Three Days Kaleidoscoping at NACL

A provocation/opening presentation/introduction by Dr. Larry Bogad (UC Davis)

In order to get to the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL) from New York City, one has the choice between train or car; lacking car and not interested in managing the intricacies of a rental, I opted to take a New Jersey Transit train to Port Jervis, where I would be retrieved and driven the last eighteen miles to Highland Lake, where stands both house and adjacent church that make up the NACL property.

I wasn’t even directly supposed to be there. An email directed at a different target had found its way to my inbox, with the added text from the forwarder, “I can’t do this but maybe you’d want to?” The email itself read, “I’d like to invite you to join us at North American Cultural Laboratory for a mini-festival/symposium we’re planning to have at the end of July. From July 26-29 we’re hosting an event called Kaleidoscoping, the main thrust of which will be an exploration of ensemble, devised, experimental theatre and its relevance to the social, cultural, and political moment we are currently experiencing.” And then there was some scheduling details in terms of the evening shows and mention of break-out workshops and that was it. I checked my schedule. Outside of work on the evening of the 26th, I could actually do it. I looked out window of my hot New York apartment. It was raining. I wrote Brad an email, proposing to write about the festival. He responded with enthusiasm, and so two weeks later I found myself disembarking a train under humid sun in Port Jervis looking for a person with an NACL sign to pick me up.

After waiting for around five minutes, a person arrived and approached me. “Are you here for NACL?” Yes, I said. There were two others also gathered; one of whom had wandered over to a Burger King to feed, and so we shared french fries as we left Port Jervis behind. Several winding mountainside highways later, it began to pour torrentially. The rain continued through our moment of arrival, forcing a quick scurry from door to boot of car to retrieve luggage without drenching it and then to the safety of the front porch. Inside the house was much activity – the residents were rushing to prepare lunch. We put our bags down and were assigned rooms. Mine was the Lavender room, which apparently was no longer lavender but once had been, thus the name. I would share a room the first night with the stage manager for The Drunkard’s Wife, who amazingly I already knew from shared work time at Signature Theatre, which smoothed over the potential awkwardness of bunking with a stranger. 

Still, I experienced a moment of doubt. What was I doing? Why was I here? What had I hoped to achieve from this? So many people I didn’t know! Communal living having its obvious benefits, but not that easy to suddenly just find one’s self there in the thick of it. I took a breath. I looked out the window. The rain had suddenly stopped, leaving rich greens, pine trees, a winding road into a forested grove. I went downstairs to join lunch.

Kitchen activity at NACL

NACL was founded in 1997 by Winnipeg actress Tannis Kowalchuk and American director Brad Krumholz, with a mission “to cultivate a culture of creativity through the development and presentation of innovative ensemble theatre, education, and sustainable community service.” Over the course of the weekend I would gather various stories about the procurement of the house in its original rundown state and how it had been painstakingly restored, and of the evolution of the neighboring church space from rustic and raw into a space that could appropriately offer a tech residency to incoming artists. The house itself, a 1920’s gambrel-style residence that had formerly served as a resort hotel, is three stories tall, capable of housing up to (there was some debate) slightly over twenty artists if some are willing to share rooms. There are three bathrooms, one with a bathtub, one with a shower. There is also an outdoor shower. The showering over this particular weekend was to be kept to a minimum, due to a water shortage causing the well to have run dry sometime during the past week. There was water. If you turned a tap, it would issue forth. But the well wasn’t keeping up with demand, and so I found myself often focusing on water, or the lack thereof, especially when helping clean the kitchen after a meal. 

The church (described on NACL’s website as “Dream Space”) served as both the location for the weekend’s workshops as well as performances. Formerly a Franciscan church, it has high arched lofty ceilings adorned in pressed tin, beautifully finished wooden floors, a raised stage, and can seat at least one hundred on raisers that I helped put up and take down all in one night.

Along with creating their own work, NACL provides a Deep Space Residency to artists and groups who make devised, original, or ensemble performance. I arrived on the last day of The Drunkard’s Wife’s residency, which would culminate in a performance that first evening of Madame Lynch, which can be seen on August 8-11 at The New Ohio Theatre. Their team had apparently been taking full advantage of the proximity and energy of the church, rehearsing from early in the morning until, at some points, past midnight. It is that sort of space; enclosed yet expansive, amenable to long days without that feeling of suffocating unreality that can invade an all-day rehearsal in NYC. 

Had I have arrived at the start of the festival on Thursday night, I would have been able to catch a performance of dioramarama, a new work by BREAD ARTS COLLECTIVE, another company-in-residence, and Out of Mind, by neuroscientist Dr. Allison Waters and founding NACL artist Tannis Kowalchuk. Yet to arrive (they would come on Saturday) were Sean Donovan and his collaborator Brandon Washington, who would present about a thirty-minute portion of his upcoming work Cabin, slated for a full production at the Bushwick Starr in May of 2019.

A moment of repose on the porch at NACL

Following lunch, the entire team of The Drunkard’s Wife gathered on the porch for a line-through. The rest of us at the house scattered, making use of an unformatted afternoon. I found the courage to randomly talk to a few people, and we decided to make our way down to the lake. To get there, you were to cross the road, make your way through a field, and then wade out about twenty yards through lily pads until suddenly the shallows dropped off into a deep, clear, cool mountain body of water. The rules to getting there had changed only two days ago; apparently there had been a very specific route one had to take across the field due to tensions with the owners of said field, but that restriction had been lifted! Now one could go traipse across any old way one desired. Even more mind-blowing to repeat visitors, there was a floating dock which had always been off-limits, but no longer. So the first thing we did was swim to the dock, or raft. There was a thin layer of grime, as though it hadn’t been used in a few years. Undeterred, we surveyed our new kingdom from atop it before diving off and swimming back to shore. I spent a good portion of the afternoon in the shade catching up on the previous evening’s performance and day’s workshop.

As part of the preparation for the festival, we had been emailed several reading assignments. We discussed whether or not we had read them, and to what effect. The texts were: Excerpts from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Writings from the Late Notebooks,” Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Excerpts from “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei”, exhibit and commentary by Eliot Weinberger, and an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s, “Composition as Explanation.” I admitted to having not read very much of the Nietzsche. Happily, I was not alone in this admission.

Post-lake, I went for a walk with the two other artists who had arrived with me on the train earlier that afternoon. We followed a small road north for about a mile, with thunder rumbling ominously overhead. The rain started up again, light at first, especially if we kept ourselves under the cover of the trees alongside the road, but eventually there was nothing to be done but commit to a full soaking. Fully immersed, if one wanted to think of it that way, in both weather and art-making. We arrived back at the house, changed clothes, and joined in the dinner prep. (Well, I didn’t. One was instructed upon arrival to sign up for two responsibilities, and I chose cleaning both times, not wanting to be called upon to slice or cook something I didn’t know how to cook, my kitchen skills certainly lagging behind my cleaning abilities.) One eats quite well at these events – kale salads, massive amounts of chicken and tofu, fresh veggies, served buffet style and carried to all manner of nook and cranny amidst the house, or to the wrap-around porch, or in the days following without as much rain, consumed on picnic benches in the back yard. 

The well-attended performance of the evening, Madame Lynch, which you can read more about here, featured a startling number of period costumes alongside huge cardboard columns which had been constructed over the course of the week (and which I would later watch the team dissemble into transportable-size puzzle pieces and load into a van to drive back to the city). There were also jello molds lit from below by LED lights. The piece itself, essentially a first-look at the beginnings of a final product, was surprisingly tight considering the circumstances, bristling with language, color, and mystery.

Following that was a a panel discussion on “Subject Matter,” featuring Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanagin (co-writers and directors of Madame Lynch) alongside others from the cast, led by Brad Krumholz. His key question for the panel and audience was, “What subject matter is suitable for the theater?” This caused some twisting and turning on the part of the participants, as the word suitable seemed difficult to pin down. It seemed ill advised to draw a line between what was and what wasn’t, especially given a certain need or desire to see work that occasionally you don’t agree with, that which infuriates you, even causes you to walk out of the theater. One audience member suggested that perhaps that which actively hurt other people (I don’t think they meant physically, probably more symbolically) should be considered not appropriate; in essence, that which was “evil.” But even that statement was met with a question as to how one could define what was evil or good, and how that delineation might be quite different from audience member to audience member.  The evening ended without a clear resolution, but it seemed that it was agreed upon that theater was, uniquely, a community gathering, and that an audience had the choice to be there, to show up, to engage (or not), and to depart (or not) depending on how they experienced and understood the work that was being presented to them. So, in that way, it wasn’t so much what was suitable, but more about what might elicit a certain response from an audience, and that audience’s response playing a major part in whether or not that particular story needed to be told. 

I had several more beers from the keg in the lobby of the church (serving both local pilsner and an IPA, curiously foamy throughout the weekend) and lingered awhile, then took a short solo walk down the highway in order to fully immerse myself in that dark not-in-the-city feeling. Something large crossed the road about fifty yards away from me, roughly the size of a bear. It could have been a deer, I suppose, but it had a different movement quality, although I couldn’t make out its shape in the dark. I went back to the house, tucked myself in (the stage manager was still loading out the show but was leaving early in the morning), turned out the light, and despite my anxiety about the potential of it being too warm in the room due to lack of air conditioning and the occasional bursts of laughter from the porch party that continued on below, fell quickly asleep.

There is something wonderful about waking up in a country house with the windows wide open in the summertime. The air is different. The quality of light, ratio of sun to angle of entry into the window, is natural, unaffected by neighboring structures. It is the ideal way to wake up – the sound of birds, the drift of breeze. Of course, it should also be noted that on this particular morning, some unknown vehicle honked loudly three times right outside the house at roughly 6 a.m. and then drove off; no one had an explanation as to who it was or why. That notwithstanding, the morning was spectacular.

After a slightly unhealthy amount of coffee consumption and a self-prepared breakfast, around seventeen of us convened in the church for the morning’s workshop. It has a sort of ‘back to school’ feeling to it; we were issued notebooks with pens and the selected readings. We gathered unbidden in a circle (funny how we have a tendency to form circles when in groups). We stretched. We were joined by Thomas Bartscherer, the Peter Sourian Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Bard College, who led us in a writing exercise around the idea of persuasion. Our task was to fold notebook pages so that three columns existed from left to right. In the first column, we were given seven minutes to describe a performance, show,  or moment in which we felt that we had been persuaded by a piece of art – that our mind had been in some way changed. We then had five minutes to describe the mechanics of it (i.e., how did the thing change our minds). We were given an additional few minutes to respond to a Brecht quote regarding the artist’s responsibility to address societal issues. The notebook was then passed to another participant, who read over our writings in column one and then wrote a response to whatever struck them as response-worthy in column two. The notebook was then passed once more, and I was able to respond to the response. We then had about five minutes to vocally discuss what we had responded to on the page. My partner in the exercise had written about Underground Railroad Game, which we had both (happily) seen and were able to talk about in detail. We both agreed that this work had, in fact, persuaded us of something. It hadn’t changed our minds so much as deepened our understanding (or lack of understanding, maybe). It had created a series of complex moments on stage, and we had witnessed them, and in doing so, it had persuaded us to keep watching but in a slightly different way. It was difficult to express how or why. We agreed that perhaps that was why it was so persuasive – that it was impossible to put one’s finger onto what triggered it. 

In a second conversation, we were divided into trios to talk about the necessary conditions to make theater. Through a timed story-sharing methodology, we were able to reflect upon a time when we either had experienced the ideal conditions, or had fundamentally lacked the necessary conditions to succeed. Perhaps not surprisingly given the make-up of the group, many of the responses were centered around the ability to focus a collective energy for an extended period of time – a sort of non-transactional creation method with structured time laid out in such a way to avoid that feeling of scarcity. A good group of people. Money was debated – was it necessary? Certainly it was required in order to appropriately value the work of the artist, but this felt like more a societal discussion (in that artists are not compensated for their efforts in the same way as, say, doctors). Was adequate funding a necessary condition to make theater? I found myself on the fence. On one hand, waiting around for enough monetary support to execute a project (and hire artists, etc.) can prohibit one from ever making the piece at all. On the other hand, trying to make ambitious work without enough institutional support can be fraught, especially when asking other artists to work for and with you without enough monetary compensation.

Following lunch, the second workshop focused on composition, and featured an initial provocation/opening presentation/introduction by Dr. Larry Bogad (UC Davis). We returned to the action “to persuade,” but this time were grouped into teams of five and asked to work with Wang Wei’s poem and its various translations as source material. This was challenging, in that the poem was in Chinese, and each of the translations offered a slightly different way of looking at or understanding the poem itself. With under an hour to come up with something, we divided and conquered, making quick discoveries, having brief side conversations, scribbling down notable words from the various translations into a rough script, and then throwing it on its feet. While we came to some agreement that the act of translation was in itself a sort of persuasion towards how the ultimate meaning of the poem should be construed, we generally abandoned the idea that we ourselves needed to execute a singular persuasive action. Other pieces were successful at this; one required us as the audience to make the decision to step onto Dr. Bogad’s flag, which still lay on the floor following his presentation, before the piece could end. 

In part, I amused myself by coming up with alternate uses of the word itself. Could it be a collective noun? Such as, a litter of puppies, a hive of bees; could we then be a persuasion of creatives? 

A day later, there was still no shared consensus as to how effective persuasion can be as a thing that contemporary theater can (or should?) do. It’s a tricky word, in that we think first of the more didactic works that seek to really validate their own position through persuasion. But those pieces are often presented in the relative safety of our art-maker bubble; they are not often likely to be encountered by an audience with a counter-opinion. And be honest with yourself – when’s the last time you changed your mind about anything? 

I used to think I didn’t like kombucha. Now we make five gallons a month in our kitchen and I drink it every day. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what we’re talking about; preference is separate from ideology. You can change your mind about a thing, but can you change it about an idea?

I contemplated these things, as well as enjoyed the sound of a stream rushing by on my right, as I walked a mile and half to the nearest convenience store in order to procure some cash so I could put the appropriate money in to help pay for the beer (suggested $2 per glass, self-policed). Cars rushed by at high speeds. Abutments of rock jutted out of the forest floor. The late afternoon air smelled both hot and fresh. I broke a sweat, but not an uncomfortable one. I walked with the ideas of the day, and while I doubt I came to any more satisfactory conclusion than what was reached in the room, it was a luxury to be in a physical landscape that allowed me to hold onto them. 

Then dinner came, and a wonderful work-in-progress showing of CABIN by Sean Donovan, followed by a panel discussion on “The Place of Theatre,” featuring Sean Donovan, Brandon Washington, and others, led by Thomas Bartscherer. The piece, a hybrid work that uses both dance and storytelling compellingly, is locational – set in a specific cabin, one that apparently really exists and is reconstructed onstage. It made sense then for the subsequent discussion to unpack the space, place, the home of a theater piece. There isn’t a lot to argue over when it comes to place; we can agree that certain spaces don’t have the same energy as other spaces. We can acknowledge that certain performances require a site-specific space, while others are constructed to exist in almost any space. Is place/space a necessary condition of theater making? I suppose, it requires at least enough space for a performer and an audience member. Space is a commodity, in that access to it tends to cost money; we didn’t get deep into it, but it’s compelling to try to reimagine the place/space in such a way that allows for resources that are usually committed to the maintaining of that space to be used elsewhere.

Then I helped to take down the wood and metal bleachers that we had assembled hours earlier, and following that, proceeded with a few others to jump into the lake, the moon and stars visible that clear humid night. The water was just a touch below air temperature. We swam once more to the raft, just because we could.

I recall the rest of the night, although it’s a good bet that a few of the revelers do not, given the general level of intoxicant intake, and also considering that a contingent had made and consumed a large quantity of margaritas starting at around five in the afternoon. There was also a gin and Pellegrino concoction shared about the porch, which I referred to as a “grin” but did not actually drink due to my commitment to stick to the more controllable spirits, beer and later wine when the beer ran dry. The evening turned to morning. Others departed for the lake. I shifted from conversation to conversation, sometimes moving from one end of the porch to the other, sometimes a new algorithm of conversant folks gathering organically. Finally, at almost two in the morning, I called it a night.

The next morning was more subdued, groggy, but we were greeted by a special (and heavy) brunch, and gathered in the back yard to discuss the festival at large and answer several questions which Brad and Thomas had asked us to think about. 

I can state, I hope without controversy, that most of us left NACL and the Kaleidoscoping festival with more questions than answers. What are we doing? How can we envision future practices without abandoning those which have worked for us in the past? How shall we engage in a multi-generational way with wider groupings of collaborators? How do we best share this space/place in a way that is most responsible in an age of (seeming) scarcity? How can we combat that scarcity model? What do we need? How do we go about getting it?

Of equal importance though: On the ride down the mountain to the train station offered by a new friend that I had met the day before, I asked her about how she managed to balance her full-time job with her identity of an artist, and she teared up, saying “I was just so grateful to be invited.”

We are who we are, how we are, when we are. NACL provides, at the very least, a space (along with a “when”) that makes the who and how seem persuasively possible.

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