Oh, the Feels! Or, What Is the Collision Project?
Pearl Cleage is the Playwright-in-Residence at the Alliance Theater through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
2014 marks the thirteenth annual Alliance Theatre Collision Project, a three-week summer intensive in which local teens “collide” with a classic text to create an original piece of theatre under the guidance of professional theatre artists. This July, nineteen students from across Metro Atlanta came together with director Patrick McColery and Alliance Theatre Mellon Playwright in Residence, Pearl Cleage, to collide with the characters, themes, and issues in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Accurately describing what Collision means to the young men and women who participate each summer is challenging. Part coming-of-age experience, part artistic awakening, part old-fashioned southern tent revival, the Collision Project is much more than its resulting hour-long performance.
'It’s not camp...It’s not school, it’s not work. Collision is you.'—Patrick McColery
'It’s not camp...It’s not school, it’s not work. Collision is you.'—Patrick McColery
It’s Not Camp
On the morning of day one, few of the Collisioners (McColery’s loving shorthand for his teen artists) entering the small third-floor studio of the Woodruff Arts Center have ever experienced The Grapes of Wrath. But in just fourteen short working days, they will have written, rehearsed, and prepared to perform an original hour-long play based on the novel. McColery and Cleage selected each of this year’s Collisioners through a series of in-person interviews in early May. McColery describes the group as “angry, opinionated, and outgoing. They were already talking and forming a group downstairs before they had even been introduced,” he marvels. The group includes kids from schools with robust theatre programs, who have been involved both onstage and backstage in multiple productions, as well as those who have never performed but were drawn to the project for the chance to write in collaboration with Cleage or who want a creative extracurricular to tout in upcoming college entrance essays. “I’m new to theatre,” deadpans one young woman, “I do not know what a ‘thank you five’ is. I was like, ‘what are you doing?’” Some are homeschooled, some enjoy private education from elite schools, and some study at public institutions. A few Collisioners hail from immigrant families, while others have well-established Atlanta pedigrees. All, it soon becomes clear, are intelligent, thoughtful, and eager to create.
The day begins with introductions. In addition to McColery and Cleage, the day-to-day operations will be assisted by three Collision interns and Production Stage Manager Rodney Lamar Williams, who has been with The Collision Project for twelve of its thirteen years. Chris Moses, The Alliance Theatre Director of Educational Programs and producer Valetta Anderson are also on hand to welcome the Collisioners. Most striking about the staff introductions is the attitude of hospitality and gratitude towards the young artists. Moses asserts that the project is not a limited opportunity, but rather the first moment of a long-term relationship. “The Alliance is now your artistic home,” he insists, “and my door is always open to you.” Cleage and McColery are similarly welcoming. Cleage informs the group that her job is to shape the material they create and to serve their vision, not to impose her own. She tells them, “I don’t write the play. I don’t even rewrite the play. This is your work.” McColery describes Collision to the group as a “judgment-free zone” where they will be supported unconditionally by the leaders and in return are expected to support and care for each other. He emphasizes too, that they must suspend self-criticism and allow themselves freedom to explore and create in ways they may not have tried before. Support and understanding among the Collisioners is crucial, he urges, because of the unique nature of the process. “It’s not camp,” he explains, “It’s not school, it’s not work. Collision is you.”
The morning session concludes with a viewing of the 1940 John Ford film version of The Grapes of Wrath (which premiered only one year after the novel’s publication, as families like Steinbeck’s Joads were still struggling to survive as migrant workers in camps across California). As soon as the film ends, McColery asks the Collisioners to share moments, lines, and ideas that might be running through their heads after their first viewing. These are documented by the interns, who keep record on large pieces of paper. The Collisioners call out:
“Otherness. How the Joads became ‘others’ in their own country.”
“That guy who called himself a ‘Graveyard ghost.’”
“I think there’s a theme of women and strength.”
“All that lives is holy.”
“I’m just a little piece of a big soul.”
“It made me think about family. Like, how it’s defined.”
Soon, nearly 100 themes and paraphrased lines of dialog cover the studio wall, creating a powerful collage of impressions from the film. Over the next two weeks, these impressions will become the foundation of the finished piece.
The first afternoon session is dedicated to forming what stage manager Williams calls “The Tribe.” First, exercises and games focus the Collisioners on getting to know each other and becoming comfortable with the creative physical expression that will be an integral part of the project. During the more colorful exercises, some Collisioners are hesitant, giggling and halfheartedly participating in obvious discomfort while others are all-in. But by the last game, in which everyone has to agree or disagree with a statement made by someone else by switching places, even the most stoic are starting to give in to McColery’s “judgment-free” dictum and allow themselves to get lost in the exercise. The second part of the afternoon is led by Cleage, who asks the Collisioners to discuss any parallels they saw between The Grapes of Wrath and their own lives today. The conversation swirls around recession and foreclosure, the modern “California dream” held by young actors, Latino immigration, and the dissolving promise of a college education equaling future employment. Cleage reminds the Collisioners of the character Rosasharn, whose doomed pregnancy creates so much concern for the Joads and who, after being abandoned by her panicked husband, worries that her baby will not have a family. Cleage prompts the Collisioners to write for fifteen minutes on their own birth story, asking, “What is the story you’ve been told about when you were born?” She directs them not to edit their writing or judge it, only to write legibly and to “let it out.” When the writing is finished, Cleage collects their pages and saves them to read later that evening.
The day ends with everyone in the room forming a circle and holding hands to share final thoughts (a ritual that is repeated at the close of each day). McColery thanks the Collisioners for diving into the process. “I love your brains,” he says, “thank you, thank you for sharing them with us.” He closes by making sure that each Collisioner has received a copy of the novel and directing them to watch the news and continue to think about the Joads.
It’s Just Like Jazz
After the first day, rehearsals move to the Alliance main stage, where there is room to work while observers come and go unobtrusively through the house. Each day begins and ends with personal interviews, during which McColery and Cleage spend thirty minutes getting to know their Collisioners. McColery explains that in past years, before the interviews were added to the process, he sometimes came to the final performance feeling there were certain kids he still didn’t know well. Setting aside time with each Collisioner has eliminated that concern for him and interviewing them in pairs keeps the atmosphere relaxed. Each interview begins with a review of basic information, what schools do the Collisioners attend? What grades are they in? Where do they want to go to college? Followed by a question that allows the Collisioners an opportunity to express what’s going on in their lives in a more revealing way, “Tell us what kind of stuff you’re thinking about these days. Is there anything worrying you?”
The responses are often touching and occasionally hilarious. “Well, I’m homeschooled,” says one girl, “so prom was…difficult.” Several Collisioners express financial anxieties surrounding their college plans. “I’m worried about paying for it all but I’m going to go no matter what,” asserts one young man while another confides, “my stepdad was deported so now I’m the man of the house. I feel that pressure to give my family a better life.” Many reveal personal vulnerabilities, “I don’t know how to make friends,” admits one girl. But in revealing weaknesses, the Collisioners often find unexpected support in their interview partner. When one young woman describes mourning the loss of a friendship that “crossed the line” into romantic territory, then fell apart, she asks, “I mean, he didn’t care enough about me to get through a little awkwardness to fix the friendship?” Her interview partner jumps in to say that she has been through the same situation, instantly offering camaraderie and support.
In discussing their reactions to the process itself, there is universal enthusiasm. “I’m very private, so this experience is giving me a little push to open up,” says one young woman. “Collision is fantastic!” Squeals her interview partner, “I already feel so close to all of you and it’s only day three!”
McColery and Cleage then invite Collisioners to ask them questions. One afternoon, a young man asks Cleage why she chose to work on the Collision Project. “They asked me!” she laughs. “Rosemary Newcott (Alliance Theatre Sally G. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth and Families) invited me. At first I was nervous. I told Rodney [Williams] ‘I don’t know anything about working with young people!’ Rodney said, ‘it’s just like jazz. We all get in a room together and improvise.’ That interested me.” Cleage has found that working with young people guards her against cynicism. “It’s a gift for me to work for three weeks every year with people who are going somewhere and are excited about the future.” McColery adds, “It’s one of the joys of my life. Collision was an unexpected gift for me. It’s hard for me to accept that I’m starting a rehearsal process with no idea what it will be in the end. As a director, I always have to be the most prepared person in the world! This process has freed me.”
Each interview ends with a genuine invitation to the Collisioners to approach McColery and Cleage with issues. “Anything that comes up,’ stresses McColery, “Any concerns. You can come to me or Pearl with anything.” Spoken in private, this moment is powerful each time. It’s a personal and authentic statement and the appreciation felt by the kids is palpable. One afternoon, when a young man who has come to the project with aspirations to become a writer nervously divulges sensitive and very personal information during his interview, Cleage leans in and looks him in the eye. “You’re such a good writer,” she says, “I’m so glad you came to Collision. You have so much light coming out of you.” The respect that Cleage and McColery show each of them, along with the personal support offered, is stunning. Its effect on the Collisioners’ ability to open themselves to the process and share their work with the group becomes apparent as the process moves forward.
It Cultivates You as a Person
The morning session each day is dedicated to “colliding” with a local artist. One morning, the Collisioners are introduced to an African dance specialist called Mama Yeye. She is a spunky, petite woman whose age defies estimation. When one Collisioner asks, she cuts her eyes towards the assorted observers in the house and coos in a baby-doll voice, “You asked my age? I’ll whisper it to you later, in case there are any suitors in the room.” She begins by instructing them to close their eyes and move to the tribal drum beats that blast from her iPod. Some move imperceptibly, a few freely. Fifteen minutes later, they are stomping across the stage, swinging their arms with greater abandon. One boy still hides at the back of the group, checking in with the others regularly in obvious mortification. A few more occasionally giggle and whisper to each other, but they all seem to be genuinely enjoying the experience. It helps that Mama Yeye is so exuberant that anyone would feel ashamed not to follow her lead. One young woman, who began the day looking every bit the part of an awkward teenage girl with her arms twisted self-consciously in front of her body, completely transforms into a smiling, sweating, radiant ball of confidence.
After an hour, three’s no more giggling and no more side conversation among the Collisioners. They are physically overwhelmed from the hard and happy exertion. They seem to have let go of any initial resistance and given over completely, regardless of ability. When their time with Mama Yeye is finished, they are glowing. “I understood for the first time telling a story with your body.” Says one Collisioner. “It…was acting!” Realizes another. The timid boy who attempted to hide himself in the back early in the day talks about his experience of losing inhibition and being comforted when she told him to think of it as “movement” versus “dance.” He says he felt accepted by the group. “Yes!” pipes a girl near him, “and it reminded me of Tom Joad, ‘all pieces of a big soul.’ We were individuals but we created one thing.”
On another morning, the Collisioners meet Bryan Mercer, an Atlanta actor, director, teacher, and musician. He begins the day by having each of them practice making eye contact with one another. For some, it’s difficult, they giggle and squirm. Others are calm, a few are blank, one or two are downright intense. “You can’t be an effective artist if you can’t look into another person,” cautions McColery. Mercer guides them through an energy exercise he calls Splat, in which they imagine throwing all their energy to a spot on the back wall of the theatre while screaming “splaaaaaaaaaaat” at their chosen target. He then has them send energy to a volunteer from the group. When he asks the volunteer what she needs today, she responds, “understanding.” He instructs the rest of the group to send understanding to her through the splat. As she receives it, she sobs, and Mercer guides them to support her. Later, she confides to the group that she is dyslexic and acutely fearful of being known only for her disability. She explains that when she experienced the splat, she realized for the first time that, as a Collisioner, she didn’t have to carry that label. “If I could start every morning with [all of] you,” she says, “it would be so beautiful!”
The rest of Mercer’s time with them might be described as an empathy-building workshop, or perhaps spiritual therapy. “The speed of a hummingbird’s wings just blows my mind!” he says at one point, but Mercer’s mind seems to race equally as fast. He is an energetic, charismatic speaker who treats the group to a twenty-first century Chautauqua in which he somehow manages to connect the musicality of chakras, logarithms, voodoo, bacteria, Quaaludes, corporations, Heisenberg, exponents, Haiti, and Kinesiology seamlessly. “I had to journal immediately!” exclaims one Collisioner afterwards.
“It’s hard to explain why Bryan is included in this process to anyone who hasn’t experienced him for themselves,” confides McColery later. “What he does is not about performance but it’s so important to our process.” Though Mercer is not concerned with honing technique, his brief time with them has possibly the single-most transformative effect on the group. By making a space for open artistic awareness and greater sensitivity to themselves and each other, he reminds them that art, ultimately, is about the artist connecting to something greater than himself.
During week one, Collisioners are also treated to a music workshop with Doria Roberts, a lovely, charming folk singer and political activist who shares her experiences as a young musician, when she toured with Lilith Fair and was courted by an industry that expected her to sell out her ideals and acquiesce to a processed, packaged version of herself that could be more easily monetized. She is a thoughtful and outspoken role model for the aspiring performers and by lunchtime, at least one of the Collisioners has attempted to fluff out her own hair in imitation of Roberts’s perfect, bouncy Afro.
When one of the Collisioners remarks on the variety of expertise brought to the experience by the guest artists and her surprise that some provide unexpected spiritual or political content, McColery responds, “It [Collision] cultivates you as a person, not just an actor.” Another girl joins in, “I was thinking all night about the Joads, about their downward spiral. You’ve done a very clever thing,” she says, “you’re pushing us towards thinking about issues.”
Issues, it turns out, are exactly what McColery and Cleage are pushing them to confront. When one boy remarks that he was attracted to Collision because he wants to make friends and become a better actor, McColery responds, “we’re definitely hoping to accomplish those things but we’re also hoping to create more engaged citizens.” Williams adds, “We take very seriously the idea that we take twenty young people every year, form a tribe, and send them out to save the world.”
But Cleage and McColery sometimes find themselves confronted with obstacles to their world-saving plans. After one discussion, in which the Collisioners are asked to identify reasons people fall into poverty, they are dismayed that many of the reasons offered fault the poor:
“Unmotivated to change.”
“Lack of education.”
They are grateful that they will be joined, in a few days’ time, by Cliff Kinsey of the Children’s Restoration Network, who will provide tangible facts and figures about poverty in Atlanta. They are hopeful that further education on the subject will help the Collisioners find more balanced points of view and determine to ask Kinsey to enlighten the group about the ways in which hardworking people might fall victim to poverty due to situations beyond their control and through no fault of their own. “We’re honestly not interested in pushing a specific political agenda,” insists McColery after Kinsey’s visit, “but some of the things he said were shocking and he shocked them enough to open their minds.”
It’s So Based On Who You Are
Afternoon sessions begin with an activity. This year, activities include field trips to the neighboring High Museum of Art, where the Collisioners meet with members of the High’s Teen Team to explore the Folk Art Collection, and the newly opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. Other activities include exercises designed to increase the actor’s awareness (of each other, what’s around them, the stage and the audience), encourage more expressive physicality, and build trust among the group.
One afternoon’s activity early in the process involves writing haikus based on the themes and paraphrased lines of dialog written down after viewing the film. Cleage prompts them to include at least five words from the large squares of paper that have been relocated from the studio walls to line the wide main stage apron. They are given ten minutes to write as many haikus as they wish. Two days later, McColery divides them into three groups and instructs them each to choose one of their haikus for the group to perform. “You are your own haiku’s director,” he says. Working as a group, they are to link one haiku to the next, creating a single piece from the various poems. “Add movement to the haikus,” he says, “using images from Mama [Yeye], Bryan [Mercer], Doria [Roberts], The High Museum or the film.” When he leaves them alone to work for thirty minutes, they scramble to their feet to get started. They have just enough time to stage and run through before it’s time to show their work.
Sharing the finished pieces is the first performative moment of the process. It is also the first time the Collisioners have shared their writing. When the first group performs for the others, who have moved into the house to serve as audience, there is an atmosphere of nervous excitement in exposing themselves in the actor/audience relationship that manifests in breathy voices and hesitant movement. At the end of the first group’s showing, McColery instructs them to perform their piece again. This time, they are clearer and more confident. Williams adds music to this second performance, underscoring the dialog and forcing voices to more audible levels. After group one takes a bow, McColery leads the audience in an enthusiastic discussion of the piece.
The second group takes the stage more confidently. They have worked out some impressive staging, using levels and clever exchanges between actors. Their performance is extremely emotive. As they finish performing their piece for the second time, aided by Williams’s music, a hand in the audience shoots up before they have completed their bows. “The feels! Oh, the feels!” howls the overcome young man. “I felt like I was being punched in the face by emotion!”
Group three is made up entirely of women. Their finished piece has a powerful feminist thread that links each piece to the next. “It reminded me of For Colored Girls!” enthuses one young woman in the discussion afterwards. “I’m so excited now for the ending [finished] show,” cries another, “because if we can do this in thirty minutes! And we have two weeks?”
Riding the high of successful performances, everyone goes into the afternoon break glowing and cheerful. It is the perfect moment, McColery and Cleage agree, to hit them with something a little more challenging.
Discussions around The Grapes of Wrath typically begin the second half of the afternoon sessions. Today, McColery instructs the Collisioners to stand mid-stage. “This side of the stage [stage left] is ‘strongly agree,’” he says, “center is neutral and the other side is ‘strongly disagree.’ I’m going to make some statements and you’re going to either agree or disagree by standing on stage somewhere along this line.” He begins with questions about the Joads before moving into more controversial territory. “All Americans have equal access to the American Dream,” he states. The Collisioners scatter. Many disagree (one young woman defiantly marches completely off stage to stand in the stage-right wings) a few scatter around center, indicating uncertainty, and the remaining handful stand far stage left. The discussion that follows sparks the first major moments of friction among the group. “If everyone had access to the American Dream it wouldn’t be a dream, it would be a way of life!” insists a young man standing stage right. “But how do you define the American Dream?” responds a young woman standing near stage left. The Collisioner who stalked into the wings (whose own American Dream is to become a lawyer and civil rights advocate) returns to break down in legal and socio/political terms how access to the American Dream is systematically denied to so many, while a child of immigrants, poised on the opposite side of the stage, argues that the United States is still, comparatively, a Land of Opportunity. Immediately, the communal bliss that thickened the air after the haiku performances dissipates into something thinner and less cooperative. Two questions later, however, they unite again in solidarity to comfort a Collisioner who confesses to unhappiness at home after disagreeing with the statement, “I put the needs of my family above my own.” The Tribe is forming just as Williams predicted.
When a Collisioner later expresses amazement over her roller-coaster experiences that day, Cleage and McColery assure her they are proud of the disagreements expressed in the afternoon’s discussion because past groups have not always been willing to argue with their new friends. “Every time it’s different.” Responds Cleage. “It’s so based on who you are, what you bring. This group is so open.” “Yes,” agrees McColery. “This year in particular, you are a mature group. You have access to your opinions. Some groups are younger and it’s not as easy to pull opinions out of them.”
By encouraging a little controversy among the Collisioners in group discussions, McColery and Cleage hope to elevate the quality of writing that closes each afternoon session. Writing prompts are devised by Cleage as she observes the Collisioners throughout the day. She is constantly evolving the prompt, changing it to meet what she intuits as the needs of the group in the moment. “Imagine yourself in ten years,” she directs them in an early prompt, “and every single thing you’ve wanted has happened. Describe your life. What are your struggles? How did you get here?” Her plan for the following day is to ask the Collisioners to imagine their perfect life turned upside down, interrupted by unexpected and irresistible forces. But as the next day passes, she rethinks the prompt. The Collisioners are buzzing with happiness and describing themselves as a family after a particularly warm and fuzzy guest artist spiked their feeling of togetherness. So, instead, Cleage prompts them to think about connection, “Our connectedness with others has so much to do with where they are in their lives at that moment. Steinbeck connected us to a group of people we would not otherwise connect with. So, think about connectedness and how that manifests. Find a moment when you felt like a family, a great moment, and write about it.” Cleage’s adaptability attests to her determination that the finished project should truly come from the collective. Her prompt speaks to where the group is right now instead of where she was yesterday.
Writing sessions are kept intentionally brief to discourage editing and Cleage collects the papers at the end of each session to ensure there will be no rewriting or second-guessing. Each night, she reviews their writing, from which she will eventually shape the bulk of the play’s text. She also keeps notes throughout the day, jotting down quotes and commenting on exercises that could potentially provide dramatic framework for dialogue further down the road.
At the end of the first week, the Collisioners participate in a talent share. When asked why the activity is saved for Friday, McColery responds, “Collision is not a typical teen performance experience where you start the first day with jazz hands and ‘here’s my talent.’” Instead, his primary aspiration for the talent share is to provide an opportunity for the nonperformers to get more comfortable speaking in front of a group. “It’s also more fun once they’ve gotten to know each other, there’s less pressure to impress or do something to wow the crowd.” While there is still a healthy amount of standard talent-show fare (including one boy’s adorable rendition of a One Direction song), several choose to share pieces they’ve written. Traditionally, Cleage has pulled content from the talent share to include in her final script and this year, she is treated to an incredible piece read by an incredibly nervous young man. In his poem, “American Baby,” the Collisioner takes a line from “The Schooner Flight” by Derek Walcott as a point of departure and unspools a lucid meditation on his own Chicano heritage. It is a remarkable piece:
“American Baby” by PS Goya
Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
Like the stalactites that crawl into their crystal-helix shapes,
I crawled, American baby, from the Strait of
Magellan where the fish
Gargle their lugubrious songs, to the dehydrated
Line where the Texans,
Those American wannabe’s, flung their broken Spanish at me.
I crossed the frontier, and for a while I stayed with fruit pickers,
Developing into a character that cannot be defined by American citizenship.
My hair crawled far away from my scalp, my feet
Forgot their Aztec dances,
Memories became the packaged boxes in the attic
Of a house too busy to care.
The melanin in my skin, disgusted, evaded me in mirrors.
I wanted to dream, baby, so when they told me about Visas, I listened.
And soon enough I began speaking from my Nose
Just like the gringos.
And recited the stories of Bush and Cheney so they’d give me my Green card.
I forgot about my mother, whose scarred back is the spine of the Andes.
Who incubated me in the smoke of a patient volcano for two centuries…
I didn’t remember myself until the age of 17,
When, burned out from singing Yankee Doodle,
I recalled the tune of my own people.
The heats and smells of Acapulco, the poverty and the richness of the tongue.
And I had also forgotten the cacao that is in the eyes of sweet faced strangers…
It all came back to me.
I am an American baby, but the US, my friend is not America.
In week two, the Collisioners move to the Alliance’s more intimate Hertz stage, where they will eventually perform the finished piece. Rosemary Newcott, who originated the Collision Project, is the first guest artist of the week and leads them through a series of improvisational exercises.
Additional guest artists in week two include actor Mark Cabus, who contributes a Viewpoints workshop and contemporary choreographer Lauri Stallings from gloATL an Atlanta dance collective dedicated to free public performance in nontraditional spaces, who contributes a simple movement vocabulary that riffs on Tom Joad’s assertion, “You’re bound to get ideas if you start thinking about stuff” [sic].
Cleage’s script consists entirely of the Collisioners’ words (either written in response to one of her prompts or quoted in discussions and interviews), lines from the novel, and contributions from guest artists, such as the poverty statistics shared by Cliff Kinsey.
We’re Trying to Change the World
The third week of Collision is devoted to rehearsing the finished piece. The final script, which Cleage titles Tom Joad’s Blues: an American Odyssey, was edited and shaped over the three-day Fourth of July weekend, is just under thirty-four pages long. On Monday morning, McColery’s head is swimming with ideas for staging the script, which he received just hours earlier. “I kept checking my email all day,” he laughs, “but Pearl got it to me before midnight, so at least I had a chance to read it before we start rehearsing. I woke up in a panic this morning thinking, ‘I need props: I need nineteen flashlights!’” However, he judiciously weighs his desire for well-crafted stage pictures against the concern that complicated props or costume pieces would prove cumbersome for inexperienced performers and concludes, “but there’s really no time for all that.”
Cleage’s script consists entirely of the Collisioners’ words (either written in response to one of her prompts or quoted in discussions and interviews), lines from the novel, and contributions from guest artists, such as the poverty statistics shared by Cliff Kinsey. For the Collisioners, it is the first time they’ve heard each other’s writing. It’s also the first chance they’ve had to revisit their own words since the ten or fifteen minutes they were initially given to write them. They are thrilled to see their work blended together to create the final script. “American Baby,” the poem that was read with such trepidation during the talent share, is quoted in its entirety and leads to the show’s climax. “Pearl asked me for a copy of it and I thought she’d just use a little piece of it, but it’s the whole thing,” the young poet later affirms, flushed and clearly honored that Cleage has shown such interest in his work. Tom Joad’s line, “you’re bound to get ideas if you start thinking about stuff,” that choreographer Lauri Stallings was drawn to, has also become a recurring theme in the script, signaling beat shifts and boosting tension at key moments.
Rehearsals begin with two back-to-back read-throughs. This gives the Collisioners a chance to really hear the piece in full, in spite of the strong emotions that usually accompany the initial read. More importantly, it gives Cleage a chance to make small tweaks as she hears the script aloud for the first time and affords McColery time to do rudimentary director prep before he must begin staging.
After lunch, McColery and Williams prepare the Collisioners for the work ahead, cautioning them that rehearsal week is a very different beast than weeks one and two, requiring patience and focus. They explain how to take notes and stress the importance of taking them graciously while admonishing the performers not to give into the temptation to direct others.
Rehearsal begins with the haikus from week one, which appear towards the beginning of the show. McColery gives them fifteen minutes to remember and rework their haiku performances in the new space before he steps in to offer adjustments. The groups are encouraged to work on their feet immediately. “It’s better to try it than to talk about it,” suggests McColery, as he observes one group debating a forgotten gesture.
The ease with which they revive the staged pieces is impressive, but a lack of performance experience begins to reveal itself in a few Collisioners who awkwardly glance towards the audience in hesitation before each line or whose voices can’t be heard despite the intimacy of the small venue. McColery spends the rest of the afternoon patiently tweaking and reworking the haikus to perfection, stopping to embolden the bashful performers and challenging others to soften their tendency to overplay their roles. The day ends with a run-through of the top of the show and, after group circle, the Collisioners head for home buzzing with enthusiasm about their work.
During rehearsals over the next few days, staging moves remarkably quickly thanks to the movement shorthand developed over the two weeks in collaboration with guest artists. “Hey! Let’s do that Lauri Stallings thing on this line … with the thumbs … that ‘pfffft,’” calls McColery at one point, and every single Collisioner immediately, and in unison, repeats a quirky, full body gesture learned the week before. It’s an economic way of working that underscores the collective experience, with blocking coming from a shared physical vocabulary. McColery’s acceptance and wise use of others’ contributions is one of the great strengths of the rehearsal process. It also makes for some extremely effective and striking moments. During a part of the show dedicated to Ma Joad, for example, McColery incorporates the musical chakras Collisioners practiced with Bryan Mercer. The result is quite touching on a level that may not have been reached had he relied on more traditional staging.
McColery also invites observations and suggestions throughout the rehearsal process from people in the room as well as the Collisioners themselves. This strengthens the fellowship among the cast and the few observers invited to witness the rehearsal process, but it also leads to some protracted note sessions. On Wednesday morning, there are two opinionated interns as well as a returning guest artist who all have observations to share, and after running only twenty minutes of the show, the Collisioners receive more than an hour of notes. McColery somehow manages to receive each suggestion with grace even as notes are repeated, contradicted, or excessively scrutinized, but the process is clearly overwhelming for the performers, whose buoyant energy starts to sink into uncertainty as notes progress.
On Thursday, the reality that a public performance is now only twenty-four hours away hangs heavily over the rehearsal. The entire piece is finally blocked, but they’re having trouble with a bundle of muslin that represents Rosasharn’s baby. McColery has an idea that the baby will be passed from person to person during the beat leading into the poem “American Baby” and end with a dramatic unraveling of the material that represents the baby’s death. But the bundle keeps coming apart. Everyone in the room, it seems, has had a go at figuring out the best configuration for the cloth that will keep it wrapped tight as it’s being passed but still allow the final, tragic billow of fabric all while looking, somehow, like the bundle might actually have some weight, but nothing seems to work. To make matters worse, some kids hold the baby like a cafeteria tray, prompting Cleage to intervene and model proper baby-holding postures. But despite all efforts, with each new attempt, the fabric stubbornly resolves into a messy clump long before it reaches the final Collisioner, while the baby’s endowed head and feet keep switching places, creating unintentionally comic moments. It is supremely frustrating, and irritation is starting to infect the entire company.
During the afternoon notes session, in which McColery has judiciously chosen to give only his own notes, the group is frazzled. “You wrote this together, you experienced this together,” he reminds, cautioning them to keep cool heads and remain patient with themselves and each other. But the Collisioners are clearly pulling apart into individual anxieties. The kids who are natural leaders want to take control and steer the course by telling others how to “fix” moments while the introverts retreat into silence, removing themselves from the collective. “Work together, breathe together, listen to each other,” McColery pleads. Moments later, there is fevered disagreement over a trivial moment in the show. Self-doubt has created a cascade of conflicting ideas and micro-examinations of a moment that somehow doesn’t feel right to the actors. The conversation becomes mired in “maybe we should …” and “what if we tried it like this …” statements. McColery does his best to walk the thin line between encouraging their ideas while assuring them that everything is already working and just needs to be performed with confidence but his own frustration is starting to bleed through.
Suddenly Cleage, who has been quietly observing from the house, stands up and says, “May I just say something, please? The reason we are doing this show is because people are starving to death in this town. Of course I want you to sound good when you sing. Of course I want you to pick up your cues. But we’re trying to change the world, so don’t get caught up in worrying about your performance because the truth is you can’t change the world worrying about getting the line out. Your job, as conscious artists, is to make the audience say, ‘You know, they’re right!’ So … know your lines and speak from the heart. That’s all.” She instructs the Collisioners to get on their feet and sing Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, which closes the show. “Listen to these lyrics,” she advises them. After a quick break, they go back to work, with no more doubt or conflict, to put the finishing touches on the performance they will share with Atlanta the following night.
We Are the Story
The Collisioners perform for the public only twice, but for both performances the house is packed. On Friday night, many audience members are forced to sit in the aisles and an additional thirty people are turned away completely. Parents and family members share the house with local artists and a surprising number of Collisioners from past years who attend the performance with members of their own tribes and whose reunions contribute an air of celebration and revelry to the gathering.
As they perform Tom Joad’s Blues, the Collisioners suffer a couple of dropped lines and a missed connection or two, but the moments in which they truly connect are beautiful. At one point, they move as a group in the contact improvisation exercise taught by Rosemary Newcott and as they touch each other, look into each other’s eyes, and support each other’s weight, there is no since of embarrassment or youthful modesty, only connection, relaxation, and partnership. The progress made by those in the cast with no acting aspirations is also remarkable. The young man who retreated in humiliation during the African dance workshop now stands downstage during a movement section, totally confident in his choreography.
The show itself is touching, funny, and provocative. When it ends, the Collisioners stay on stage for a Q and A with the audience during which a man asks, “How is this experience different from what you get in your high school theatre class?” “In school,” answers a thoughtful Collisioner, “my teacher is always saying ‘make sure the audience understands the story! You’ve got to tell the story!’ But, in Collision, we are the story.”
After the final performance, the Collisioners join Cleage, McColery, and Williams one last time in backstage privacy for a final group circle. As they hold hands, McColery instructs each of them to tell the person to their left something positive about working with them. There are tears and guffaws as each Collisioner delivers his or her personal message to the next. They savor their last moments together as a tribe and then return to the stage to be engulfed in family hugs and group photos and finally, to split apart.
Though the Collision Project has ended, and the nineteen young people who formed a tribe to collide with The Grapes of Wrath have gone back to their daily routines, there is evidence Cleage’s demand that they can change the world has influenced them to take action. In their Facebook group, the Collisioners are making plans to volunteer as a group for the Children’s Restoration Network, stuffing backpacks with school supplies for needy children. McColery and Cleage have also received communications from Collisioners eager to unpack the positive repercussions of the experience in their personal lives. In their emails, Collisioners refer to a heightened sense of awareness of the world, a deeper understanding of their role as an artist in society, and a rejection of the definition of success as red carpet glamour and gloss in favor of fulfilling personal goals. There is a sense that, though the project has ended, the young artists will continue to collide with their world and with each other as they tell their own stories.
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An excellent essay and description of the Collision Project. I have often tried to describe it to people and will share this widely. I was lucky to have "collided" with 17 amazing young women, along with director Rosemary Newcott, dramaturg Freddie Ashley and Rodney Lamar Williams (that's so wonderful you are still part of this, Rodney!) on Collision II (I think, 2003) exploring Sophocles' Antigone: "We Are Antigone." For Collision II the project continued for a few years, workshopping the piece next with six college actors, then touring Atlanta area highschools and then later surprisingly, Playscripts offered to publish it: https://www.playscripts.com.... It was a transformative experience for me, and I still often think about those Seventeen Antigones. I am so glad to hear how the process has evolved (with resident playwright Pearl Cleage and guest artists etc). What an amazing contribution and yes, way to change the world!
What an amazing project! I always wondered how the Collision Project works. I'm glad it involves so much experimental and collaborative writing along with performance, and adapting a classic work for the stage is a beautiful way to help young people realize that, yes, we are all connected, even with (perhaps especially with) creatives whose voice continues though they themselves are long gone. Looks like the Collision Project continues our cultural poem.
Definitely, Karla.It's a pretty remarkable experience - building empathy and encouraging creative and social expansion but allowing room for personal differences.
I led the first Collision Project thirteen years ago when Susan Booth first conceived it. An adaptation of Our Town we called Promise. It was a very special experience for me, and, I believe, the students and artists who worked on it (including the awesome Rosemary Newcott). Its great to not only know it continues, but to have such a detailed account of its most recent iteration. Thanks for this.
And NO ONE has forgotten. "You know, Michael Rohd led the first one," was a pretty common thing to hear. Cheers!