It’s Not a Performance

Indy Convergence. The organization has an intriguing name, but at first glance it may not seem to represent the event, residency, and/or arts accelerator it hosts. When family, friends, and co-workers asked me for a description of the two convergences I attended this spring, I struggled to find a phrase to explain what inspired my social media postings about doing aikido and American kenpo in morning movement rehearsal, attending workshops on paper folding and graphic musical notation, dressing up in ribbons for a project investigating “parade,” performing on the roof of a five-story building in downtown Indianapolis, and staying up all night to write radio scripts for site-specific performance and dialogue for a puppet show.

The basic elements of Indy Convergence? Indy, referring to Indianapolis, which not many Canadians or even Americans outside of the Midwest automatically realize—until they remember the city’s main event, the Indy 500. Convergence, an apt word to describe the various disciplines, supplies, spaces, activities, projects, and communities that Indy Convergence gathers into each of its three yearly events in Indianapolis, Toronto, and Haiti.

Its main building blocks are the Umbrella Project—one artistic experiment that is rehearsed at every convergence in a given year and involves all the participating artists—and side projects—rehearsals that only involve groups of two to five artists at one convergence. Workshop refers not to the convergence as a whole but to one-hour sessions where one artist teaches the group his or her craft. During the convergence’s twelve to fourteen days, each morning begins with an hour of group movement and each day ends with the artists going home to stay with community members. No one is forced to find accommodations and everyone continues living in collaboration, even after each day’s rehearsals conclude.

And yet Indy Convergence’s Artistic Director Robert Negron and Executive Director Caitlin Negron are still developing new language to describe the artistic development process they offer. From my attempts to explain my experience and powerful loyalty to the Indy Convergence alumni, I’d agree that we haven’t yet found its perfect translation into language. But if I learned anything at my convergences, it’s that finding the right fit, collaborators, environment, format, and audiences sometimes requires waiting it out and trying (and failing) over and over again.

people sitting around a table
Indy Convergence, Indianapolis, 2015. Photo by Ian Garrett.

To begin, Indy Convergence was born when three artists—an actor, a dancer, and a director—met while working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Realizing that the rehearsal halls emptied out later in the festival’s season, they decided to use the space to continue crafting their own projects. They gathered to share the art forms they’d trained in and to keep their bodies moving. Most importantly, they drew on each other’s perspective and expertise to experiment with new ideas, projects they’d been mulling over but weren’t sure how to mount or that weren’t ready to produce in front of judgmental, paying audiences. The time, space, and human resources became so important that Robert, Caitlin, and Dara Weinberg (co-founder, 2008 Umbrella Project director, development director) decided to replicate them to share with other artists. Since Caitlin’s work with Dance Kaleidoscope offered a firm base in Indianapolis, that’s where they founded the flagship program and Indy Convergence invited a group of local and national artists there to participate for the first time eight years ago.

Since then, it has grown to include pop-up residencies based in Toronto and a breadth of community-driven work in Oban, Haiti, in addition to the programming in Indianapolis. But “pop-up residency” represents another convenient, yet potentially misleading description. Residencies, from my understanding of the concept, can be systems to provide structure and resources to make measurable progress on a well-defined goal. They are places of shelter to work to transform the ur play, performance, dance, book, painting, et cetera, into a final product. Some of these resources Indy does provide, but a calm environment to focus on one definable project—it actively resists that.

Only after sitting through workshops where other artists taught me about cloud computing, prop making, hula dancing, and creative producing did I see that so many of us were overcoming imposter syndrome, all experts and amateurs at the same time.

When I arrived at my first convergence, I knew I would be leading a side project, directing five other artists to test out a new draft of my play somewhere never travelled. After working as an intern on and off since moving to Toronto two years ago—a silent sponge absorbing other artists’ process—having ultimate control terrified me. I felt like an imposter with more questions about my final goal than answers for my team of theatre and technical design experts. I felt more valuable as a consultant for that year’s Umbrella Project and other’s side projects.

It took me a week to learn that I didn’t have to know all the answers. Only after Robert prompted me to embrace this and articulate my driving questions to the team could I begin to release them to work out potential answers for me. Only after sitting through workshops where other artists taught me about cloud computing, prop making, hula dancing, and creative producing did I see that so many of us were overcoming imposter syndrome, all experts and amateurs at the same time. Only after collaborating on two other projects did I see how to fully embrace my resources: my talented team of technicians, designers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs dying to play with my script.

an overhead view of some people
Indy Convergence, Indianapolis, 2015. Photo by Charles Borowicz.

My first convergence taught me that while it is okay to sometimes say, “I don’t know,” to invite collaboration, it is important to own your artistic vision. It killed me to “waste” so much time and resources to arrive at this solution, but that I learned was also part of the Indy Convergence: patience with the process and forgiveness for every necessary mistake. Still, I ended the 2015 Toronto convergence with a strong proof of concept for the next stage of play development, a local team ready to workshop it in the fall, and a thirst for more. Miraculously, the directors found a spot for me at the Indianapolis convergence and two weeks later it all began again.

Like you, I thought at this point I had grasped the concept of Indy Convergence and knew what to expect. Not so. As a contributing artist without a side project or a workshop, I found myself once again fighting imposter syndrome. I wanted to build props, sets, and costumes, but didn’t know how to offer my amateur help. I began writing a new play because I didn’t yet know where to channel my energy.

I wasn’t alone. Four of us artists who also attended the Toronto convergence struggled with changing roles in the new group, bemoaning our lack of contributions one day and then drowning under to-do lists the next. Perhaps this is part of the reason Indy Convergence defies definition; as a highly collaborative process built on the human resources assembled, it morphs at each convergence. Thankfully this new group of “convergers” had much to teach us in the personal challenges and gifts of self and skills they brought to our work.

Indy Convergence works best when you surrender to the process. Only then can you fully embrace the rare opportunity to learn, to ask and receive everything you need from the artistic community surrounding you, and to create at the very stretches of your personal and group limits.

Ellen Denham, the woman I stayed with during the convergence, had attended the Indy Convergence almost every year since its inception. She led the Umbrella Project in 2013 in addition to various workshops and side projects, and was using her side project this year to test out methodology for her doctoral thesis. And yet it wasn’t until a conversation late in the convergence that she realized her thesis topic itself had been inspired by Indy Convergence; if she hadn’t taught amateur singers in workshops and also attended dance and theatre workshops, she might not have researched improvisation in opera.

Technical Director Ian Garrett had coordinated everything set-, lighting-, projection-, and sound-related for every convergence but this year marked two thresholds and big changes to his involvement. He proposed and ran the 2015 Umbrella Project, even though he’d never before directed a side project. In addition, his wife was attending as a contributing artist for the first time and they both had to juggle artistic duties with child-rearing duties for their almost one year-old son, also in attendance.

people outside on gravel
Indy Convergence, Indianapolis, 2015. Photo by Charles Borowicz.

Some of Ian’s first rehearsals felt like we had made progress, and others felt like we’d just talked around his problems about site-specific performance and geo-location. Other convergers used to depending on him for technical advice had to learn to seek out other experts or make do for themselves. And we all took turns keeping his son entertained and away from the construction area—joking about how we wanted to cast him in every project.

Even Robert’s side project rehearsals now felt confused and distracted as he used most of the artists to develop a performance Indy Convergence could tour for the other forty or so weeks of the year they weren’t yet hosting a convergence. As artistic director, he was not an exception to the ugly first struggles with a new idea.

I by far learned the most from working with Beverly Roche on her side project. I missed her first rehearsal, but from what my collaborators’ reported, at first her ideas barely coalesced. Though she’d been developing the seeds of a one-woman show for over two decades, we couldn’t draw the various elements into anything whole. For the third rehearsal, I wrote a script while the rest of the team played with choreography. The show began to take shape even as the schedule and exhaustion threw wrenches into the rehearsals, but Beverly still worried about the final performance.

People sitting in a circle inside
Indy Convergence, Indianapolis, 2015. Photo by Charles Borowicz.

Which is when Robert reminded us that the final performance at Indy Convergence is not a performance. It’s not an easy idea to wrap one’s head around. No complete first draft, no polished props, set, or choreographed section of a longer final product. Even with expert technicians on standby, each project could present anything, even if just a five-minute spoken summary of what was explored during the past twelve days. The final day’s performance is not a performance, but an “open lab.” This is not just a title, but a declaration that there will be no tickets sold, no bows, and no expectations from either audience or cast. It’s a declaration of Indy Convergence’s core values: none of the artists gathered has had to pay for accommodations or the resources offered. No one needs to create anything in those two weeks to prove his or her worth. It’s enough to be present and take risks.

Rarely do artists receive this type of safety net: a chance to explore and fail safely. In university, I constantly felt the pressure from my theatre troupe to produce something better than the amateur theatre companies on campus. I know other artists coming to the Indy Convergence temporarily left the industry in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, professorships, graduate programs, and companies with approaching deadlines, shrinking budgets, and cutthroat competition. Not only Beverly struggled at times to accept this gift, but the entire room needed this reminder to take off the pressure of presenting a polished product.

Multiple projects begun at the Indy Convergence have been produced at Fringe festivals, local arts venues, national festivals, and even international venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but this is because Indy Convergence allowed artists the chance to flail and flounder first. I should have learned this lesson after the Toronto convergence, but as I learned from the veterans, this is never an easy gift to receive. Indy Convergence works best when you surrender to the process. Only then can you fully embrace the rare opportunity to learn, to ask and receive everything you need from the artistic community surrounding you, and to create at the very stretches of your personal and group limits.

In the next eight years and beyond, watch as convergences begin to pop up in more cities and countries—call and perhaps they’ll host one in your area next. But most importantly, Indy Convergence will only expand its reach in sustainable ways that will benefit both individual artists and the communities they serve. Indy Convergence’s core process—artists at work—will travel to more communities and expand to include year-long programming only when it can provide a similarly safe, resource-rich space to the participants and surrounding communities. That’s the Indy Convergence way: abandon yourself to the process and see what you can do with the world as your collaborator.

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