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SoulWork and Soul Searching

Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within 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 leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.

Dear artists, I hope you’re great, I’m so happy you’ve chosen to join me today for another exhilarating conversation about how we make meaningful work as ensemble and as collaboratively creative artists, and in documenting some of the present work that is happening all over the world. With regard to ensemble-based work, today we are talking with Cristal Chanelle Truscott, founding artistic director, playwright, scholar, cultural worker, facilitator, educator, and ensemble artist at Progress Theatre. If you’ve picked up the book Black Acting Methods, then you’ve already read about her method called SoulWork. I actually got a wonderful chance to take a lesson from her in person once upon a time, and it was such a useful tool.

I don’t want to give too much of the interview away, but it is truly a process that can be used by actors, directors, and creatives across the board. It’s a process of working together as well as individually. If I may say, about a year ago, I was at the Next Narrative Monologue Competition at the Apollo Theater in New York City, and I got into a conversation with someone about it and they said, “I love SoulWork,” which reminded me that I should get Cristal on this podcast, and I’m so glad to share that conversation with you today. Cristal Zoomed in to me from Ojibwe Land, now known as Evanston, Illinois. We had this call on March 28, 2022, and I cannot be more pleased to share this moment with you. Enjoy.

When freedom is at stake, you don’t need rising action and you don’t need a climax and you don’t have falling action.

Jeffrey: Cristal, thank you so much for joining me today. It means so much. It’s great, especially because I just got a sample, a taste, of what SoulWork was about five years ago, and I’m so grateful that you remembered me from that workshop, from that class, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about all the aspects and then to have it come out that you were in the chapter in Black Acting Methods, I was like, “Yes, yes, yes.”

So from the notes that I took from the moments we were together and adding them into what was presented in your chapter, my brain has been racing. It’s been so exciting to hear, especially as Progress Theatre connects these ideas to the ensemble work that you do. What I love about it is it applies to all creative aspects throughout the work as ensemble practitioners, as theatremakers in all facets, as community workers. There are so many levels that it works on with acting, directing, playwriting, devising, ensemble building. This is all the buildup to saying: How do you walk in with SoulWork and how does SoulWork work for you?

Cristal Chanelle Truscott: Well, I have to start, I guess, with saying what SoulWork is. SoulWork is a methodology and a theoretical framework for training artists, for making performance, and for connecting communities. It is rooted in generations-old African American performance traditions and aesthetics and has a strong driving intention to shift the artist’s focus away from “me” and onto “we.” It really relocates the directors’ or the leaders’ ownership from “mine” to “ours” and rescues, in my opinion, the audience and/or the community-engaged relationship from “them” to “all of us.”

So you’re right that it’s a comprehensive method; includes acting and singing, directing, writing, devising, ensemble building, community engagement, I mean visual art, any type of leadership, it really can be applied wherever anyone wants to apply it and however anyone wants to apply it in terms of connecting people and building connection.

I think in terms of artists and theatre artists in general, it’s about inviting and I would say even expecting and requiring artists to bring the fullness of their identities to cultivate emotional, social, creative power through artistic expression and a socially conscious performance practice. Say all of that, those are all of the ways that it works for me. It is a centering philosophy, but it’s also a way of creating space, cultivating experience, collaborating, and engaging. So I feel like I don’t have another answer outside of “Here’s what SoulWork is” and “Here’s all of the ways that it works for me and what it does for me. And not just for me, I mean for others, it is not an individualistic method, so it’s not one that can be fully understood if someone is self-focused.

And it’s not one that can be understood—because it is experiential and rooted in oral tradition—it cannot be understood by reading. And even though reading is good and I want people to know what it is, but that’s— It’s a method that privileges embodiment and experiential knowledge and live chains of transmission. If someone’s only encounter with SoulWork is to read about it philosophically, and I think theoretically there could be an idea, but experientially in terms of having a full understanding of the methodology, I don’t think it’s possible to do without actually doing it and experiencing it, which is why I’m glad you had a little taste of that.

Jeffrey: One of my favorite quotes from the chapter is that, “Soul is essence beyond words.” And so what you’ve just described seems to be just that and just the idea of embodiment. It makes sense that you do a lot of trainings for this, and I saw on Progress Theatre’s website that you can sign up for trainings in your particular artistic track or in your community realm. So I think that’s really exciting to see those sorts of things.

And it’s also incredibly bold, I think, to make the physicalization of this work the priority of it. You have to be in the room, being a part of it, to take the training in. One of the things that I took away that I always think about, and it’s one of your principles in here, is the “unending climax.” Just the— how the end of the play might be the end, but it is the beginning of something else and it’s always the beginning of something else on the beginning of something else. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that aspect of it.

Cristal: Yeah, I think it’s not always about or not necessarily about new beginnings, it’s about the human experience being ongoing, and as artists— So often you’ll hear theatremakers talk about wanting to explore and investigate the human experience, and the human experience doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t have a start and stop. You know what I mean? Our lives, from the moment they begin, are ongoing, and urgency is not relegated to curated moments, and risk is not relegated to curated moments, nor are moments of transformation.

So I think that in exploration of life in general, right, or the human experience, this idea that we are going from one thing to the next thing or from one moment to the next moment and not to the end as long as we have breath of life— And someone could argue me on that in a metaphysical way and spiritual cosmological way. So that’s one thing is that the unending climax says that there’s always something more and something else and something new, not necessarily that we’ve got to the end of something and so now we’re starting over, but that we are constantly building on something.

The other thing, particularly with SoulWork and unending climax as a principle of SoulWork, is very much so connected to African American performance traditions of people who survived enslavement in the United States and the ways that performance was used in those communities of survival and practices of survival and thriving and passing on and passing down, and all of the abundance that came from a situation that people weren’t meant to survive in the first place, which is what makes it so miraculous that we are here, that African Americans are here, and that our culture is here and so influential. It’s what I call the “theory of aspiration,” which is this way of reaching for something that hasn’t been realized yet with the fullness of your being and with urgency for it.

And when freedom is at stake, you don’t need rising action and you don’t need a climax and you don’t have falling action. Urgency is there at the beginning and every step you take closer to realizing that freedom, the more abundant practice and community and connection becomes. So I’m talking about that in the historical framework, but also in the performance framework.

And this is why when you listen to old ancestral African American music, that’s the structure of the music, it continuously builds. It grows and it’s calling like it’s calling for the future, calling to the future. The unending climax really is about this notion one of abundance and of aspiration. And creativity is fueled by both of them. So creativity stays most alive, in my opinion, when we’re not trying to reach an end, but when we are trying to cultivate an idea and experience a shift, a change, a connection.

Jeffrey: Thank you for that framework around it too. I don’t think I got that context the first time, so I appreciate getting it now. Thank you.

Cristal: I don’t think— I probably wasn’t talking about it in that way the first time. I mean, how much can one say in two hours? This is why I say just reading the book and even one workshop won’t do it, but also I have, as I’m working on the SoulWork book now, this theory of aspiration will be a large part of that framework. So I’m looking forward to sharing that because people who are going to meet SoulWork first as readers, I think that is a great way to invite people just to understand this reach for connection and abundance.

Jeffrey: What would your first lesson be with someone on SoulWork?

Cristal: To breathe. Yeah, because breath is the thing that stays with you throughout the entire practice in the process. A healthy, strong relationship with our breath serves us in every moment. It serves us when we are in a position of having to listen deeply to others and be present in space. It serves us before we speak, to take a breath and to be grounded and to connect. It serves us if we want to use our voice with any range of power or any range of intensity or intimacy, it serves us if we want to use our bodies, you know what I mean? There’s just so much of that.

And so I think the consciousness of breath and full-body listening is one of the first invitations that I give to SoulWork. And then I offer a lot of invitations at the start that I think sometimes, when people will study with me, they may not get until several weeks later or a couple of years later because it takes time. It’s not a method that is necessarily taught in a linear way, even though it’s taught in a progressive way because, again, it is oral tradition and it’s embodiment and it’s community engaged. So there is a sense of liveness and being responsive to the people in the room and what that journey needs to be for those particular people.

But I always say come as you are to SoulWork as it is, and that there’s just space in the center, at the center in the circle, for everyone. As long as we get to honor— We have to start with breath, and we have to start with honoring that people get to come as they are in the fullness of themselves and their exploration, and that we get to engage SoulWork as it is, and it’s the invitations that SoulWork is offering.

Jeffrey: You talked a little bit about risk earlier in your last description of SoulWork, and I’m wondering how does risk play into SoulWork?

Cristal: Well, risk is so subjective. It means different things for different folks. I was working with a group of first-time performers recently and for one of them risk was building a relationship with their voice where they could speak in a theatre and be heard in the room and feel confident and empowered in that. And so that was the risk for that per person. For someone else, it’s going to be a different kind of risk. So I think—

I don’t prescribe risk when I teach SoulWork because everyone has a different place and a different journey. My goal and work is to really be responsive to what risk and growth means for that particular artist or that particular person. So it’s really about cultivating and inviting people to develop a lack of self-consciousness and a creative power that’s rooted in their unique identity and the freedom that comes along with feeling grounded in who you are.

When folks have access to that, I think that the sky’s the limit and there’s no limit. People tend to find their own risk and soar. I can’t know. I don’t think any of us could know exactly what that will look like for someone. I think it’s really about a lack of self-consciousness and that is nurtured a lot in SoulWork because the focus is not solely on the individual, the focus is on what you are contributing to the space, to your peers, and how you are helping to cultivate that environment.

So if you’re in a space and you are not the center of your focus, your self-consciousness can often give you space to actually be creatively free as opposed to being in a space where you are looking at yourself from the outside, constantly monitoring that because your posture is one of service, and service and community require creativity for contribution.

Jeffrey: That’s great. I’m glad you brought self-consciousness into this too. I was in a Dell’Arte workshop, I think, and someone smarter than me said that you can’t be self-aware and self-conscious at the same time. And just drawing attention to the fact that you have to find a way to eliminate self-consciousness to be ever expansive and be aware of the world.

And so when I was reading this, reading the chapter, there were some really fantastic connections to not just what I’ve encountered with Dell’Arte and whatnot but also similarly with just the relationship to the audience in a lot of ways in other devising practices or ensemble-based practices, which I really appreciate. Can you talk a little bit about connections that SoulWork makes to audiences?

Cristal: SoulWork artists or people in a SoulWork process are always in call-and-response with the audience. And that moment or that time of being in community, for whatever that moment is, forever how long the experience or performance is, it really is about using the same principles that we would use in engaging community in performance. And so the audience isn’t seen as folks outside of the experience. The audience is seen as folks inside the experience and with the experience and the journey of the piece.

And I do feel like many times theatre practitioners, that is what we want, that people want folks to be so engrossed in the experience that they are going on the journey with the performers in some way. What SoulWork offers is an intentionality from the artists that makes the experience about the community and not about themselves. So it’s not about, Have I just done my most brilliant performance? Did I do what I was supposed to do? Did my scene partner do what they’re supposed to do? Did we hit this moment the right way?

And one, I mean, the goal of SoulWork is to not duplicate a performance every time. So a lot of times processes and training— People are trained so that they can show up and realistically, believably, masterfully repeat a moment as identically as possible from night to night. And that’s not how SoulWork is set up. The goal is the exact opposite, which is to let the performance be what it’s supposed to be for that day. And part of that is in being in call-and-response with each other, with the audience, with the community that’s in the space and in the experience for that day and allowing that to steer the journey of the performance.

It is essential that the artist’s North Star is how are they being of service in the space as opposed to how good are they in what they’re doing? And that if someone is being of service and contributing and offering something and that their focus is more on those intentions and those principles as opposed to the focus of themselves or whatever trapping they might really enjoy, in being a part of theatre, great costumes, and great life—all of those things are fantastic, and the artists who do them are in service in that way. And for performers, our service is in this way, so.

Jeffrey: You’ve got me curious about would you use SoulWork practices in a more traditional process?

Cristal: Well, I do. SoulWork is a traditional process. Like I said, it’s rooted in generations-old performance traditions. It’s just not rooted in a Eurocentric performance tradition. So I think that it’s about whose tradition and what tradition.

Jeffrey: Sure. Oh, sorry. I was going to say thank you for calling me on that because what I mean to recognize I guess is more like the “typical” or “standard” four-week rehearsal process at this, that major regional theatre.

Cristal: Yeah, I think SoulWork can be used in any process. I think for someone who understands it, you know what I mean, and has been trained, I think it can be fine and exciting. I know folks who’ve done it, but I think that the outcome, there are just different intentions. And so there would be some theatres that would be excited by the notion that the artists are given freedom to explore the play anew every night. And some theatres that would say, no, no, we want— everything needs to be exactly the same every night. And directorially, for me, I wouldn’t be excited by that, so I wouldn’t be the director for that theatre or that process.

But, creatively, SoulWork actors who work in regional theatres—no one can control how they get to where they get to every night on stage and how they do what they do every night on stage and what they offer. So again, it’s not a prescription-based method. And so often I think artists, especially actors, are taught to really go towards something that’s preordained: this is how your blocking is supposed to be for some people, this is how you should say this line, this is when you should say it, this is when you should cry. All of these things are just mapped out. And SoulWork really considers the performer, I mean everybody in the process, but in terms of this particular example really considers the performer and empowers collaborator in the sense that they have a deep understanding of the piece, and they’re trusted to honor the process and the intentions of the piece night to night.

So yes, that’s a long way of saying, yeah, it can be used in any process, and it has, I think, the possibilities around expanding what processes can be and look like. If you’re thinking of regional three-to-six-week rehearsal processes, I think this is a moment where a lot of those things are being questioned about what might be some new ways to breathe next generation life into those processes that have— Many of them in certain spaces just haven’t been revisited or reflected on or looked at for generations.

It’s just like: This is the way it’s always been done kind of thing. But in my world, right, in Progress Theatre’s world and in ensemble-practice land and what some people might call experimental theatre and what I would also call African American theatre and Black theatre, that is this notion of taking the time that it needs to take to develop a piece is not foreign and is not new. And when you know your process, you request it. So you say, look, I’m a person, I’m an artist who because community and connection is my focus, and in building community and connection, you can really only move at the speed of trust and at the speed of collective understanding and growth. Three weeks could be enough, but it might not be enough. You know what I mean? Or that’s not what we want. We want a process that allows folks to have room to breathe so that the connectivity that the ensemble creates is what is witnessed and what’s the driving force when a production makes it on stage.

Jeffrey: One of the notions that I really dig is that of the remix to take something that is an idea or a concept or some lines from this song, some lyrics, some lines, some content, some whatever, and then putting a spin on it. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about what a remix means to SoulWork?

Cristal: Sure. Well, again, I am inciting and pulling from Black performance traditions. So the earliest remixes or what we now call remixes are from Negro spirituals. And it’s this notion that a person’s contribution to a song or to a creative imprint can change it and expand it and grow, and that all of those things can impact it. So speaking specifically about, like, the times of slavery, this notion that a song that was driving, holding the community up at sunrise, if that’s a song that lives with the community all day, it’s going to sound different by sunset. And that, at any given moment, people will have interventions in that song that’s going to change the song based on the person who is intervening and who is calling. Because in African American vocal traditions, again, it’s not: This is your turn, this is my turn, this is how the song must go, this is how this… It is very much so: What’s your contribution? What do you have to say? What do you need to say? What do you need to add? What are you calling to?

And you find that tradition is the same from gospel music to jazz to R&B and soul to hip hop, which is why, I mean in our times, the hip hop remix is what people are most familiar with, this idea that something has been done and then someone comes and they’re in call-and-response with what this artist originally did. But it’s really, oh, it’s an ancestral practice that dates backfire ways to the extent that even people who are documenting spirituals, you could go to Georgia and hear a song and then go to Texas and recognize the song, but it’s different because it’s at that community and it’s in Texas, and it has become what it is because of that, the community where it is.

The other thing that’s imperative to the remix is that folks who have the deepest understanding of a remix understand or know the original. So a lot of times people are listening to a remix and they have no idea what the original is. They just like the song and they know it’s a remix. Even in terms of hip hop, there’ll be a hip hop song and people are like, Wow, they love this song and they don’t know that the beat is from this really famous R&B group in the eighties, and then they don’t know that that song is built off of this really important blues song. And then they may not know that that song has its roots in this, right? But you could have someone— Certainly I’ve had people in my family hear a song and be like, Oh. They can trace that sample back—the sample to the origins of that remix—back generation.

So the more information you have, the more powerful the remix is for you. And it’s another part of Black performance tradition because those spirituals were always so coded with hidden messages and things of that nature to encourage and inspire people towards freedom and or give instructions for those kinds of things. So it was important to be able to hear the song and know the original or know the samples so that you would know what was being said and what was being talked about.

So in SoulWork or with Progress Theatre, this idea of the remix connects to unending climax in the sense that there are infinite possibilities for how a song or a moment could go depending on who’s the person or who’s the artist now entering into the call-and-response and that it will become that because of those people in that moment and in that space. And that that’s an exciting thing, that we are made better, and that abundance is built when someone can encounter something and say, “Oh, I have something to say,” right? In response to that. “I have something to add. I have something to build.” Or, “This inspired me and now let me offer this next remix. Here’s my way of doing it.” “Here’s what I heard” or “Here’s what I want to challenge you on.”

It’s not unlike academic inquiry and citation when people have books that really influence them and they’re like, “Gosh, I really love this book, but here’s where I would take X, Y, and Z scholar to task” or “Here’s how I want to build on it” or “Here’s how I’ve been inspired by it.” So again it’s this constant invitation that creativity is infinite and possibilities are infinite. So we get to remix as much as we want.

Creativity stays most alive, in my opinion, when we’re not trying to reach an end, but when we are trying to cultivate an idea and experience a shift, a change, a connection.

Jeffrey: Along that scholarly line and feeding another thought in my head, is there a risk of appropriation or plagiarism when you enter into creating a remix? I guess what I’m saying, is there a way that you might do harm by creating a remix in any way?

Cristal: In SoulWork, and I would even say in Black remix culture, citation and naming is important. So appropriation and plagiarism happens when you separate a person’s creative or intellectual product from themselves and from their identity or from their community. And so that’s the legacy of how Black performance has been treated. Oh, let me just pluck this, right, because it sounds good and it sounds nice, and offer it—you know what I mean?—without offering and or honoring and or paying for the source and the place where it comes from.

I often tell this story: early on in my career, I would get this often—and I didn’t know how to respond to it back then, but I’m a pro at it now—but I would get someone who would hear what I’m saying or hear me offer a contribution or something and they’d say—which is not uncommon in terms of the way people communicate, even when they think they’re giving you a compliment—“I’m going to steal that. That was so great. I’m going to steal it.” And I say, “Oh, but you don’t have to steal it. You could just quote me. You could just cite me. You could just ask me for more insight and information so that you can present the idea with the integrity that it comes along with.”

I mean, that’s what people do when they value something. Right. And it’s certainly, in our world— Gosh, if someone is well versed on Viewpoints and they’ve had an opportunity to study with Anne Bogart, you can best believe that they will enter a room and they’re going to do all the name-dropping and citation they can and they want to. And, or I mean not just that: enter any other method that because of the sociocultural dynamics of white supremacy, when do people feel like it is going to elevate them to give credit and to give acknowledgement and to give context and to have undergone deep study? And when does this, either conscious or subconsciously, posture of not valuing a source or a people or a culture, say people are not invited to do that due diligence. And they don’t acknowledge, they don’t cite, they don’t know. They didn’t even ask when they encountered it, right? Cause that wasn’t the value, or the thought was, I can steal that. And as opposed to bringing…

So that’s when appropriation and plagiarism come into play in the most harmful ways, is that it lacks acknowledgement, it lacks citation, it lacks full understanding because there was never full exploration and there was never full humility. And it’s another reason why I’m so adamant for people to say, “Well, gosh, if you really want to understand SoulWork and engage with it, then this is how you can do it and this is the way to do it.”

It may sound like such an odd thing to have to say, but it’s not. It’s something that as, hopefully, this work and this industry is more intentional about acknowledging all of the things that source our structures and our creativity, that that will just become common practice, and it won’t just be relegated to people who can come in the room and say, “Well, gosh, I studied Meisner for three years.” Okay, well then you can study SoulWork for three years. You can study Indigenous practice.

We can do all of these things and uplift them and acknowledge them and give them the care and value that we give everything else. Maybe I’ve gotten a little far away from your question, but I think that it all goes back to the intentionality and the principles. And so again, with the SoulWork artists, because the focus is going to be on “we” and not “me,” and it’s going to be on all of us, the first thing that you’re going to want to do is bring folks into the room with you who’ve inspired you, who’ve influenced you, who’ve done all of that.

I ask my students this question all the time: “How do you know a SoulWork artist?” And one of the things they always say is because they will let you know when and where and how they learn SoulWork. They will be able to cite traditions. They will be able to talk about how they entered, where they stand in the fullness of their identity, and talk about the identity of the traditions that SoulWork comes from. And there won’t be any conflict in that. It’ll just be that transparency in that invitation of it.

Jeffrey: Wonderful. I don’t care how far away we get from the question, that was amazing where we traveled, and I’m with you every step, and I want to shift gears a little bit and ask about your work at Progress Theatre. And I’m going to pull another quote because I got the book in front of me. Listen, I wrote in this book more than I’ve written in any book in the past, over the whole pandemic. I’m like, “Oh yes, this, oh yes this.” And so when you have a book that comes out, I cannot wait to mark it all up. It’s so good. But one of the things that I grabbed right away was the statement of the leadership dance. And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how shared leadership works at Progress.

Cristal: Yeah, this was really something that came out early in the process. And again, it comes from community traditions, of the fact that everybody has a contribution to give that only they can give, and that that should be welcomed and invited. And certainly in the community that I grew up in, it was expected, like here you are a young person, what are your gifts? How would you like to contribute?

It’s a way of both honoring someone’s unique gifts and their contribution, but then of also expecting the community to be supported by everyone who’s involved in the community, that’s necessary. The original members of Progress Theatre, we all came from different places in the country, but rooted in that same similar dynamic in Black communal space, which is just like, Okay, I’m here, what am I offering? What can I contribute?

And everyone just had different strengths or similar strengths, so things that they were passionate about in any given moment, so to be able to recognize that and honor that in each other and just to be like, Okay, well then you take that and I’ll take this. And I think that’s one of the beautiful things that ends up happening in a lot of ensembles are artists that work together over time, you know each other so well, you know your strengths, you know the things that you are passionate about, and you want to make space for every member of the ensemble to be able to explore that, you know what I mean? And to be in their fullness.

And it ends up serving everybody else well too. I may be a person that has the song in my head, but I may not be the best person to tweak the harmonies. Or I may be the person who really is attuned to guiding the process of moving and performing in various spaces, but there might be someone else who really has a gift for making sure that we land in a grounded way, in a grounded space, and have warmup and have connections. So it is really just about people self-identifying.

Again, nothing is prescriptive. I guess some things can be or have to be at moments when it gets down to this and both it’s like we need someone to do this, but generally it’s about giving people the space and the opportunity to self-identify the ways that they want to contribute and that they feel excited about contributing in that way.

Jeffrey: Very cool. So then you could find leadership on any given process being passed from person to person, artist to artist, throughout or throughout whatever project you’re working on?

Cristal: For sure. I mean leadership on different things and in different ways. So I think yes, I don’t think leadership has to function hierarchically in terms of here’s the person that we’ve said as the leader, and so they are forever the leader on all things and everyone has to come under and through and after them. It’s more about here is the person who’s leading us through this moment or this practice or this process that they have a strength and they’re the best one to do it. They’re the most passionate about it right now.

And so all right, when we do that and then we show up and lead in the other ways… I mean, I think in a process there’s going to need to be different expertise and people who are just going to need to defer and sit at their feet and be like, yes, where do you want to do, where do you want to go? And some moments, I mean, I’m a playwright, so my role is I come in with the play—usually, not all the time—all the way finished. Certainly not at a beginning of the process that it is about being in process and in community that gets a piece from ideation to fruition. But that’s my strength and I know that that’s an offering that I have.

And I also know that once that piece is brought into the world of the ensemble into the embodied space, what it becomes is going to be something that it becomes because of the folks who are workshopping it and because of their skills and the moments when they step in in leadership in terms of developing the piece.

Jeffrey: Does directing shift from hand to hand throughout a process potentially?

Cristal: The SoulWork way of directing is also very ensemble. So our folks in the ensemble who identify as directors, and if that is always open, it looks so differently than I think what comes to mind for people when they think about a directing process, which is that the director comes in and collaborates still—I believe in most theatre processes with the actors and with so many folks and building out their vision and dream for the play—but they are the North Star, they are our guide and they have the most information about what they envision the outcome to be.

And in SoulWork process, all of those things come to together. So it really is having to reach an ensemble understanding of what the piece is and what it wants to be, and we just go about it a different way. So it’s not: Here’s the blocking, everything from script analysis to blocking to all of those things. They literally look so radically different in terms of how we arrive at the end, but I think that everyone has the opportunity for their contribution and what they want.

Jeffrey: Has Progress been impacted by the pandemic very much?

Cristal: Oh yeah. Exclamation mark.

Jeffrey: Maybe that’s your exclamation.

Cristal: Maybe that’s my exclamation, but I mean it’s an exclamation that’s an exhale. I think that we are also people who leaned into the moment for going deep and going together for pausing. I think a pause is okay in all of those kinds of ways. Right before the pandemic started, we were about to enter into workshop process for the current piece in development, which is called Plantation Remix—no surprise that there’s a remix in there given what I share with you about remixes in my own personal excitement and connection to the process of remixing.

So Plantation Remix in particular is a first for Progress Theatre in that it’s our first site-responsive piece to be performed at these historic plantations and other sites related to US systems of slavery to really rehabilitate remix this genre of plantation tourism or historical tourism and really explore, rehearsing—rehearsing in not going into our process way but rehearsing through the performance on these sites—a contemporary future building afterlife for these sites.

So the question being: What is an appropriate afterlife for a plantation or for sites of slavery or for sites of trauma period, what should they be and how can we activate them so that they are not living history performances? It’s not a reenactment of the past, but it is like a hip hop remix. It’s informed by what came before it to make something new and to really look at: What could the experience be for all of us to come to these sites with the central tenant that no American identity or dynamic across a multirange, a multicultural range of experiences is left uninformed by systemic and sociocultural descendants of plantation systems?

So it’s really exciting in that way, in that it is our first site-responsive piece. It’s this piece that’s really about transforming a site beyond the status of being an artifact to something that can actually be a contribution to the ways that people connect and engage around these legacies.

In my work, I use a lot of time travel, not like science fiction, science fiction time travel, but although I love science fiction, but more like I call it Sankofa time travel, and Sankofa is this West African principle of that you have to go back and get it, right? So you have to know where you come from in order to build a better future. So I always— In all of my pieces, there’s some sort of moment that exists in the past in a moment that exists in the present. A Plantation Remix is not only my first site-responsive work, but it’s my first piece where time travel doesn’t end with the present but with the future.

So that’s why this question of what’s an appropriate afterlife for a plantation, it really is about: Let’s make a performance about the future. Let’s make a performance about what it really means to preserve and to commemorate these sites so that their afterlives are things that service and that we can be proud of because so many of these sites, the afterlives of plantations became prisons.

And we know that that legacy only does more trauma for a lot of plantations that afterlives become wedding destinations. And we know that that practice continues the trauma of erasure and lack of acknowledgement. So we have afterlives anyway, and a lot of times they don’t manifest in ways that best service now. There is a university that I used to teach at where my grandparents went called Prairie View that was a plantation and is now a university. It’s a historically Black college. It’s a site of historically Black college, and so that’s an afterlife that’s really inspiring and exciting.

So all of that to say, given the dynamics of that piece, it was not something that could manifest during the pandemic because being at the sites and doing this work onsite is very, very important. What did happen is really, was an opportunity for me to really lean into and grow training folks in SoulWork who want to be practitioners, who ultimately want to be teachers.

It became an opportunity to sort of document process better. A lot of times at ensemble work, we’re so busy doing the thing that documenting it and really tracing it in a way that can be transferrable and can be handed down and can be shared… So that has been exciting. So in one way, Plantation Remix is just now getting its workshop life two years later. But on the other hand, I got to do a lot of writing about SoulWork, I got to do a lot of workshops and working with students and with people who want to be practitioners and who want to study deeply.

And, for me, SoulWork is my foundational creative practice. It is… Whenever someone says, “Are you working on something creative?” And I’m like, “I always am,” right? As long as— And teaching is a creative practice and being able to teach that and to really positively impact academia and higher education theatre training that’s interested in offering more inclusive training exposure to students, that’s exciting work. And so I do feel like all, it’s all interconnected in that way. In Progress Theatre when we tour always has an educational component and a workshop component and a residency component. We joke and we say we spend more time on tour in communities and in schools than we do on the stage. And I think that’s right. I think that’s true, and I think that’s intentional.

So the public-facing work was affected by the pandemic, but the work that is internal and is about deep connection and is about creating access and having the opportunity to exchange with people and learn and listen to others and with others… That was not interrupted, and I’m grateful for that.

Jeffrey: Cool, thank you. You’ve touched on this just like you’ve just tapped on these things and a few answers you’ve already given, but especially related to how hierarchy and systems that are currently in place with theatre. But I’m wondering if Progress Theatre has made any adjustments to your process in relation to We See You White American Theater. I’ve found that ensembles always seem to say, “Oh, we’re the most inclusive, we’re the most diverse, we’re the most everything. We’re the most DEI because we’re always asking for the group’s opinion. We’re never working in a hierarchical fashion or we’re working in a less hierarchical fashion.”

To restate the question, I guess I’m just wondering if you are seeing anything in your ensemble process or at Progress Theatre in relation to how you’re adjusting for We See You White American Theater.

Cristal: Well, We See You White American Theater was not written for me. I’m not the target audience for it. And Progress Theatre is not the target audience for it as indicated in its title. And I think that the audience that it was meant for, those ideas and invitations and observations and demands, what made them so powerful and essential to the spaces that that document is meant for is because there’s been an absence of those things or there’s been a silence around them, there’s been just breadcrumbs put out, but people not feeling like there could be a really bold and honest conversation about that.

And Progress Theatre was founded over twenty years ago with the mission of combating racism. So not just the mission of being an ensemble company, not the mission of any of these things, but the mission of really working to connect people to deal with racism and social consciousness and all of those kind of things. So these are not new ideas. They’re not new conversations, they’re not new formations. And it’s very interesting for me even being in these worlds of being in community-based, community-driven ensemble that really is built on a specific intention towards social justice and connecting people and anti-racism, DEI work.

I would consider Progress Theatre and many companies who have been doing this work for twenty-plus years and beyond as the predecessors to that document, not because we invented all of the best practices, but that those are conversations that oftentimes start in the safest places, which are in people’s communities before they can bring them into places where there might be tension. And so many artists who work in white American theatres or who work in regional theatres also have connection with ensembles and they have connection in communities. And so I do think that there has been probably more of an influence coming from the community space to the regional theatre space than the other way around.

There was nothing for me that was revelatory in the document and nothing for me that was new or surprising or any of those type of things. But also, like I said, it wasn’t written for me and it was—wasn’t, is not still, and never was to be a resident playwright or a resident director at a regional white American theatre. That wasn’t my North Star. I don’t think it’s a bad North Star to have, it just wasn’t mine. So those kinds of dynamics never guided my creative journey. So I didn’t have the experience of feeling silenced or feeling like I couldn’t ask for what I needed. Even when I have worked with regional theatres because I get to come on my own terms and as who I already am and the work that I already do.

What I think is really beautiful about the document is how unifying it is in terms of giving people a starting point to have conversations that haven’t been had in spaces that need to have them. And also allowing people who have been existing in a range of spaces to be able to say, “Hey, I have information from this space that I can bring here.” And that it is really about improving the dynamics and culture of American theatre eventually, I think essentially that’s the ultimate goal. What is American theatre? What is theatre that is reflective of the United States? So the conversation that I have witnessed, that I have facilitated, that I’ve been involved in in university spaces and in regional theatre spaces around that, I think that is what makes it most powerful. But I think that often those things, the conversations that make it to the mainstream, by the time they make it to the mainstream, the folks who’ve been on the frontlines of the work have been having those conversations for a really long time already. So I’m glad that it exists. I think it’s a great teaching document and connecting document and conversation document, but it wasn’t written for me. I didn’t need it.

Jeffrey: What is a hurdle that you’d want to eliminate to better Progress Theatre’s work?

Cristal: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I see any hurdles. Perhaps if I have more time to reflect on that question, I might come up with some, but I think that for a lot of artists there’s always an ongoing conversation with time poverty and the time that it takes to be creative and the time that it takes to build and make something and do it in the ways that people want. But I don’t see hurdles for Progress Theatre. I’m really excited that at this point, there’s like Progress Theatre first generation, Progress Theatre second generation, Progress Theatre the third generation, and really probably more accurate SoulWork first generation, SoulWork, second generation, third generation.

So I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that through SoulWork, my contribution, our contribution, will outlive our times. And that feels really exciting to me and that’s why I love teaching so much, that’s why I love connecting people so much. I think that the idea that may be my greatest piece of art or greatest piece of work will be that there’s something that will outlive me and that can continue to make contributions and make space for people to bring all of who they are to their creative process and practice and work to feel excited by uplifting and acknowledging each other and to really recognizing that all of us are supposed to be here.

And regardless, we’re all here. So even if you don’t think so, we’re all here and that we have so much to offer and give each other when we can enter from where we are and enter with all of who we are and grow together. And that’s really at the heart of all of our work.

So I think more about that, about succession and legacy and what’s to come that I won’t see, and just trying to make sure that I pass down the best things that I can to keep encouraging people to have lack of self-consciousness, to love themselves, to love their cultures, to love their communities, and then to use that groundedness to love each other, and to really connect across all of the ways that we think we might be different and that our experiences are indeed different, but that the ability to connect is something that we all have in common. We just have to get better at and get good at it. And I think, artists, we’re the most primed to really have that gift of connection, of change and of just creative power is the fuel for all of that.

Jeffrey: Anything else you want to add? Anything else you didn’t get a chance to say?

Cristal: You had such juicy questions and I did think of them ahead of time, but even as you asked them in the moment, and I’m sitting here in the moment, I’m like, this is so deep. So I feel like there’s so many roads I could go down, but I can’t think of anything else right now. Probably when you send me the file, I’ll be like, “Oh, Jeffrey, I wanted to say this.”

Yeah, no, I would love to come back. Maybe after I do, when I finally get my SoulWork book out, then we can have a different conversation. But I just want to share gratitude with you for inviting me into this conversations and for all of the conversations that you’re making space for with people in our field doing this work. So thank you.

Jeffrey: Thank you so much. That really does mean so much. That’s what I’m trying to do it for, is like: Who’s documenting this? How are we continuing or making space for this, making sure we knew we did this?

Cristal: Making sure we knew we did this. I love that.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and just what you said about a pause and whatnot and taking time to document.

We have so much to offer and give each other when we can enter from where we are and enter with all of who we are and grow together.

First, let me say many, many thanks again to my Zoom sponsor, Quasimondo Physical Theatre. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I couldn’t be chatting without you. I think the thing that really appeals to me about this process is that it’s not linear, it’s progressive, which is something that we are all sitting with, whether it’s financially, philanthropically, or just the general theatre process right now. Not to mention that the notion of adding to the piece throughout its existence as long as it’s in service to the space is so wonderful. It allows for each piece to continue to grow and really is some dense connective tissue to the unending climax.

I worked with a director once who had an opinion of the audience that an audience always wants the piece to be exactly the same as they remember it and totally different at the same time, which sounds a little bit like a paradox, but it’s totally that rule of three for comedy and composition, the same thing, but different. We want to know it and we want to be jarred by it. And I think that this has such a satisfying connection to those ideas as well as how we compose work.

Earlier I mentioned going to the Next Narrative Monologue Competition. I got to observe young actors from around the country, but also experience warmups with the same mechanics but different names. I immediately thought of this when she was talking about remixes, that we remix so many things in the theatre world. It’s not hard to find one. Just go back to my past episodes where I’m talking about Viola Spolin and how so many of her exercises are now remixes and remixes and remixes. I don’t know where I got this exercise from. Right?

Okay. That’s it for now. A reminder to please look out for me on Twitter and Instagram at @ensemble_ethnographer and at @ftgu_pod, we are out there. You are too, and I hope we can connect. All right. Let me know what you want to see or hear next and let me know what needs to be documented. How do we need to send some new ideas forward? All right, folks. Now it’s time for your sound-check lightning round.

Jeffrey: Crystal, can you tell me what your favorite salutation is?

Cristal: “Hi.” I might do a, “Hi, you all.”

Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of transportation?

Cristal: I like to walk.

Jeffrey: Your favorite exclamation.

Cristal: Oh, no! I feel like these are good questions for people who hang around me a lot, that they would be, “Here’s what you always say, here’s what you know,” but nothing comes to mind right now as a favorite.

Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not Progress Theatre?

Cristal: A theatre artist working and serving in community.

Jeffrey: What does “ensemble” mean to you?

Cristal: Community.

Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Progress Theatre?

Cristal: I guess anything that’s anti-community.

Jeffrey: And what’s your favorite ice cream?

Cristal: Chocolate.

Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast at @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser at @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.

Think you or someone you know ought to be on the show? Send us an email at [email protected]. We also accept fan mail and requests. Access to all of our past episodes can be found on my website, jeffreymosser.com as well as howlround.com. 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 the HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, 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 find a transcript for the 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.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

From the Ground Up Podcast


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