something?):

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And here's that "hot raspberry" or whatever:

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This wallpaper looked super familiar and I couldn't place it. . . .

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Then I remembered we loaned the flats to our pals at Elemental Theatre Collective in 2012 for their show Vacancy, and they had wallpapered it to look like a cheap motel room. I wish I could find a picture of that online, but sadly. . . we'll all just have to use our imaginations. Unless someone from Elemental can hook me up with a picture. . .

(UPDATE) D'Arcy Dersham read this post and then sent me the perfect picture. Check out the then-in-tact plaid wallpaper with actor Jeff Hodge:

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And soon all these concrete reminders of these past shows will be covered up by Before We Begin. Good thing we take pictures.

Before We Begin: In the Space!

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Today is the big day. We've officially started moving into the AS220 Black Box and building our room within the room for Before We Begin. Jed found a rock on the beach last week that is our guiding force for the visual aspects of the room:

There are a lot of reasons why this rock is a powerful symbol for what we're building. It's simple and grey. It's round and ovally. But it also is deceptive. There is a strange tork to it -- a kind of divet if you look close. It has these vague lines and circles. It has a great weight. It kind of makes you feel calm and also in love with how nature makes such perfect objects.

We had a mid-day trip to an unnamed hardware store where we bought all the wood that could possibly be available to two people not building a home, and then brought it back to the space. Here's Jed in shopping mode:

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While there we got to ask ourselves, "What kind of wood paneling should we get?" Thank goodness for that rock. It might sound nuts but it guided us toward the exact right wood siding.

And more and more more!

Before We Begin: Songs and Movies

We are making a new play that isn't really a play. As a part of the work we're doing on this non-play is collaborating with Xander Marro on a video that goes in the piece and Kirsten Volness and Jacob Richman on writing a song that we will teach the audience to sing. Both avenues of creation are new to us and all are artists we've admired for a long time, but never worked with. In other words, we're having a good time. We can't show you the video or sing you the song (yet!), but we thought it might be fun to share a couple little teasers.

So! Here is a still from a video test shoot Xander did with us to get the green screen down:

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And here are the lyrics of the amazing song we wrote with Kirsten and Jacob:

We live in a dead man's house. We live in someone else's dream. I live in a time of creation. My bones grow while I sleep.

Show up when you're ready. Tell me how you feel. Dirty snow is dirty Because we get behind the wheel.

Past hopes. Future wishes. Time washes the grooves of our struggle From the shores of our remembering.

Who will sing your song when I am dead?

Then there's also this little chant:

If it's useful, celebrate it! If it's crashing, elevate it!

See you June 1-12 at AS220 in Providence.

Building the Future

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Making a new play can happen in more ways than you can imagine. Because of our ensemble, our time, our interests, and the time frame we're working in to make Sans Everything, our unbeatable costume and sets designer got us a full day at the John St Studio on Brown University campus with a bunch of materials and helpers and machines. Check out the process here, but come to the show to see the glorious results.

Watch a video of Clara talking about her piece here.

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On my way

Hey, everyone! Thanks for all the support and assists and conversations. I'm excited to be heading back to Rhode Island for to finish this Sans Everything...that is the title of the show. If any Alaskans will be back East in March, we will be in lovely Providence March 3-6 at AS220 and in Boston at the Charlestown Working Theatre March 10-12. Even though my gps is saying this photo was taken in 'Inner Mongolia', I'm pretty sure it is just the international cloudspace outside the Alaska Airlines window on the way to Seattle.

And thanks to the great State of Alaska for helping pay to get me on this flight and create new performances. I get my own tag line in the program, too: "Roblin Gray Davis is supported, in part, by a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts."

Be well.