Freedom Art: A summary of epic proportions

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling up to North Conway, NH, with ten other theatre artists on Playwrights’ Commons’ Freedom Art Retreat. The experience was nothing short of amazing. I’ve already blogged and twittered about it during that week, but it totally deserves a full-out blog review–with pictures! (Pictures are courtesy of Ilana Brownstein unless otherwise noted… hooray for not having a decent camera!)

We went up to the woods for a week with the intention of spending a week on collaborative theatre projects–brainstorming, creating, and sharing. And also having a dance party. The natural surroundings were inspiring.

Frogs! And the food was wonderful because Ilana is an awesome cook. She even invented The Playwright–the new signature cocktail of Playwrights’ Commons. yum.

Heading into the retreat, I basically only knew Emily from my playwriting class at BU. And Ilana, who organized the retreat, taught my dramaturgy course last year. But I went into it not knowing most of the fellow participants. In simple terms, there were three designers, three dramaturgs, and three playwrights, but everyone had such a wide range of skills–designers who were equally as strong playwrights, playwrights who could also act and direct, dramaturgs who write fiction–basically everyone was multitalented. It made me think about what else I had to bring to the plate besides playwriting, so I started thinking a lot about my dance background, which I’ve always wanted to try to weave into my writing more.

Our first night there, we each showcased about ten minutes of our own personal work, as a way of introducing ourselves and our styles to each other. The next morning we broke into our first collaboration groups and were given five hours to go off with our groups and just see what we could create. It felt overwhelming at first. My group, fight choreographer/writer Meron and dramaturg Corianna, together with the awesomeness that is Phil the intern, walked down to the beach, talking about how when we were little we would have been in the woods looking for fairies and wishing to play with baby foxes. We began at the beach by taking a look at the fun stage weapons that Meron had brought with him, including a katana. We talked about the possibility of doing some sort of movement piece and highlighting the juxtaposition of violence and peace. We continued to brainstorm–what did we have with us that was not a violent instrument?–and came up with a bottle of bubbles. This led to attempting to pop bubbles with a katana, which is pretty difficult. We let the whole group share in this exercise that night:

This little experiment led us to crafting the idea for a children’s fairytale play in which the hero is given a magical sword that at first appears unbeatable, until he is confronted with a problem that the sword is completely unsuited for. We played off the saying that “if your only tool is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.” We talked more about the fairies and baby foxes. And we presented the outline of our story to the group that night.

The wonderful duo of Phil and Corianna also worked out a song that our Bard will sing to our hero about the legend of Hammer, the magical sword. Video is from this Playwrights’ Commons blog post, which I also mentioned in a previous post. It’s worth posting again because the song is awesome.

The next morning, we continued working with these same groups for a couple more hours to expand on what we’d started. We wrote one of the scenes, in which our hero, feeling a bit arrogant with his new powerful sword, mistakenly attacks his little fox friend and then admonishes the fox for getting in his way, much to the horror of the fox and the Bard.

That afternoon, it was time for new groups! This time, instead of three groups of three with Phil floating among all of them, we broke into two groups of five with the mission to explore our surroundings, find a place to be inspired by, and craft a five- to ten-minute piece of site-specific theatre. I worked with Phil, dramaturg Tyler, playwright Nina, and designer Allie. Maybe it was the rain that had fallen that morning, the woods, or just something about New Hampshire, but both groups separately conceived of ghost stories. Our group found a boulder next to a water supply shed reading “No Trespassing” that we thought it might be fun to explore. We talked about things ranging from hobbit residences to coming-of-age stories. Then we noticed the broken headlight glass on the road near our site, a broken Yield sign on the ground, and a crutch tied to a tree branch. We team-wrote a piece about a group of teenagers who had died in a car accident and their friend who survived it. The survivor revisits the site of the crash, where the spirits of his friends, unseen to him, are discussing their lives that could have been.

Acting at its finest by me right there. 😛 At the end, the friend lifts his bottle to the memory of his friends and walks away, while his friends return the gesture.

The next day was field trip day! We went up to Wildcat Mountain, which I’ve blogged briefly about before. There was a zipline ride:

A gondolda ride up to the summit (photo by Nina Morrison):

Some hiking around the summit:

And of course, because we were a bunch of theatre nerds, pretending we were in The Sound of Music:

We also hiked a (small) portion of the Appalachian Trail:

Which led to this amazing lookout tower:

All in all, a great field trip day. Ilana had told the designers in advance to use our field trip as inspiration for our next group project, in which the designers would serve as generative artists. Our designer had been inspired by the juxtaposition of all this man-made stuff (gondolas, ziplines, hiking trails) in a place of nature. We devised a movement/sound piece that would address the subversion of nature by technology and how that reflects on interpersonal relationships. I sadly have no pictures of this piece. If anyone posts any later I will add them. We had a crazy six-minute soundscape piece created by our phenomenal designer Jason, while dramaturg Tyler and I crafted the “script,” which consisted of only four spoken words. It was so amazing to work on something like this. I had never written any sort of movement piece before, and this type of collaborative environment was the perfect way to try one for the first time. It felt safe to experiment with things. Jason’s sound piece really felt like it scripted the entire show because it defined the emotional beats that Tyler and I worked out, so we knew how long to flesh out each moment for. Jason also made this really cool video backdrop that we played on the tv. It was so interesting to see how simply (and inexpensively) a multimedia piece could be done.

Our final full day there saw us working with groups of our choice–and everybody agreed that we wanted to split into groups of people we had not worked with (or worked closely with) yet, so I broke off with Allie and our dramaturg Amanda (which, coincidentally, makes Emily, the only person I really knew heading into the retreat, the only person I never shared a group with). We began discussing things we hadn’t gotten to work on yet–Allie, who works on puppetry design, had done a puppet piece the previous day and was eager to try something new. We somehow got onto the topic of the elusive games closet that apparently existed on the second floor but hadn’t been explored. This led to talking about board games and taglines from games (“Sorry!” “Go directly to jail.” etc.). I mentioned how I have always hated the Game of Life because it is so unlike real life. We talked about how sad it is that the purpose of the game is to make the most money. Our dramaturg got to work on researching the history of the game, and we were shocked to learn that it originated as a parlor game in the 1860s and was called “The Checkered Game of Life” because the board was laid out like a checkerboard. The object of this version of the game was to collect 100 points by landing on “good deed” spaces, culminating in “Happy Old Age” at the top, which was worth 50 points. It had some elements similar to the modern game Chutes and Ladders, where landing on a “good” quality like “Honesty” would move you forward to the “Happiness” space but landing on “bad” qualities like “Intemperance” would lead you back to spaces like “Poverty.” And there was also a “Suicide” spot on the board. We borrowed some of these elements from the historical game, coupled them with the modern game, and created a ten-minute play about one man’s journey through the Game of Life. We played with a lot of the conventions of the game.

Because we had to perform the piece with lots of paper signs to keep track of, we had some of our fellow retreaters read the script for us as we sort of pantomimed it out. It was so weird because this style of presentation arose out of necessity, but in the discussion afterward, the group thought that that style actually worked for the piece and that it could easily be adapted into a larger-than-life puppet-type show. Which is hilarious considering that Allie specifically said that she had had her fill of puppet shows for the retreat. It’s always really interesting for me when a choice that is made out of necessity ends up opening up a whole new well of ideas.

And that’s what a lot of this entire week was about. Working with who we had, what we had, and the resources all of us could bring to the table and seeing what we could make out of it. I learned a lot about my own process, and I learned that I love collaborative projects even more than I’d realized before the retreat. I love working with other people and getting to create something even better than I could have made on my own. I went into grad school not knowing anyone else who wrote plays. After I finished school, I knew a nice group of amazing writers, but I didn’t know many other theatre artists working in different disciplines. I now have a group that consists of not only writers but dramaturgs, sound designers, puppet designers, and fight directors who I feel I could call on when a project needed it. It made me want to work collaboratively so much more often. Too much of playwriting seems to take place alone at your computer, trying not to cry or rip your hair out with frustration (well, maybe that’s just my own personal process). I also hadn’t created any new work since my dad died. The support that this group offered helped me feel strong enough to dive into new projects again and to once again feel excited about my work. It made me feel like I could really belong in the greater theatre/artistic community and reaffirmed that this is what I want to be doing with my life.

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One response to “Freedom Art: A summary of epic proportions

  1. Pingback: Countdown: 3 days! « Meet Me on the Commons

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