We’re All in This Together: site-responsive theater and time travel in Detroit’s urban gardens
Flashback to June 2015. It’s summertime in Detroit. Sherrine Azab, the co-Artistic Director of A Host Of People, and I are discussing the menu for the company’s upcoming fundraiser. I’ve been asked to cater the event and so Sherrine has come over with boxes of produce from Eastern Market. Zucchini, squash, potatoes, mushrooms, red peppers, lemons, and bunches of herbs- the goal, veggie kebabs for 100. Sherrine and I first met in 2012, around the time she and her partner and collaborator, Jake Hooker, moved from Brooklyn to Detroit. They bought a place in Southwest Detroit that kind of reminds me of the mansions you see on Bushwick Ave. It’s a dream house if you like throwing wild parties or making devised theater, which is perfect for Jake and Sherrine who combine their “love of hosting” with performance-making. Their mission: to be inclusive and make audiences feel “more at home with experimental art.” Since we’ve met, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and working with the husband and wife team. (I have them to thank for getting to play Martha Rosler AND Phyllis Diller in the same show.)
This fundraiser, for which I am to make enough potato salad to feed a small army, is for AHOP’s upcoming show, The Harrowing. Site-responsive and specific, it will take place in 8 different community gardens throughout the city of Detroit this summer. To me, it often seems that creating a community of new and diverse theatre goers is a constant desire and challenge for theater institutions and companies alike, so when a company decides to create a show that tours around town but doesn’t actually ever leave its city, I say to to myself, “Well now hey, that’s a cool idea, I can’t wait to see it!”
And I did, three times.
Flash forward to September 2015. It is fall in Detroit. The Harrowing‘s last show took place on September 19th at the Feedom Freedom Garden on Manistique street in a neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. The Harrowing, where performers cheerily remind us through song that we’ll all be back in the garden (if not this one, then some other) when we’re dead, and a wise onion invites us to consider its worldly history, is a journey that begins with audience members writing their name on a rock, and ends with ice cream and lemonade.
What happens in between is a lot. We go on a soothing audio tour of the garden we are standing in. We have an etymological lesson that takes us from the word harrow, “noun, an implement to break up soil, verb, to rake over, English” to the word rehearse, “verb, to go over, to drill, to rake over again, harrow, French.” We travel in small groups to different places throughout the garden. The play is not linear so we’ll all eventually have the same experience but not in the same order. We sit in a cozy multimedia tent where a performer, along with projections and audio, is conducting a disembodied yet very “present” interview. The performer asks a series of questions: “If you were stranded on an island what three seeds would you bring…how did you come to this garden…how would you describe this garden to aliens…?” The questions seem to be directed at us but the answers come from the people whose projected voices and images fill the tent. These are the gardeners of the Brightmoor Youth Garden, the Vedic Education Garden, the Oakland Ave Urban Farm & Garden, Shipherd Greens, the Frontier Garden, the Hubbard Farms Community Garden, Hope Takes Root, and Feedom Freedom.
We travel again in little groups. We meet a historian wearing a tiny roof as a hat who gives us the census of the land, from Detroit native peoples to the first registered inhabitants of the street on which these very gardens now rest. We are reminded that “We all have pasts.” The aforementioned wise onion (wearing a burlap garment accented by moss and a collar made out of a wicker basket) regales us with its impressive popularity throughout time. “I am welcomed at almost every dinner table around the world… it’s funny how much easier it is for foods with foreign origins to be welcome at tables as opposed to people.” We are reminded, “We are in this garden together.” We reconvene as one large group and sit together facing tall mirror columns, our reflections looking back at us. A pleasant soundtrack created for this very moment plays from a boombox and a performer with a microphone delivers, with utmost sincerity, an invitation to be present and alive in this garden today. This whole time we have been in the garden, have thoroughly traveled and explored through all of it. We have also traveled back in time almost a thousand years and yet feel so very connected to the time and place at hand. Then we get ice cream and lemonade.
The Harrowing served many purposes. It advertised 8 community gardens within the city of Detroit, it was a welcoming PSA on the importance of community engagement, it was a history lesson both wide and specific, and it was a revelatory tour that illuminated the connection between growing your own food and making your own art. For the record, I got a CSA share this fall. Did The Harrowing indirectly influence my decision to support local farms, and help me put a feather in my sustainability cap? Probably.
‘The Harrowing’ was a new site-responsive theatre piece created to be performed in community gardens throughout Detroit. Conceived in response to the vibrant community garden movement that has become so strong in this city, ‘The Harrowing’ draws comparisons between the act of gardening and the act of art-making; between nourishing the community with fresh food and nourishing imaginations with new ways of telling stories.
July 31 – September 19, 2015
conceived & directed by Sherrine Azab & Jake Hooker
featuring Joe Aasim, Mycah Artis, Torri Lynn Ashford, Siena Hassett, Sam Moltmaker & Sarah Wilder
sound & music by Billy Mark
sets by Carolyn Mraz
costumes by Dorothy Melander-Dayton
produced by John Del Gaudio, with Julien Godman
In my desire to introduce The Harrowing and A Host Of People to readers and audiences beyond Detroit, I am compelled to also include excerpts from an email interview I conducted with Jake and Sherrine. Enjoy!
What inspired you to create The Harrowing?
Sherrine: It was actually a visit to the Oakland Avenue Community Farm and Garden as a part of the Network of Ensemble Theaters Detroit MicroFest in 2012. We were so moved by the creativity and ingenuity and spirit of what Billy and Jerry (gardeners/organizers) were doing with their land. It felt really familiar–it felt like art-making. We knew there was a seed of a piece there. Plus community gardening is a passionate and inspired movement in this city, with an estimated 1400 gardens in the city. You could make a comparison with the artists in the city–that’s a point of inquiry of making the piece–making the connection with those makers in this city that are creating what they need whether for their body, for their soul, or both.
Can you talk a little about the process? I know that as a company you volunteered at all the gardens you performed in. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how it shaped the performance?What were some of the challenges, if any, you encountered while working on the show?
Sherrine: We identified 8 community gardens that were in diverse areas of the city — in both location and communities they were serving–since obviously we can’t tour this to all 1400, so we wanted to get a good representation. Once the gardens confirmed their interest, the whole company that was assembled for this production volunteered on work days in the garden–including our designers. This resulted in hundreds of man-hours donated in total to the gardens. The performers kept journals and were tasked to notate their movements while working in the gardens. We then used these moves as source material to create choreography. As a company we also generated a bunch of questions we wanted to ask the gardeners and those were used in our video interviews that eventually made up the content in “The Present Tent.” The designers were also inspired by events that happened while volunteering–the ice cream truck that went by, the way the performers would decorate themselves with plants and the architecture that surrounded the garden.
Jake: Beyond that, the general spirit and ethos of the gardens — which were widely divergent types of spaces — infused themselves into the piece…and there are always happy accidents.
What were some of the challenges, if any, you encountered while working on the show?
Sherrine: Making a show that was elastic enough to fit into eight different sites. This was a challenge both in regards to the physical footprint of the show and timing. Since the show and audience was broken up in different sections the travel time for each group would always vary so we had to come up with strategies to adjust our show’s content– either stretching it or retracting it depending how long it took all sections to reconvene.
And since we really wanted this show to be an exchange between both A Host of People and the Gardens it was important to us that our larger-than-life design elements (that are markers of an A Host of People piece) be present in this show in order to be in conversation with the beautiful natural surroundings of the gardens. The result was the creation of a very large show to load and unload at each garden. So large we packed one pick up truck and had to rent an additional 15-foot Uhaul for each performance.
Jake: I would add that performing in a community garden necessitates creating a very inclusive show. We’re always really interested in being welcoming and inviting — hosting — anybody that wants to come, but we still don’t usually make work that spans the range of 5 year olds to 85 year olds. So that was something we were always thinking about…because we also never want to sacrifice our sometimes off-kilter aesthetics for something that sounds really bland like “family friendly” or any of those other “audience engagement” terms. And yet, this is a community-responsive piece and that age range was going to be represented, so all the way through the process we were always checking back in with the idea of showcasing our robust aesthetic and complex ideas in terms of that wide age and experience range.
The Harrowing, as a site-responsive piece of theater, begins with an audio tour of the particular garden we are in, which I found to be an effective introduction to the site, so I wonder if you knew ahead of time the role technology was going to play in responding to the site, or if it’s something that came out of the process of creation. In addition to the audio tour, I’m also thinking about the projection hut that held within it the voices and experiences of all the gardeners you encountered. I’m curious to know what led you to these choices.
Sherrine: We would definitely consider technology and especially projections a regular occurrence in our shows–I don’t think we ever have a plan for how we are going to use technology when we start a process but we keep open all options for how we can explore different modes of storytelling in our shows. And we always have it in our mind that we are creating theatrical experiences. With this particular show we got to start the show with a really individual experience with headphones and the voice of a gardener giving a tour of the garden and then as the course of the show evolved the show becomes more and more communal until we arrived at the end in front of our “future” structures–mirrors that reflected and the garden and the audience and then ended with an ice cream party!
Jake: Projections have been an interesting and elastic way for us to communicate to our audience on another level. It’s funny — there was a moment early on in this piece where I had made the assumption that we wouldn’t do any projections, but Sherrine really wanted to bring our whole aesthetic to the gardens…and so obviously that decision led to a whole bunch of design choices that ultimately led to the creation of that purpose-built (almost) light-locked projection tent. I will say, too, that one throughline between our first Detroit show Life Is Happening To Us Again and The Harrowing is the connection and overlap and contestation between the “natural” world and the world of technology, and I’m pretty interested in continuing that inquiry. One early version of this piece had an ipad buried in a raised bed that the audience had to put on gloves and kind of clean the screen and watch a video….it didn’t make it into the final piece due to logistical reasons, but I like trying to find the organic-ness of digital technologies and I think we’ll continue to find more ways to experiment with that.
And finally, some post-show assessments: What did you hope to accomplish with Harrowing and are you satisfied with what you accomplished? What are the take-aways from the experience?
Sherrine: We’re really proud that we were able to share the connection we felt to art-making and gardening with the audience, and it seems that the audience easily felt that too. The experience of volunteering in the gardens was really meaningful for our company. We are going to try to commit to incorporating volunteering into all of our rehearsal processes–with an organization somehow related to the subject matter we’re exploring. It simultaneously deepens our inquiry into the material while also creates connection with a group of people that would potentially be interested in the show but may not find their way there otherwise.
Jake: I think one thing that we’re always hoping to do is to bring our brand of contemporary, ensemble-generated theater out into the open…away from the black box and the rarefied spaces of a lot of this type of work and see it take shape out in the open. So obviously community gardens area a great place to let that happen. Our work in Detroit has been so incredibly gratifying (as we get) to see how people that have very little experience with this type of thing really embrace it and come at it with such generosity and a questioning spirit. The Harrowing was definitely really successful in widening out the conversation we’re having about the importance of deep inquiry — and also aesthetics — in doing our small part to help move the culture forward.
Care to share what AHOP will be investigating next?
Sherrine: We are in the conceptual phase for our long-devising process for a show we have titled Here. They. Come that is going to theatricalize the history of changing demographics of neighborhoods of various cities told from a fictionalized version of a future utopian Detroit. But we’ll probably produce a smaller show while that one is in development. And we also will continue our series ‘Performance, Potluck, and Punch’ where we curate two-living room sized performances for the price of a dish to share.