Essays, Practice, Opinions

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“You can’t escape from the art here.”—A 2013 Core Company member

Described by Artistic Director Ari Edelson as an “accelerator,” the Orchard Project is an annual five-week artist residency located in the tiny town of Hunter, NewYork, tucked in the Catskill Mountains. The Core Company is a select ensemble of apprentices who work alongside the artists in residence while simultaneously creating new work of their own. These emerging artists, many on the cusp of actualizing their own creativity outside of the academy, are uniquely poised to both observe and participate in the developmental processes of some of the most innovative theater-makers of today.

I first fell in love with the Orchard Project and the possibilities therein when my (now disbanded) physical theater company, The Glass Contraption, was in residence in 2010. After returning twice as a Core Company guest teacher, I joined the staff this year.

The Orchard Project is run by artists for artists. Its staff of four are all working artists with experience as performers, directors, writers, producers, and teachers in/of multiple medium. We have also developed and managed companies, arts programs, festivals, Web sites, and apps. This level of personal and professional investment greatly informs how we relate to the Core Company, the resident artists, and each other.

The Orchard Project is an intensely productive environment lasting five very full weeks, with resident artists staying from three to ten days. In choosing the members of the Core Company, we seek young artists who experience themselves as noncategorical hybrids, interested in theory and action. Artists skating in the interstitial space are often more likely to press against the supposed boundaries of form as they find the containers that best suit their artistic vision and action. In this, the members of the Core Company resemble the artists in residence who are consistently claiming new artistic ground as individuals or ensembles. It is my hope to daily engage, guide, and provoke the members of the Core Company’s individual and collective artistry throughout our time together.

This intention informs my earliest choices, beginning with how I speak to prospective students. Most applicants are university upperclassmen or recent college graduates. When asked for descriptions of creative projects they want to work on while at the Orchard Project, several initially mention goals such as finishing an existing script, writing better dialogue, or staging a movement piece with preexisting music, themes, and choreography. I encourage them to set these projects aside, thereby creating an opportunity to release themselves from any perceived constriction or expectation. Their work at the Orchard Project does not become part of a transcript; it is not graded or presented to the outside world for evaluation or purview. With this prodding, many reveal suppressed areas of previously unexplored or long-neglected artistic research. These uncharted territories invariably light artistic fire and fear inside these students for the kinds of experimentation and growth the Orchard Project make possible.

The Orchard Project is the perfect place to explore new forms or content: playwrights set nonverbal movement sequences; dancers compose music; movers write text, stand still, and speak. It is not a place you go to do what you already know how to do. Instead, and this stands true for members of the Core Company and resident artists alike, it is a place for expansion by association, for rapid leaps of growth, for surprise and rediscovery. Being surrounded by the mountains and many fellow artists subtly facilitates unanticipated accomplishment.

The apprehension exhibited by the members of the Core Company when encouraged towards new forms and content is shared by some of the resident artists. Some arrive with a specific project in mind and flounder amidst the energy and vitality that confronts their preconceived notions of who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Others embrace the wild ride of uncertainty, discovering whole new plays, choreography, melody, structure, and energy about their work, collaborations, and ideas. Having space to take action without restraint is unusual. Sometimes freedom makes us uncomfortable. And yet, this discomfort can also serve our artistry in countless unexpected and exciting ways.

Thrust into this intensely productive environment, within the first twenty-four hours on site the Core Company begins to exercise its creative muscles. Via experimentation and evaluation by way of comparison and reflection, the members of the Core Company examine previous training, artistic ideas, personal preferences, and artistic potential. In contrast to a four-year university program with space and time for gradual growth, consideration and a measured acquisition of skill and idea, the Orchard Project is on a very fast track.

The 2013 Core Company was comprised of twelve writer/director/performer/designers; individuals with backgrounds in studio art and dance, with interests in alternative spaces, performance art, musical composition, and movement exploration; students from public and private universities from across the United States, including Vermont, Georgia, Oregon, Kansas, and California.

Freed from strict skill-based or presentational concerns common among summer theater programs, we worked alongside the influx of resident artists to encourage these young artists through a variety of exercises, including a Clown workshop, a Noh workshop, multiple and sequential composition assignments, a twenty-four-hour playwriting bake-off; exploratory sessions in countless generative performance, playwriting, and directorial exercises; and community-wide conversational salons curated towards large topics such as artist-sustainability, artistic funding, company and collaborative structures, and producing. We discussed Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, the RSVP Cycles, Goethe’s three questions of art criticism and the value of artists writing about the work of other artists. The members of the Core Company read articles about Ummiye, the founder of an all-women theater company in rural Turkey; about the French artist JR of Inside/Out; about Oskar Eustis, Taylor Mac, Elinor Fuchs, and Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on why art matters. We exponentially added to this list of references as the weeks progressed, referring to it throughout our complex discussions.

About midway through our five weeks, the Core Company benefited from simultaneous exposure to a vibrant, young ensemble of acclaimed performers, all graduates of a prestigious conservatory program, and to an esteemed and honored playwright and his dramaturg of over twenty years. They were quick to assess the processes and personalities of both groups, perceiving the subtlest moments of indecision, uncertainty, vulnerability, and confidence. Their skills of observation and discernment rapidly escalating, they inserted compassion into their discussions, alert to the public and private pressures that go into making art.

Eager for artistic mentoring, the members of the Core Company asked questions about trust, audience discovery, artistic responsibility, and impact; about supporting themselves, about balancing personal and professional lives. These questions are not unique to this ensemble, its age, or areas of interest. At the Orchard Project, there is adequate space and time to ask these questions of many different kinds of people, working in New York, Philadelphia, Austin, or internationally; people married, divorced, with and without children; people with 501(c)(3)s, LLCs, and mortgages; people who are riding the wave of how our creativity can intersect with society over a lifetime and all the blessedly harrowing and rewarding aspects of that pursuit.

Triumphs and disasters are plainly shared. Never once did established artists discourage younger ones. They instead said, “theater will outlast the Internet—it is the roach that will not die” (Whit MacLaughlin), and advised us to “stop banging your head against the brick wall and find the door” (Carey Perloff), and to “have a goal outside yourself and tell the story of that goal” (Tom Bryant). This and many more bits of wisdom were graciously given with humanity, humility, and ferocious dedication to this thing called theater.

Throughout the weeks, these twelve strangers grew into an ensemble of compatriots, collaborators, and artists increasingly quick to evaluate and articulate their experiences with all the art, artists, and ideas that surrounded them. What did they value most? Palpable passion and commitment, open and transparent exchange, and work grounded in a larger purpose.

For myself, I am most interested in how this program can empower its participants to become Activated Artists, a term I am developing to describe artists operating with a sense of the applicability of their artistry in the world. There is a “permission myth” surrounding this business that can be disempowering. Many academic theater departments seem to download skills into young artists and send them out into the world to wait for it to give them permission to flex their artistic muscles. Value is placed outside the artists and into the persons who hire them.

What if programs also included and encouraged opportunities for students to generate work of their own, to connect their work to communities outside their theater departments, families, or friends? The different skills and strengths these activities develop might better prepare them to endure the long wait between jobs or enable a choice to remain artistically active regardless of outside affirmation. Then, their value is theirs to determine by whatever markers they choose, and artistic expression, expansion, and the circumstances necessary to fulfill artistic goals are increasingly at their discretion. From this, they can better access the intrinsic value of art, asserting it and their rightful place in the world.

Our setting is inherently different than academia and encourages different choices. At the Orchard Project, the constant and ever-changing exposure to so many artists and approaches provides a fertile ground for imagination and inspiration. During this summer’s session, twenty-two different artists or ensembles were in residence. These steady, immediately intimate, and immersive encounters make for a transformative environment. The members of the Core Company also have each other and the staff as touchstones. Moreover, if the Orchard Project were any shorter, I don’t think it would be as effective, as time aids in the integration of idea; if it were any longer, complacency and exhaustion would threaten a lingering descent. A rhythm of absorption takes effect, and the members of the Core Company step with increasing assurance into each new project and conversation. The Orchard Project consists of quality + quantity + a set duration resulting in a liberating and compressed artistic experience. The Orchard Project does not replace college, but it does complement it by offering the freedom to ask, make, listen, disagree, attempt, fail, and fly in an exclusively creative and supportive environment.

Furthermore, the role of product in our artistic lives is useful, but is often given much more weight than process. Schools plan seasons of performance; students receive evaluative grades. These public outcomes can overshadow the internal mechanisms slowly unlocking a student’s creativity. They can limit the perceived acceptability of risk if a choice might disrupt tradition or expected progress. Alternatively, deadlines and direct application of skill via a scheduled presentation can push an artist into a refinement that also leads to discovery. Balance between the two is necessary, and an open acknowledgment about what completion really means. Many Core Company alumni remark that their experience at the Orchard Project unfolds with increased meaning with each passing year. Projects begun here continue to propel them forward. The Orchard Project provides space for consideration without the pressure to make something that immediately, clearly, and efficiently demonstrates it. Academic environments sometimes lean towards accessing the head of a student over the heart. At the Orchard Project, passion is at a premium, as well as joy, curiosity, transparency, and audience awareness.

As the members of the Core Company progressed, they gathered all the resources available to them into developing their own work. Their individual projects were shared via open rehearsals during the final week. It was gratifying to see each artist step into new territory with previously unfamiliar content and/or form, knowing that each sharing was one step on a road of many.

One afternoon, a member of the Core Company reflected in conversation with me that he now found himself able to generate something from nothing when in the past he’d felt dependent on a script. Having just graduated from a strong program in the Midwest that no doubt engaged both his artistry and his intellect, he now articulated a desire to find a community of artists with whom he could make work, share ethics and aesthetics, and find individual and collective purpose. He was liberated, on fire, and deeply excited. He had become an Activated Artist.

The artists of the Core Company are proceeding from the microcosms of their colleges and conservatories with their eyes, minds, and hearts wide open. And though brief, the Orchard Project opens the door for mentorship, for inter-generational advisement and sustained interaction over time, as personal and professional relationships develop out of its shared workspaces and dinner tables. Art making is ultimately a social process, and though individualism does not ever disappear, it must coexist alongside fellow artists and audiences.

One Core Company alumnus described the Orchard Project as “equal parts chaos and clarity—a place where you can be a student, a collaborator, and an artist all day, every day.”

We are all students, collaborators, and artists all day, every day. You can’t escape from the art here.

 

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