COIL 2012: Rachel Chavkin on The TEAM’s “Mission Drift”

Amber Gray, Libby King, Heather Christian, Mikaal Sulaiman & Brian Hastert in The TEAM's "Mission Drift." Photo by Rachel Chavkin

“When we were working on Architecting, towards the end of our time on Architecting, this was in spring 2008, Naomi Klein spoke. The Shock Doctrine had come out, and this thing she talks about of ‘disaster capitalism’ ended up being a major thing for Architecting in terms of Brett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara,” Rachel Chavkin explained. It was earlier this month, and we’d met for lunch at a “bourgie” (to use her term) cafe near NYU, where she was teaching, in order to discuss The TEAM‘s upcoming US premiere of Mission Drift, a hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival (Jan. 8-29; tickets $25/$20)

“But it didn’t feel like we’d fully gotten to solve it,” she continued, “in part because Architecting was so sprawling, and quite deliberately so. But it just felt like we weren’t done with this idea. And that sort of led me to ask the company the question that Klein talks about but hadn’t fully answered for me, which is, ‘Why does American capitalism have its particular character? What defines American capitalism specifically and why did it become that way?'”

That’s a hell of subject for a play to tackle, but based on my experience catching it as a work-in-progress at the 2010 Ice Factory Festival…well, while I reserve the right to change my opinion based on the final version going up at COIL, I’ve previously described it as one of the smartest pieces of political theater I’ve seen in a while. And I’ll stand by that for now. Fun, engaging, intelligent, non-didactic, and touching in a surprisingly humane way (given the stated subject), it challenges the standard for political theater in America and is one of the shows I’m most excited to see this January.

The TEAM coalesced around Chavkin back in December 2004, mainly consisting of fellow NYU alums. The name was originally based on Chavkin’s college nickname (I did not get that story) but, following the advice of an accountant from the Field who said they’d never be able to incorporate a company named “The Team,” the company decided to make it an acronym. In fact, the first group writing assignment was to come up with what “team” stood for, and the combined result was the portentous “Theater of the Emerging American Moment.” Today, the company has nearly doubled in size, mainly with other NYU-trained artists but also including a couple designers with experience at the SITI Company, owing no doubt to Chavkin’s further training at Columbia with Anne Bogart. Chavkin serves as artistic director of the company and the director of the company’s shows, though, given the collaborative nature of the endeavor, she describes herself as an “editor,” bringing together the disparate strands developed through the generative process.

The TEAM's Rachel Chavkin and Amber Gray, with the Edinburgh Fringe Herald Angel Award they won for "Mission Drift."

Mission Drift is the sort of play that suffers in description. Essentially, it tells the story of two couples. The first is Joris and Catalina Rapelje, a fictionalized version of the couple known proverbially as the American Adam and Eve. Married in the Netherlands in 1624, the couple moved the North America the same year and ultimately settled in New Amsterdam, where they’re credited with giving birth to the first European child in the city; today they count some one million Americans as descendants. In Mission Drift, the two exist as perpetual adolescents who set out from New Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century and follow the westward expansion until 1890, when the Census declared the “end of the frontier,” with all supposedly “vacant” land in the United States settled. The two find themselves left in the city of Las Vegas, where they set out to create a new frontier through capitalist enterprise.

Joan is a native of present-day Las Vegas, consigned to working odd service sector jobs while engaging in a form of urban archaeology by preserving the ever disposed signage of the strip as a volunteer at the “Neon Boneyard,” an amateur museum experiment I was surprised to discover is real. (Sadly, apparently, others have, too; according to Chavkin, when the company visited a couple years ago it was still below the radar. Recently though she heard from a friend there that the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs had learned of it and, unintentionally echoing a line from the play, the friend told Chavkin that they “looked at the Neon Boneyard and saw dollar signs.”)

Joan’s erstwhile love-interest is a member of the Southern Paiute tribe displaced by development, forced out of his home by the city pursuing the water rights to his family’s well.

What ultimately unfolds is a drama of conflicting interests, with Catalina occupying the role of frontiersman, longing for the possibility of new discovery and in love with power of creation to cultivate the emptiness of the American desert. Her path is related to the rapacious capitalism Joris indulges, but whereas he’s in love with the accumulation of wealth, she’s is driven by a different need, and this conflict ultimately draws them apart. For Chris, the Paiute, either way, the city they’ve built as developers has displaced him (and whoever said the desert was empty, anyway?) and he rebels against the very existence of Las Vegas. Joan, a non-aboriginal native of the constructed city, finds herself displaced from her own home through the rapacious development of the Rapeljes (mirroring, of course, the real estate bubble that popped shortly after the TEAM began the project).

Oh, and Mission Drift is also a musical. Of a non-traditional sort. With performances and music by the amazing Heather Christian as Miss Atomic. Got all that?

“I think our endless process–and probably endlessly frustrating process–is one of the things that gives our work the density that I hope people associate with our plays,” Chavkin told me.

The TEAM’s work is devised through a lengthy and intense process. I asked Chavkin to describe the process of developing the final work, and for simplicity’s sake, she limited her explanation to the character of Joan, by way of example. Beginning at an early workshop at the Brick Theater in 2009, four of the company members were working on different things. Jess Almasy was interested in developing a character who believed she was Joan of Arc, envisioning the role as a Wisconsin transplant to Vegas. Jill Frutkin was interested in the issue of prostitution, and discovered an organization called Hookers for Jesus, comprised of born-again former prostitutes seeking to help others leave the profession. Libby King was fascinated with Hunter S. Thompson. And Kristen Sieh was interested in playing a tumbleweed, or desert native. The name “Joan” stuck, elements of one or another enterprise went into the final character–a Vegas/desert native, volunteer at the Neon Boneyard, and a theme-restaurant waitress–while others went by the wayside or were incorporated into other characters (the Rapeljes became the immigrants to Vegas).

I knew that an important part of the development had taken place in Las Vegas itself, but when I asked Chavkin who had supported their residency and work on the ground, I got an emphatic “No one.”

“We fundraised like fucking crazy and we tried for support,” she said. “And now I’m thrilled to say we just got a grant from the NEA to bring the final work back to Vegas.”

Ultimately the company paid out of pocket or relied on donations to spend a month in the city, and in her role as director-cum-editor, Chavkin arranged a tight schedule of “field trips” to experience the place in the mornings, followed by intensive work in the theater the University of Las Vegas donated for their use in the afternoons. In their field trips, they met with and interviewed members of the local culinary workers’ union, to get a sense of the labor reality in Vegas. They visited the Atomic Testing Museum (the testing of the bomb also figures apocalyptically in the play). Another trip took them to the Springs Preserve, an institution devoted to the history of the desert ecology and sustainable development, which ultimately features prominently into the work’s theme.

“Las Vegas–which I actually didn’t know before we started this piece–used to be a fertile valley,” Chavkin told me. “It means ‘the meadows.’ And it was totally green, totally lush. It was an oasis. And that was due to the Springs Reserve, which was the aquifer underground that got destroyed in the Fifties, it was tapped out very, very quickly.”

Another exercise took them to the Luxor casino, where each member’s assignment was to interview three people: an employee, an apparent non-employee, and then whoever they wanted. The intense engagement with the city had a profound impact on the story that the company finally presented in Mission Drift.

“The entire way we portray Las Vegas, I can trace it back to a couple interviews we did,” she recalled. “One was with a guy who worked at the culinary union who turned out to have been born and bred in Las Vegas. He was about sixty, as was the head of the office of Cultural Affairs for the city, also in her early sixties. Both of them born and raised in Las Vegas. Very unusual because Las Vegas was a town of about 300,000 for a long period of time. And we heard from both of them almost the exact same thing, which was, this this used to be a small western town. This used to be a small town. Vegas used to be for the locals. It was this phrase we just kept hearing again and again and again. And when we asked about the destruction that had been wrought by the mortgage crisis, every single one of them said, ‘We think growth is good. And we don’t think growth is bad, we think it’s good that Vegas is growing as a city. We just think it grew too fast.’ So I think the entire thesis of the play, that there is something unsustainable about the marriage of capitalism and the frontier, came from right there.”

The one caveat I’d really like to add to all this is that, notwithstanding the influence of thinkers like Naomi Klein on the work, the reason I have so much respect for this play is that the TEAM is so decidedly opposed to easy answers. No matter what you ultimately think of Klein’s work, she is rather easily caricatured as a leftist taking potshots at ideological enemies. The TEAM are not. Their entire portrayal of the shape of American capitalism through the stories they tell is deeply sensitive and avoids easy answers or taking potshots. Intelligently, the company appears to have jointly come together in an effort to present the shape of our economy–including its disastrous boom-and-bust destructiveness–as a function of something deeper in the American psyche, the longing for creating things, for expanding the frontiers and filling the empty spaces our European ancestors imagined the deserts and plains and mountains of the frontier to be. Watching it the first time, I was struck by the thematic similarity between Mission Drift and Cormac McCarthy’s remarkable novel Blood Meridian, even as they diverged radically in tone, aesthetics, and politics. Mission Drift is, as Chavkin also pointed out, a Western, one that links disparate elements together to pose a vexing problem–perhaps the most vexing problem facing our society today. It was the novelist Chad Harbach, lately the lauded author of The Art of Fielding, who posed it to me years ago in a Seattle bar: “What if growth itself is the problem?”

And beyond all of that is the fact that it’s just a damn fine story. “It is by far and away the most emotional of any of our works. It’s, sort of–separate from the politics for a minute–it’s just an incredibly emotional story, because we tell the story of capitalism in this country through the lens of a marriage dissolving, and a marriage that you really love,” Chavkin said. “And now I hope we’ve done a really good job of allowing you to fall in love with these characters and root for them, in the way you sort of root for this American thing of setting out for the territories. And then they just become horrible, and monsters of themselves and lost within that.”

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