NET/TEN Shareback: Flux Theatre Ensemble - Calendars of Developing and Devising

Fall 2012 Seed Grant Recipient

Flux Theatre Ensemble (Astoria, NY) traveled to Bethlehem, PA to observe Touchstone Theatre’s rehearsal process for a new play titled, The Odyssey Project. Flux Theatre Ensemble returned to Bethlehem for the final performance, and reciprocated by inviting Touchstone to NYC to see their new performance, Honey Fist.

SHAREBACK:

NET asked Flux Theatre Ensemble to share their learning in the form of a calendar outlining their ideal devising process. Below is a response preprared by August Schulenburg (Flux Artistic Director) outlining the key takeaways from their activities and the questions they intend to explore over the coming year.

Calendars of Developing and Devising:
From New Play Assembly to Devising Rhapsody

Flux Theatre Ensemble’s NET/TEN collaboration with Touchstone Theatre

Flux Theatre Ensemble undertook our NET/TEN activities with one central question: how do we transition from an ensemble theatre that develops new plays together, to an ensemble that also devises new plays together? While individuals within our ensemble had some experience with devised work, as a company we had not deeply considered the structural shift it would take to fully support a devised process. Our solution: to visit Touchstone Theatre’ s devised piece, The Odyssey Project, at early, middle and late stages of their devised process, and to share our work with Touchstone in order to develop the reciprocal trust and knowledge necessary for true artistic exchange.

Of all the take-aways, the biggest was the difference in how the calendar was structured. For Flux, our development process can take years, as the play is first developed at Flux Sundays, then through our Have Another and Food:Soul developmental stagings, then through our annual retreat process, before finally reaching the shores of the traditional 4+week rehearsal, 1-week tech process. Not every play finds its way to our mainstage through that exact journey, but most of the time, by the time Flux begins a rehearsal, we have a deep knowledge of how the play works. An apt metaphor might be that we assemble a flight machine by hand, and then prepare to take off.

On the other hand, with devised work, you leap first and then assemble the plane while you’re in the air! Or at least, that’s how it seemed as I watched the daring Touchstone team throw hundreds of ideas against the wall in a single early rehearsal. Later in the process, Touchstone founder Bill George remarked, “good new ideas could kill us”, but that didn’t stop them from coming. How do you structure a process that defines itself through the making of it?

Well, there is a strict calendar for it, as I learned from discussions with Bill and Jp Jordan, Touchstone’s Artistic Director. Several discussions dug deep into how they built their timeline, and I’ve adapted their thinking to present how Flux might structure our own devised process:

1. Explore the Territory: The devised process can begin with almost no clear idea of the end: through an evocative image or poem, through a territory of thematic exploration, through dramaturgical meanderings or unstructured physical play. Certain things will exert some gravity, and that gravity will attract other like-metaled ideas, and gradually, a territory will emerge. With The Odyssey Project, Touchstone began with a clear territory—Homer’s Odyssey—but no clear idea of what aspect of that territory would be their focus. Early explorations began in September of 2012, and so for Flux (as first-timers), I’d allocate two or three months of weekly four hour sessions to properly Explore the Territory.

2. Define the Why:  With the territory established, the Ensemble must then begin to define the WHY—why this story now? What does this territory mean to us, to our immediate community, and to the world? What will change because of this process and production? With The Odyssey Project, that WHY clicked its gears into the groove with the discovery that the ensemble wanted to talk about the women in Ulysses’ life. Defining the Why is the first real decision-point, and in many ways the most important one, and as such, establishing a hard-won consensus is critical. For Flux, I’d allocate three four-hour sessions, separated by a week between each, to Define the Why.

3. Build the How:  With the territory established and the WHY defined, the work now becomes HOW to create the experience of the production.  Will it be site-specific, exoteric, set to music, involve text, have a clear narrative, be participatory, use masks, and on and on the possibilities stretch. Watching Touchstone, I was struck by how the work that was created during the earliest days would be brought back months later as a potential solution to a tricky patch. That early work served as more than just an exploration of territory: it also created a shared body of potential tools that could be called upon for any situation. Touchstone knew going in that The Odyssey Project would be an exoteric performance set to music, but they only realized quite late in the game that a series of iconic props would serve as both transformative stage-craft and narrative webbing. They didn’t know who would play Ulysses, or how many people would play Ulysses, though by the end of the process, so many had touched the part that everyone was bound up in the role. Seeing these artists build the HOW one right choice at a time was exhilarating, and helped me identify my own tendency to reach for the HOW to early. Their answers to HOW were so much richer because of the time they took exploring the territory and defining the WHY. For Flux, I would give three to four months of weekly four hour sessions to Build the How.

4. Get ‘er Done: Then, it was time for the rubber to hit the road, and the remainder of the Touchstone process I observed seemed only a little different from our more tradition rehearsal process. With the HOW built, the ensemble moved into the work of learning lines, movement and rehearsals to shape the rough process into the finished product. This is something Flux does well on very little time, and so I would assign three plus weeks of regular rehearsal to Get ‘er Done.

This would require Flux to move from a five week rehearsal process to an eight month devising process, and of course the question that looms above all of this is: to what end? Will the work, and our community that participates in it, be so transformed by this kind of process that the elongated effort will be worth it? Is it possible to integrate a devised process into our already busy development calendar? These will be the questions Flux will explore over the next year, inspired by the knowledge exchanged—and relationships deepened—through our NET/TEN grant activities with Touchstone Theatre.

FURTHER READING:

Touchstone, the First Visit - A blog post with reflections and questions from observing Touchstone's rehearsal process.

CONTACT INFORMATION:

Flux Theatre Ensemble - www.fluxtheatre.org/‎ 
August Schulenburg - gus@fluxtheatre.org or @GusSchulenburg

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Friday, August 9, 2013

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