The Movement Between Us, or 2000 Miles From the Teapot

 

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In the following Around the Teapot series, three writers reflect on “Adventuring Together: Ensembles, Collectives, Laboratories & Networks,” a weekend-long gathering of performance artists and scholars, from across the U.S. and Europe, held in Los Angeles. Intended to create a platform for self-generated, dynamic and passionate articulation of the joys and challenges of collaborative performance-making, the “Adventuring Together” Teapot offered a space to practice ensemble to both real and virtual participants.

From my studio in Minneapolis, I check HowlRound TV half an hour before Around the Teapot is scheduled to start streaming from Los Angeles. The camera appears to be on already. Chairs are arranged in circles, draped in white. I think I see a piano behind them, but I can’t be sure. Might be a tall table. Some items are placed on top of it; maybe the tea. I don’t see or hear any people, but the sense of prepared space is strong. I go make my own cup of tea, keeping the browser open so that I’ll hear the session start. As an artist who works collaboratively but floats geographically, I’m looking forward to a conversation titled, “What does ensemble mean in the 21st Century?”

Around the Teapot describes itself as “an informal gathering of artists, practitioners, academics, critics, and spectators coming together to discuss pressing artistic and cultural concerns over tea and treats interspersed with small performance vignettes, actions or educational activities.” ARTEL, the company that conceived this gathering, was and continues to be inspired by the tea traditions of numerous cultures, as well as more contemporary models of collectivity.

In recent emails from Bryan Brown and Olya Petrakova, the organizers, I felt resonances of the Occupy movement—from the desire to work with Open Space Technology to the creative forms they invited dialogue to take. “Everything is a conversation,” ARTEL notes. “Verbal discourse, practical exploration, performance, and installation.”  

Around 2:30pm, sound pours in. The room on my computer screen is suddenly full of people. A woman is speaking about Stanislavsky, and I remember Bryan and Olya’s emphasis that “the schedule carries potential for flexibility.” The previous session must be running long. I switch to full screen and peer at faces, trying to identify people I know, but the details are blurry. Sounds of musical saw from the next room; my collaborator Theo is editing sound for The Hive Project, a triptych in development with Padua Playwrights which, incidentally, explores collectivity by way of bees.

Now a man is talking about Norway. During the break, a woman standing near the camera says, “It’s really kind of thrilling and funky and strange.” She’s talking about her experience of the weekend, and her words are layered with distant morse code from Theo on the next room. I think about the fact I am in multiple overlapping realities right now.  

Contradiction, paradox, simultaneity—these words keep knocking around in me lately, and they’re especially present in the next thirty hours as I tune in and out of Around the Teapot from afar. I can’t make eye contact or hear every word  (though the sound quality is largely decent overall), yet I’m there in the room with them.

I think about paradoxical needs this experience embodies—for community and solitude; structures and flexibility; stability and change—and the need for all of it, simultaneously, in our lives, our practices, our field. I think about how contradictory these needs feel. And then I think about the movement back and forth between them, and how movement is probably the most important thing.

 

I think about paradoxical needs this experience embodies—for community and solitude; structures and flexibility; stability and change—and the need for all of it, simultaneously, in our lives, our practices, our field.

 

Open Space Technology basically means that broad topics serve as starting points, but the conversation can go anywhere from there. At each Teapot session, one individual offers a “provocation;” others give shorter (and often divergent) “enticements;” then everyone else responds.

I appreciate the open forum, but I’m overwhelmed by the sheer amount of talking, let alone the big topics we’re conjuring but not unpacking. For example, in just a few sessions, all of these threads come up: The nature of Ensemble. The spirituality and politics of Ensemble. The collective versus the individual. Organizational structures. Grotowski. Brecht. Bausch. Boal. Exciting work happening in Portland, Chicago, New Orleans, Mexico. Academia. Power dynamics. Gender. Diversity. Homelessness. Neuroscience. Memory. Learning styles. Parenting and children. Work-life balance. Community collaboration. Utopia.

Yet just when my head starts spinning, something connects back to an earlier session—and then it happens again, and again. They’re small but mighty moments.

For instance, on Saturday, John Britton offers the image of ensemble as jazz band. On Sunday, Lizi Watt talks about the beauty and anguish of being a mom while trying to make collaborative work, how we need to look for new ways to not only accommodate but to learn from children in our ensemble structures. And suddenly I’m thinking yes, of course, ensemble as jazz band. We have to get better at listening and responding to each other’s lives as we evolve the shapes of our art-making structures, ensembles, organizations. (I also think about the two agents in New York who told me, along with eight other playwrights, never to have children if we want them to represent us. Those men are not a jazz band.)

Individually, these moments are inchoate snippets; but collectively, they’re accumulating into an intriguing greater saturated whole. I can’t name it yet, but it has a distinct energy.

I’m aware that the folks in L.A. can follow up with each other through small groups, meals, evening festivities—so periodically I take my own breaks, pausing to write, take walks, cook. I think about a book I started reading recently (thanks to Lara Nielsen), Against the Romance of Community. I think how weirdly refreshing it is that we Teapot participants aren’t pretending we all want to talk about the same things. We are, however, giving voice and actively listening to what’s on each of our minds (or held in our bodies), then committing to the movement between each idea. It’s a process that strikes me, profoundly, as progress.

 

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