Why Tell Stories?

by Caitlin Gjerdrum

Why tell stories? A simple enough question, one that, I think, is usually best answered with a story and not a straightforward sentence.

Once upon a time there was a boy. He could not feel fear. He sensed that he was somehow different from those around him, and, though he did not know exactly what he was looking for, he knew he would never be happy until he found it. 
So, off the boy went on a quest to discover his humanity, and was met with nothing but contention every step of the way. That is, until he performed an act that was, to him, a trifle, but to those around him seemed superhuman. His reward was predictable and ostensibly enviable—great riches, a beautiful wife, and political power. It was not, however, what he wanted. He wanted to learn what fear was.
And so, his life continued, in a seemingly meaningless fashion, until, one day, his wife threw a bucket of fish water on him and it made him shiver! The end!

I remember at our first rehearsal, we read the play, and we all, inevitably, started trying to ascribe meaning to it, to pinpoint a justification for its absurdity. But I remember feeling deeply, divinely satisfied by its silliness, by its lack of a clear moral. This was storytelling for pure pleasure. For fun. For mischief’s sake. And the apparent arc, the fact that it SEEMS like it must be going somewhere profound, is part of the joke. The punchline is, there is no point. Which is the point. You dig? 

Neither do I. Which, I think, is the point.
 

This story—this play—is at once a metaphor for the confusion/ pain/ pleasure of life, and an exercise in utter ridiculousness. Which is to say, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of every person’s life. We find patterns and meaning and deities and love amidst the chaos because it is beautiful, because it is silly, because it causes us pain. We expect some kind of grand release—a big finish—dare I say, la grande mort—to occur when we die. We hope for clarity. But what if none comes? What if death is just the same when we finally reach it as it always inevitably seems in life: senseless, absurd, and pointless? 

If this is all there is to life—begin, attempt to make sense of the crazy, explode, repeat—what the hell is the point? If there is no point, why bother trying? Why tell stories? Why get out of bed? 
Why act? 
The answer, of course, is that we do these things because they feel good. They are not a means to an end, nor are they always satisfying or successful. But that doesn’t stop us, does it; if anything, it propels us further into the daunting, tantalizing, confusing, beautiful abyss.

Who knows why we’re here? Nobody, that’s who. Maybe it doesn’t matter why. Maybe the what and the when and the how and with whom are enough. 

Why tell stories? I don’t know. I don’t know why we tell stories, but I think I know what compels us to write. We write to gain clarity. To organize thoughts. To release frustration. To actualize and articulate our dreams. To connect. To make sense of the madness, to escape the lonely, to visit the place where imagination lives.

I suppose, at times, we write to entertain, to amuse, to confuse, but, mostly, we write for the release. In penning our thoughts, we simultaneously immortalize them and put them to rest. The explosion of ink, so to speak, lets us sleep better. But it doesn’t last long. A day, maybe two. The human appetite is strong—everyone’s is, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, which explains, perhaps, why Wilhelm Grimm always eats when he writes, and why I have no appetite at all when I’m writing. The stories sustain me. And that is enough.
    Alone.
    The end.
    Until
    The next
    Beginning.

Never Stop Revising, or Shiver: The Lost Episodes… from The Dustbin of Project: Project’s Process, or, All The Things We Didn’t Use

by Jeffrey Mosser, and/or/with/inspired by Nina Morrison (too), 

What's great about Devised theatre is that it is never finished. Ensemble-based theatre builds layers upon itself. And yes, your darlings will be cut, but not forgotten. Since day one, we've written, improvised, danced, thought, revised, been inspired, written again, edited, and written some more -- or any other combination of those actions. We close in 4 performances… and I will wager that we'll continue to tweak. Sometimes it means saying goodbye to darlings… two nights before opening. 

The teeth woulda been books. See it? See it?

The teeth woulda been books. See it? See it?

For example -- our show has a dragon in it (standard). And so we wondered, how do you put a dragon on stage? Well, what if it's a bookshelf that turns into a dragon. Your set designer, who says yes to everything by the way, comes up with an ingenious prototype and dedicates both time and skin hot-gluing a bad-ass dragon puppet that emerges magically from where it has been hidden among the books in the ancient library that is your set.  It’s brilliant.  Only when all the puzzle pieces of the lighting, the space, the actors and the seven other magical things in the scene finally come together, all of a sudden we realize this magic hidden dragon isn’t going to work. So what do we do?

"Oh, Lori[, the ASM,] has been doodling backstage and created an amazing dragon that could serve as a transparency on the projector!" 

"GREAT! Lori! Can you draw that up, run to Staples and get it printed on acetate tomorrow for us to try in less than 24 hours?”

"Sure!" She says.

"Save your receipt, and thank you!"

And just as you’re reinventing the wheel with option #2, option #3 emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of intense group efforts solving problems.  #2 is (insert sad face here) relegated to the ever-growing Project: Project revision graveyard. Sorry, Lori, it was brilliant, but without your inspiration we wouldn't have jumped to the next idea (you'll have to see the show to find out just what we did).

This was how we made this show. Over and over, we invented and reinvented and reinvented.

We wrote.

We wrote COPIOUS amounts of material that arrived in the form of five drafts of the script over two readings within one year, eight months, and twelve days. We wrote fake dramaturgy, imaginary histories, and songs. SONGS! Songs reminiscent and researched for cadence and compatibility to 16th century traveling minstrel music.

(If you can, imagine your fife and lute playing under this, oh and read with one of those indiscernible English/Irish accents.) 

Oh, and how about we do some research on what political lines were drawn in Europe in 1542.

Oh, and how about we do some research on what political lines were drawn in Europe in 1542.

The Howls of Hoch Schwarzeburg
The howls they come both loud and long 
  and cannot be the cause of song.
Of cats that scratch and play their cards 
  and pins that fall in bowling yards. 
Brave men receive a woeful dirge 
  for sleeping in Hoch Schwarzeburg. 
Stones of black and hearts of stone. 
Stones of black and hearts of stone. 
A life of bliss the king supplies
  A home, a life, his daughter’s thighs. 
To trade three nights for all your life 
  Or all your life for broken pride. 
The devil lives, the devil dies
in stones of black and hearts of stone. 
In stones of black and hearts of stone. 

- Folk Song c. 1542
 
It’s not that we didn't think it wasn't good enough. The song accompanied a false history of a haunted castle.  And part of that did make it in the show. It's that there wasn't a place for it! At the same time, it's astounding what talents you share with a group. One of us thought it was appropriate to write a song befitting a wandering minstrel who might pass down the legend of the haunted Hoch Schwartzburg. Huh. Collaboration you say? Yup. 

How about an entire scene made up of mostly stage directions -- written by a choreographer BTW.

“Married the Hempen Maid”

Seven corpses stand on a platform, nooses around their necks. A Youth enters and build a fire while whistling. He rubs his hand together and squats at the blaze. The Youth progresses from whistling to singing in full voice—something German.  Perhaps a polka. He skips in between the hanging corpses, and his movement creates a breeze which cause them to sway. 

“You must be chilled, too! A dance shall warm us both!” says he. 

The Youth cuts down one of the corpses and, placing the corpse’s feet on his own, proceeds to move about. When the duet finishes, he places the corpse next to the fire. He lays down next to it, and sleeps. The sound of crackling flames can be heard. 

Lights out. 
Whispering is heard. The corpses are confessing their crimes…real or imagined, guilty or innocent. 

Lights up. 

The clothing of the corpse by the fire is now burned. The other corpses have moved and are in various poses by the fire. 

WTF. Do you have chills too? Can't you see this? THIS COULD BE AN ENTIRE EFFING PLAY!

Ask a choreographer to write, ask a writer to paint, a painter to do road construction. I am certain that the results will be surprising. The work is going to be hard. Creating as a group is hard. You will have to let go of all the darlings.  But the results and the satisfaction therein are so worth taking the time and risk. Never stop revising. 

To Learning to Chill Out

by Louise Hamill

I love lists.

I love making lists then crossing off lists then making a new list with the hold overs and newer items. I make lists of things to do at my day job, lists of things to do for my theatre company, lists for the grocery store and lists to make sure I remember to vacuum. If I had to create an all-encompassing life belief for myself it would probably be "If I write it down, it will happen." 

So what happens when you put such a Type A, "A+B=C" thinker in a room with a bunch of devised-theatre makers? I make a lot of faces and try to find the logic in everything, but I've also learned to chill the fuck out.

Since starting Project: Project with Jeff Mosser, I have received continuous inspiration to put down the pen and live in the moment. I've learned to think faster, to accept that feeling scared in improv exercises is not a bad thing, and that taking ye olde "yes and" attitude into all things makes all things better. 

I came into this company as an actor, and have emerged from our third show as... an actor. But between that I've ALSO written a monologue (what! I'm not a playwright!); researched the hell out of the Grimm Brothers and fugues (what! I'm not a dramaturg!); and created t-shirts and badges for our first show (whaaaat designing things!). Plus I think I've become a better collaborator and listener and art maker, so that's pretty cool too.

Isn't it great when you can see yourself as a very certain kind of person and then discover you can be that person and so much else too?

No hats on the bed!

You can’t put hats on the bed in my family. Never. My grandma once explained it as a superstition about how everyone throws their coats and hats on the bed at a Shiva (a Jewish gathering to support a mourner after a close relative has died), so if you put a hat on the bed, you’re basically inviting DEATH. TRAGEDY AND DOOM. However, when I asked her again recently, she flatly denied that origin, and said she has no idea where this custom of anxious avoidance comes from. Unable to be pinned down and explained, the fear just hangs in the air and makes my throat close up anytime I accidentally drop a hat on a bed. 

Flying beds!
That tipping, floating, dropping sensation when you dream of falling, when you fall asleep in the car, when you’re dizzy when you close your eyes. What if your safe, comfy nest of a bed, the place where it’s ok to be naked and open and unaware--what if it took off and flew while you slept? What if you woke up smothered in hundreds of comforters, comforted into oblivion? What if all your dreams of flying came true and it was suffocatingly sinister?

Wrangling stories is like taming a bed in flight. The ideas and words are all that’s keeping you from plummeting down to ground level again, and yet they have a way of getting out of hand. SHIVER has had so many iterations, so much exploration. Lists and lists of anxieties, characters and whole storylines left behind in amongst the vicious pillows, morals that wafted away like stray goose feathers. Only the strongest survived.

How does a character survive, in this setting of shivers down the spine, in a world where everything is dangerous and out to get you and all you have are your wits? Oh wait, we realized early on. That’s sort of exactly like the real world we live in. 

And so the Project: Project Core set out on a convoluted, unorthodox heroes’ journey to explore fear--how it limits us, how it empowers us, how it’s a deep necessity and an anguished prison at the same damn time.

Fear, at its most basic level, seems to me to limit our ability to connect. Our character Charlotte wrestles with a paralysis around connecting to her brother; our little boy seems barred from relationship because of his inability to fear; our Grimm brothers can’t talk to each other about the most vulnerable issues in their lives because of their fear of loss. Perhaps the way to tame a flying bed is to put a hat on it, a symbol of the connectedness of a community as it supports its mourners through the moments they feared the most. Perhaps love, connection, intimacy of any sort, is the antidote to anxiety? 

Holy hats on the bed! (as Jeff has taken to exclaiming). That got deep. Well, maybe flying beds and hats are just as absurd as they sound, and maybe laughing about it together is the real answer to fear. One of the joys of collaborative work is that you keep each other giggling--and it’s thrilling to finally invite an audience to collaborate with us in this uproarious world of terror and laughter. 

Risk, Laban, and Purposeful Movement

Dab. Flick. Slash. When I decided to walk away from acting, who knew my sophomore Laban Movement Analysis project would come back to haunt enlighten me. I honestly agreed to this project before even reading the script because I knew what a great team I would have the pleasure of working with if I agreed. It’s been an enlightening adventure from day one. Before I even considered acting, I danced, so it’s been a real joy to have such a physical and collaborative rehearsal process. This play really pushes me to new places I have had yet to explore. 

As a society, we have shifted our daily lives in such a way that we’ve been disconnected from movement and how our bodies can inform our current state or vice versa. With long hours commuting on trains or in cars heading to longer days at sedentary jobs, we are no longer giving ourselves the freedom to explore and enjoy our physical self as more than just weight loss and physical health machines. This project has forced me to reconnect with my physical self and remind myself that my body can be just as strong and influential in life as my mind. 

What I missed in the Laban project as a college sophomore was the way movement truly transforms your experience of the world and the way the world experiences you. There was a day in rehearsal when Alli went through the different qualities of movement that can be explored and how they interact with each other to create stylistic movement according to Rudolf Laban. As a petite woman from the Midwest, who was raised surrounded by strong women, I carry myself through the world in an entirely different manner than the little boy of Project: Project’s Shiver. I learned on this day in rehearsal, however, that certain movement qualities have vastly different effects on people depending on their life experience up to this point. My question was why? How can such clearly set guidelines for movement – direct, sudden, and heavy – have such unique meaning to each person when put into practice? That, I think, is an element of what is being explored in the big picture of this production. Without giving too much away, in Shiver, the boy doesn’t feel fear or anxiety, and Charlotte, perhaps feels too much. But, when giving words to the movement qualities of these characters, are they so different? Can having too much of something be the same as not knowing that thing at all? 

Movement workshop in August 2014

Movement workshop in August 2014

We’ve taken risks in this rehearsal process as we explore what it means to walk through life with fear and anxiety. It’s been thrilling to play with all of the shadow scenes as we discover what our bodies are truly capable of creating. It’s great to finally have my Jasmine on a flying carpet moment. There have been some great questions and puzzles to solve in this process, and I have found great joy in answering them with our bodies and their expansive capabilities. 

So, the next time you have to rush to a meeting, don’t chastise yourself for running from the train station to beat the clock, stop and reset your movement meter before entering the room. It’s incredible the way our moods and entire days shift when we take a moment to realign our physical self by preparing to move through the world in a purposeful way. 

... create art out of seemingly nothing at all.

Ten months ago in August 2014, I received an email from Jeffrey Mosser asking me if I was available to participate in a reading of a work in progress "based on a Grimm fairy tale." The reading was to conclude Project: Project's week-long residency at Boston Playwrights' Theatre in which core company members would explore, among other things, the purpose of fairy tales both in origin and in their relevance to our adult lives in the modern world. As an added incentive, Jeff also extended an invitation to participate in two workshops the company was conducting the day before the reading. Truth be told, no incentives were needed. I replied immediately with the same response I give Jeff every time he invites me to play and my calendar is clear: "Sign me up."

I think all actors gravitate more toward certain aspects of our craft than others. Give me a chance me to learn a new dialect or analyze a dense text and I'm in my comfort zone. Ask me to communicate solely through movement or to tell a story through group improvisation and I get a little anxious. So when I arrived for the day of workshops on "physical vocabulary" and "theatre-making on our feet," I was perhaps a little sheepish, but eager to face my fears and learn something new. And learn I did.

The morning workshop, led by P:P core company member Alli Engelsma-Mosser, focused on elements of Laban Movement Analysis that allow actions to be classified by qualities of force/weight, timing, and direction. For example, a floating movement is characterized by light effort sustained over time and following an indirect path. A thrust, on the other hand is strong, sudden, and direct. For hours we explored this vocabulary and its potential to convey distinct emotions and characters. Though I'd been introduced to these concepts long ago in college, it was surprising how useful I still found it to strip away layers of process to isolate one fundamental layer of performance. (Note to self: Locate undergraduate syllabi and review everything you ever learned when you were 20-something.)

The afternoon workshop, led by Jeff, built upon the morning's activities to transform these basic efforts into living, breathing characters. Furthermore, we brought these characters together into an imaginary space to tell a story made cohesive and engaging by listening, responding, provoking, and ultimately agreeing with each other. By the end of the day, we had an actual ensemble that could create art out of seemingly nothing at all.

The following day we met for the reading of this new work-in-progress, provisionally titled Shiver!!! Shudder? A preparatory read though of the hot-off-the-copier script made it clear that several people developed this story. It was so rich in themes, images, and possibilities. It was also evident that the script was incredibly fresh, containing several stage directions that started with the word "maybe." We took what we had and presented it to a small, invited audience.

I was asked to read the role of Wilhelm Grimm, a man who I knew nothing about. I was also asked to read it in a German stage dialect, a dialect I've performed in, but was thoroughly unprepared to attempt. But again: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Most of the readers had participated in the previous day's workshops and the glow of ensemble cooperation was present in the room. It's a good thing that it was, because the audience responded to the script's exploration of bravery versus trepidation, action versus contemplation, and risking versus existing. Maybe it was because I am a person-of-a-certain-age who sometimes is "living too much in his notebook," but for my part, I felt a deep connection to one particular conflict: the instinct to tread carefully through a precious life versus the impulse to propel dauntlessly through it … knowing full well what happens at the end. A thoughtful discussion followed the reading and everyone in the room offered valuable suggestions for tightly weaving together the three worlds of the fairy tale, nineteenth century Germany, and twenty-first century academia. Unclear portions of the script were illuminated and creative means of storytelling were explored. I left knowing that wherever this project was headed, I would support its journey in any way I could.

Flash forward four months to December and another invitation from Jeff. The Shiver Project, as it was now designated, was to receive a closed reading of its second draft. This draft had been tightened considerably, excluding some extraneous portions of the rather lengthy tale and fusing some repetitive moments to allow each distinct element of the story to rise closer to the surface. Most of the participants were not in the first reading, save myself as Wilhelm and core P:P company member Louse Hamill as Charlotte, and these new minds brought a fresh perspective to the work. Of particular interest this time was how the character of Charlotte was developing. Compared to the first draft, she appeared less of a universal modern everyman and more of a relatable modern woman. Observers could still see their own fears, anxieties, and challenges through her eyes, but she now had tangible, namable, and assailable problems.

By the end of January, a full production was officially scheduled for June 2015 and I was delighted to be offered a chance to join the cast. By the time we began rehearsals began in May, the script had undergone three more revisions. The piece now bore the title Shiver: A Fairytale of Anxious Proportions.1  (Side note: Does anyone know how to format a footnoted play title on an acting resume?) There were still some areas that clearly would be rewritten -- there were actually two versions of scene two printed together in the fifth draft script! -- but it was clear, watching Cecilia Raker and Nina Louise Morrison rewrite during early rehearsals, that we had reached the endgame.

Right away, Alli led us through movement work using the same Laban vocabulary we'd explored before the first reading, giving shape to the variouc s characters the boy who can't feel fear encounters in his travels. Moreover, putting the story on its thrusting, slashing, floating, gliding feet gave us the opportunity to tell the story more evocatively than any reading could ever approach. The addition of shadow play and puppetry also gave shape to images we could never have been able to effectively create otherwise.

A considerably stimulating part of the rehearsal process has been the participation in a strong, harmonious ensemble cast. The cast is comprised of a mix of participants from either, both, or none of the two earlier readings. Lauren Foster's frilly princess, Caitlin Gjerdrum's brusque archival worker, Adam Thenhaus's mercurial innkeeper, Gabriel Graetz's pensive Jacob, Louise Hamill's strung out Charlotte, and Laurel Hill's inquisitive Boy are now as familiar to me as close friends. But perhaps the best friend I've made has been Wilhelm Grimm, a man who really knew how to bowl ninepins. And those who've seen the show will know what I mean by that.

1. A Phobic Folklorist Fugues the Fuck Out

German Flexibility

For any one who grew up in a German-influenced household as I have, you know these two words are like oil and water.  There is no variance; there is no room for last-minute changes.  Everything is precisely planned and laid out with the intention of achieving a very specific outcome.

Adam on his way up.

Adam on his way up.

For anyone who grew up in theatre, you know this is not an industry for those who depend on constants.  The only constant is that something will change, and it may or may not be inconvenient (even THAT isn’t a guaranteed).  You grow and change every minute due to the microcosm of forces at work, and you must be ready for it.

Working with this ensemble has been every bit the miniature universe one would expect from the arts.  We collaborate and we have one common and definite goal.  That goal isn’t what anyone originally intended.  It grows and is created from an idea – a spark – in one person’s brain. Even the most prominent yoga master would balk at such lengths to which we have changed this plan, this goal, this …this story.

Our show has been one of hard German work and intense flexibility.  All everyone required of each other was the ability to stretch.  No one was as stiff as an overcooked loaf of Bauernbrot, but at the same time, they were willing to take someone else’s mold and try it on for size, and it was because we all stuck to the rules and stayed limber.

Nina’s Top Ten Reasons To Make Theatre As An Ensemble

1. When you doubt yourself, your collaborators will encourage you.

2. When you feel useless, there will be some way to be useful.

3. When you’re exhausted, they will revive you by dumping metaphorical fish water over your head.

4. You will never run out of ideas.

5. There will be snacks.  All the snacks. 

6. You will get to use the blackboard and the whiteboard and the bulletin board and all the sticky notes.

7. You will get to use your secondary skill sets, and the best ideas will come from non-whatevers.  Like the non-writers will tell all the best stories, and the non-actors will be glorious when you read new pages, and the non-designers will invent incredible visual moments, and they won’t even know how amazing they have been because it will just be a natural, organic discovery that comes from observation, love, and magic.

8. The laughing will be a thing.  All the laughing until your face hurts and your tummy hurts and you can’t stop and you won't stop. Can't you see it's we who own the night?

9. You will not be able to remember what parts of the play you made.  A lot of the parts will seem to have dropped in your laps from out of the sky from a wily but benevolent muse.  It will feel so much bigger than you and shouldn’t all theatre be like that?

10. You will learn everything.  You will become a better writer, a better human, and a better collaborator.  You will discover what you’re good at in a deeper way than ever before and you will fall deeply in love with all the people who went on this winding journey with you and you will feel the love coming back to you and you will become more confident and you will see that in the people you love and you will feel a deep sense of pride that you persevered through the times when you weren’t sure where you were all going or if you were ever going to get there.  And you will be humbled by the joy of rehearsals and dazzled by all the momentum of production and grateful for the daring, sweat and energy of all the actors and designers and stage managers and you won’t believe you actually made this beautiful, scary, hilarious, amazing play.

And one more for good luck:

11.  It’s fun. It’s just the funnest.

Thank you for the Audience Feedback, or What are we Doing?

What are we doing?!

That’s a great question. In fact, a big part of what we’ve been doing for the past year has been deciding what to do! Project: Project isn’t a model. We don’t fit three shows into our season. We don’t develop or interpret work that has already been done. We generate.

Preparation for our first reading last August.

Preparation for our first reading last August.

We’ve been making and writing and improvising ideas surrounding “The Shiver Project” since November 2013 when our Core membership changed to include Alli, Nina, and Cecelia. There were days where we had insanely clear theses that we were about to chase down – hard! But then, well… “maybe-we’re-more-interested-in-this-idea” started to rear its head. While variations on our current theme were frequent in those early months, we’ve always come back to a few central ideas which our show is now based on.

Learning to work together!

We had to remind ourselves that “no” is OK – especially in a group. That dissent is a part of ascension. That ideas are darlings that get to be cut, but their residue is still useful and affect our development. Every day we move forward, even if earlier that day we hit delete more often than any other key. Our individual strengths become our collective curiosities – what would this scene look like if… let’s write it! Let’s improvise it! Let’s take it apart and just write from the mother’s point of view. Whose story is it? Right!

Working together means leaving behind inhibitions about opinions/ideas.

Working together means leaving behind inhibitions about opinions/ideas.

Our motto: what have you always wanted to try? Is being fed right now. Just the act of collectively creating is something we’re all interested in trying. Sometimes it’s a great solution to writers block. We brainstorm together: “reasons why you might have an estranged family member. GO!” We’re also trying to challenge our artistic sensibilities by saying that shadows and whispers are our design inspiration… though at the same time we want our designers to pick up the mantle on this too! They should have license to be as creative and curious as we have been!

So what is the Shiver Project?

Brainstorming: no longer a solo process.

Brainstorming: no longer a solo process.

We actually started with an unlikely prompt from an unlikely source. A friend of mine from Minneapolis had dropped this fairly obscure Grimm brothers fairytale in my lap called, “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn How to Shiver.” The boy does not follow the typical path of a hero. He does not seek out fear to conquer it, he seeks it to understand it. This kernel jumpstarted our writing and started putting images into our head. We asked all kinds of questions: Why are there so many fairytales in the media? How can people just wave a wand or summon their mutant power and change their fate? Does our culture need to take charge of itself? What do fairytales tell us about ourselves? We’ve since drawn in ideas about modern fears and anxieties and thrust them into a character named Charlotte. Her academic, social, and personal pressures feed into her own anxiety, and parallel the boy’s lack of fear in (what we think is) an interesting way.

We’re still learning from one another – and the show is still telling us what it is. Thanks to a reading this past August an audience gave us some incredible feedback – that we are taking to heart (Thank You!). This week we had a breakthrough, a big, big breakthrough! I’d get ready for that next draft starting now! 

-Jeff

What are we trying to do

Before it was Project: Project...

it was an idea at a bar in Brighton. Jeff and Max interview each other about P:P's genesis.

Neighbors and creators

Neighbors and creators

So how did it start?

Jeff: It was really a collection of ideas for a production. Not necessarily a theatre company.

Max:  We met at a Huntington Theatre event, and one thing that stuck out was you brought up you're from Minnesota, and I had been there for a year...

Jeff: We talked about the Guthrie and the Seven Corners and Triple Rock Social Club.

Max: And how there was so much experimental theater in the Twin Cities.

Jeff: And I think there's experimental stuff happening in Boston, but I think Minneapolis provides it more as a standard fare. We emailed each other some scripts we had been working on and from there we got coffee at Thinking Cup and talked about the kind of theatre we really liked. Lots of interest in immersive theatre and what made it work.

Max: We established a meeting, you told me more about Theatre for Two [an independent project Jeff co-created at Actors Theatre of Louisville], and then you brought up the Democracy Center, which I was familiar with because I saw a Hootenanny there.

Milo MacPhail and Chris Larson in What Are You Doing Here?

Milo MacPhail and Chris Larson in What Are You Doing Here?

Jeff: I had auditioned for an Improv troupe there, and I remember thinking "you can just ‘borrow’ the house?"

Max:  That place still blows my mind. What a find!

Jeff: I was sold on it from day one.

Max:  I remember we left and got on the Green Line. I was so engrossed in our conversation I went like three stops past where I needed to get off. I'm not sure I ever told you that.

Jeff:  HAHA awesome. No idea that happened. I think that the Theatre for Two thing and the event in a house was the kernel for what we wanted to do.

Max:  Absolutely.

 

What was your inspiration for the first show, What Are You Doing Here?

Jeff:  I think we were all talking about the excitement that Sleep No More caused.

Max:  Yes, and we wondered if we could do that, but with more a linear story.  We didn't really have a story.

Jeff:  Yes. We considered the form for a long time, but we left the content for the ensemble to have some buy in. “What kind of roll do you see yourself playing?”

Max:  We were more interested purely in the form.

Jeff: This is where we started talking about the Milgram Experiment. How can we get an audience member to throw an egg at someone? Yet still see something with a beg/mid/end, and get the satisfaction of a story being told?

Max:  Exactly. I think the egg bit was what kept us going back. It was a question of what's the difference between subverting an audience members' expectations and also empowering them.

Theatre for Two: The Wedding Party in Louisville

Theatre for Two: The Wedding Party in Louisville

Jeff: We had a meeting, with people other than the two of us, at the Democracy Center and read Theatre for Two, and we said, "we’re thinking of doing something here like this.” We had a healthy group of improvisers, actors, writers. That something became “What Are You Doing Here?”

Max:  And did we start brainstorming ideas then too?

Jeff:  Yes, that was kind of a launchpad for, "what are some groups that can be really cult-like in dedication to their practice?” Which is how we got to Boy Scouts and Roller Derby eventually.

Max:  I feel like those came up early on. Along with Masons.

Jeff:  Mostly because they seemed great to play off of one another.

Max:  And secret societies

Jeff:  Yes. Secret societies were a big part. I'd still like to do a play about some sort of initiation gone wrong. Anywho . . .

The core look over an exercise.

The core look over an exercise.

Max:  I'm with you on that. So after our first few meetings. . .

Jeff:  We had some attrition. Some people left, some people stayed.

Max:  Which I think at first was frustrating but ended up being really good because the people who stayed were really buying into it. It became a core organically. We established that whoever is present gets to make decisions.

Jeff:  Then one day we put forth this form for how the entire production could work and we saw everyone explode with ideas once we were liberated from that.

 

Project: Project as a name?

Jeff: I was a little tired of always hearing about untitled projects being called the blank project. So it’s a little meta/tongue-in-cheek. Our project is to create a project.

Max:  And you came up with "Project: Project" and everyone agreed that was spot on and hilarious, and I feel like from that name, we started talking about what we were doing beyond just this show in a way.  That’s when we started talking about how the hierarchical structure and such of theater in general.

Jeff:  Right. Eventually it evolved to Vicki, Louise, Sophie and Harry and us as a founding core because we were showing up every week. It felt like we were making something bigger than just a production.

Max:  Exactly. And our mantra, "What have you always wanted to try?" starting popping up. And you suggested for every show, we could each take different roles. Like there's no AD or Producer; we change after each one.

Jeff:  Yes. That we sort of gravitate to serving what the show needs and what we’re most interested in. Then we did a "pitch" meeting where we spit a bunch of ideas out there for a future project, before we had even finished our first one.

 

What’s your mission? Where are you going next?

Jeff:  Our mission has been dictated by our interests. We want to do interesting work that makes us go "wow" and therein we hope other people go "wow!" The mission has changed to included, “We promise to always start with a great idea.”

Lynn Wilcott, Gillian Mackay-Smith in How May I Connect You? (Or, Scenes in a Key of D:|) 

Lynn Wilcott, Gillian Mackay-Smith in How May I Connect You? (Or, Scenes in a Key of D:|) 

Max:  Exactly. In a way, it’s always been a much more self-serving approach to art, and that’s what I like about it. It's less on product, more on the exploration of a new form, and our own education of that form through it. Learning by doing. And we’ve had this huge growth pretty quickly.

Jeff:  Yes. And we realized that in order to grow we needed to bring a few more personnel on board. We've got a group with really diverse sensibilities right now. Not that we didn't before.

Max:  More playwrights and sadly some departures – Sophie to Chicago, Vicki to L.A., me to New York.

Jeff:  I have to say though that the creative vibe that started with the original core still reverberates. We still keep that honesty in the room. We all like each other and support ideas.

Max:  I pride ourselves in fostering an egalitarian and inclusive creative environment. There really is little precedent for that. Not to toot our horns too much, but I like that we stuck to those principles.  I think those are all reasons why the founders worked well were we each had a "specialty" but were interested in other roles and knew other roles.

The cast of How May I Connect You?... 

The cast of How May I Connect You?... 

Jeff:  Right. And with the changing of the guard I think everyone has great styles and administrative abilities. We knew we needed folks who had multifaceted interests and abilities. Alli and Nina and Cecelia are all eager and interested in creating collaboratively. I’m really looking forward to what we do. I see a lot of determination, creativity, and eagerness. Just what you need if you’re going to be a new theatre company. You can do ensemble theatre in any number of ways. It really depends on how you want to work together and what you want to make.

Max:  We find people who aren’t just good artists, but those who we just generally like . . .

Jeff:  And are good people.