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Lisa Steindler, Executive Artistic Director of San Francisco's Z Space sat down with Jamie Gahlon to talk about their technical residencies. 

Jamie: What are the technical residencies at Z Space? And what made you start offering them?

Lisa: Our technical residencies subsidize artists’ use of our theater, lights, sound system, tech and artistic staff, and our entire facility to develop their concepts and work at a crucial stage in the creative process. Because development is such a core tenet of the Z Space mission, we wanted to explore innovative ways of utilizing our space. We were looking around the field wondering, “How can we help facilitate and raise the quality of the work that’s out there? How can we support organizations, projects, and artists get to where they want to go?” The technical residency was framed around that need. There was a lot of discussion with artists and other organizations that develop new work—we really wanted to know, “How can we support our community? How can we garner all the resources that we have in our organization and give time to artists in our space?” We wanted to create a space that allowed artists to take real risks and be vulnerable and adventure into unknown territories. That’s how it was born.

The technical residencies are designed to provide artists an opportunity to experiment with various designs and elements of technology. The residency allows artists the time they need to integrate these components into production. We recognized that performers, organizations, and theater-makers needed more time in a full-production environment prior to opening, without the pressure of tech, previews, and opening night. In the United States, I think there’s a collapsed model—we push the most complicated technical and staging decisions to tech week, which doesn’t allow for adequate experimentation or exploration of ideas.

So we decided to create one-to-five week residencies (depending on the need) for projects requiring uninterrupted time in a space that provides full technical staff support and extended project management. We give each project as much additional developmental resources as possible. If they want to bring in an audience at some point in the process, we’ll help facilitate that.

Jamie: When did you first start offering these kinds of residencies?

Lisa: We launched the first one in June of 2011 with seed money from the NEA and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Jamie: Can you give a specific example of a technical residency and how it worked?

Lisa:
Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s project, red, black & GREEN: a blues had a five-week residency with us last year. During the first two weeks, all of the designers were in the room. They built some of the set in Chicago and then shipped it here, and then finished the build in our space. The set, designed by Theaster Gates, was quite complicated and involved creating moveable houses.

Director Michael Garcés came up from LA and they all used the time to figure out how this integral set was going to function and how the performers would inhabit these houses. Videos and cameras inside the set added to the intricacies, technically speaking. We had a technical director on site for forty hours. We brought in some crew, they used our administrative offices as needed for copying scripts and such, and they had free rein of the space. It was their home; they walked in, and made it their home.

Marc was still in the process of writing, so I think it was helpful for him to be creatively thinking in the largeness of the space, while having the set on stage and collaborators in the room. The project was realized during that time. At the end of the two weeks, they went away, the set was stored, and the team had time to reflect and Marc finished working on the script. About four months later they all came back for three more weeks and continued the process. They built out the light plot, the soundscape, finished off the set, and essentially walked from Z Space into Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), where the show premiered. It was much less expensive to technically build the project out at Z Space because Yerba Buena has union contracts to contend with and a tight schedule. I don’t know how they would have done it otherwise. This was a real success story for all of us.

Jamie: Can you give another example of a technical residency that was modeled differently?

Lisa: The Big Art Group had a month-long residency at the Headlands where they started their project by interviewing San Francisco activists and artists. They ultimately used these interviews as source material for the show. Later, they returned and spent about a week and a half with us at Z Space. They taught classes opening up their process to the public, which gave local artists the opportunity to see how another group works. We premiered the site-specific show, The People: San Francisco, outdoors on the street in front of Z Space in partnership with YBCA.

We’ve got another technical residency coming up this spring with Sarah Wilson, a local composer, who is working with a dance company called Catch Me Bird out of Los Angeles. This project is in partnership with The de Young Museum here in San Francisco. Sarah and Catch Me Bird will come into Z Space for three weeks. The show has some aerial work so they can make great use of the height and the grandness of our space. Having this access is going to help facilitate the creation of the show. Then, similar to Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s show, we’ll essentially move the whole thing over to the de Young and open within a day or two.

Jamie: Wow—what has the response been so far from the community of artists who have benefited from these residencies?

Lisa:
Profuse gratitude. To have the cost of rehearsal and the use of the space with the full technical abilities we have for almost nothing is unheard of (because it’s subsidized by the NEA and the Mellon Foundation)—locally, there’s nothing like it. People can put the resources they save toward paying their artists. People are lining up around the block, wanting to participate, which is exactly what we were hoping for.

Those who have had the opportunity to participate thus far have been extremely grateful and have found a home. They walk in, and it’s not like they’re renters. We really open up the door and say, “What do you want? What do you need? This is your home. Here’s the kitchen, there are futons in the back, coffee over there and the bar opens at 6:00.”

I think these technical residencies are best used further on in a process, when someone can walk in and say, “These are my ideas for lights and sound,” so that the residency provides time for finessing. I want to make sure the people who are coming into the residency are ready for it. In the future, we’re going to spend a lot more time making sure everyone understands that, “This is what we have, so to really get the best use of the space and what we can offer, this is how you can prepare.”

Jamie: What have your experiences to date with the residencies taught you?

Lisa:
That time and space are an enormous gift. They are valuable resources, especially for new work. The truncated process we have in this country of: rehearse for three weeks, go into tech, preview, and open is, for new work, really not a healthy process.

For theater artists to have the freedom to experiment, to say “that doesn’t work,” is a luxury. It takes the pressure off and allows for experimentation in a beautiful way. Time and space shouldn’t be a luxury—they should be the norm. I think if we could make this true more often, especially for new work, the level of work in this country would be elevated.

Jamie Gahlon is a theater-maker list-maker and doodler. Currently the Associate Director of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage, in July 2012 she will transition to Emerson College to help create the Center for the Theater Commons, where she will continue her work on HowlRound, the New Play Map, #NEWPLAY TV, and Playwright Residencies. Jamie most recently performed as a live drawer in Natsu Onoda Power's Astroboy & the God of Comics at Studo Theatre 2ndstage, and most recently scenic designed a workshop production of Derek Goldman's Begotten: O'Neill & the Harbor of Masks for Georgetown University as part of Arena Stage's O'Neill Festival. Jamie holds a BSFS in Culture & Politics from Georgetown University, and originally hails from the land of 10,000 lakes.