AMERICAN MACHO?: The TEAM Weaves a Tale of Gender, History, and Road Trips in RoosevElvis

RoosevElvis

When I walked into a rehearsal for the TEAM’s new show, RoosevElvis, which begins performances at the Bushwick Starr on October 8, cast and crew were poring over a table of kale, freshly culled from the Starr’s rooftop garden. Later, as actors Kristen Sieh and Libby King, dived gamely into simultaneous monologues as Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley, respectively, it was hard to tell if they were acting or just being themselves, speaking lines that had been scripted or improvising. The actors would often remain unnervingly in character, even when asking questions about a line that was troubling them. The collaborative rehearsal process, peppered with bites of communal snack and sips of coffee made in the Starr kitchen, reflects the TEAM’s eclectic aesthetic and the constantly blurred boundaries between life and art.

RoosevElvis will mark the first time a work by the TEAM has had its premiere in America, a curious fact given that their mission statement is to “make new work about the experience of living in America today.

The TEAM’s previous work has premiered exclusively in Europe, specifically in Scotland: Mission Drift premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and went on to Culturgest and the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal, the Salzburg Festival, the Perth International Arts Festival, Hong Kong Arts Festival, and the National Theatre in London; Architecting and Particularly in the Heartland also premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe.

What, one wonders, does it mean that the work of a company speaking to the experience of being American, is being produced and supported primarily by European theaters? Director Rachel Chavkin says that performing in New York can be much more nerve-wracking than in any other city, as she finds audiences here to be skeptical and expecting irony. Still, RoosevElvis feels like a homecoming, as was evident from the cozy, familiar, and familial atmosphere at rehearsal at the Bushwick Starr,  which is as Chavkin noted, a particularly welcoming and intimate space.

RoosevElvis is a genre mash-up of the classic road-trip tale, the bildungsroman, historical fiction, buddy films, music videos, and something else entirely. It tells the story of Ann (played by Libby King), a “painfully shy meat-processing plant worker,” (according to the show’s postcard), who is trying to figure out what kind of person she is—man or woman, Elvis or not—and her subsequent journey to Graceland to find out. Reading about RoosevElvis before sitting in on rehearsal, I expected something with a lot of disparate elements that would never quite come together. On the contrary, I found that Elvis is an apt lens through which to view gender identity. Chavkin refers to Elvis as a true “hybrid creature” who believed that he was a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl and a hot, twenty-one-year-old boy at the same time: “Did you know that Elvis used to pick out Priscilla’s outfits?” marvels Chavkin. “And her hairdos?” On the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt, the other figure that haunts Ann’s mind, is a very fitting symbol of muscular American masculinity and binary worldviews, who throughout his lifetime hunted and endlessly catalogued thousands of animals that he eventually made into taxidermy, while voraciously pursuing the natural sciences. Forced together into one artistic project, Presley and Roosevelt underscore two views of American appetites, gender identity, and the historical tendency to catalogue and define our world.

This is the smallest cast ever for the TEAM with only two actors, King and Sieh, each playing a number of different characters. With fewer people in the project the TEAM has been able to create their “slowest and quietest piece,” and, as Chavkin puts it, radically change the “metabolism” of the rehearsal room.

“Because we could be more efficient in other ways,” she explained—presumably in having to deal with only two character arcs—they were able to devote extensive time to character work. At one early rehearsal, Libby combed her hair for 45 minutes, while Kristen tried out different Teddy Roosevelts. At another, they did a two-hour improvisation session between King and Sieh, allowing them simply to inhabit their characters and see what arose.

Like most of their shows, RoosevElvis is collaboratively created and is thus not a significant break from the rest of the TEAM’s oeuvre. The diptych structure of the piece arose organically: the story of Ann and her obsession with Elvis; Elvis and his real-life obsession with Teddy Roosevelt. After this spine of the show was built, they improvised the rest. “The cast really leads the material,” Chavkin averred, adding, “we wrote a lot on our feet with this piece.”

Indeed the four hours of rehearsal I attended seemed to run like a well-oiled machine—albeit a machine that stops every few minutes and sputters around for a while before finding the “right” way to perform its function. The work is alive, constantly changing and being molded by almost everyone in the room. When a line or moment is troublesome, they stop and figure out together what would work better. Sometimes this can lead to a snowball effect: once they start talking about one problematic thing, others are brought into focus and it seems they will never get through one scene. But they do. From my limited perspective as an outsider, no one’s feelings got hurt; no single artistic vision was quashed or overly celebrated. Ultimately, however, the whole process is overseen with authority and gentleness by associate director Jake Margolin and director Rachel Chavkin, the guide and sculptor.

Over lunch on the roof of the Starr, Chavkin related an anecdote about how the company arrived at one thread of a story in the piece: At one point, after sleeping together only once, Ann decides to make the bold move of renting an RV and taking a weekend trip to the Badlands with Sieh’s Brenda, a woman Ann meets on an Internet dating site. The original idea was that Brenda would accompany Ann all the way to Graceland in the RV. Unfortunately, the RV that the TEAM actually rented on their marathon video-footage road trip from the Badlands to Memphis was restricted to a 4-day rental, which was certainly not enough time to take it all the way to their ultimate destination. Here was a fictional moment derived directly from a real life moment: Instead of the weekend going in a traditionally romantic straight line, with Brenda going along on the longer trip to Memphis with Ann—as the TEAM had originally planned—the company decided to use the fact that they only had the RV for 4 days and turn the relationship sour, cutting the weekend short, and turning the RV around. In other words, they converted the bungle into a plot-point. “Why were we even thinking about it as this hetero-normative relationship?” asked Chavkin of Ann and Brenda. “What if, instead, it goes terribly wrong?”

Work like this seems organic, but Chavkin is clearly steering the whole operation with a keen eye for theme and consistency. Happy accidents of history abound, as the director confirms that a lot of their work does, in fact, “line up wildly with current events.” She mentioned their critically acclaimed Mission Drift, a show that, according to the company’s website, explores “the soul of American capitalism,” and is set partly in a “financially devastated Las Vegas.” Coincidentally, they began creating this piece before the 2008 recession.

By intention or accident, the TEAM seems attuned to cultural and political trends. At the moment, Chavkin seems focused on the question of power: who has it and who is allowed to appropriate it. “For this piece,” she explained, “we were particularly drawn to co-opting the traditionally male-dominated buddy-film and road-trip genres…The surreality of Elvis and Teddy back from the dead and setting out on the great American highway gave us this delicious opportunity to queer the form and re-appropriate traditionally male narratives to two non-male, sexually indeterminate characters, played by two extraordinarily versatile and funny performers.”

Even with the recent historical progress on marriage equality, the American experience can feel vertiginous. As the country legally normalizes gay relationships, those who don’t adopt heteronormative relationship structures or do not clearly identify as either male or female “are more outside the mainstream conversation than ever,” said Chavkin. In RoosevElvis, the TEAM has tried to capture this sense of loss and confusion. Has living in New York but showing its work elsewhere given the TEAM a particular perspective on the American Experience? I asked Chavkin via email about the disconnect of living in New York yet making work about the rest of America for foreign audiences. She responded that she believes it is “vital to challenge this idea of ‘the Real America’.” International audiences may have given the TEAM the freedom and the perspective to do just this, and the ability to see, from more of an outside perspective, America’s values and appetites, discriminations and whims.

Bushwick Starr & the TEAM present
RoosevElvis by the TEAM
OCT 11 – NOV 3
Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm, $25.
PREVIEWS OCT 8-10 at 8pm
*Special benefit performance on 10/12 at 7pm