Rubber Chickens, Wrecking, and Tent Posts

Photo by Andrew Freeburg

I trekked the decrepit hellscape of Midtown to sit down with two great humans, In the Water Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Taylor and Connectivity Director Hayley Sherwood. Jonathan was drinking a very tiny ginger beer.

In the Water’s upcoming Turtle Plays will feature two American premieres: House of Cards by Charles Mee and Turtleyou by Annika Vestel.

Sam Schanwald: I’m going to not be afraid to reference or not reference the legal pad of questions.

Jonathan Taylor: Okay great.

SS: In fact I prefer the mode of not referencing it.

Hayley Sherwood: Great amazing.

SS: So, will you tell me a little bit about Turtle Plays and the decision making process behind programming these two plays together?

HS: So there are two works that are inside Turtle Plays. House of Cards by Charles Mee and Turtleyou created by Annika Vestel. The inception of Turtle Plays is just a bunch of coincidences coming together.

JT: Turtleyou actually predates In the Water Theatre Company. Annika had already been doing the piece for four or five years. She just found this old Norwegian cookbook. There’s this recipe for turtle soup with chickens, turtle soup with beef, and then “Turtle Soup Real” which is turtle soup made with actual turtles. 80% of the recipe is just how to kill a turtle so it tastes the best. So the piece is really all about meat and how to prepare an animal for the slaughter.

House of Cards came to be because we had a slot to do a play with Juan Diego Bonilla in Chile. Juan Diego brought me the play and was like, “I want to do this one.” We premiered the play as Un Castillo de Cartás in Santiago last January. It was the Spanish language premiere. And this will be the New York premiere. House of Cards is all about this man contextualizing a life of violence. He tells this series of stories. And the first story he tells is about how he was indoctrinated into a life of violence when his father killed and roasted his pet turtle when he was a child.

HS: And then Persia Blue, one of our company members, drew the line between House of Cards and Turtleyou, and that line is a turtle.

   JT: She was just like “do these together.”

HS: We were brainstorming how to name them, and were just like, “it should be Turtle Plays.”

JT: There’s a really gory entry point into Turtle Plays. I think the representation of violence in these pieces actually feels like a departure from past work we’ve done. Our last work, Panic! Everything’s Fine was an orchestra, Turtle Plays is more like a chamber piece. The evening was going to be called Violence Plays or Turtle Plays.

SS: Well, I’m glad you chose turtle.

HS: Yeah. It’ll probably sell more tickets.

SS: ITW has this super diverse approach to writing, and I mean writing in an expansive way that encompasses devising, solo authorship, collaborative playwriting, et cetera. I feel like the diversity of creative origin from project to project feels very special to ITW. So, I’m curious about why changing writing models from piece to piece feels right for the company.

JT: In the U.S. we truly have a playwright’s theater. The playwright writes the play and the production team, ensemble, and director realize that play. We have all these ideas about serving the play and the playwright’s voice. And so much of what actors, directors, and producers tend to do is follow through with the playwright’s vision. So, I’m interested in what else is out there. And it takes a lot of different opportunities and forms. We’ve been heavily, heavily influenced by the cultures our company members come from. The U.S. playwright model is not the case in Sweden, and it’s not the case in Chile.

It’s about asking: “what are the different ways writing can work?” It’s about honoring all the artists and their visions and voices on the same level as anyone who writes. Which is to say that we hold the actor and the director up to a really high place. We bring them up so their voices can be heard, but we also neutralize the role of the writer sometimes. We do this so we can experience the work differently.

Like in our company, if an actor says, “this is not how the text should sound,” then we deal with it. We have this whole idea of collaboration as collision. And for us, nonhierarchical collaboration means you reach consensus on every decision in the room. So we fight about the text until we all agree on the best thing.

HS: And that mode has stretched itself into our administrative work as well. So we’ve been using this term, “wrecking,” which I think is a cool example of how if someone proposes text to use on a marketing front or on a press release or in an email to someone, we put it to the group and we say, “can anyone wreck this?”

And that’s our editing style: “I’ll take my hand on this and then I’ll pass it off to you so you can wreck it.” And this way of doing administrative work and writing was born out of the style being established in the rehearsal room.

JT: Yeah “wrecking” is a choreographic tool actually, and it was coined by Megan Mizanty, who we’ve worked with before. In dance, one choreographer makes something with a group of dancers and another comes in and “finishes it.” The person who wrecks it says, “this is the kernel that’s most interesting, and I’m going to reshape the work around that kernel.”

Chuck Mee once said to me in a meeting that, “the best productions in theater are of plays by dead playwrights.” It’s because no one’s really worried about hurting the playwright’s feelings. Chuck wants to be one of those playwrights. He deliberately has no opinions. Just says “yeah whatever” in production. That’s wrecking.

SS: I’m curious about this unanimous-decision-making form of collaboration, especially because I feel really averse to it in my own artistic life right now. Doesn’t true unanimous-decision-making slow the work down? Is it possible for financial compensation to reflect the collaborative ideal in the room? Does that model make the vision murky?

HS: …Yes.

JT: Yes to all those things. The most practical answer to that is a saying from Kelly Mauer, of SITI Company. She says that collaboration begins as democracy and ends as monarchy. That’s true in our process, and maybe we’re working toward a different ideal, but by the end of a process I’m sort of just saying, “this is where you stand.” That’s our agreement. And it totally slows us down. But it makes our work better. Honestly, we come up with better ideas in collision with each other than if I have an idea alone.

My ideas are always the worst. We call them “rubber chicken ideas.” That’s a KJ Sanchez thing, also of SITI Company. We say: “we have this problem and we don’t know how to solve it. My rubber chicken idea is ‘x’.” In general we get to really interesting places by getting rubber chicken ideas out. I’ll also say that there’s a right amount of people for this kind of collaboration. Our company’s small. I tried to do it with eighteen artists once. That was the most authoritative I’ve ever been as a director.

S: You needed to make the bonding force as a director stronger.

JT: Yeah. It’s hard when you’re working one-on-one like I’m doing with Juan in House of Cards. There are only two of us, so there’s no tiebreaker.

SS: Yeah, that’s why I advocate for polyamory.

JT: With five people it really makes sense and we’re required to be in touch with our vision. I think that for the most part I set a good idea of the vision at the beginning of the piece. We all share values.

HS: I’ll just be honest and add that this way of collaborating doesn’t always work. It’s very challenging to try to reach consensus. Artistically, administratively, in producing. But the bridge toward this collaborative ideal really excites everyone in the company. We’re trying our best to get there, but yes, sometimes the dictator must take over.

JT: I think the best solution is generally obvious once it’s spoken.

SS: ITW is so international, small, and deliberate. Which I think is super unique and feels so rare for a young company. I want to know more ITW “isms,” as in, what is specific about your way of working?

JT: This might be my favorite question I’ve ever been asked.

HS: We are full of isms.

SS: But yeah, I think it’s important because when you’re making abstract work, it’s this human need to have anchors and touchstones.

JT: Oh my god, Persia would be so much better at answering this than I am.

HS: Yeah she just speaks in the language of isms.

JT: Some of them are stolen from SITI Company, honestly. Like “Vice.”

SS: I don’t remember that one.

JT: I haven’t ever actually seen that film.

SS: Me neither, I’ve been pretending to have seen it for years honestly.

JT: There was a dude whose job it was on Miami Vice to look at actors, locations, set pieces, costume pieces, and go: “That’s Vice. That’s not Vice.” We use it sparingly, but someone will be like “That’s Vice” and someone else might be like “oh yes, this little blue chair is Vice.” It’s about curating objects, movement, everything. It just helps people understand the whole piece by looking at one isolated idea.

SS: It’s reducing this complicated nebulous thing into a yes or no dichotomy.

JT: Right.

SS: I’m also interested in conventions, flavors, or ideas in theater that give you heat. Like, what are you seeing that people are investigating across the board?

HS: I’m seeing companies investigate how people are spending their time. I just saw Lewiston/Clarkston at Rattlestick. There were two plays and all ate dinner together in the middle. And then, somewhere else, maybe a play’s only 70 minutes, so we can do this and get home at a reasonable hour.

SS: Yeah, there are also companies who are sort of only curating the 70-minute play.

HS: So I think the duration of time spent and having responsibility about time is something I’m seeing investigated across larger institutions and in smaller companies as well. At the last Public Works show, there was a full out a fair beforehand. You could play games or have your fortune read.

JT: We actually just went to this talk the other day with Anne Bogart and Lear DeBessonet.

SS: Woah, that would be a super interesting conversation!

HS: Yes.

SS: Massive ties between what they’re doing!

HS: Yes. They met in an airport actually.

SS: They’re both doing crowdsourcing I feel. On two different scales, but still.

HS: Yes. And they enter their processes at two different times. Which was super interesting.

JT: Lear was talking about how she develops her Public Works pieces, and she did a production of Don Quixote with a huge cast and only five actual actors. Those five actors become the “tent posts” on which the rest of the production hangs. So the primary thing you see is the drape of the tent, but the architecture is these trained actors. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how we take this insular company, these trained ensemble members, and try to make the ensemble members intersect with other people who are not us.

HS: And that’s actually the work I’m primarily investigating. How do we invite non-theater makers into a space that has been reserved for a very elite class of people?

SS: Do you know 600 Highwaymen? Their shows are sort of built around using non-theater makers, or at least diversity in age, as a medium. Like a bunch of young girls become their medium. Or a cast of people that spans decades of life.

JT: Love it.

SS: The people they’re into become their medium. At least that’s my interpretation of what they’re doing. Also, in terms of conventions: I’m seeing a lot of microphones everywhere. Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!. Which was a fucking revelation. That production’s interaction between acoustic and amplified moments. Ostermeier’s work is populated with microphones, too. And Ivo’s work. I think aesthetically they’re cool because mics have historically belonged to non- theater spaces in a traditional sense. Using them, you can be intimate and preserve distance. There’s also something inherently powerful about microphones. Power dynamic and hierarchy of voice come to the forefront when they’re used no matter what. I love microphones.

JT: Yeah we’ve done microphones.

SS: What’s the future of ITW?

JT: We’re trying to be something bigger than we are.

SS: I’ve actually watched your branding move in that direction.

JT: We’re trying to be a mobile theater force. We want to go to any country and have a play for you.

SS: That’s scary and exciting.

JT: Scary but good, to steal a line from the play Mary’s Wedding.

SS: Sure.

JT: We’re having a summit with the whole company in November. We’re also creating a radically queer adaptation of Peter Pan. It’s all about gender indoctrination. We’ve commissioned one company member and one outside playwright, Hal Cosentino, to write the scripts. They’re wrecking each other’s scripts to create one script that will then be wrecked by an entire ensemble of queer people. Right now, I’m thinking about Lear’s “tent post” idea and our including 50 queer people in it, regardless of whether they’re actors or not.

HS: Another event we’re planning is a 48-hour devising project. We’re hoping to invite, or curate rather, a group of devisers, designers, composers, directors, and bring them together, give them a topic. 24 hours to devise, and then there will be performances. To just experiment with the styles and ways we work.

JT: We’re trying to figure out what we are as not a “host” company. Being a host is a huge part of who we are. How we established ourselves was by doing our residency on Block Island. By inviting others in, and breaking bread, and taking care of artists so hard. That’s something we do really well. But how do we infuse being a place where artists can come through and have respite, when we don’t have a location?

S: A very New York City problem. Totally.

In the Water Theatre Company’s Turtle Plays performs at The Brick in Brooklyn on 11/9, 11/13, 11/14, and 11/16 at 7pm; on 11/10 and 11/17 at 2pm; and on 11/18 at 5pm.

At the 11/15 and 11/17 performances, Turtleyou and House of Cards will be performed in their original languages of Swedish and Spanish, respectively, without English subtitles.

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