Broadening the Theatrical Palate

Rachel Chavkin and the TEAM

I identify with Anthony Bourdain, writer of The New York Times bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000), TV personality of such shows as the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain’s: No Reservations, and more recently CNN’s food/travel delectable hybrid Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. I need to be clear: I have little in common with Bourdain. For starters, unlike Bourdain I haven’t traveled outside of the country since 2001 (if you don’t count Canada); I lack a personal relationship with the Ramones and am not cool enough to understand their influence on punk; I can’t cook more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Considering my work as a dramaturg and a literary manager, where I find a kinship with Bourdain is in his diverse taste. Bourdain has an incredibly broad palate; he can travel to a Sizzler in Los Angeles’ K-town, Spain’s world-renowned El Bulli, and an extended family’s meal of camel in Saudi Arabia and savor the diversity of the cuisine. He places the food in a sociopolitical context and always bravely eats whatever animal (or part of it) is served to him.

In concert with how the food tastes, Bourdain is interested in its origins, in the people who prepare it, and in the history of the place where he eats it. As a literary manager, it’s important to expose myself to as many different types of theatre and performance as possible—to know the field, the work produced domestically and internationally, the writers, actors, directors, designers, and institutions, as well as the various development practices that create this work. In order to have such a broad sensibility one needs a ferocious appetite, which applies not only to food but also to theatre. Much of Bourdain’s philosophy of sharing food with an American viewership is comparably relevant to us as theatre artists sharing with our audiences. Bourdain falls in love with the cuisine from certain kitchens and dedicates full episodes to those restaurants and chefs, passionately sharing with the world why they are worthy of such praise, regardless of whether they’re the superstar restaurant on a foodie’s must-visit list or they simply serve great, basic food.

Applying Bourdain’s philosophy of showcasing good food, I’d like to showcase good theatre by focusing on an artist and company I’ve encountered during my travels as a literary manager: Rachel Chavkin, three-time Obie Award-winning director, educator, and founding Artistic Director of the New York City-based theatre company the TEAM.

I remember being excited by the festival’s lineup and learning about a number of companies that were new to me, but at this point, after the evening before and being on the road for a long time, I needed that afternoon’s performance to be fantastic, earth-shattering, best-purple-yam-ice-cream, topflight-whisky, falling-off-the-bone-barbeque-good. Luckily, it was.

As the literary manager at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, an extremely exciting aspect of my position was traveling throughout the country to attend festivals, productions, performances, and meetings with artists to develop my knowledge of the field and to scout work for production consideration. During the summer of 2010, after a winter and spring of traveling to Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Louisville, and New York, I found myself in Boston for the inaugural Emerging America Festival, convened by the American Repertory Theater (ART), the Huntington Theatre, and the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston to feature “ground-breaking” performance by American artists. I have to be honest that after a very busy season I don’t remember whose couch I was sleeping on that morning I woke up before seeing a matinee of the TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland, but I do recall a nice cop offering to drive me to the suburban home on the outskirts of Boston where I was staying since no cabs were available at the T station and walking six miles through woods after midnight was out of the question. Before arriving in Boston, I remember being excited by the festival’s lineup and learning about a number of companies that were new to me, but at this point, after the evening before and being on the road for a long time, I needed that afternoon’s performance to be fantastic, earth-shattering, best-purple-yam-ice-cream, topflight-whisky, falling-off-the-bone-barbeque-good. Luckily, it was.

The TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland presented children from Kansas awaiting the Rapture, Robert F. Kennedy returning to the campaign trail, a pregnant alien emerging from the cornfields moments before giving birth, and a financier named Dorothy forgetting the power of her ruby slippers (which are transformed in this contemporary, dystophic world to shiny red stilettos). This devised work, created from 2005 to 2007, utilized high theatricality, robust metaphor, and American iconography, inspired by the profound effect President George W. Bush's 2005 economic legislation had on Midwestern farmers and by the resurgence of Evangelicalism in the United States. Dynamic stage pictures were constructed with Christmas lights, window frames, and snow. The extremely skilled actors Kristen Sieh, Libby King, and Jake Margolin, just a few members of the talented ensemble in the performance, voraciously connected to each other and created an atypical American nuclear family. An impeccable sound design by Matt Hubbs fluidly merged image, narrative, and performers. And the text was a living organism, collectively generated through improvisation, scripted scenes, and audience response. Particularly In the Heartland was different than anything I’d experienced theatrically and, reflecting on the Bourdain philosophy, a kind of performance that I wanted to see again and share with audiences.

The TEAM’s mission is to create new work about the experience of living in America today by devising plays from material that ranges from existing texts (e.g., fiction, theory, drama, etc.) to images taken from visual art and film, and then combining that research with original writing, and staging it all with exuberant physicality, by which they hope to keep “the brain, eyes, and heart of their audience constantly stimulated.” In a series of interviews I conducted with Chavkin during the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2013, she discussed how the company is invested in the notion of Americana in part because of Chavkin and the rest of the company’s political engagement. She says, “The work is aimed less at initiating direct action and more so at creating space for self-reflection, which I imagine is constantly underway with any audience member, just as I myself am always reflecting about my actions in the world.” The company has created over ten pieces and grown its core company to thirteen members and a continually expanding group of artistic associates since its inception in 2004.

she discussed how the company is invested in the notion of Americana in part because of Chavkin and the rest of the company’s political engagement. She says, “The work is aimed less at initiating direct action and more so at creating space for self-reflection, which I imagine is constantly underway with any audience member, just as I myself am always reflecting about my actions in the world.” 

Rachel Chavkin
Rachel Chavkin. Photo by the TEAM. 

Some of their many pieces include Faster (“The TEAM’s sideways look at life in New York, healing and forging connections in a rushing world, and making an imprint on a dying universe”), Howl (based on the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same title), Give Up! Start Over! (“a relentless solo performance about reality television, Richard Nixon, and the search for authenticity in America”), A Thousand Natural Shocks (“A time-bending quartet inspired by Hamlet and other visions of the end of the world”), Architecting (“a multi-media road tripping requiem for modern America” set in post-Katrina New Orleans to the mythical Georgia of Gone With the Wind to a gas station in rural Arkansas), and Waiting For You on the Corner of…( a collaboration with Sojourn Theatre). The company is also developing Scottish Enlightenment Project, Primer for a Failed Superpower, and RoosevElvis. As reflected by the diversity of their programing and their unique approaches to interpreting American identity, the TEAM’s blending of art with ideology creates a lens through which to view the nation, both its triumphs and failures. The company’s work has been seen at venues such as the Public Theater, Performance Space 122, Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, London’s Barbican, Battersea Arts Centre, and Almeida Theatre, Lisbon’s Culturgest, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, Glasgow’s The Arches, Ireland’s Galway Arts Festival, and the Salzburg Festival. The TEAM’s productions have received numerous accolades and awards, including four Scotsman Fringe First Awards, the 2011 Herald Angel, the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize, and many more. Although the company addresses themes very American in nature, much of its external support and production have been found outside the United States. For instance, while the group has performed in Hong Kong, Perth, and throughout the United Kingdom, among other international destinations, and has been seen by very different audiences overseas with fringe festivals, smaller theatres, and major regional theatres, the TEAM’s not yet performed in many of major stateside cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

 

The TEAM is well acquainted with the work of other ensemble based companies, has trained with them, and often there is much crossover with membership. Some of the company’s colleagues and mentors include the work of The Wooster Group, forced entertainment, Elevator Repair Service, SITI Company, Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, The Civilians, Banana Bag & Bodice, Universes, Witness Relocation, Radiohole, among many other companies and writers who have also critically defined devised theatre. The company finds its source material from numerous and diverse outlets. Chavkin describes the initial process of finding work as a “lateral thinking exercise.” As the artistic director, she proposes a broad topic, in addition to a major question about the state of the United States. Then the ensemble uses these ideas as a catalyst to find how they relate to the material, and how they can become passionate about it. They will find corollary media to articulate their responses, such as film, YouTube videos, a biography they love, and other inspirational performances and artwork. They develop reading lists of material to help create the foundation for the piece. The group moves between consensus-driven decision making and benevolent dictatorship, where Chavkin makes the decisions. But because they are a solid ensemble, her decisions are often unanimously felt with the entire group. Also, because of the ensemble’s extremely strong camaraderie, the TEAM pulls for each of its members, desiring them to contribute and create, and pluralistically granting the time, space, and respect for all voices to be heard. Depending on the project, work is in development between eight months to however many years the ensemble feels is needed to complete a piece, through rehearsals, collaborations, workshops, and public performances. The ensemble of artists—actors, director, and designers—are consistently present throughout the development, rehearsal, and production processes. In a The Drama Review interview with Carol Martin (“What did They do to My Country!”), Chavkin describes rehearsals as an “‘intellectual board game’: part roundtable discussion and part improvisation.” The company is committed to creating high caliber work within limited budgets. And the TEAM’s audience is vibrant and young—an audience many resident theatres crave to build. Chavkin astutely points out: “If you’re really growing audiences, you’re doing so through the quality of your work and the breadth of the type(s) of work you're presenting/producing.” When asked who specifically their audience is, Chavkin defers to a comment from a board member, “Our audiences move and shake and want to be relevant. They want to walk out and not know what to say. They want to talk about it over dinner and argue about what it means to be American.” 

Recently, the TEAM staged Mission Drift at London’s the National Theatre, where the work received much praise from audiences and critics alike. Mission Drift, influenced by series of interviews and also written in collaboration with composer and performer Heather Christian and playwright Sarah Gancher, explores the mythic and contemporary Las Vegas, what it’s actually like for its locals and how it came to be. Simultaneously (a personal project of Chavkin not directly related to the TEAM), Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a “electro-pop-opera,” adapted from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, adapted and composed by Dave Malloy and directed by Chavkin is receiving a summer run at the pop-up bar and performance space Kazino in the Meatpacking district after its fall 2012 sold-out run at Midtown’s Ars Nova.

In response to why Chavkin collaborates with artists like Christian and Malloy, among many others, she says in our interview, “They're talented. I love talking to them. I love people who have their own damned agenda. And then you have your agenda. And then stuff happens.” Chavkin and Malloy received a 2013 Obie award for their collaboration on Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812—the extremely nuanced and entertaining piece is staged with performers moving and singing around tables in a red velvet-covered venue, as audiences sip on vodka and munch on perogi. Clearly rooted in theatrical styles of cabaret and opera, this work builds on these more traditional genres. The production breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience into the performance during this nontraditional production. In customary Chavkin style, her work appeals to more senses than just sight and hearing, including smell, some touch, and definitely taste.

Returning to Bourdain’s philosophical approach to what makes satiating food, he considers not only the chefs, the atmosphere, and the circumstances by which the food is made, but also the sense of community and how it stirs the consumers’ responses. This community is indispensible to the food, as is the following the TEAM has engendered with its invested audience. As an audience member of the TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland and Mission Drift, I understand this sharing, where the audience wanted, or rather, seemed to need to share a live connection through performance. Feminist theatre and performance scholar Jill Dolan writes in her seminal text Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre (2005):

Perhaps part of the desire to attend theatre and performance is to reach for something better, for new ideas about how to be and how to be with each other to articulate a common, different future.

As I reflect on Dolan’s thoughts, the TEAM’s work redefines what is theatrically possible and also provides an entry point to at least imagine a new and progressive future through the virtuosity of an artistic form. Perhaps the variant modes of culture, such as food and performance, are entry points to this collective experience and a means of interpreting the tragedies of society (i.e., how a cuisine is often a hybrid of different cultures, as a result of colonization and/or invasion, and how theatre, like the TEAM’s, interprets the turmoil of past and present) in ways that are often beautifully horrific, unforgettable, and tangible. We often recognize material that has this indelible mark after the first bite or after the first couple of minutes of performance. The energy is different in the room, and one becomes aware of one’s fellow diners or audience members. But sometimes locating these experiences is challenging.

We can all apply Bourdain and the literary manager’s pursuit of this important work that demonstrates innovation in the field and helps us to begin to deconstruct the challenging subjects of our world (or, as Chavkin notes of the TEAM’s—work that responds to the experience of living in America and that brings audiences together). There’s a tendency to look at the most funded or lauded to find this work, but often we need to dig deeper, to travel to storefronts, to one- or two-day showcases, to ensembles operating with little-to-no budgets (or to the family-owned restaurants, the street vendors, the backyard barbeques). Besides looking at international and domestic cities known for their culture and populace, we need to look at the smaller cities and towns, the less traveled places. For Bourdain, this is newly freed and still-turbulent Libya, the farm country of Montana, and upstate New York. For audiences, these less usual places are far and wide, from your local universities, to interdisciplinary performance groups, to community-based theatres throughout the country, to the Village. The best way to begin this journey is to take a risk, fight the siloization, and not to allow a certain type of performance or food to define your palate but to be open to all the different ingredients, no matter how strange. Otherwise, our world is rather bland.            

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