Anne Hamburger on Basetrack Live
Basetrack Live is a new multimedia theatre production inspired by Basetrack: One-Eight, a web project created in 2010 by photojournalists embedded with U.S. Marines fighting in southern Afghanistan. The site connected servicemen in the field with their families back home, and evolved into a virtual gathering place for individuals separated by war. Basetrack Live, produced by Hamburger, premieres in New York City with five performances (November 11-15) at BAM’s Harvey Theater as part of this year’s Next Wave Festival.
The production marks the return of En Garde Arts, originally founded by Anne Hamburger in 1985. From 1985-1993, under the leadership of Hamburger, En Garde Arts produced more than twenty large-scale site-specific theatre works in locations around New York City, including the Chelsea Hotel, the Bow Bridge in Central Park, several piers in lower Manhattan, the Meatpacking District, the vacant Towers Nursing Home at 106th Street, the Masonic Hall Ballroom on West Twenty-third Street, and the old Victory Theatre. During its tenure, En Garde Arts was known for its “360-degree approach” to producing theatre, commissioning an array of visionary artists such as Reza Abdoh, Anne Bogart, Tina Landau, Charles L. Mee, Jr., and Mac Wellman. In 1999, Hamburger moved to the west coast to be Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse (1999-2000) and soon became Executive Vice President for Disney Creative Entertainment (2000-2008).
She is now back in New York City, having re launched En Garde Arts as a non-profit company. “I needed to make a home for developing work that was relevant, meaningful and boundary pushing,” she explains in TCG’s American Theatre Magazine, “not for its own sake, but because theater that embraces its environment, its surroundings and the communities it inhabits, is what’s most interesting to me.”
I spoke with Hamburger about the upcoming production of Basetrack Live. Our conversation took place via skype on October 9th, 2014.
Bertie Ferdman: Let’s begin with how you discovered the original Basetrack on the Internet to how it became an idea for a show.
Anne Hamburger: It was not my idea—Edward Bilous, Director for the Center for the Innovation of the Arts at Juilliard and creator of the show, saw the photographs at a gallery, and asked the Marines who took them if he could do a workshop at Juilliard using the images. So the piece began as a workshop with students. I saw it then, but since it has been completely rewritten around some of the original photographs.
When I saw it what really struck me was the music, so a lot of the music is the same, except there is much more of it. Ed, his wife Michelle Dibucci, and Greg Kalember wrote the music. It’s an electro-acoustic score; there’s a cello, a violin, a percussionist, and a DJ/VJ. I was blown away because my whole career, what has preoccupied me, since day one really, is bringing together people who are artists with people who know nothing about the arts, and seeing how the arts can impact people.
Basetrack hit that nerve for me. I was blown away by the age of the people who served.
Bertie: You mean the veterans?
Anne: Yes. And that’s another thing that’s always kind of guided me in the work that I choose to do. I love doing things that bring me into worlds that I know nothing about. The subject matter was compelling. If I had gone to a show that had been antiwar, I wouldn’t have been interested. What ends up happening is that people don’t get to draw their own conclusions.
Bertie: You alienate some audience members.
Anne: There’s a self-selection process that results in people who don’t agree with you so they don’t come. What was compelling about Basetrack was that it wasn’t pro-war or anti-war. Rather it was about the impact of war: it’s emotional and human dimension. To be able to take that subject matter, and the kernels of what Ed and his team had developed, and bring in Jason Grote as adaptor, was a gift.
What was compelling about Basetrack was that it wasn’t pro-war or anti-war. Rather it was about the impact of war: it’s emotional and human dimension.
Bertie: You’ve touched upon the issue of objectivity in theatre. As opposed to forwarding one specific worldview, like in agit-prop or guerrilla theatre, this piece addresses the impact of war. This is similar to the role of photojournalism. Do you see this piece as a parallel between theater and photojournalism?
Anne: I do. The show has led us on the very interesting journey into the realm of social media because when we started, we had these photographs, but we did not know whom they belonged to. We reached out via Facebook and we found out who was in the photographs and eventually interviewed some of them. The piece focuses on a very specific group—the Marine Unit 1A in Afghanistan in 2010. The group of photographers embedded with this infantry unit shot all of these photographs and videos with their iPhones. These mostly poor and working class young men were going and getting their arms blown off, their legs blown off, and all the rest of it, and the media did not want to publish it. The photographers got frustrated at the lack of attention the emotional impact of war was getting from the newspapers and magazines.
Bertie: What happens in Basetrack Live?
Anne: There are two actors on stage. The actors play real people—AJ and Melissa Czubai. The show chronicles their journey of falling in love, AJ going overseas and serving two tours in Afghanistan, and Melissa having a baby while he is away (he was actually on the phone with her when she was delivering from the base), AJ getting shot, coming home, suffering from PTS, and ending up really facing the brink of suicide, and realizing that he needed to live, he needed to live for all the people that died and for himself. He and his wife came to the show in Austin, Texas where they live. They loved it. It was one of the most moving things I have experienced.
Bertie: How is this story told on stage?
Anne: Through the photographs and video interviews conducted by the embedded photographers and myself with the veterans back home. You see them in Afghanistan and you see them at home, and you see some mothers and fathers and wives.
Bertie: Are all of the veterans featured in the show back home? Did they survive?
Anne: We didn’t focus on all of them because there are probably photographs of fifty or sixty people up on the stage at any one time. We focus on AJ and Melissa, and about six men that you hear from specifically. After our workshop in Gainesville, Florida, I interviewed some of the wives via Skype, and we use sections of that in the piece. What I discovered is that it’s the family that goes to war, not just the people that serve.
Bertie: You are a very hands-on producer and community engagement seems to be a large part of your job. The photojournalists who created Basetrack describe it as “citizen journalism.” It seems like you are creating a form of “citizen theatre” with this piece.
Anne: I love that term. I have not let up. Every time we present the show I am asking “What are you doing to get veterans in the door?” It’s a tough group to get in the door. And the person who is now my hero is Art DeGroat. He is Director of Military Affairs at Kansas State University, and he totally gets the idea of the arts as a catalyst for social change. As we tour around the country, he has a thousand people coming to the show, a lot of whom are veterans and military people.
Bertie: Did you make this show for a specific audience?
Anne: I made the show to bring people who have served together with people who know nothing about war, beyond what they read in the papers. What we wanted to do with Basetrack Live is not focus on the people who lost limbs necessarily, but who had lost peace. When I interviewed him, I remember AJ saying how “we are fighting our own war back home.” The term that is used is moral injury—the experience of people who are raised as moral human beings, who go to boot camp and are taught to fight, and then return with just a guilt, and a horrible conscience about what they’ve done.
The term that is used is moral injury—the experience of people who are raised as moral human beings, who go to boot camp and are taught to fight, and then return with just a guilt, and a horrible conscience about what they’ve done.
Bertie: Any politicians go see the show? I’m just curious.
Anne: That’s an interesting question, I actually don’t know. I’d love to get the show to Washington. I haven’t found a presenter to do this show in Washington.
Bertie: I wish Congress could go on a field trip to see Basetrack Live.
Anne: I know that Loree K. Sutton, who was just named Commissioner of Veterans Affairs under Bill de Blasio is coming to BAM’s opening night.
Bertie: There is such a rich history of war themes in theatre. We see it in so much of Greek tragedy, in Brecht of course, and even in contemporary performance—recently with National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. How does Basetrack Live fit into this larger trajectory of war plays, and how does it move the genre forward?
Anne: I would say that what marks this piece is that it’s form is different. It is not a play, but a multimedia experience. There are times when the text leads, times when the music leads, and times when we’re doing nothing but watching the photographs and the videos on the screen, so the form of it is very 21st century.
Bertie: You are also using text from the veterans themselves, so it’s a form of historical document.
Anne: Right. It’s interpretive in so far as we are editors of what we use, and how we pieced it together. The performance is really about “understanding.” Its purpose isn’t to debate whether war is good or bad or whether we belong there or we didn’t belong there. That’s kind of beside the point. One of the Facebook posts that a vet posted, which I love so much was, “War is old men talking, and young men dying.” I was so moved by that. There are all these politicians in the halls of Washington discussing war, but there’s these young innocent naïve men and women going over there, fighting a war they don’t necessarily understand. One of them said to us, “I was eleven years old and I saw the Towers come down and I knew then that I was going to go serve.” Many people don’t seem to really understand or think about the impact of war.
Bertie: It seems like you are looking for a real connection between theatre and the community you are presenting on stage. Is this part of your larger vision about the role of theater?
Anne: I think that what I do, without even being able to describe it, is a very different kind of producing. Yes, I’m very creatively involved and I’ll support my artists to the ends of the earth, but I will not just stop with making comments on whether or not it’s a good play. And one can make the comment that all good producers are engaged in marketing and outreach, but I do get very, very, very involved. I actually want to do another piece, and I want to focus on women in war.
Bertie: Is that the next En Garde Arts project?
Anne: Well there are a few things that are next but I want to do other pieces that engage in forms of “citizen theatre,” as you called it earlier. One of them is about wilderness programs and transport services that take troubled youth out to the wilderness, and then I want to do a piece about women in war. I’m doing another show with Anne Bogart that is going to be an immersive environmental piece that is tentatively on a pier beside the West Side Highway, about how people meet and how they experience one another in cafés. I’m also working on producing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which is being adapted by Alfred Uhry and directed by Rob Ashford. That one will be on a stage!