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Okay Okay I’m Starting a Theatre Company

This is what the magic of Open Space looks like. Photo by Paul Whitlock

This is what the magic of Open Space looks like. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Every January for the last eleven years, Improbable Theatre has invited theatre makers to an open space event called Devoted & Disgruntled. Each year, they ask, “What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?” and 300 people gather to work on that question. Since my first London January, in 2014, I have kicked off my new year there, in a huge room full of new friends and some inspiring, challenging, electric conversations.

In 2014, it’s where I first met my current collaborators Guleraana Mir and Sharlit Deyzac, along with about a dozen others who shared their Third Culture stories and got involved in what has become Home is Where… a verbatim/movement/music performance by and about Third Culture Kids.

(More on that project here.)

It’s a great place if you have a specific question or issue you want to work on. It’s a great place if you don’t quite know what to do next. It’s a great place to meet new people and learn about what’s going on beyond your immediate network. This year, it was a great reason to visit Birmingham!

As always, I had some really interesting, abstract, socially-engaged, politically-charged, inspiring, mind-expanding conversations. (You can read the whole report, of what 250 people talked about over 3 days on the D&D website here.) And this year, I had a specific question that I asked my colleagues/friends/strangers for help with: do I need to start a company to make my work and pay my collaborators?

I’ve long suspected that in order to realise the ambitious pieces of work that I am dreaming of, I need the kind of support that individual artists just don’t have, certainly not “emerging” or even “mid-career” artists, or artists whose vision lies outside of the mainstream. I need a company. But I’ve also long held a deep resistance to that idea. I really wish there was another model, something in between being a precarious freelance individual artist and an artistic director bogged down with all the administration of a company.

I started a company in San Francisco, called Inkblot Ensemble, so I could make my work and not be dependent on anyone else to give me permission to be an artist. Four core members explored big ideas for three years, made two work-in-progress shows, and grew tremendously as artists. We grew in different directions, so by the time I was moving to London, we agreed to let the company dissolve.

Listening intently to some wisdom at D&D. Still wearing my Christmas jumper in January. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Listening intently to some wisdom at D&D. Still wearing my Christmas jumper in January. Photo by Paul Whitlock

I’m wary of starting up another company in that sense. I’m working with a wonderful team now, on Home is Where… but I don’t know if we’ll be the right collaborators for the next project, and the next, and the next. They each have other projects and ambitions they’re pursuing, too.

I’m wary of creating an artistic entity that’s separate from myself. It’s so much work to establish a name, a website, recognition among peers and potential collaborators. And what would be the identity of a company that is creating a verbatim Third Culture project, a reimagined Helen of Troy performance installation with accompanying solo show, AND a (still very nebulous in its early stages) neuroscience/astronomy theatre piece?

I’ve also been clinging to the idea that if I could “just find a producer” then I could be a precarious freelance individual artist, and it would be fine. But I’m not about to wait around for someone to come and save me from the hard work of getting a piece to the stage. I do need a producer, but until the right collaborator comes along, I’m going to keep making things happen my own way.

So, thank goodness for D&D, where I asked for help and people answered. It turns out that setting up a company in the UK is very different from the US models I’m familiar with. It turns out it’s a very good idea to separate myself as an individual legal entity from the legal entity responsible for the financial health of a production. It turns out that it’s a lot simpler than I thought, with a lot less heavyweight infrastructure. And it turns out that there’s a one-day course in how to get started, run by the Independent Theatre Council. I’ve booked on.

Okay, okay, I’m starting a theatre company.

Declaring my intentions for action at the end of the final day. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Declaring my intentions for action at the end of the final day. Oozing gratitude for the generosity of my fellows. Photo by Paul Whitlock

The next step: what is it going to be? I don’t want to separate myself as an artist from the identity of the company – its purpose is to facilitate my work. I’m getting over my feelings of arrogance, selfishness, and guilt around wanting to create something so focused on ME. It feels so antithetical to the collaborative nature of my work. But I’m looking at artists like Bryony Kimmings, Young Jean Lee, and Pina Bausch, who lead companies which facilitate their collaborative work. Why NOT Amy Clare Tasker Theatre Company? Hmm. Something’s not quite right about that. What if I want to make something that’s not “theatre”?

Why not Amy Clare Tasker Performance Lab Ltd? A fluid collective of artists led by Amy Clare Tasker, telling stories to change the world. Third Culture Kids, Helen of Troy, and Brains & Space are first up, then who knows?

Right now, this could mean I can apply for more funding from more varied sources, pay my collaborators, hire a producer, make things happen faster. In the future, it could mean anything; I’d love to set up regular Lab time, to get together with other artists interested in the beginnings of an idea, to facilitate one-off workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring and skill sharing sessions, and to work towards the big, ambitious productions I’m dreaming of. Watch this space.

Thank goodness for D&D. Watch that space, too. If you’ve never been, do check them out. There are events throughout the year, as well as the annual 3-day brain-melting wonder-fest each January.

PlayList: March 2014

The GAP Salon was particularly busy this month!  What a blast we had at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival and the Etcetera Theatre’s first annual Womens’ Week!

1982259_668942846503082_1671374874_nWOW Party at the Southbank Centre. GAP Salon partnered with Female Arts and the So and So Arts Club to throw a “WOW Party” with a variety of performances by women. Programming this event was a really interesting challenge, putting out an open call with no formal theme, beyond a desire for a celebratory feel and diverse representation, on an incredibly short timeline. I’m so proud of the way the evening turned out, and the wonderful artists I had the pleasure to invite to perform. The event was also a chance to bring out an excerpt from The Helen Project, working with director Sharon Burrell and performer Angela Bull for the first time – which led to an invitation from the Lost Theatre to submit a proposal for their Face to Face solo theatre festival this July (details on those upcoming performances here). International Women’s Day at its best: shining a spotlight on women for a day so their work can develop throughout the year.

Bite The Apple at the Etcetera Theatre. GAP Salon members Kate Baiden and Victoria Otter spearheaded this showcase of six scenes featuring juicy roles for female actors, inspired by Lucy Kerbel’s book 100 Great Plays for Women. Between the two performances, Victoria moderated a fascinating panel discussion with Wendy Thomson (Female Arts), Rebecca Dunn (Fluff Productions), and Melissa Dunne (XY Festival), and me! I had such a great time talking about feminist theatre with these thoughtful and well-spoken advocates. Just putting this out there: I would love to do more panels.

Bridget Christie: A Bic for Her at the Soho Theatre. After missing Bridget’s sold-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, at Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down Dear festival, and at her Soho run earlier this year, I finally caught her delightful, daring, pointed stand-up feminism. I’m looking forward to her next show, An Ungrateful Woman, at this year’s Fringe. According to her website, “At the moment, it is about Michael Gove, media language, my disastrous and ridiculous casting for a yoghurt advert, a case of mistaken identity and some other things that look too awful written down so I’m not going to tell you about them until you’re locked in a room with me.You’ll just have to trust me.” More details here.

Prickly sensation … Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves in The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court.The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court. This was the GAP Salon’s second group theatre trip, with the added bonus of a pre-show discussion with Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, and playwrights Abi Morgan (The Mistress Contract) and Nick Payne (Blurred Lines) talking about the current rebirth of feminist theatre, and feminism in general. The Mistress Contract flashes back from the present over a 30-year relationship, and the conversation between the audience and the panel focused heavily on what has changed in that time, with some taking a much more optimistic view than others. I was so impressed by Vicky Featherstone’s candidness about her renewed focus on feminist theatre, having done feminist work at university, then less “controversial” work as she got her career going, now returning to feminism as the artistic director of the Royal Court. I’m quoting from my notes, so this may not be exactly what she said, but I’m going to tape it to my forehead anyway: “In the quest for power, we lose the confidence to speak our minds.” I dearly hope that this, at least, has changed. I’m behaving as though it has, aiming to build a career as an overtly feminist theatre maker. This feels difficult, but possible, in the current culture of feminism-is-trendy-but-watch-out-for-Twitter-trolls. Ms Featherstone, I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for paving the way.

SPRINT festival at Camden People’s Theatrejourney round my skull: Lady GoGo Gough and A Journey Round My Skull. Lady GoGo Gough is something I would never have seen in San Francisco: a woman exploring her heritage by singing in Welsh in a solo show that was funny, earnest, silly, sexy, beautiful – and only slightly impenetrable to a non-Welsh speaker. In A Journey Round My Skull, the solo performer spoke to the audience as if we were her patient, suffering from auditory hallucinations which were reproduced through individual wireless headphones. As she moved around a glowing blue head onstage, removing our collective tumor,  her voice seemed to travel around my own head as if I were under the knife. Technically impressive, stylishly designed, and a beautiful meditation on the wonders of the brain. Keep an eye on Kindle Theatre.

The Husbands at Soho Theatre. Sharmila Chauhan’s bold new play imagines an India in which women have become so scarce that they marry multiple husbands. There’s an interesting idea trying to emerge here, but it gets lost in a three-hour meandering script that is trying to tell too many stories at once. The central character, a visionary woman who has created her own polygamous utopia (which isn’t quite perfect yet), is potentially fascinating. I hope Kali Theatre pursues another production, along with some dramaturgical support to find what the piece is really about.

Trojan Barbie at Kings College London. This play began life at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, where I was general manager for three years. But since it was on stage before my time, the most I ever saw of it was in photos on the lobby wall. That plus the Helen of Troy connection, and of course I’m in the audience. The play transposes the Trojan Women – Hecuba, Andromache, Iphegenia, Cassandra, Polyxena, Helen – into a universal any-recent-war-you-can-think-of setting. It’s very clever, held together by the story of a British doll enthusiast who goes on holiday and is kidnapped, throwing her into the world of a modern war camp. I was disappointed, though, that even this feminist retelling paints Helen as a slutty, dolled up idiot who happily flirts with guards to get aspirin. Once again, her sex appeal becomes a character trait instead of a survival tactic. Well, that’s why The Helen Project exists.

goyaI’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of my Sleep than Some Other Arsehole at the Gate TheatreWHAT WAS THAT? A new Spanish play, freshly translated into English, Rodrigo Garcia’s Goya is full of delight, nihilism, and frantic attempts at living. And live pigs – who, as it happens, are excellent performers. They’re not as eloquent, of course, as the dynamic Steffan Rhodri, but their presence lends itself to moments of sublime serendipity; early in the performance I saw, Rhodi delivered a particularly dry observation about the futility of life, and one of the pigs grunted in agreement. With stylish design, driven direction, and a volatile central performance, this is once of the most thrilling pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year.


The Count

7 male / 54 female actors

2 male / 13 female directors

2 male/ 20 female writers

Counting each director and writer in multi-piece International Women’s Day showcases.

Editing Helen

megan helen mask closeup

Megan surrounded by just a fraction of the text-in-progress for The Helen Project.

It’s been a while since I last gushed about the sublime insanity of collaborating with Megan Cohen on The Helen Project. We’ve been pretty busy gearing up for our developmental workshop at DIVAfest this May. In the last couple of months, we’ve revised our notion of who/when our five Helens are, tried out a few different approaches to performance styles with some delightfully adventurous women in an Actor Laboratory Day, had some epic meetings with our fabulous dramaturg Maura Halloran, thrown out entire sections of text that won’t fit in this iteration of the piece (with a greater sympathy for others who have tried to tame this unwieldy story before us – and with every intention of coming back to that mess of complexity in the post-workshop editing phase), cast five superb actors Misti Rae Boettiger, Sarah Moser, Ariane Owens, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, and Lily Yang, found a wonderful stage manager Julianne Fawsitt, scheduled rehearsals, taken some press photos at the Palace of Fine Arts between rain drops… and we’ve drunk a lot of tea. Tea is essential to our process.

Any one of those things could be an entire blog post. But in the interest of writing a current update ever again, that glossy summary is all you get. You can find more info on the Helen page of the DIVAfest website.

This photo is from a two-day intensive in the middle of February. Megan and I spent the entire weekend laying out more than a hundred fragments of text, one Helen at a time, putting 2-3 pieces together (and sometimes 8) into one larger piece that would be trimmed and reworked into something a larger. The goal was to reduce the number of movable parts in the Build-Your-Own-Helen Play Kit – and also to get the repetition of ideas under control. And also to remember what the hell we’d written over the last three years. Three years, you guys.

From there, we divvied up pieces that each of us would edit, and put those in the hands of actors for a few hours at our Laboratory Day. In three groups, we tried out different staging ideas, different rules of Helen’s world: can she hear the other Helens? Is she truly alone and isolated? Can each version of Helen only hear the Helens in her past? We learned a lot about our text, how long we want to listen to one person talking, how each Helen’s voice and perspective is different, and how The Face might start to fit into this world. Very special thanks to everyone who loaned us their brains and hearts that day:  El Beh, Misti Rae Boettiger, Kirsten Broadbear, Fontana Butterfield, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Maura Halloran, Allene Hebert, Heather Kellog, Luna Malbroux, Rami Margon, Ariane Owens, Annie Paladino, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, and Lily Yang.

Following the Laboratory, we’ve had some incredible dramaturgical meetings, rethinking the entire editing process (you take Helen 3 and 4, I’ll take Helen 2 and 5, see you in a couple of weeks), and taking a stab at building a trial edition of the Play Kit with post-it notes on Maura’s living room wall. (Frequent readers: I bet you could make up a drinking game with this blog and how many times I mention post-it notes. Enough times to give them their own tag, but that would make the game too easy.)

And now, with less than a month before we start rehearsals, what’s next? Burning through the rest of the editing, putting together a grab bag of found text fragments for The Face, hypothesizing some rules for the Kit, and building the First Edition of the text for the May 10 & 11 performances. Plus, starting this weekend, bouncing over to something completely different for a week: an experiment in how to make live theatre online via Google+ Hangout with local collaborators and an ensemble in New York City. Because why would I try out ridiculously complicated new ways of making a play just one at a time?

(r)evolving Images

Megan and I are getting pretty excited about our upcoming workshop of The Helen Project at DIVAfest this May! One of the many things on our to-do list – along with assembling our creative team, budgeting, brainstorming on the form and functionality of the “online interactive CyberJourney” and you know, continuing to write, edit, and create rules for the Play Kit – is figuring out how to talk to “real people” about the piece. Having begun work on this sucker nearly three years ago, it’s a real mental stretch to read our descriptions as if we know nothing about The Helen Project.

Last night, we sat in a Mission cafe for three long hours (no kidding) and came up with three very short paragraphs that explain what the heck we’re doing. It was exhausting and invigorating; we’ve come such a long way with Helen and it feels so satisfying to really get down to the essence of what the piece is becoming.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a blog post using the image of a disco ball to describe our process of “collecting little bits that reflect something interesting, and sooner or later hoping it will assemble itself into a shape.” Last night, we picked up and discarded a number of similarly visual metaphors: portraits, mosaics, snapshots in an attempt to get “the whole picture” of who Helen is.

Finally we stumbled over the image of a kaleidoscope, and (after looking up how to spell it), everything clicked into place. I love this new image; it conjures a playfulness and curiosity along with a very directed view through lenses and mirrors. It honors the complexity and sophistication of the structure of the piece, as well as its randomness. Best of all, it captures the ever-changing view of Helen as the kaleidoscope turns. And for bonus points, the word is Greek, meaning “beautiful form to see.”

Interestingly, both disco balls and kaleidoscopes are basically cleverly-arranged mirrors – which has a lot in common with theatre, in a way. (read more about how kaleidoscopes work)

Here’s the new description:

The Helen Project zooms in and out of the bedroom and the mind of the most beautiful woman in the world. Creators Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker will test their new Build-Your-Own-Helen Play Kit, constructing two different editions of the modular text to be performed over two weekends at DIVAfest.

Images of Helen from Homer and Goethe, from modern poetry, and even ripped from the headlines of our contemporary tabloids turn in a kaleidoscope of original and found text. We glimpse fleeting portraits of this mythic woman as each edition twists the mirrors to reflect a new Helen.

Like the text, Helen herself is fragmented. Five women – all Helen – crowd a bedroom, each making a decision that will change her life. Five Helens look into a mirror, asking, “is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

Zeitgeisty Fragment Stuff

2012 has been a year of fragmentation, as I rearranged my life with a new job and new theatrical communities.

I’ve realized, too, that my artistic work has been in fragments lately:

  • Since February, Megan Cohen and I have been putting together our “Build Your Own Helen Play Kit,” made of fragments of identity, narrative, history, feminism, and epic poetry. (Check it out in May 2013 at DIVAfest!)
  • From June to November, The Strindberg Cycle kept me hopping among five plays that were part of a greater whole. Yes, I was astonished to discover that something so mammoth could also be fragmented.
  • In August, I worked with The Collaboratory to devise a new physical-theatre piece inspired by Lorca’s Yerma. The ensemble highlighted moments and ideas that appealed to them, and I took it all home to (re)arrange the script with some measure of cohesion out of those responses.
  • My play Phoebe & Theia was read last week at the SF Olympians Festival, structured around the Titans’ mythical fall to Tartarus. According to Hesiod, a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus. So the play was written in 18 fragments – and my writing process was fragmented, too, sneaking in an hour here and there between work and rehearsal for most of the last 5 months.
  • This week, I am directing for the One Minute Play Festival. I’ve got 10 plays to put together and cast however I please – it’s like a mini repertory project, and so fascinating to see how the plays resonate with each other, even though their authors may never have even met. My 10 plays are part of the larger festival, presenting 70 one-minute plays in one evening of theatre. Dominic D’Andrea, OMPF’s artistic director, describes the performance as 70 “pulses” of moments, brief windows into other worlds. The festival aims to reflect what is happening in the local theatre community here and now.

And now, at the end of 2012, I am doing what many news organizations and radio stations are doing: looking back on the last 12 months/52 weeks/365 days/525,600 minutes and trying to see those fragmented moments as somehow part of a larger whole, trying to find some cohesion in the chaos. Here in the age of Twitter, Google calendar, and compartmentalization, we all have too many balls in the air, we’re taught to break a problem into smaller parts to better see its solution, and we are living fragment to fragment.

Though I didn’t set out to respond to this phenomenon, I’m pretty pleased to discover this thread running through my work. As my delightful collaborators Annie Paladino and Megan Cohen put it last night, it’s “zeitgeisty.”

To Conquer Greece Again

Megan and I are pulling together found text for the incarnation of Helen we’ve come to call “The Face,” who speaks only in language handed down to her through the ages from epic poetry to contemporary academia. This poem is a contender for one of these found text Odes.

Helen of Troy
by Sara Teasdale, 1911

Wild flight on flight against the fading dawn
The flames’ red wings soar upward duskily.
This is the funeral pyre and Troy is dead
That sparkled so the day I saw it first,
And darkened slowly after. I am she
Who loves all beauty — yet I wither it.
Why have the high gods made me wreak their wrath —
Forever since my maidenhood to sow
Sorrow and blood about me? Lo, they keep
Their bitter care above me even now.
It was the gods who led me to this lair,
That tho’ the burning winds should make me weak,
They should not snatch the life from out my lips.
Olympus let the other women die;
They shall be quiet when the day is done
And have no care to-morrow. Yet for me
There is no rest. The gods are not so kind
To her made half immortal like themselves.
It is to you I owe the cruel gift,
Leda, my mother, and the Swan, my sire,
To you the beauty and to you the bale;
For never woman born of man and maid
Had wrought such havoc on the earth as I,
Or troubled heaven with a sea of flame
That climbed to touch the silent whirling stars
And blotted out their brightness ere the dawn.
Have I not made the world to weep enough?
Give death to me. Yet life is more than death;
How could I leave the sound of singing winds,
The strong sweet scent that breathes from off the sea,
Or shut my eyes forever to the spring?
I will not give the grave my hands to hold,
My shining hair to light oblivion.
Have those who wander through the ways of death,
The still wan fields Elysian, any love
To lift their breasts with longing, any lips
To thirst against the quiver of a kiss?
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again,
To make the people love, who hate me now.
My dreams are over, I have ceased to cry
Against the fate that made men love my mouth
And left their spirits all too deaf to hear
The little songs that echoed through my soul.
I have no anger now. The dreams are done;
Yet since the Greeks and Trojans would not see
Aught but my body’s fairness, till the end,
In all the islands set in all the seas,
And all the lands that lie beneath the sun,
Till light turn darkness, and till time shall sleep,
Men’s lives shall waste with longing after me,
For I shall be the sum of their desire,
The whole of beauty, never seen again.
And they shall stretch their arms and starting, wake
With “Helen!” on their lips, and in their eyes
The vision of me. Always I shall be
Limned on the darkness like a shaft of light
That glimmers and is gone. They shall behold
Each one his dream that fashions me anew; —
With hair like lakes that glint beneath the stars
Dark as sweet midnight, or with hair aglow
Like burnished gold that still retains the fire.
Yea, I shall haunt until the dusk of time
The heavy eyelids filled with fleeting dreams.

I wait for one who comes with sword to slay —
The king I wronged who searches for me now;
And yet he shall not slay me. I shall stand
With lifted head and look within his eyes,
Baring my breast to him and to the sun.
He shall not have the power to stain with blood
That whiteness — for the thirsty sword shall fall
And he shall cry and catch me in his arms,
Bearing me back to Sparta on his breast.
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again!

Helen’s Torch Song

Megan and I have been diving deep into researching the iconic Helen of Troy, the figure we immediately think of when we hear that famous line, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” We’ve been reading Homer, Marlowe, Goethe, Poe, Tennyson, and yes, Wikipedia. We’ve also discovered some wonderful modern poetry by Sara Teasdale and Margaret Atwood.

Here’s one we’re obsessed with at the moment:

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
by Margaret Atwood

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

Collective Consciousness – or having the same good idea as someone in 1778

I’ve been doing some image research, looking at neo-classical representations of Helen, and today I came across this:

Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy, by Angela Kauffman 1778

“According to the Roman author Pliny, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis could not find a woman beautiful enough to represent Helen of Troy, the archetype of the feminine beauty, so he picked the best features of five virgins to compose the most ideal image of beauty.” Thanks to the blog Sedef’s Corner, which hosts what seems to be the only digital image of this painting readily available on all the Internets.

WHAT! That is a lot like what Megan and I are doing, or maybe it’s the inverse of what we’re doing – constructing a new vision of Helen by drawing on five different aspects of the character and personifying them in the bodies, minds, and mouths of five real women.

Fast forward a couple of millenia to 1778, when Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman created this image of the painter Zeuxis measuring and dissecting his five models, picking apart their best features to construct his own Helen of Troy. My favorite part of Kauffman’s version is that one of the models has taken up a brush and is about to sneakily render her own version of Helen. (Take that, patriarchy!)

I’m blown away by the power of collective consciousness – it’s amazing that thousands of years ago, Zuexis could have the idea to construct an aesthetic (if objectifying) ideal out of the best parts of women, and that 234 years ago Angelica Kauffman could have the idea to comment on that construction, and that right now this minute Megan and I are having ideas about constructing a new reality out of that ancient ideal, and/or a new ideal out of reimagining Helen’s reality… I can’t wait to see what happens when we get our build-your-own Helen up on the Internet for the world to construct with us!

Okay, what’s next?

I’m back from Directors Lab West! Helen of Troy is back! My days of hyper-dreaming with the brilliant Megan Cohen are back!

Every Saturday in June, Megan and I are back in our strange, surreal Helen-land, in which all things are possible and we’re going to take over the world. No kidding, it’s true. I am constantly amazed by how productive we are without even the hint of a roadmap. We met up for a delicious brunch on Saturday morning (inspiration covered in ketchup is the very best kind of inspiration), and by the time we’d finished our eggs, we had figured out a radical model of sharing this crazy new play so that director-dramaturgs of future productions would be constructing Helen just as much as we are, with our disco-ball moments organized into specific fragmented versions of Helen that can be played by 1 to 100 actors. Instead of publishing a script, we’ll make the construct-your-own-Helen-of-Troy PLAY KIT available online under a creative commons license. Every time I turn around, this thing gets even more out-of-the-box. I am so jazzed!

When we finished our tea and coffee, then we really got down to business. We never have a “plan,” but just asking “okay, what’s next” generates hours of incredible productivity. Between 11AM and 6PM, we reinvented our producing and publishing model, brainstormed on the online interactive component of the piece, dreamt about a 3-city simultaneous world premiere (12PM San Francisco, 3PM New York, 8PM London, all the time online everywhere oh my gods), and waded through about half of the 170 little bits of disco-ball text we’ve generated, beginning to structure the script into these 5 fragmented Helen characters (oh yeah, which we also defined that afternoon).

Who knows what we’re doing next time, but I bet it will be revolutionary.

Also coming up:

  • Dirty Laundry, a coproduction between Inkblot Ensemble and The Collaboratory. I’m directing this devised physical theater piece based on Federico García Lorca’s laundrywomen scene in Yerma, exploring themes of gossip, cycles, clean & dirty, sin & purity, and women’s work. August 10 & 11 work in progress performances at the EXIT Theatre.
  • Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Repertory at The Cutting Ball Theater. I’m assistant directing these five plays (Storm, Burned House, Ghost Sonata, Pelican, The Black Glove) under Artistic Director Rob Melrose. We’re workshopping the new translations by Paul Walsh this June/July in RISK IS THIS…The Cutting Ball New Experimental Plays Festival, and you can catch the full production in October and November. This will be the first time the five Chamber Plays have been produced together in any language, including their original Swedish.
  • The San Francisco Olympians Festival is coming this December to the EXIT Theatre. If that feels far away, you can catch a few snippets on Friday, June 15 at Booksmith, where we’ll be celebrating the book launch of five published plays from the first year of the Olympians Festival. I’m writing a one-act about Phoebe & Theia, the Titan goddesses of light, and I’ll be directing Barbara Jwanouskos’ take on Hera later in the festival, too.

A Map of Helen’s Mind

Megan and I made a map so we wouldn't get lost inside our minds...