By Heidi Coleman
While attempting to write a love letter in middle school I discovered the limits of language, or at least of nouns, love being at the top of the list of the deeply problematic and highly reductive. All the feelings, the energetic messiness, the profoundness of my unique angst could not be scooped into letters. Perhaps my frustration with language led me to the continual staging of the ephemeral, the immersive experience of engagement. While devised work extends beyond a four-letter word, I resent the reductive limits only slightly less than my fifth-grade self; and yet, for a process to extend beyond the temporal, we are left to our clumsy linguistics. Chicago currently delights me in Wittgenstein’s language game of pointing to the thing in the attempt to create shared definition, as numerous performance companies actively wrestle with the process of making work.
I am equally thrilled to be reunited with old friends and past colleagues. At the time that I first discovered Wittgenstein in the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to be in graduate school with the current online editor of Theatre Topics, Peter Campbell. While we lost touch with each other over the decades (Facebook stalking notwithstanding), our dedication to new work development never lost connection, and it was his interest in Chicago’s contribution to the momentum of devised work that prompted our reconnection and led to these interviews.
The companies collected here are representative of the processes that metabolize in a productive friction of self-definition. “We are part of a movement in need of a better vocabulary!” Walkabout artistic directors Kendra Miller and Thom Pasculli proclaim for themselves and us. “To sculpt something from nothing,” Nathan Allen, artistic director of The House Theatre, describes, “to give form and function from the assembly of intangible assets.” Some companies like Manual Cinema cross media while retaining a “writerly” process. New Colony holds early collaborative workshops with actors creating distinct characters “trusting that the story to be told is bigger than any one artist in the room,” while maintaining a central role for the writer. Lucky Plush Productions’ founder and artistic director Julia Rhoads describes the company’s process as “hinging on our collaborative commitment to generating authentic experiences through action and impulse,” and commits to extensive development through residencies and intensives. Sean Graney’s approach with The Hypocrites is “to borrow the wonderfully collaborative elements of a devised process and apply it to a prewritten script . . . to craft a beautiful physical and visual landscape.”
To say that I am in love with the work of these artists, of the wrestling with the energy in Chicago, would be circular, in that it has no end and only occasional angst. The shared traits of what we can clumsily label devised work include the agency of performer, the presence of designers from the inception of an idea through development, the melding of positions, the rehearsal room as laboratory, with investment into developmental processes. A better vocabulary will be created through the diversity of self-definitions, of the actions of the work and not the descriptors. Admittedly, I am consistently biased against nouns.
Chicago Performance Lab
The Chicago Performance Lab (CPL, formerly Summer Inc.) began out of a desire to extend a Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS) nurturing environment to Chicago’s professional performance community. Recognizing the importance of hospitality, particularly in a moment when acute economic pressures challenge process because basic expenses make the creation of new work more of a conceptual wish than a pragmatic reality, we invite companies into our artistic home. Selected developments represent the city’s boldness in its creative approaches, frequently termed devised work, that have been demonstrated through projects of solo performance, clown adaptations, dance, and multimedia work. All of the new work developed reflected the University of Chicago’s commitment to interdisciplinary collaborations.
As much as possible, we try to provide beyond what is needed, to shift from a defending of territory or scarcity model to a “how many projectors is too many?” modality. The residency includes a small stipend for any new or established theatre company or organization looking to develop a new work or existing piece that needs more time to mature and has an intended performance date. An exclusive performance lab, as well as access to scene, costume, and media shops with various technical, administration, and student assistance as needed, is provided.
The summer of 2014 marked the beginning of a unique partnership between The House Theatre of Chicago and TAPS with a three-year residency to develop work in July for the following season. Dedicated to staging the impossible through a ruthless commitment to the development of stagecraft, this relationship brings the artists of The House with the scholars and students of the university in a black-box theatre to defy the boundaries of theory and practice. Attentive to the works of performance in Chicago that cannot be contained in a theatre, CPL has also connected with Salonathon Presents (http://www.salonathon.org/), under the curation of Jane Beachy, to develop three new mixed-media works.
Past work developed in residency is reflected in the artistic visions of the companies in following notes from the field of process, and they represent the surge that Chicago is currently experiencing in approaches to new work creation. Sean Graney’s twelve-hour All Our Tragic, three approaches to Moby Dick by The House Theater, Lookingglass Theater, Blair Thomas and Company, Manual Cinema’s Lula Del Ray, and Cinderbox by Lucky Plush Productions represent the range in work from the past and help set a standard for the future. For more on CPL, see https://arts.uchicago.edu/theater-and-performance-studies/chicago-performance-lab.