Skyping It In

by Alyssa Hughlett

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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.