san francisco

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

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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.

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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.

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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.