You refer to "building" your shows as opposed to writing them. What does that mean?
The Company exists as the performance arm of the Ward Acting Studio and, as such, introduces actors to two kinds of performance experiences – traditional theater and original work. When the Company works on an original piece, we begin with an idea or theme or place and then scour around finding poetry, prose, drama, music, photos and primary source materials that relate to that theme. Rather than sitting down and writing a script with a protagonist and antagonist, I tend to 'sort' these materials into something that slowly evolves into a theater piece. The ensemble is very much a part of every step in that process. With Revival, we literally put up our tent first and then began to work in the tent, using these found materials and in this way "built" the show.
Your programs don't always associate character names with the performers or the names of other designers such as costume designer, set designer, choreographers, etc. Can you tell us about that?
I'd be happy to. Let me take that last part first. We don't list our set designer, costume designer, choreographer, etc. because there aren't any. The ensemble does all of the work itself. Occasionally I will hire a composer or a designer but it is rare, and of course in those instances, we credit their work in the program.
The Company exists as a true ensemble where the actors become co-creators with me, participating in all aspects of the production process. It's also been noted that we don't stage hierarchical curtain calls. Again, this is because our pieces don't have lead actors. I suppose also with Revival we focused on the community rather than the individual people attending the revival and so in some cases did not feel that even giving them specific character names was necessary.
We recently decided to abide by requests from critics to designate which actor played what role. While I prefer to emphasize the work and the ensemble, I understand that traditionally reviewers have received press packets with headshots, etc. that help them mention people by name in their reviews.
What can you tell us about your decision in your latest piece, Revival, to use music other than traditional gospel music and hymns?
Revival was never meant to be a realistic play. While our actors are quite gifted in performing with emotional honesty and authenticity – and you'll see these attributes in the production – I wanted to create our own sort of fanciful revival world. We also knew that speaking in tongues and snake handling was not something we thought would work in our small space. Thus, I decided that the use of contrasting music and dance could take the place of that other kind of fervor and layer in an urban tone in this rural setting. I've been creating pieces with a sort of 'stylized realism' since I first opened my Studio in New York in 1996, and when the company creates its own work it frequently has this sort of quality. In fact, I created a show in 1993 in New York where the female characters were all convicts who rapped much of their roles.
And why did you choose to have the preacher's role audio taped and not performed live in front of us?
I knew that I wanted to focus the attention of the audience on the experience of the people listening to the preacher and not the preacher himself. This piece is about the community of people at the revival. By keeping the preacher offstage, the audience watches the responses these people have to what the preacher is saying.
I think Brandon Cooke does an excellent job representing Appalachian preachers' points of view and has captured the cadences of their speech while still making it very much his own. We require that the audience participate through their ears and experience the community's responses through their eyes. We've divided the sermons up into short bites of about 5 minutes, but we knew when we were building it that some people's attention spans will be challenged. Yet, so far, our audiences have seemed to really enjoy this aspect of the production. (Some of our actor audience members will recognize the form from their experiences on Forensics teams at their high schools and colleges.)