Process Performances and the Completion Commission
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of the From the Ground Up Podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, editor, and producer, Jeffrey, recording from the ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee homelands, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
These episodes are shared digitally through the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded in the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leaves a significant carbon footprint, contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging all of this, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time, and for each of us to consider our roles in reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Hello, hello. So glad to be with you again, artists. I’ve been thinking about you all as discussions about shared leadership start cropping up, especially at regional institutions, which is a major focus of this season. We’ve got a few interviews down the line that will take note on that topic. But today, we’re taking another step down the path of commissioned work, particularly referencing back to our first episode of the season with Patricia Garza. However, rather than hearing about it from the point of view of the regional theatre, we’re going to hear about it from the receiver of the commission today because in this episode, I’m talking with Rachel Dickstein of Ripe Time in New York City.
We’re using her collaboratively-created adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Sleep as a case study for the commissioning process offered by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. She’s going to put forth various ways in which she’s used opportunities to create and present work, from university residencies to process performances. As you will hear, Sleep will have a good number of development and performance opportunities beyond the Center Theatre Group, but I’m going to leave it there so that you can hear just how Rachel tied it all together through the commissioning process.
A few glossary terms to explain right up front. First, she mentions a few performance spaces. One in particular is BAM, which is the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. She also mentions the Kirk Douglas, which is one of three venues at Center Theatre Group, and you’ll also hear her mention Mara Isaacs and Ronee Penoi of Octopus Theatricals creative producing group. Ronee is now the director of artistic programming at ArtsEmerson in Boston, Massachusetts. Finally, you’ll also hear a call back to APAP, the Association for Performing Arts Professionals, a member organization for performing arts presenting, booking, and touring. You can hear more about this organization in my conversation with Olga Garay-English in season two, episode two.
All right, enough from me. Let’s hear from Rachel Dickstein, artistic director of Ripe Time, who joined me on September 20, 2021 from Lenape land, now colonized as New York. Enjoy.
But first off, I just want to get to know a little bit more about Ripe Time. For anyone who might not know about them, could you give us the elevator pitch on what Ripe Time is and your work with it?
Rachel Dickstein: Sure, sure. Well, I founded Ripe Time in 2000 which is over twenty years ago, which is hard to believe, and I started the company because my interest as a director and as a devisor has always been in creating movement-based work and work that was built in the rehearsal studio with performers and designers. A lot of our history has been devoted to adaptations from literature. Our very first piece, and in fact our current piece, is an original work. I mean, we often partner with playwrights. In the case of our current work, we're building a piece off of interviews. What links all of our work is its embodied performance, which I consider work that is equal parts physical theatre, text-based theatre, and image-based theatre. Our work has historically been very much about women’s lives and stories of women’s lives. Our current work, I think, has sort of expanded how we look at gender to look actually at really all people who have not otherwise been invited to the seat of power in our society.
My interest, historically, in women’s stories has always been about how individuals encounter cultural constraints or how a particular sort of maverick, independent character could live within a society that doesn’t maybe tolerate their ambitions. And so in our current climate, it’s felt like a very natural thing to extend our examination of those gender dynamics also into dynamics surrounding race, since questions of power and agency right now I think apply beyond the definition of just female-identifying folks. I like to think that our work is investigating activism and advocacy and community alongside individual agency, but really always using an immersive language of memory and dream to trace the transformation of either individual identity or a communal identity in the face of cultural bias.
Jeffrey: Do you have a core company of actors you typically work with, or how do you collaborate to create so much work? One of the things I noticed on your website that I really appreciate is your involvement of designers from the outset of the process.
Rachel: I mean, we don’t have an official company membership. Though we create ensemble-based work, we don’t have a permanent ensemble. Really, every show has a mix of performers who have worked with us in the past and performers who are new to that project.
What I do as much as I can is once we start building a piece, which is usually anywhere from two- to four-year process, is that the ensemble of each production stays as much as I can maintain it. We build the shows on the folks who devise them, and so even though our ensemble actors might change from project to project, within each project over those years, we try to maintain that original group.
When we built Sleep, the production that commissioned by CTG, that group, in fact a cast of six, four of them were there from the first workshop onward, and the other two joined in about nine months later. And so that really did succeed at what I always hope to do, which is to maintain a single group over the course of the life of a project. We, of course, are still planning on touring that project. We actually have a couple of potential sites in ‘22, ‘23, and of course those actors are the people who I want most to be a part of it.
From a design perspective, I work with designers over a really long period of time. I think I've worked with set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers on probably six or seven Ripe Time shows. Occasionally, that does change. The current project I'm working on, only one of the designers is someone who I've worked with before, and that was on a freelance opera project.
Oh, I take it back. I’m sorry. Matt Stine, who’s a sound designer, project worked with us on Sleep. So there is some continuity. It’s a similar to the acting ensemble in that there's people who have worked with me before and then new folks. But yes, the design team stays put for the whole trajectory of the project.
I mean, I think when I first started the company, there was a thought of, “Sure, maybe there will be a permanent ensemble.” At the time, I think there were about four actors that I thought, “Oh, I could never make work without these four people.” And as is the case with actors who are devisers, two of those four back in the day had their own company, and I was sort of diligently working around the conflicts and windows of time that they had. At a certain point, it was a little challenging and I thought, “Okay, I have to open up and be able to work with new people.” And actually, it ended up becoming by design the fact that there were always some old hats and some new hats in the room.
When we did Septimus and Clarissa that premiered in 2011, we had to have new actors because four of the cast had to be over fifty, and none of our performers were in that age group. When we were worked on Sleep, I made a commitment that the majority of the cast would be Asian, and we didn’t have that in our ensemble from past shows. It’s similar with our current project. Seeking the diversity for the company has also been valuable to be able to have that openness. So it’s not a permanent ensemble, but we work in an ensemble way and maintain that kind of non-hierarchical, collaborative structure to our work.
Jeffrey: I always appreciate companies that take two or three or four, X amount of years to complete a piece. I wonder what that does with an operational budget for an organization.
Rachel: I can’t say that it’s easy. I think what naturally happens is that each year, our operating budget is different from the last. So when we have sought state or city funding, that’s particularly challenging for those funders because they're used to everyone having, “Oh, well, your budget is a quarter million dollars every year.” For us, the year we might do a full production, we might have a quarter million dollar budget. But if it’s a year that's a more developmental year, it might go down to be under a hundred thousand, and so there's that kind of range.
I think what we have generally done with funders is whenever we provide budgets, we provide a multi-year spread. So if we’re fundraising for a full production year, where our expenses go up quite a bit, we usually will go back and say, “Here’s the example from our last production cycle,” so they see that actually over those three-ish years, there is a consistency.
And how does it work? I mean, I think that clearly there’s a bigger fundraising push for those years, but the year that we are doing what we call a staged production, this is actually probably the part of the process that’s most different from a traditional American theatre production, is that we will do a workshop production with elements of design that is not the premiere. That is something in our very first show we did because we were like, “Well, we need to do something. This is how much money we all have, so let's do a draft of it.” At the end of that production, when we finally premiered it, I realized that's exactly what we needed to do actually for our future work, and we have continued that with every production. Of course, it is expensive to do a workshop that has design in it, but what it allows us to do is really be true to how I invite designers into the process by saying, “You can workshop your idea as well. We don’t have to wait until we get into the full tech and full production for you to actualize an idea.”
So much of the scenic design of a production, and actually with our current show also the costume design, is it’s really embedded in the choreography. How the ensemble manipulates objects or manipulates large-scale scenic elements is a part of the adaptation process. It’s a part of the devising process. What those workshops allow us to do is really try out the ideas.
I was just on a Zoom earlier this morning talking with Anna Kiraly, who is the set designer working with us on our new project, Compass, and we are planning that phase for this coming spring. I was just saying, “Well, let's pick the elements of the set that we want to workshop. What do we want to try out? What do we want to see how it works? What is necessary for us to include to see how the vocabulary we're creating is evolving with the staging and with the script and all of the other elements?” So that's probably the most unique element.
There was a show we did called Fire Throws that was an adaptation of Antigone. That was the first show we did that was very projection heavy, and that was the first and only show we’ve ever done where we decided to skip that workshop production phase because we thought, “How do you do projections?” It was a three-projector set up. How do you do that on a workshop budget? It didn’t seem doable.
But what we ended up having to do to make up for that is we did that show at 3LD, and we had a tech period that was two and a half weeks long as opposed to maybe what might have been a seven to ten-day tech period. It didn’t an actually make up for that, to be honest. I feel like what we missed in that situation, and why I’ve never repeated that, is that it really just gives us a chance to do a major revision because you learn so much by seeing it in front of an audience.
When we did Sleep, we did that phase at the Japan Society. You could not really... I mean, I suppose you could recognize it. It was a completely different design. It was a completely different when we did it at BAM Next Wave Festival. But we could not have gotten to where we got to for the BAM version if we hadn’t done that Japan Society version.
Jeffrey: As you are planning for your production year and you are looking for support for development through that, are you seeing that donors are feeling excited to contribute to the process rather than the product?
Rachel: The more than twenty years that we’ve producing cover 2008 and ‘09 during that recession. It also covers the period of the pandemic, so I think it’s hard to generalize right now because how donors relate to the projects they support really radically changed in 2008. And it's changing now, too, as theatre kind of comes out of hibernation. So I would say historically, we have a small and loyal donor base that will give no matter what phase of production we’re at. I certainly maybe ask a few more times during a full production year for support than I do when we’re doing just R&D workshops and the need is less urgent, but I have a handful of donors who always will come to our very first workshop because we always do an open rehearsal at the end of anything we ever do. They’re my favorite donors because they want to be there from the ground up and and give at every phase and love seeing the project in development. That’s not the case with everybody.
Of course, when we did Sleep at the Japan Society, gave then and felt like, “Oh, that seems so finished. What do you need to do?” It wasn’t so much about not giving again. It was also not fully understanding that that was the draft. We try hard to communicate that to our audiences and our donors. Of course, not everyone right now can give every year.
I ordinarily would say it takes us two to three years for a project. I added the four in this conversation in part because of the pandemic, because things have extended a little bit. Our main R&D workshop for our current piece, Compass, was at Watermill Center, which was originally scheduled for the spring of 2020, and it didn’t happen until spring of 2021. So it did happen, which was great, and we’re on track to do our workshop production at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center through a Drama League Impact Residency and are talking to presenters about the eventual premiere of it, both locally and nationally. So those conversations are happening, but from the very first workshop to when it will premiere, it may very well be four years because of the pandemic.
I think what happened with Center Theatre Group was it was a real transformation of how we fund our work and how we create our work. I think prior to that, most of our work was, I would say, self-produced. We did a show in 2014 at BAM Fisher called The World is Round that, even though it was at BAM Fisher, it was not in the BAM season. We had been a part of a sort of mentorship group at BAM that they sponsored four local Brooklyn companies, where it was really not production-focused so much, but it was about BAM. I think it was under the DeVos group in Washington, not Betsy DeVos, but the other DeVoses who give organizational support. We had been part of that, and so we did our show at the Fisher, which I suppose technically was like us renting the theatre, but because we had been part of that group, it was a lot less expensive. They were encouraging folks who were in that mentorship program to produce.
I guess it was 2015 when Diane Rodriguez called me up and said, “You know, Rachel, you have been making work for a long time. I think your work needs to be seen on a national scale.” It was one of those phone calls that really changed my life. So first of all, I’ve known Diane for a long time. We were baby directors together on a NEA/TCG grant in 1998. Diane Rodriguez, who worked for decades at Center Theatre Group, actually passed away earlier this year. It was a huge loss to artists like myself who worked through Center Theatre Group or commissioned through her guidance and leadership. She was just a national force in the American theatre, and she really is irreplaceable.
So we’d known each other a while, but I didn’t have a relationship with Center Theatre Group or with her as a presenter-producer. And technically, the grant was what’s called a completion commission, so she knew that we were actually in the early phases of working on Sleep. But we did have the Japan Society engagement planned, and so they gave us that commission with the idea that it would help support the Japan Society phase plus what would happen beyond. It did not come with a guarantee of Center Theatre Group presenting the work, though definitely that was something that Diane really wanted to make happen.
After our 2016 workshop production, she and I spoke for over a year, actually, to make plans to bring the project to the Kirk Douglas. Unfortunately, it never did come to pass that it was there, but what did happen in that conversation… It was interesting because at first I thought, “Great. I’ve been wanting for a really long time to present my work in the regional theatre system,” and somehow I often had a feedback from artistic staff saying that they weren’t sure if the work was maybe too experimental for their audience or would they get it or is it dance theatre and what is that. I think what changed with the Center Theatre Group commission was a suggestion that I could actually stop having those conversations and actually, a lot of people who see the work know that it’s actually quite accessible.
It's not rarefied. It's also not very deconstructed like some other work that you might find downtown. It's very accessible, and a lot of folks who might have known the sources we were adapting over the years would often say, “That was an incredibly loyal adaptation.” Of course, 40% of what we did wasn't even text-based. It was movement driven, but it was meant to be true to that source, and so I’ve always been very proud of people who know the texts very well that we adapted finding that kind of truth in it. I sort of felt for a long time the work would appeal to that audience.
But what ended up happening actually with CTG is that the way we discussed bringing it to the Kirk Douglas was actually as a presented production, which is different from being in the season of a regional theatre. It means that you have your show, you bring it in a box, you unpack it, you put it up almost like it’s a tour.
While that year of conversation about doing that was happening with Diane, I had started a relationship with Octopus Theatricals, which is Mara Isaac’s organization. And Ronee Penoi, who for a number of years was her associate producer, and think before she just left the position but she had graduated to full producer. Amazing, fantastic person. Ronee had become a sort of tour presenter for us. And so alongside the conversations with how we would bring it to LA were also conversations that Ronee and I were having with other theatres like Yale Repertory Theatre.
We did bring Sleep to Yale. Again, not in the regular season of five or six plays, but through a series they call No Boundaries, which is a festival of international work and work that is sort of pushing the form. So that’s a good example. Both CTG and Yale were looking at the piece as a sort of visiting production in that way. What Ronee and Octopus and I then started to do was really reshape how we produced so that instead of doing what I had done for so many years in New York of renting the theatre and producing it ourselves, instead we were pitching the project to presenters where funding could come through a commission as opposed to us renting a theatre and relying on the box office.
That is ultimately what happened with Sleep when we brought it to the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, when it came to the BAM Next Wave Festival, when it went to Yale Rep. It was in that, what we call, presented circumstance. So in many ways, we were to some degree still self-producing, but producing it to become a tour to be part of these organizations. Annenberg and BAM both commissioned the project, and so we were a guest company when we presented our work there.
It’s a different model. It's still the model that we're using with our new project, Compass. I appreciate it because the landscape of New York City has really evolved. I think at the time when we were doing our work at the old Ohio Theatre, it was just a different climate. I feel like working in this way, our work is just seen on a broader scale and is considered nationally and internationally. That's exciting development for the company.
Jeffrey: One thing that I never really understood is how commissions are so fully encompassing funding-wise so that you don’t have to rely on box office. That’s something I'm totally going to take away.
Rachel: Well, I should clarify that a commission, like what happened with CTG, again does not always involve producing. I mean, when we got a commission from BAM, they had already committed to presenting it. So that was a slightly different kind of commission. It changed now from the time when Joe Melillo was in charge, but at the time I believe that he had programmed Next Wave and then shows within the Next Wave Festival that would be commissions. So I think the commission, the CTG version of it, is actually what happens quite a lot in the American theatre.
If you look in the back of a Playwrights Horizons program, you'll see commission playwrights. They will offer commissions to a number of writers. Maybe they'll present the work, maybe they won't.
I think how it works out with box office is more at Annenberg or really at Yale, even though we didn't have a formal commission there. When you're a presented production, the venue provides a number of staff folks like front of house and, in some cases, a house technical director. Because they’ve given you a presenting fee, which is a little different from a commission—but anyway, it’s similar— the venue keeps the box office and we are compensated through the presenting fee. That's pretty standard in the presenting universe, whether there's a commission or not.
Jeffrey: I can absolutely see, then, why it was a benefit to have Ronee Penoi on as your tour manager, because then she could be doing that pitching and legwork for you. Is that true?
Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. Octopus and Ronee were at APAP every year promoting the project. Even though Ronee has just recently moved on to work at ArtsEmerson, Sleep actually is still on the Octopus roster. Ronee herself is not representing it, but she, in her own way, is still supporting the project.
When you see dance companies that have a very busy tour schedule, this is exactly how dance companies work. They’re presented by a number of different presenters nationally, internationally. They’re given a fee, they’re housed, and that becomes part of the season. That’s very much how Annenberg, I think, still works. Yeah, and those houses are not houses that will, say, produce a piece.
Actually, in fact that’s exactly how BAM functions. I mean, they have historically over time produced things, but it’s very rare. For the most part, they want a show to have happened elsewhere first so that coming to BAM, the show’s already in a box and ready to unpack it. I think there’s a show at the Fisher right now that was previously at the Venice Biennale that the artistic director, David Binder, saw and booked from that. It existed already.
I still do imagine and hope at some point that a regional theatre might be interested in bringing us into a season. Ironically, the way we got to Center Theatre Group was we had one of our first workshops for Sleep at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through the Ground Floor program. At the time, the wonderful dramaturge Joy Meads was working at Center Theatre Group. She saw the open rehearsal of Sleep and she was the one that went back to Diane and said, “Do you know about this amazing piece that Rachel and Naomi Iizuka are making?” That’s actually what led, I think, to the phone call from Diane, because Joy saw a version of the piece.
I mention that largely because also, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, also we were in conversation with them for quite a while whether Sleep would happen there. I think the then artistic director, Tony Taccone, came and Madeleine [Oldham], who runs Ground Floor, came to the Japan Society and ultimately, again, it didn't happen.
The thing that assuaged the “is this too experimental” was that there’s an amazing playwright, Naomi Iizuka, connected to it. Naomi has a long track record of having her work done in regionals, and so I think even Diane said, “Well, if Naomi's involved, it’ll make sense.”
Actually, just creatively, I really do like partnering with playwrights because my brain does tend to live in a more metaphoric space. Not to say that I don’t think any of the playwrights we’ve partnered with traffic in pure realism, but there’s often a grounding impulse that I get from my partner writers. It was nice, but I think that also kind of helped in terms of the interest people expressed in the project.
Part of why I described the genesis and the progression with CTG is that even though they didn’t actually ultimately present it, what did happen in the evolution of our conversation is it really, from their end and from our end, it became a show that was going through the presenter network. At that point, actually we didn’t need a regional theatre to start it. It was already a teenager and it just needed to graduate college. We didn’t need the very beginnings of what an original production at a regional would provide. And look, the grass is always greener. It looks to seem like, “Oh, those starting out at regionals have so much support,” and certainly when we were at Berkeley, it was just amazing the kind of support we had just at Ground Floor, but it’s tough to fund anything.
Jeffrey: You mentioned a sort of presenter network. I’m wondering, how might you find yourself there if you don’t have a Diane Rodriguez who is a champion for you?
Rachel: APAP is one of many conferences that all are spaces where project representatives and presenters meet and discuss these things. I don’t really know exactly how you get in on that. I know for sure when I was just starting out, I think we were doing our second show in 2005 and I was doing the show in January, which is when the APAP conference happened, and I didn’t have a tour representative. I wanted to invite people who were coming to APAP because the city is full of presenters. I think we did the bare minimum of... I took out an advertisement in their booklets. It was on people’s radar. I think they also have usually a pretty big series of booths at the Hilton, which really is just the people like Octopus who take out a booth who have multiple artists who they’re representing. It’s not usually an individual artist or individual company.
A few people came just from the little advert, but my experience of that was okay. I probably shouldn't count on anything coming from APAP until I had a rep to speak about it at the conference. We waited to do that again until we did have that. So I don’t exactly know how that happens.
I don’t think Ronee or Mara would have taken us on had we not had a bit of a track record. I think for people who are looking to go that route, I think the key is just making a lot of work and really doing your best to make the best work that you can and building up a body of work that you can then invite people to see because yeah, they have to see it and get excited about it.
I think I had been writing to Mara for more than a year before I got a call back. I think some of that was that Mara started Octopus herself and had a staff of one, essentially. I think literally when she brought Ronee on as an associate producer, she said, “Okay, here’s a year or more's worth of project pitches. Are there any of these you’re interested in?” Ronee loves Haruki Murakami, so she's like, “That one.” So I’d like to say it was from our body of work, but I think it was also just the material we were working on.
And obviously, Murakami is an internationally celebrated author, so there’s a lot going for tagging into that pretty serious fan base of Murakami. Some of it is like, “I’m interested in this artist.” Some of it is obviously like, “Oh, I think I can book this piece because there’s going to be interest in this piece,” that sort of conversation.
Jeffrey: Do you think that ensemble-based companies will ever, whether through this presenting format or otherwise, become more prominent?
Rachel: Look, I think there’s a massive shift right now in who is leading regional theatres. As you know, there’s so many long timers retiring, so I think things are going to look quite different as the next few years unfold. I think if you’d asked me that question twenty years ago, I would say no. But there were a few exceptions, say, twenty years ago.
Of all places, Actors Theatre of Louisville, which generally is.... They do Humana Festival, they do new plays, but almost very often, I don’t want to say every year, they would present a SITI Company show. The story of how SITI Company built that relationship with Louisville is there was an Eduardo Machado play being done, and someone suggested Anne Bogart. I forgetting now who’s artistic director, but they were like... Oh, Jon Jory, who ran it forever was like, “Anne Bogart? She does all that other stuff.” And of course, Anne came in to interview, and Anne is totally brilliant and a genius and the most amazing person to talk to. Jon Jory was convinced: “Oh, she should direct this play.” And of course, then, because she did an incredible job, he’s like, “What do you want to do next?” And SITI Company came in.
And so she had built a relationship because of her brilliance. I don’t want to say that meant that other regional theatres would fall in line. I think not everybody is Anne Bogart, and not everybody would take the time to get past that maybe this person is too experimental, but I think things have really evolved in a huge way.
I forget which year it was, but there was one year at the TCG conference where I hosted a conversation with four pairs of regional theatres and ensembles working at those regional theatres, actually, to have this exact conversation. The Team and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. We had four different teams. Double Edge Theatre was in the works of doing their 20th century piece at Arena Stage.
Rachel: Those were two examples. I had each of the four groups just talk about what that relationship was and how did that evolve. I don’t think any of those partnerships made those theatres suddenly always do ensembles all the time. I think Arena still has a mission that is much more playwright-focused. I can’t speak for Molly [Smith], but I think she was super excited to present that piece and the partnership with Double Edge.
So will it keep continuing? I mean, look. Companies like 600 Highwaymen are a great example. They have a really deep relationship with Public Theater, and their work is presented pretty regularly there, not just at Under the Radar, in their regular season. Elevator Repair Service similarly has a long relationship with both New York Theatre Workshop and the Public presenting their work. So I think once the artistic leadership of a theatre becomes interested in an ensemble, and that ensemble can prove that they can speak to that company’s audience, there’s a match. I don't know whether it’s the financial realities or whether it’s just a kind of artistic kinship that leads to those partnerships, but I think it happens much, much more often than it used to. There’s a much more open mind from regional theatres about how work is developed, and not to assume that you have to have the finished script of a new play to know that it’s going to work, that there’s other ways of making pieces.
So I don’t know. I hope so. I think it’s already evolved quite a bit in the last fifteen years in a good way. I think the harder thing is that the financial reality of maintaining an ensemble is really hard, and those engagements don't always sustain the ensemble.
Jeffrey: Do you think that Ripe Time would want to be an in-house ensemble at a theatre somewhere, somehow?
Rachel: I mean, of course. If it existed, sure. I think that if the chemistry is right, of course. When I was really heavy into trying to pursue that kind of relationship, part of it was thinking, what are the companies that are interested in adaptation? That kind of relationship would be fantastic, just to have that kind of investment in our work. From your lips to God’s ears.
Jeffrey: Right. I noticed on your website you talk a little bit about having partnerships with colleges and universities. To what end has that added to stability or process?
Rachel: Sure. Well colleges, in some cases, have funding that professional entities do not. What they universally have is space. I teach at a college, Purchase College, part of the SUNY system, that I haven’t brought my work to in large part because there isn’t a lot of financing available. But what they do have is space so that it’s always been open to me that if I wanted a theatre for a stretch of time, if it was one of their non-union houses, that that would be available to me as a faculty member. Right now, we’re partnering with LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. It’s technically a residency that we received through the Drama League. We are building the piece definitely with the student community, which is very exciting.
I do think on the one hand, there’s a draw of the content of the piece. This particular piece that we’re building is a lot about system change and equity and looking at community activism and efficacy, which is, I think, something that a lot of people are super interested now. And certainly, a lot of colleges are super interested because there’s the young leaders of tomorrow, are their students. As an educator myself, and many people who work with the company are also educators, it also goes without saying that anytime we are in residence somewhere, we’re also extending ourselves into the classroom and bringing students into the process. That’s also part of the package, as it were, when we do travel to a college.
Every college with a performing arts center has its own relationship. Actually, at my college, the performing arts center technically is its own nonprofit entity separate from the college. I think some of what they’re trying to do now is create a few more connections than there have been in the past.
When you go to these kinds of conferences, many, many of the folks who are there are people who are at performing arts centers located at college. I think also, colleges are in particular interested in the different process that we bring to the work. So if a particular theatre department or a conservatory is very interested in devising, they’re going to be super interested in having a company that does devising be part of their season. That’s also a draw.
Jeffrey: What is the greatest hurdle for Ripe Time?
Rachel: I think when I first founded the company, I had the very common young artist illusion that everything is cumulative. That once you have a show of a certain budget, the next show will be a bigger budget and the next show will have a bigger audience and the next show will get even more attention or more press or more bookings. That’s not the case. Things are not an even trajectory. The fact of one project having a really robust presenting history doesn’t necessarily mean that the next one is also going to.
The advantage of that, I guess, is that you talk your show into existence. You make it with your company, and as you’re promoting it—since we’re talking about funding and bookings and things like that. I mean to be honest, I prefer talking about the artistic process. But since we’re talking about the business of it, when you are promoting your work, you are also speaking it into existence. Maybe it isn’t a hurdle that you have to kind of re-earn relationships that you build. Some of it is that artistic staff will change, so you have someone who’s really gung-ho about your work and then they move on. I think you can never sit back and relax, but maybe that’s good because it forces you to always reexamine your principles.
I had a conversation once. Before I taught at Purchase, I was a teaching artist for many years. The great lighting designer, Beverly Emmons, used to be the artistic director of the Lincoln Center Institute, which is now called Lincoln Center Education, where I worked for a very long time.
I was a teaching artist. I remember saying to her, “I’d love to have you consider my work to tour to the schools.” That was what the things were we taught to, were productions. And so we had this conversation, which even though we knew one another, was me pitching myself. She looked at me and she’s like, “So you're kind of in that auteur model.” This is not a word I particularly like because I think it’s very male, and it’s got associations I don’t particularly like. But she, having worked with people like Meredith Monk and folks, that’s really the shorthand of what she meant.
I said, “I guess so. Yeah, sure.” And she said, “That's not going to work, Rachel, because you’re not mean enough.” I think perhaps her experience of the auteurs that she had designed for required this kind of cutthroat nastiness. I mean, I was just intuiting that from her comment, but I was so upset when she said that.
I don’t know where it came from. We were having an interview to promote my work and instead, I was just like, “Every day, I have to remember every single damn day why I do what I do because there is nothing in the American theatre that wants someone to make this kind of work. And if I don’t wake up every day planning to make this kind of work, it is not going to happen.” That ripped out of my mouth because I was so pissed off. She paused and she looked at me and she’s like, “Oh, well, okay. Maybe you can make this kind of work.”
But I’m telling this not because I suddenly turned into the evil auteur that she was identifying, but it was more that what I said, which I still believe, which is that if you’re going to make work in your own form—I think of every show I make as creating its own form. I don't really think of This is the style of Ripe Time work and that's what I do. Just as it has its own content, it has its own form. I find that to be actually really healthy.
And alongside of that, just as the director and as the producer—even if we’re being presented, I am still acting as a producer—I have to rediscover that work every day. I have to rediscover why it needs to exist, why it belongs in the world. If I don’t believe in it, I’m not going to get anyone else to believe in it. Why am I talking about this? You asked a question about hurdles, is that it?
Jeffrey: You’re sort of answering a positive version of it. Instead of what’s a hurdle, but rather what can you do to get rid of the hurdle?
Rachel: Oh, yes. Right. That's right.
Jeffrey: Which is talking your show into existence, as you said.
Rachel: Yes. The hurdle is that truly still, the American theatre still much prefers to see a play on paper and then staff it and cast it and produce it, and so it is a hurdle to not do that. I have a piece I've been working on for quite some time, but I still don’t have that script that's the finished piece because that’s not how we make work. So it’s a hurdle, but it is also just a fact. The people who trust that and trust what it’s about and trust either from seeing our past work that it’s going to be a really strong and sophisticated piece of work. I just have to trust that those people will be there and be ready to welcome it.
No matter where you are in your career, it’s not like suddenly after twenty years of having a company, you can just kick back and and your work will appear somewhere. It’s just not the way the world works. You have to always be pushing it forward. As the world is changing, your work has to evolve.
Jeffrey: Well, thank you so much for your time today. Like I say, I want to create a roadmap, but we all know that there’s no one way to do anything in theatre. All we can do is learn from other people’s paths.
Rachel: I mean, since this is focused on the CTG thing, the one thing I’ll say is that it’s the people like Diane Rodriguez that make the difference, because one thing Diane said to me when she offered the commission is she said, “We don’t have to only offer these commissions to the next new young company coming along. We need to also reward folks who’ve been working for ten, fifteen...” At that time, I’d had a company for fifteen years, and that’s a very rare thing, truly.
In the funding world also… We got a MAP grant in 2003. We were literally a year out from our very first production and it was our first big grant. It was thrilling and amazing. We’ve never gotten it since. A lot of the feedback we get is that they do look at companies that are new to them in a different way than companies that are already on their radar. We’re definitely on the radar already, and it’s a different set of criteria.
The creative producers like Diane really make the difference. She also had, when she was at CTG, had a lot of... I mean, she had a big pocket of money that she could decide what to do with, so she had some creative freedom in the programming. That’s kind of rare in a big organization like that.
Jeffrey: Thank you so much for being here. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you today.
Rachel: Yeah, same.
Jeffrey: Rachel, it really has been, and I truly hope that we can connect again sometime soon.
Rachel: Yeah, great. Are you in New York now or are you in Boston?
Jeffrey: I am in Milwaukee.
Rachel: Oh. Well, there you go. Okay. Not that that matters in this day and age.
Jeffrey: I just want to highlight a few things that I loved about this conversation. First, how amazing is it that Diane called Rachel after seventeen years? It just goes to show that relationships are long term in the theatre, right? We plant seeds and we have no idea when they’re going to bloom. I also want to recognize how Rachel draws the line back to organizing an ensemble as a choreographer-led dance company, which is something that both Patricia and Olga mentioned in previous episodes of the season. These organizations are all very conscientious about how they tour, and then with the added value of a tour producer such as Octopus Theatricals, they’re finding ways to connect outside of the commission process.
There were some very practical things in here, too, with tips on providing a multi-year budget for your financial contributions so that they can see what the ebb and flow means, and the ideas about universities, which also came up when I talked to Emily K. Harrison of square product theatre in episode three of season one. I love what she said about being a young artist and saying that she woke up every day to make the work. It reminded me that the hurdle can be ourselves, that we can fail to see or remember the value in our own work.
I want you to know, Artist, that you’ve got to believe in yourself and what you’re doing to make this work. It is a value to you and to your audience. If you don’t believe in it, nobody else will. And I believe in you, Artist.
I’m sensing that in these last three conversations, there’s something around a culture shift of regional theatres who could take on ensemble-based work. In our next episode, we get to see it with Allison Carey, formerly of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz[-Sapp] of Universes, who are the in-house ensemble at Oregon Shakespeare. This was a really heartfelt conversation between these three collaborators and friends, and I think it’s going to be a really fun one that you’re not going to want to miss. But until then, it’s time for your soundcheck lightning round.
Your favorite salutation.
Rachel: Good morning. I usually say that despite what time of day it is.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of transportation?
Rachel: This is terrible for the carbon footprint, but I really do like to drive. As a born and bred New Yorker, so I only got my license when I was thirty-seven.
Jeffrey: What's your favorite exclamation?
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?
Rachel: A good coffee espresso ice cream is fine. If I happen to be in Italy, a good stracciatella.
Jeffrey: What would you be doing if you weren't doing theatre?
Rachel: I would probably be a therapist. I don’t think I could do something that I wasn’t totally passionately invested in.
Jeffrey: What’s the opposite of Ripe Time theatre?
Rachel: Dinner theatre. Yeah, dinner theatre, I would say.
Jeffrey: Awesome. This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org.
This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.