Friday, May 27, 2011

The role of collaboration in artist development and community, sustainability

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heidi G. Grumelot.

To wrap up the week I wanted to talk a bit about the role of collaboration in artist development and community building. While our fundraising efforts for USM present an immediate sustainability issue (go to and donate $50 and we will love you forever), our community and the collaborations within it are our long term strategy for sustainability. 

Just this past Wednesday night I watched a storytelling and burlesque collaboration that looks like it is the beginnings of a very compelling and raw look at depression. And I know it all started because the artist hosts burlesque, is a storyteller, and was asked to guest host a certain storytelling show, and he liked the format so well he used it to create a new show. On top of all that they have an experience with depression that needs to be told…. maybe my summary of the process doesn’t do it justice. So instead of me blathering on, I interviewed three of our current Horse Trade Resident Artists, Miranda Huba, Killer Kelly Dwyer, and Seth Lind about their experiences collaborating. 

Playwright Miranda Huba is a member of our resident company Animal Parts. Her play Dirty Little Machine is currently running in the Red Room until June 4th.

Can tell me how you know Animal Parts?
I know Anthony and Nathan through the Canadian theatre community. By some weird twist of fate we all ended up in New York around the same time ready to make our careers as artists in the city. It's helpful that we all enjoy each others work and are wholeheartedly ready to support one another. 

How did the idea for this collaboration with Nathan and Anthony come about?
Nathan and Anthony asked me to write a play for their company. They had read and seen my work and wanted to impart their vision into my writing. I believe they were especially interested in the twisted comical nature of my work. I was more then happy to write something. Nathan is a wonderful director and really understands my writing. When you find those people you need to hold onto them. It's not everyday you meet someone who likes your work and wants to bring it to the next level. Anthony is also a wonderful dramaturge and is someone who is invested in making the script the best possible version that it can be.

What inspired Dirty Little Machine?
Two things: First I had an infuriating conversation once with someone about pornography. The argument was about underage porn, consent, etc. I remember being enraged but in the back of my mind knew that this conversation needed to be in a play. It was so raw, unedited and at the time I couldn't even share it with anyone because I was so upset. It was something I knew that would work on the stage. Also In the play the character of Jane speaks of a porn novel that she read as a young girl. This is based on a dirty novel I actually read. I knew that I wanted to explore the themes and complications of the novel. In Dirty Little Machine the story of the porn novel and Jane's relationship with her boyfriend run parallel to each other. I think it's a good example of how our fantasies, and unspoken desires, seep into our most intimate relationships. 

Was there anything about the development process of this piece that was unusual?
I did rewrites in the rehearsal room and was open to suggestions that Nathan made. Usually I am a little guarded about this. I like to keep the script as written and don't like to make changes when in the rehearsal room. I was at almost every rehearsal which was totally new for me. This actually worked out very well. I became open to making changes and was instantly able to solve problems in the script that take much longer to solve when you are sitting alone in front of your computer. As a writer you are extremely precious about your work, but theatre is a collaborative process. It becomes a collaboration in the rehearsal room and this is when really exciting things can happen - so it's best to be open.

What are some of the things you discovered in the rehearsal room that were not a part of the script you wrote? 
There were a lot of physical moments developed by the actors, Nathan and Anthony that really add to the story. Particularly one moment near the end of the play where Nathan asked the actors to do a physical bit that represents something that happens in the novel. A lot of people have asked me if this moment was something I wrote into the script. I didn't, but clearly its a powerful moment on stage.

What are you most pleased about with this project?
I am so happy with the ensemble! We have two wonderful actors who are so open and generous with difficult material. Nathan and Anthony have been so supportive of my work and elevated the work visually, stylistically, and dramaturgically. We have a Dirty Little Machine family and I'll be very sad when it's over. The thing is, I know that these are all people I will work with again. That excites me, when art breeds new collaborations.

Improv Artist, Storyteller, Host Seth Lind
He is a part of HT resident company ThankYou Robot that performs monthly a monthly improv show at USM every third Friday. He is also co-creator and host of TOLD a monthly themed storytelling show at USM every third Monday of the each month. 
Can you tell us about your improv team and your storytelling show?
Thank You, Robot is my improv team. We met taking classes at UCB and have been performing together for 4 1/2 years, which means we’re one of the oldest independent improv teams in NYC. Our number has dwindled a bit – we were eight and now we’re five – but we adore performing together and see no end in sight. We host a monthly show at Under St. Mark’s called Summer Fridays, with two guest teams. It’s basically a love fest where we try to feature brand new teams and great veterans of the improv scene. Long form improv – where you get a suggestion from the audience and craft an entire set around ideas stemming from the suggestion. The best moment of my month is when we take the stage for that show.

The storytelling show I host is called Told, produced by Heidi Grumelot and presented by Horse Trade. It’s also at Under St. Mark’s, which happens to be the best small theater space in the city, hands down. It’s a cozy room that makes everything on stage better and everyone in the audience feel at home. Told features four storytellers on a theme, with interludes performed by someone personally or professionally associated with the theme – a tarot reader doing mini readings for ‘The Crystal Ball,’ a public defender for ‘I Fought the Law,” an acrobat for “Trust Falls,” that kind of thing – plus I tell anecdotes from my little perch on the side of the stage. We feature the best performers from the local storytelling, comedy and theater scene, and make each evening unique by gluing the stories together with the interludes, which comment on the preceding story and bridge to the next. No microphone. No notes. Casual but carefully curated and produced. Zero publicity and always full. We’re proud of it.

How did you get into these different scenes?
I had a job as a writing tutor at John Jay College when I first moved to New York in 2001. I worked there for like three years. One of my co-workers was Negin Farsad, now a veteran comic and then an improv student at UCB. We would goof around at work and she encouraged me to take classes. I took one and enjoyed it, but I was really bad. Or just, too scared to let myself be good. And improv only works when you’re relaxed. I was pretty frustrated, so I quit. Four years later, I was in a job that was making me miserable and I needed an outlet, so I signed up for a level two class. I wondered if they’d even have a record of me taking level one class so many years before. But they did, and I started, and this time I got it. I had mellowed out enough to not be so terrified, and I got really into it. I took classes for the next two or three years, and met my teammates in an upper level class. We practiced for months with a coach before ever performing, and kept practicing weekly for years, doing shows here and there. Eventually we got our own show at Under St. Marks. We’re all much busier now with other shows and stuff, so we practice less. But the shows are always so fun.

The storytelling show started more randomly. I arrived at a Thank You, Robot show all tired, and the bartender asked me why I looked so exhausted. I explained that I had just ran from work to get there after a 12 hour day. She asked what job and I explained that I’m the production manager for the public radio show This American Life, and we put out our show on Fridays, the day of our improv show. The bartender – Heidi Grumelot – who would go on to become artistic director of Horse Trade and producer of Told, said that they had been thinking of doing a storytelling show and would I help them find people to be in it. I said sure, and basically just met as a consultant. I asked who was going to host and they said they weren’t sure, and I volunteered. I think in the beginning they had more of a theatrical monologue from scripts thing in mind, but it evolved into more straight storytelling with no notes, and the interlude idea developed naturally too. It’s been really fun to figure out what the show wants to be.

Obviously collaboration on an improv team is essential, how does the collaboration work, or is this a UCB trademarked idea?
Ha, no, certainly not a UCB trademarked idea. Improvisation is collaboration. Ideally you’re just reacting to the last thing your scene partner has said or done, reacting honestly to that to organically find out what is strange and therefore funny. Surest way to kill a scene is to go in with an idea of what should happen, or to ignore something that happens. The audience saw it, and you need to react to it. There are no mistakes. If you look at everything your scene partner does as a gift – no matter how surprising or how different from what you think ‘should’ happen – your scene will work.  There’s a rule in improv: “no arguing.” You can actually have a scene that’s ALL arguing, as long as you’re in total agreement on what you’re arguing about, instead of arguing about what the scene is about. Whenever you say no, it has to secretly mean “yes, I heard you, and here’s what I’m giving you.” And beyond individual scenes or even within our team, we collaborate with other improvisers to put on shows and get audiences to attend.

How does collaboration work within the storytelling scene? Obviously your collaboration with me with TOLD is completely perfect (except all those times we fight about what's gonna be in a show...)
People who come from other scenes like standup or even regular theater are often surprised at how supportive and familial the storytelling scene is. People go to each other’s shows, give each other notes, and are just generally really positive. I think because the art form is self-revelatory but less narcissistic than your average solo show or standup set, it builds respect between the performers, and between audience and performer. For a story to work you have to seem like a real, relatable person. The scene is really blossoming, with dozens of monthly storytelling shows in NYC. Half the storytellers host their own show, and are always looking for new folks. At Told we pride ourselves on having several people on every bill who have never done the show before, so it brings new people into the scene.

What's your best experience of a collaboration?
The best experience of collaboration is an improv scene that is really working. It’s effortless. You’re not trying at all, just reacting as a motivated character to what your partner is doing.  The audience is having fun because you’re having fun. There’s nothing quite like it. And you can’t point to why it sometimes hits and other times misses. It sometimes just works, and is pure joy. You feel sort of possessed but also completely in control, unhinged but calm. Totally in sync with another person, bouncing toward insanity, barely able to hear the laughter.


Comedian, Cabaret Host, and Leader of Kill the Band, Killer Kelly Dwyer
Alter Ego, Kill the Band, Glitterati, Penny’s Open Mic, miniFridge….in fact, where isn’t Kelly Dwyer.

Tell me about the work you do.

Wanting to combine my strengths of comedy, music and performance art, I began writing my own comedic music about 4 years ago using my computer and a loop machine.  Garageband was such an easy and willing collaborator and a great way to put music to the comedy and performance art I had been developing over the last couple of years.  My loop machine was a great and unique way to layer in different vocal sounds that mimicked instruments and sound effects.  It was me, myself and I back then and I still write my songs this way in the beginning stages, and still often perform solo using tracks, toys, my IPhone and my looper.  At some point though, I wanted more from my music.  What I was doing was working, but I wanted to take my unique yet catchy, comedy music to the next level.  I wanted to perform in regular rock venues and ambush people - catch audiences off guard with the comedy and theatrics while wowing them with killer, tight full band music.  I've found it hard in the past to work on projects I consider "mine" with other people because inherently, I do not trust people with my work....or my feelings.  But over the course of the prior 2 years I had been building close bonds and experiencing an amazing mental and communal collaboration of sorts with many people from Penny's Open Mic at USM Theater.  Joe Yoga and Mike Milazzo were POM regulars/forefathers and were the first two to become members of KILL THE BAND. With them it seemed like a natural progression from performing before or after one another at POM, to performing together as a team.  We pretty easily completed each other and had natural chemistry. We still needed a drummer, but I always felt like it was such a buzz kill having to drag a kit around and rehearse where a drum set was accessible.  Plus, I wanted a another unique element in the band so I brought in an incredible beatboxer whom I also met at POM to round out our sound.  The band had a good rookie run with that line-up including performing an original play I wrote for the Frigid festival in '10 about the band, starring the band featuring songs from our debut demo "Famous Baby".  But things were strained and something had to change.  Change is good.  Change promotes growth and just after winning the Audience Choice Award at the Frigid Fest, I "let go" our original beatboxer due to what they call in the biz: "artistic differences" (He didn't vibe on not being the star, nor dig the theatrics of the band, I didn't like his attitude or his brushes with the law).  Soon enough, through none other than Craigslist and a slew of auditions, I found our current beatboxer, Nick Fox and just after, discovered one of the KTB's biggest fans was a wicked sax player!  That was the easiest decision ever - to bring aboard Blair Frowner on Soprano Sax.  So that brings us to where we are and have been over the last year or so.  It's beautiful, but mostly it's hard.  It's beautiful because it's hard?  Hmm.  I am a difficult person to work with on many levels.  I am a bossy perfectionist but also have the attention span of a flea and limited "official" musical training.  I want songs automatically to be great and the work can often be tedious and annoying with compromises I feel obligated to make for the good of the whole.  I just wanna get to the stage.  I want to perform!  I wanna wear costumes and create an "experience"!!  I want it all and I want it now. (Did I mention i'm impatient?)  All this "what key is it in? and this is an augmented 9th chord is 4 measures before the key change" stuff sometimes gets on my nerves.  I want the band to be able to just do it.  Personalities clash.  One person feels left out and has their feelings hurt.  Somebody does something annoying like talk or move or blink when they aren't supposed to and I yell at them.  Scheduling rehearsals and gigs is a whole job in itself.  The band is like a family.  A very dysfunctional family full of artistic savants and I try to be a good mom to 4 rambunctious, sensitive boys.  I am so lucky that they stay and I think they feel lucky to be a part of something so unique and outrageous.  We rarely have real open fights but there is a pretty consistent underlying tension that probably helps to feed the complexity, comedy and magic that people witness at our shows.  We have found our places in the band.  When we begin a new piece, I play my Garageband version of something at rehearsal and sing a melody and each person starts riffing on that idea.  Everybody writes their own parts in the "workshop stage" and I'll be the first to admit: every one of my band members knows a ton more about the math of music than me.  They listen to me say: "I want it to go, ya know (snaps fingers) La-laaaaaaaaaaaa-bada-laaaaaaaaaa--uh-uh (smacks knee and stomps foot) 'Don't Attack me with your happiness...' and I want it to sound, you know sorta avant garde upbeat but sad but not sappy - happy sad, like a bubblegum blues dance tune - like that commercial for that high blood pressure medicine...."  And they, being the awesome band they are, figure out what the hell that means, and do it.  We found what works for us and it makes me - all of us, feel alive!  And that, is the spiritual connection that collaboration can elevate your work and your life to.  Collaboration is an art form in itself and if you can master or at least give in to it, your creative power can be endless.

When I look at the collaborating I do on my own personal projects, I have to admit:  I have to be in charge for it to work.  I am a leader, not a follower when it comes to the work, songs, pieces and shows I create.  If I am in someone's play or playing a role on TV or in a commercial or film, it is different.  I can be the most malleable, easy to work with, dream-of-a team player, direction taker, compromiser you ever met.   And don't me wrong, at heart I am the ultimate team player, but the very best way for me to be on the team, if it's my project, is for me to be the team leader (Read: I'll ask for your input or opinion if I want it).  Take for example my other baby, Alter Ego-Vaudeville Surreal.  Alter Ego is a variety show that celebrates alternative artists - I bring the underground, above ground and showcase hip-hop, modern and breakdance, burlesque, freak - anti folk and city music, alt comedy and sketch, comedy-music, performance art and puppets!!!   It's a ride of a show - a real journey and it takes a major amount of finesse to weave such different forms of art into a cohesive, two hour show with no rehearsal.  One minute you are watching a modern shapeshifting movement artist and the next you're being treated to masturbating puppet theater, then it's a dark couple of deep cuts by an anti-folk, street busker and next a rowdy, bawdy burlesque number followed by Jesus Christ: the stand up comic .  Balancing everything and filling the moments between is key.  Otherwise the ride can be bumpy and uncomfortable.  People like connectivity and are used to seeing all one thing:  a comedy show, or a rock show, or a dance recital or a play but I wanna throw it all at them and make it feel like a trip we all go on together.  After all, it's the journey, not the destination that matters, right?   Many of the performers I select for my show are people I have met (and trust) through my work with HT theater group - in fact, Alter Ego was initially started by a lovely gentleman I met one night after performing at "God Tastes Like Chicken" show at USM Theater where i was regular performer for it's entire two? year run.  I walked out after the show ended into the pouring rain to (somewhat unnervingly) have a man (James Rose) run after and stop me on the street.  Rain pouring down on us outside USM, asking if I might be interested in hosting/associate producing his show "Alter Ego"...and that he would PAY ME.  On gut instinct, I said yes but that he should talk to me tomorrow when I was dry and sober.  That was three years ago and we partnered on "Alter Ego" successfully for over two years until he moved on to other projects and left me in my favorite spot:  in complete control.  The show is flourishing and I take great pride have immense gratitude for the collaboration I do with 100's of artists to make that happen.

 Most people who end up working with me and continue to do so after one project, get it.  They joke that I'm bossy.  That I'm a diva,  That I'm a control freak and a perfectionist.  I am those things.  They will also tell you I work my ass off, am a consummate performer, lead by example, champion the artist, and am honest to a fault.  Collaborating has taught me a lot of deep truths about myself and other people.  Mostly that I expect out of others only what I expect from myself:  Perfection, or at the very least, you try your very best and learn from your mistakes.   

I'm working on 10 different projects right now but one of the nearest and dearest to my heart is my upcoming variety show that is part of this year's Mini Fridge Festival.  Having done MANY shows (possibly too many to count) with HorseTrade is a sure sign that they get me and I get them.  With HorseTrade, I know I can make anything happen and will have their complete support.  I was honored to be asked to co-produce the official cabaret of the festival and we've decided to call it Killy vs. Kanada (I told you they get me) The Canada part is a reference that the Mini-Fridge and HT are part of CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) and I am working with Canadian Jillian Thomas to create a killer cabaret with incredible acts and a fun, fitting finish to the Save USM fundraising campaign.  Without USM, I would not have found my voice.  No school could do what that theater has done for me.  USM/HT gave me the confidence, strength and support to not only believe in my alternative voice, but to pay it forward and become a role model and leader in experimental and unconventional performance arts.

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