Remote Control Directing and Lessons in Ensemble-Based Theatre

By Alyssa Hughlett

I will cut straight to the point: this was my first, and will be my last, attempt to direct a show from afar (remotely). Has it been worthwhile for everyone involved? I would venture to say yes, but we are not done developing yet. Has this been a valuable lesson for UpLift and for me? Yes. Will I agree to do this again in the future? Nope.

Going into this, I knew that there was no substitute for being physically in the rehearsal room, so I was careful about setting expectations that I could not meet regarding my role as a “remote control director.” What I expected was that I would be able to make decisions by having the advantage of seeing the whole. In the end: I fooled myself.

Before you begin to pity me, just know that I write this with both a humble heart and a smile on my face. After all, I do this because I want to (of course, that want is filled with a deep yearning accompanied by a sense of purpose and perspective). The truth is that when actually faced with the real work of manifesting an entire production and play from afar, the curtain was lifted from my eyes and I realized that what I have been doing is NOT, in fact, directing. What I’ve been doing these past four months on this project is more akin to facilitating, or being a creative consultant, but not directing. As a director, one can facilitate or act as a guide, and not just as an authority that issues dictums or decisions. But, what I am trying to say is that the agreements we made about my role in this process put me in the physical reality of being something other than a director. I also believe that we all thought we liked the idea of having a director, but in our heart of hearts we did not wish to give over to the reality of what that meant.

I extend my deep gratitude and pleasure to the community that came to our Circus Center works-in-progress showing and offered us their poetic voice and critical eyes. This was a huge service to us and we thank you for it all. The feedback has entered into our creative process in various ways and degrees. Following the showing, we agreed that as the director I would process the feedback, both written, as well as what came up in discussion. Then, based on this feedback, I would present a final structure and proposal along with a plan to have the show finalized by the first week of May. Naturally, this is an immense agreement, and looking back on things I am not sure why I did not spot the seemingly obvious flaws. As I sorted, processed, and meditated on the feedback, and then held valuable discussions with other company members about how to move forward, I eventually found myself essentially playwriting. We needed to take all of the work and make cuts, create context, frame it, and bring it together, and this called for specific decisions to made. 

So there I was crafting the play at my desk in Blue Lake, 210 miles away from the Bay Area. The major conflict would be asking the actors to go from finding the play “organically” to satisfying this framework or proposal even if it seemed awkward or not justified in their perception at first or second try. I have worked as an actor several times for a director in a process where you push through and follow the direction as best as you can, whether or not you are completely complicit. In some ways I liked this way of working—in most ways I did not. Ultimately, what I was asking, was for my three actors—who are my ensemble mates—to sacrifice something of their egos, in order to follow (as best as they could) my proposal. But remember, we had agreed on this to an extent, otherwise I would not have set about it. The big issue was that I could not physically be in the room to direct or help them navigate out of the mud should it get a little muddy.  And that is how I came to fool myself.

In the first rehearsal, I laid out the game plan for how we were moving forward. I wanted everyone to be clear that I had thought this through, so I stated the specifics of how we would work and I stated that this would require being okay with things being awkward at times. My hope was that they could push through the stuff that seemed to be coming out of nowhere in order to eventually understand the context that I was framing. I brought this game plan forward only with the desire to serve the whole in the best way I knew how. I was problem solving. Creative problem solving albeit, but nonetheless, every action that I was taking both in my work on the “script” and with rehearsals, was to solve the problem of time. This may be the first time I have felt this way in a creative endeavor and truth be told, I am both proud and conflicted about that. Why be conflicted about being a problem solver? Problem solving is usually a great skill to have and use, but in the case of making ‘Art’ (or something of beauty), problem solving can be deleterious to that end. Argue with me about this, I invite you, I dare you, I welcome you, too. I am not sending the problem solver in me into exile, but a week later, I noticed the ensemble was feeling unmotivated, strange, and something was not jiving. When we unpacked the problem, it was clear that this was not the way to sustainably move forward in our work. We also made the decision not to open the show at the end of April so that the ensemble could meet on better terms to rehearse. So, I have made the decision to retire the theory (at least for myself) that the work we do can be done via members Skyping in and participating in rehearsals as an outside eye or otherwise. It was very much worth the trials and testing, and we learned a great deal from it. I will, however, lay this one to rest with much relief.

The deal is, we have been adapting, recycling, and reusing work for the past two years. The beautiful thing is that we are turning a new page entirely with Jerome Yorke leading a project that is to begin at the end of July. While adapting “Terra Incognita” into a three-woman piece will certainly require new work, original ideas, and a new framework, I do not believe it is able to be anything other than a pure ensemble-devised piece; the ensemble is unwilling to give one person ultimate creative power. Of course, this might be different if  Arianne Mnouchkine, Julie Taymor, or any other notable director were to approach us and say “I want to direct this piece!” Then we would be quite willing to say “Yes, here it is. Do with it what you will!” I say this, because the aforementioned directors have a known aesthetic, process, and credibility that is exciting to bow down to. I am not self-deprecating, but merely honest, when I say that I do not have this authority within the ensemble. Neither is it my prerogative to act as such at this time, or in this specific project. We all are emerging together, developing together, building something together through this adaptation—and that makes it an ensemble work. When I reflect on this process, it may have been more worthwhile of my time to act as a kind of playwright/dramaturg if I wanted to participate in the creative evolution of the piece. This is a lesson well-learned.

So we postponed opening in May and rehearsals still continue. I have shifted my role as director to creative consultant and outside eye. This adaptation in many ways is really a vehicle for so many other lessons that we are learning as a company. I am continually grateful for the grace and bond that I have with all of the members of UpLift. My energy and attention in the next couple months will be focused on bringing our newest ensemble member out of my womb and into the world, and I could not have asked for better company or family. In early June, my partner, Steve, and I are going to become parents. Many predict that it will just fly out of me and start doing cartwheels. Whatever it does, it will be the most sacred of creative endeavors that I will possibly ever undertake in this life.

 

Resurrection...Buoyancy

by Jerome Yorke

Hello out there. I am so excited to UpDate you on what we have on the horizon. Since becoming a full time faculty member for the University of Dayton Theatre, Dance and Performance Technology program specializing in acting, movement, mask and clowning, I have had little time to think about what is UpNext for us. Luckily for me spring is an amazing time. In Ohio, old winter branches are showing off their fresh tips polished kelly green; they breathe with a crisp fertile excitement, a shiver, a reminder that life is.
has always been.
here.
and now is reemerging.

Along with this appears a light motif of resurrection and the questions that start appearing as an orchestra in my imagination.

Now that my semester is winding down, I get to spend some time in the process of making a new show. I say “in the process,” but in reality it now only exists in my head.  And so, as the air I breathe - so my thoughts; I’d like to attempt a series of posts about this process of creating our new show that is as infantile as the tulip buds peeking through the soil with a wonder for light. As you read, so do my ensemble-mates. I say this to say that all I write below could be completely void from what we actually make. The important thing: to start.

Resurrection. To rise from fallen. How does one get up? What does it take to be lifted in a time of great despair? How am I held up in weightless joy? Hoping or helpless? Helpless? One can’t rise without help, even help from oneself. Oneself two triumph.

Stand by the stairway
You'll see something
Certain to tell you confusion has its cost
Love isn't lying
It's loose in a lady who lingers
Saying she is lost
And choking on hello.

-Stephen Stills

(hashtagOkthisisgettingtobestupid... ...sssshhh!) Resurrection. Going up. Verticality is compelling, what if we used the vertical theatre space instead of the horizontal? Can we shift the space as we rise? Askew an expectation and alter a point of view? Resurrection. To leave behind what crushed you. A new place, a migrant, a refugee dis-placed. Crushed and sacrificial - determined to rise anew anyplace else. Resurrection...Buoyancy.

UpDate

by Hannah Gaff

An UpDate on UpLift. On Sunday, March 13th we facilitated a three-hour workshop and hosted a works-in-progress showing at the Circus Center in San Francisco. These events culminated our 2.5 month stint as Artists in Residence at CC. This residency has allowed us the rehearsal time and space to forge forth in a first round of creation and adaptation of our newest piece. We’re extremely grateful to the Circus Center for welcoming us into their space and also to the incredible group of workshop participants and amazing artists and colleagues who joined us for the showing and generously gave us their feedback, dreams, ideas, hopes, and musings - all sparked by the work we laid before them!

It was a big day.

The first half of the day was spent facilitating our workshop - Transcending Technique: A Workshop in Devising Acrobatic Stories. We had 17 amazing bodies of all shapes and sizes and from many different movement backgrounds participate in the workshop.

First off, we got to know each other a little bit:

We pushed ourselves to our physical limits: 

We were UpLifted:

We explored physical partnering and storytelling: 

IMGP2901 copy.jpg

And finally, in ensemble, we created a performance!

After facilitating and participating in the workshop, I was exhausted. I had succumbed to the irresistible temptation to throw myself body and heart into the movement work, rolling and catching and throwing bodies as we crafted story and images with the workshop participants.  I realized that I had expended too much energy and my body was in need of rest. However, I was not at my limit, simple approaching it. We ask an incredible amount of our bodies in this work. We push ourselves to our physical limits and then we push past. We have a great sensitivity and awareness of our own physical and emotional bodies due to this. We freely express and embrace our limitations, all while pushing ourselves and pulling each other toward that vulnerable state of being tired, at our limit, toes at the edge of the cliff and ready to fall or dive, or give ourselves over to the abyss. These moments are gifts and full of beauty. We up lift each other in these moments. We let ourselves be taken. Sometimes we have moments of beautiful, authentic failure. The audience was alive and breathing and ready to catch us in this moment. We seek this visceral emotional connection with the audience in our work, always.

As Alyssa and I plan for the next phase of rehearsal and development of UpLift’s three-woman piece in April, I can’t help but feel proud of what we’ve accomplished in the past three months. Our primary goal for 2016 is to establish a community and name for ourselves in the Bay Area. We’re only three months into the year, and we’ve already done so much! We’ve had the privilege to perform at Athletic Playground, AcroSports, and Circus Center, three of the top movement and acrobatic training centers in the Bay Area. Each of us has developed relationships with fellow movers and performers in each of these training centers. Both Nicholette and Juliana train at Athletic Playground and Juliana works there; I teach and manage the performance program at Acrosports, and work at Circus Center.

We're in the process of booking a couple of performances in April and early May - more information coming soon. And, we have a new website in the works! We can't wait to share our work with you again, and to hear your feedback, dreams, ideas, hopes, and musings once more. See you soon!

Photo and video credit - Travis Gaff

We are Family

By Nicholette Routhier

I’ll begin with a glimpse into a recent rehearsal: Hannah said, “Nico, the look on your face after you fart is precious. Someone should take a picture.” Juliana immediately responded, “Oh, I did!”

Full disclosure: I fart in rehearsal more often than I’d like to admit, but, apparently, every time I do it, I look like this: 

So it can’t be that bad, right?

My ensemble members generally don’t mind my occasional tooting. In fact, some even say they like the smell. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not the only one who lets ‘em rip! With the tumbling, flipping, and contorting we do with our bodies, we’re all doomed to squeak them out on occasion. It comes with the territory.

The reason why I share this is to let you in on a little secret: we UpLifters are uber human – we laugh, we cry, and yes, we even fart, and through it all, we love one another like family because, in our hearts (and our farts!), we are family. Our trust, love, and friendship run deep, and these qualities translate to the work we perform onstage. As performing artist Bay Bryan said after seeing our performance of "Terra Incognita"this summer, “Vulnerability flows throughout this highly energetic and at-times poignant performance, which is a testament to not only the choreography, but also to the talents of each individual and the talents of the collective as a whole…”

Our rehearsals are infused with passion for the theatre we create. I love this video appropriately called “Happy Dance." In it, you get a glimpse into one of the ways we express excitement and enthusiasm for new ideas. When we are struck with something powerful, it is not unusual for one of us to shout, clap, well-up with tears, or even do a “happy dance.” We honor our creative geniuses with deep appreciation and celebration.

As you can imagine, our rehearsals are not all fun and farts. Most of the time, they are quite intense – we work hard, train hard, and focus our creative energy for hours on end. At times, this builds a kind of pressure that eventually needs to be released. Sometimes we channel it into even more fiercely  physical work, sometimes we yell, sometimes we drop into deep conversations, and sometimes, we dance.

I love this video of Alyssa, Hannah and Moses in rehearsal because it perfectly represents the scope of our process in a brief, yet specific moment. Before you watch it, please allow me to give you a bit of context. In the beginning, you will see Alyssa and Hannah attempting a new skill. Alyssa is harnessed into a “spotting belt” and Moses is “spotting” on a rope attached to the harness. Hannah and Alyssa attempt the skill several times (Spoiler alert: They don’t achieve it.) They give the most common reasons for struggling with a skill (i.e. the clothes are in the way, someone is tired, etc.) Then they decide to let it go for the day. That’s when the magic happens. (You’ll have to watch to see what I mean! Trust me – it’s worth it!) What I love about this part of the video is that my ensemble members are as focused when they play as they are when they work. That’s the key - we flow between work and play with seamless precision. You might even say we’re professionals!

In the end, we’re people bonded together by a collective love, and through that love, we’ve uncovered a friendship like no other. Family. Truly. And you know what they say about families that fart together…

… make great art together!

Photo and video credits: Hannah Gaff, Juliana Frick, and Dan Norman

On Our Own Terms

by Alyssa Hughlett

IMG_6906.JPG

Back in January, we leapt with full hearts into our residency at Circus Center armed with a great deal of enthusiasm and gratitude. Nicholette, Juliana, Hannah, and I were looking forward to having a longer than usual time (i.e. more than two weeks) to create a new work. This would also mean more room for training and new skill development and the opportunity to try new things in the creation process. The only way this could get better was if we were being paid a salary for our work (which we one day hope to accomplish).

Now, fast forward to two weeks later, whereupon if you peeked into our rehearsal and internal group communications you would see the opposite picture: a huge shadow of doubt, fear, and stress hanging over us all as we prepared ourselves for, not a full length show, but two short cabaret performances. Our aim was to take material that we were developing and show it off a little bit within the acrobatic and circus community to see how it plays in that sphere. The purpose was to not make material specifically for cabaret, but simply to perform our work for the community and meet people.  

Yet, we were back in that all too familiar mode again, which I am sure many performers and artists would recognize. The mode where it feels as though all the organically discovered creative material you have developed is being thrown on a conveyor belt headed directly for the meat grinder to be processed and packaged for a performance or two. Things really do get nihilistic at that point. You find yourself saying “I have no idea why I am moving this way now, but I guess I have to do something,” or “maybe I was not doing anything different after all.” In our case, we wondered if we were ever going to have a chance to create a new work without the stress of having it finely packaged up and ready to go in two weeks or less.

This is the point where I could now diverge from talking about our process and begin to write extensively about the REAL NEED for more federal and private support of the Arts and Artists. I mean what happened to the day when a company was given money to pay their actors, directors, and designers what they needed so that they could simply do what they do? This is not an extinct thing, it is happening for several established theatre, dance, and performing companies, but the opportunities are rare for the smaller, and at times, more innovative companies to be able to make the kind of work that breaks conventions or standards.

I have already digressed.

image1.JPG

The thing is, we made it through those two and a half weeks of stress and doubt, emerging from it all with having learned a great deal more about the physical and emotional nature of the relationships in the work we have begun to develop. We also learned that we want to start doing things “on our terms,” which is just another way of saying that we are learning to discriminate more clearly between what is really important to us versus where we think we should be at any given point. This carries through on every level of operation within our company: from rehearsals and show creation to the administration of our company. Now that we are back in rehearsals after the two cabaret performances, it seems as though we hit a reset button, only we have not lost any work or material. We have fully committed ourselves to making our performance on mid-March at the Circus Center a works-in-progress showing, along with a three hour workshop to precede the showing. Sometimes, even works-in-progress showings can put pressure on actors and performers, but we really hope to fully generate and develop up until that day when we present our “research” or the bare bones of a new play; bones that may not even be fully arranged into a working skeleton.

"Beauty cannot be forced. It alone decides when it will come and sometimes it is the last thing we expect and the very last thing to arrive." -John O’Donohue

For the past two weeks, Hannah, Juliana, and Nicholette have been following a detailed rehearsal structure that I issued as soon as they finished the cabaret. The structure is very detailed in its instructions, including what to send back to me if I could not be streamed online (I gave them them the times that I would be available online). I asked for free writes, open explorations that had a given context, scenes to be written, as well as new material to be created. I sent them pictures and videos that I felt represented something of what I was trying to describe in words when this was necessary. I also gave them time to do some “uncensored play” or training. What we mean by “uncensored” is that we give ourselves license to do, say, or explore anything without worrying what the outcome will be. As the videos, audio recordings, and writings came in, I set about reviewing them. I then had a notes session online with Juliana, Nicholette, and Hannah at one of their Circus Center rehearsals, saying what resonated with me, images or ideas that came up for me, directions to move toward, text that should be kept, and thoughts about what is happening in the dramatic circumstances of the play.

IMG_6841.JPG

I once thought that I was not putting in the effort or time that Hannah, Juliana, and Nicholette were putting in for rehearsal, as I was not having to travel or show up in the room with them. However, now I very much feel that I am rehearsing with them as well as equalling their time with my own work. I use an hours tracker app on my iphone to keep track of the time I spend with their material from rehearsals, and it shows me in a concrete way that my effort is significant. Looking ahead, we have about 40-45 hours left of rehearsals until the works in progress showing and workshop on March 13th. We will be in full gear rehearsing and playing, “on our own terms,” and maybe we will see you at the public showing March 13th, where we can get your thoughts and ideas about what you see.  We will return to develop the play and have it ready for premiering and booking by Fall 2016. It is still unentitled, but at this point, I am holding off on giving it a name until the name gives itself to us (in the past, we have had to name our play before even having a play).

On our own terms.

Life as a NOT-Starving Artist in San Francisco

by Hannah Gaff

Starving artist (n) - an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork.

There is nothing noble or romantic in sacrificing your well-being to make art. Living life as an artist is already a sacrifice; the creation of art demands nothing less than all of you. But that sacrifice should never be food or shelter or your own physical and emotional well-being. Making art demands a strong body, mind, and spirit – especially the highly physical and emotive work that UpLift makes. So we must take care. Living as starving artists prevents us from being actual artists.

And now is when I admit that I am seriously struggling to find balance in my own life as a theatre-creator and artist in San Francisco. I refuse to starve (so I'm working, working, working) and I refuse to believe that it's impossible to be an artist in SF (so, I'm creating, creating, creating) and all of this leaves me very little time for me. Am I sacrificing myself?

I've been feeling selfish a lot since moving back to San Francisco. Selfish, unreliable, overwhelmed, and as if I've become a person I don't recognize and maybe don't even like. I pride myself on being a reliable, hardworking person. The past few months, though, I've had to cancel on friends, work, and other obligations an embarrassing amount of times.

Sometimes it feels like I'm failing. But other times I’m reminded of just how necessary and vital UpLift’s work is. Just the other night after Juliana and I performed, an audience member came up to me effusive with joy and bubbling over with emotion. Although she had been sitting fairly far from the stage where we performed, she had been transported during our piece, and had shared the stage with us as we moved together. These moments sustain me and remind me of why we are doing this.

After graduating from Dell'Arte with my MFA this past June, I decided to return to San Francisco and only take work that left my schedule flexible. If a job might prevent me from following my artistic path, then I would say “no” to that job and find another way to make ends meet. In the past, I've never not had a full-time, 9-5 job, and I've had to pass on a lot of opportunities because of this. For the past eight years I've worked days and rehearsed evenings and weekends at the expense of my creative energy and personal life. I decided that now was the time I would risk my financial and psychological security and experience what my life as an artist could really be.

But the truth so far is that since I moved to SF committed to maintaining a flexible schedule, I have had very few opportunities (performance gigs, rehearsals, or workshops) that demanded my schedule be flexible. At the same time, my schedule has changed innumerable times as I've tried to rearrange and juggle my multiple jobs so that I am making enough money to survive. Some weeks I've had little to no work and others I've had to back out of work so I wasn't killing myself. It seems like I'm constantly wondering if my boss is upset because I just changed my mind for the third time about wanting more or less shifts, or wondering if my friend is upset because I canceled on her for the third time, or if I be able to make rent this month... 

This life is full of uncertainty and unknowns. For instance, I'm currently waiting to hear back about a festival, a grant, two volunteer gigs in other countries, a residency, a summer-long series of performance gigs, several workshops, and work hours at two of my jobs. Thus far, it seems that my fluid schedule hasn't made it easier to say “yes,” but rather made it more difficult to give a definitive “yes” or “no” to opportunities, because there are so many unknowns. Have I sacrificed my respect for myself or my reputation? Have I become unreliable? How do I know if I’m being smart and objective and making good decisions or if I’m just being a selfish ass?

I'm exhausted and I wonder what I could be doing better. Would my stress be reduced and everything easier if I just got a full time job? At least then I would know that I could make rent. I wouldn't have to go back and forth and be so wishy washy about commitments. I might respect myself more. But, my schedule would be tied up. I wouldn’t have the freedom to say “yes” when that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for UpLift comes along.

Despite all of the struggles (and perhaps, in part, because of them), I am incredibly proud of how much UpLift has accomplished since our retreat in December.

As Alyssa mentioned in her previous blog entry, our major goal for 2016 is developing and investing in a community and home base. With Juliana, Hannah and Nicholette located in San Francisco and Oakland, and Alyssa just north in Humboldt County, the Bay Area is an ideal location and the movement & performance communities here are vibrant and rich.

One way in which we are investing is by developing relationships with other movement-based nonprofits in our community. I'm proud to announce that UpLift is Artist in Residence at the Circus Center SF from January to March, 2016! One of the biggest expenses and most difficult aspects of creating our work is having rehearsal space, so we feel really lucky to be there. In addition to space, we have access to equipment such as spotting lines, mats, and training equipment. We are utilizing the time and resources that our residency at Circus Center affords us to create our three-woman adaptation of "Terra Incognita."

Another means of connecting with this place and our community is simply performing the work. Over the past few weeks we’ve performed at two other local circus and movement centers, Athletic Playground and AcroSports. At times, focusing on these performances has felt like a detour from the creation of our new show, but ultimately the rush to create for these performances and the audience response has already demonstrated how important it is for us to be doing this work here and now in this community.

I choose to believe that it's possible for us to live as not-starving artists in San Francisco. And I choose to believe that it's possible to do so without compromising our well-being and our vision as artists. We can do this. We want to do this. We refuse to give up. Especially today when artists in SF are facing extinction and surviving as an artist in this city is considered impossible. We choose to face the impossible.

Video of our Athletic Playground works-in-progress showing in January, featuring Juliana Frick and Hannah Gaff.

Aging Acrobats

by Juliana Frick

As mentioned in the previous blog post, we are making a new show! A lot is different this time around. From an ensemble of eight we have become three. Our last show we were a mixed-gendered group, in this iteration we are all female-bodied. We are all roughly the same size, meaning there is not as clear a distinction between the classic base and flyer roles (not that we have ever been interested in adhering to that formality). We are giving ourselves longer than two-weeks to make a show.

And finally, the difference that I am most interested in:

We are building a show with acrobats who are all in their thirties.

My sister, 13 years my senior, would laugh at me for making a big deal about being thirty. Yes, yes, yes, we are still young and all that blahblahblah etc. etc. BUT in the lifespan of an acrobat, we are entering into a different phase which more acutely begs the question:

How do we continue to gain highly-physical acrobatic skill while also gaining years (and all the wear and tear that comes with it) in our bodies?

Some of us began training our various physical disciplines when we were young. I started on the trapeze at age five, acrobatics at age nine and partner hand-to-hand at age ten. I had a beautiful short-lived career touring with youth-circus Circus Smirkus until I got kicked out for shoplifting when I was 14 (seriously). I stopped doing acrobatics at that point, picking it up again in my twenties where I promptly learned my first lesson of post-adolescent partner acrobatics: I can not simply rely on being smaller than everyone else. In my adult-body, I have to be smart. I have to think about form and efficiency and working with my partner to find the place of ease between us.

Now, a decade later, I’m undergoing a similar process. My primary mode of play is to SMASH. I love throwing myself into things, gaining power from high-velocity impact. For the last ten years my body could do this with little warm-up and recovery time. Lately though, it takes longer to get my wrists ready for weight-bearing. Impact with the ground echoes through my joints. I have to be more proactive in reminding my spine it is more related to a snake than a stick.

What I am discovering is that, once again, I have to be smarter in how I train. As Director of Training (capitalized to represent how ridiculously pleased I feel about this title), I’m undertaking a research project that looks closely at all the joints in our bodies. I’m trying to define in very specific terms what we are asking those joints to do in our work and then creating a training program to facilitate that.

UpLift is not interested in creating a spectacle of impressive physical feats. We are interested in using a highly-physical vocabulary to tell human stories. We are both acrobats and actors, athletes and poets. As I embark on this little research project, I will look at the physical forces acting on our bodies but I will also look at the stories we are telling, what qualities those stories require us to step into. To that end, my job in UpLift is to liberate us from anything holding us back from the full spectrum of physical expression.

I’ll let you know how the research goes.

Skyping It In

by Alyssa Hughlett

image1.JPG

Anything can be difficult to run remotely. Whether it is a business, project, company, vacation home, rental, you name it. Directing a play or performance piece in the theatre is a business that typically takes place in the rehearsal room. In fact, it seems like a kind of blasphemy for the director to be anything but physically present in the same rehearsal room with the actors. And yet, here I am the director of UpLift’s newest project, an adaptation of our 8-person, 2015 summer production, “Terra Incognita,” to be created with three of our extraordinary female core ensemble members. Juliana, Nicholette, and Hannah will tell the story of a woman’s suffering and loss by means of expressive acrobatics and movement combined with original text written by the cast.  

As an ensemble and in our personal lives, we are largely in a Terra Incognita - an unknown place. For most of us, the second half of 2015 was spent relocating and putting down roots in different places. This was expected from everyone when we first joined forces, but brings obvious challenges. Jerome is in Ohio immersed in his first year of teaching as a professor at Dayton University. Moses moved back to LA to pursue a career as a performer. Andrea is finishing her masters in Puerto Rico, performing her butt off, and teaching. Nicholette moved to Oakland. Hannah moved to San Francisco. I stayed put in Blue Lake, but moved into a new house with my partner, took on a faculty role at Dell’Arte International, and I am building a life here in Humboldt, California - as challenging as that is for a theatre professional.

In December we held a hearty two-day retreat in Oakland, with ensemble members outside of the Bay Area joining Hannah, Nicholette, Juliana, and myself over Google Hangouts, where we made some much needed decisions about what direction to move forward in over the next five years. One of the many decisions we made at this meeting was that in the next year we wanted to focus on creating work on the West Coast, specifically in the Bay Area. We have applied for a residency between January and March to create this next work at a local training center. ­­The residency will allow us access to a facility specifically designed for highly physical performers and is great for us to not only train new skills and grow our physical expertise, but it is also gives us a space to rehearse and perform our work for an audience by the end.

So why did we agree to have me remotely direct a show? And, do we even a need a director? What is the benefit of having a director who cannot be physically present at most of the rehearsals? Why not hire someone in the Bay Area to direct? The simple answer that lies beneath it is this: technology makes it possible.

For the record, I suppose, I need to state that we would not be able to work on a new show in this manner without having spent a little more than three years together training, studying physical theatre, generating material in a laboratory-like setting with the support of mentors and teachers and (let’s not fail to mention) the vibrant community of Humboldt County. We have established not only a way of working together, but a constantly evolving physical language or vocabulary. This has allowed us to develop a perspective, or lens, to look through and see what it is we are doing.

We often have our computer’s open at rehearsals, streaming our creative work to fellow cast members and creative eyes. We record pieces and explorations and send them to others to watch and give us feedback or even to write text to. We use project organizing forums to share everything from creative ideas, to booking information, travel arrangements, costume ideas, and more. We are adept at working both in the room with each other - or rather body to body I should say - as well as virtually.

So let me bring you up to speed with where we are in our latest project, which I refer to as 3WTI: The Three Woman Terra Incognita (our working title). In early December, Nico, Hannah, Juliana, and I met in a Google Hangout and we brainstormed how to make or adapt “Terra Incognita” into a version with only three women. I acted as a facilitator in the conversation and listened to the three of them pour out ideas about who was interested in stepping into previously created duets, trio’s, etc., and what that may require in terms of skill development.  We also talked about character, story, themes, music, lighting, training, as well as personal goals or desires while working on the piece. Hannah then began working fervently on coordinating everyone’s schedules to arrange rehearsal times and space - which was a harrowing task to undertake indeed. As the director, it was my task to cast the play and propose a structure to the group for our next rehearsal. Juliana, our director of training, would act as a rehearsal manager, and she would help me implement rehearsals in the room, which means that I would be working closely with her to set a rehearsal plan and guideline.  One week later, I sent Juliana my proposal and vision for the overall structure of the piece and she responded with a brave and bold suggestion: that as director, I keep my vision of the structure to myself and give the cast (Juliana, Hannah, and Nico) only what was needed, step by step. This way the cast could relinquish themselves to the discovering of the piece and we could avoid falling into the trap of long-winded ensemble conversations and debates about order, structure, etc. It also gave me license to either stay with what I put on paper or change the piece as we move forward with creation.

On December 23rd, the four of us met in Hannah’s movement studio (located in San Francisco’s  Mission district), where we checked in, warmed up our bodies, did a handstand workout, and then jumped into the first exploration. I had the three of them go through the original show as it existed over the summer, moving through the entire thing on their feet. In many cases, they were moving with an imaginary partner, but I still had them totally commit to doing just that, full out. This was followed by a ten minute free write or reflection, which we then proceeded to share and discuss for the rest of our time together. I gathered their writing, most of which was creative material (i.e. writing from the perspective of a character).

Since that point, I have been reflecting on the next step forward. I sent out a skill and training list to Juliana who is implementing the training and development of these skills in rehearsals. At this point, I cannot divulge the next step of the process, as I have not even told Nico, Hannah, and Juliana what that is yet.

Our residency began on January 9 (details of residency announced soon!). I joined the cast on Google Hangout for a part of the rehearsal, at which point they already had material to show that was fertile and compelling. They sent me two videos of the same duet, with Hannah and Juliana switching roles in each video. After watching both to see which arrangement worked best with regards to character and storytelling, it was clear that the better version was opposite from what I had originally thought when asking them to work on it. This will probably happen often throughout our creation process. Nico, Juliana, and Hannah have also been sending creative writing from each rehearsal for me to refer to as I work them through the structure.  This writing may dramatically change the structure, or it may be the underlying organs and connective tissue. Juliana is taking on the music for this production, and will draw on her digital library of local musicians -  people she has played with or knows of, and will give us music to listen to throughout the process to see what sticks. We have also been throwing around the possibility of having an original score created for the piece. If you know anyone who is interested, well, you know, drop us a line or message.

The next time I write, our rehearsals and artistic endeavor will be well underway and I am sure I will be telling you about what worked, and perhaps even more interestingly, what didn’t work! Until then, we will continue to push ourselves to edge of our physical limitations, finding ease as we take risks, and breathing deeply in our work.

It Turns Out Leadership is Empowering...For Everyone

By Nicholette Routhier

IMG_9017.jpg

Last year, I was elected as UpLift’s Ensemble Facilitator. The position was born out of the vision to give everyone in the ensemble an equal voice through voting and ask an individual within the ensemble to facilitate that process. Here is a short summary of my responsibilities:

Ensemble Facilitator facilitates organization, communication, self-care, and the overall well-being of the ensemble via the following:

  • Maintaining online organization systems
  • Moderating business meetings and other ensemble discussions
  • Ensemble mediation if necessary
  • Facilitating decision-making in the most efficient means possible by maintaining a vision for the “big picture,” both in business and creative processes; making final decisions if the ensemble cannot come to one as a whole
  • Constant availability as a resource for ensemble members to address questions and concerns
  • Maintaining constant awareness of self-care, specifically pertaining to nutrition, hydration, rest and injury prevention/care

It looks pretty great on paper. In practice, it was disempowering and impractical.

UpLift creates theatre as an ensemble with each member contributing their own personal perspective, vision, and inspiration to the whole. As both Ensemble Facilitator and a member of the ensemble, it was difficult, and at times impossible, for me to maintain a vision of the “big picture.” Therefore, when I was called upon to make a final decision, “when the ensemble couldn’t come to one as a whole,” my decisions were almost always biased by my personal perspective. In addition, I wasn’t used as a “resource for ensemble members to address questions and concerns.” Instead, those with strong opinions, questions, and concerns kept them to themselves and brought them out during stressful situations, which, as you can imagine, was never effective and became taxing on me as a leader.

If I may be blunt, it was a shit show.

It is a testament to our skills, passion, drive, and commitment as an ensemble that our production of Terra Incognita was so successful last summer. No matter what, we always came together onstage and presented a powerful performance. With that in mind, we turned this year’s focus to finding a better way to run our company.

FullSizeRender.jpg

Last month, we made some big changes to our ensemble structure and creation process that have already made a powerful impact. We no longer have an Ensemble Facilitator. Instead, we’ve elected an Artistic Director and a Managing Director. For the next two years, Hannah is the Managing Director and Alyssa is the Artistic Director. Hannah has delegated the responsibilities of workshop coordination to Juliana and financial management to me, and Alyssa has delegated the oversight of training and skill development to Juliana. Beginning in 2018, we will alternate the roles of Managing Director and Artistic Director within the ensemble on an annual basis.

The beautiful thing about our new roles is that we are all empowered to make our own decisions and lead in our specific areas of responsibility. I got to see this in practice at our last rehearsal when Juliana arrived with a full rehearsal structure rooted in training and skill development that she formed based on discussions with Alyssa. Juliana took leadership and owned her perspectives on what we needed to train and how to effectively do so. Hannah and I trusted and valued those perspectives and improved because of it. Juliana was also open to our perspectives and feedback, which allowed for an open dialogue throughout the training session. It was such an awesome experience to have with my colleagues. At one point, we were doing an exercise to strengthen our wrists and I couldn’t contain my enormous gratitude for the space we made to allow for this. It was such a joy to see Juliana in her element and experience my growth as a result of it.

12314008_1548973902059192_5771730861037983746_n.jpg

This is happening on all levels of our company now. With Alyssa as the director of our new show, we are free from having to hold the role of the “outside eye” and can apply ourselves fully to performing and devising the content of the show. With Hannah as Managing Director, we can give her the space to establish protocols and policies based on what she feels will most effectively and efficiently move our company forward. Both are open to feedback, but ultimately, we trust in their leadership.  

The unexpected benefit to establishing these roles in our ensemble is that now, we are all empowered. I’m grateful for our resilience and our creative capacity to try a new way of working together, and I look forward to seeing how our company evolves because of it.

Special thanks to Colum Hatchell for editing and Audrey Leclair for photography.