Studies in Chekhov:
by Jeremy M. Barker
Revealing Process with WaxFactorys PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!
The question of “process” is increasingly fundamental to contemporary performing arts, if for no other reason than its absence from the discourse around performance seems so out of sync with the investment of time and labor it requires. Whereas the visual arts have for some years embraced various explorations of “process”—the presentation of apparently “incomplete” works that reveal the practice involved in their material realization—in the performing arts, even among the experimental or progressive artists working in multi-disciplinary theater and dance, process remains hidden; the art is understood only as the resultant product—the means by which it was produced of apparent interest only to scholars, those interested to know “how it was done.”
The question of process, however, is anything but purely academic. In the U.S., arts funding remains focused on the presentation of final product—a sort of Fordist arts model, which rewards the ability to efficiently bring a work to stage. But for artists who devise performance work, whose practice is a matter of research and discovery, the “process” is a large and costly undertaking, the hidden nature of which obscures the actual work that goes into realizing a piece at the same time that it slows that process down.
“I often hear one of two things,” the director Ivan Talijancic said recently. “It’s either, ‘Oh! It’s great to hear you’re having a show! I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve never seen your work!’ Or—I remember someone saying this to me a few years ago when we were working at PS 122—I ran into someone and said, ‘I’m having a show,’ and they were like, ‘That’s great! The last piece of yours I saw was like three years ago.’ And I got irritated because I’m working all the time, and then I started thinking about it, and I realized, yeah, the last show I did in New York was three years before.”
PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!, a long-term performance project by WaxFactory, the company Talijancic co-founded with Erika Latta, has emerged as an attempt to grapple with the challenges presented by the laborious and under-funded process of creating devised work—with the latest, third iteration of the project, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! #montage study, showing at the 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center (3LD) in Lower Manhattan. Described as “an ongoing series of open-studio presentations,” PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! is both a series of studies, revealing the company’s research as it goes through the process of creating a new, large-scale theatrical presentation, as well as a collective performance in its own right.
The story of how all this came about began almost a decade ago, when Talijancic dreamed about an elaborate theatrical production. “The thing that I saw was a very large set,” he recalled in a recent interview, “kind of like a box that was two stories high, with various openings for windows and doors—nothing pictorial, more abstract. And it was made out of soft, padded materials. So a lot of the interactions between characters were very physical, sometimes very aggressive, but definitely charged and very sexual. An overt physical and sexual charge to the piece.”
Waking up the next morning, Talijancic was provoked by the images he’d dreamt and eventually realized that the show he’d seen was a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The play was familiar to Talijancic, as it would be to most theater makers, and in short order he fit together the disparate images he’d dreamt with the text.
An idea began to gestate. Although Talijancic still, by default, refers to the production he imagined in his sleep (which he readily admits is almost ridiculous) as something other than his own, he began to envision how to actually realize a production inspired by these images. He mentioned it soon after to his collaborator Erika Latta, co-founder and co-artistic producer of WaxFactory. WaxFactory, about to enter its third decade of producing work, is a busy company, yet the scale of the production Talijancic had imagined was prohibitive. Among other things, it requires a grand, classical style proscenium stage of the sort not normally available to experimental artists. So for some years, the idea of trying to realize the production remained on the backburner.
Every so often, though, Latta would mention it to Talijancic. And eventually—prodded by her inquiries—he began to allow his thinking on the matter to change. Fundamentally, the complete realization of the piece remained prohibitively complicated, but he began to question his own reticence to tackle the content.
“How about if I shift the thinking?” he said of his approach. “And my way of shifting the obstacle was to say, ‘Let’s just start working on it without a deadline.’ Whenever we have a pocket of time or a residency or a grant, let’s take on some aspect of it, work on it, and share it.”
Thus the idea for PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! was born. Rather than waiting for the right combination of money and opportunity to come together, the company would launch into work on the show one step at a time. Instead of waiting for the chance to present a “finished” piece, they’d debut it step-by-step, with each research-intensive period leading to a concrete presentation.
The first opportunity arose in late 2014. Gillian Chadsey, who Talijancic had already mentally cast in the piece, was offered a spot in Brooklyn’s The Brick Theater’s “Tiny Theater” series, a residency/performance program in which artists develop and present a ten-minute short in a constrained space (6’ x 6’ x 6’) in the already small theater.
Talijancic had conceptualized PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! as a sort of series of “studies,” borrowing the term from the notion of visual artists—classical painters and sculptors, particularly—who created drafts exploring specific elements of a given piece before tackling the thing itself. In his mind, the project would begin with character-focused studies, in which a given performer would develop and devise the dimensions of her character. Then the studies would proceed to interpersonal studies, in which the focus would be on how characters interacted with one another.
While the studies were consciously framed as their own collective performance series (part of the obligation, in Talijancic’s concept, was the requirement that each be publicly presented), he made clear that this was not the same thing as seeing the whole in pieces. Rather, he stressed that much of the series of studies could be framed as “out-takes,” material productive to realizing the whole but ultimately absent from the final piece: an inspiration, or a learning process, but not the thing it itself.
In the version of The Seagull that Talijancic imagined, Chekhov’s story of late-imperial, Russian provincial woes has been fast-forwarded to the present. “I feel like, with Chekhov, there’s a tendency to focus on where it comes from,” he said. “Turn-of-the-century Russia, bourgeois circumstances, samovar and tea. It ends up being relegated to this world very distant from us.” WaxFactory’s version is contemporary, set in the hyper-capitalist world of New York City, and Gillian Chadsey—the performer at the heart of the first study—is similarly modernized. Her character, re-named Shoshana, is based on that of Shamrayev, the beleaguered family-man and estate manager in Chekhov’s original. In addition to queering and changing the gender of the character, Talijancic sought to update her role, recasting her as a high-end real estate agent in the Hamptons.
Giving himself the freedom to explore the character alone for the first study, Talijancic proceeded to follow a development path fairly familiar to WaxFactory—the company doesn’t produce playscripts in the typical sense but rather devises work through a rigorous process involving movement, characterization, and design. The study permitted Talijancic, as director in collaboration with designers and the performer, to generate and explore material in a way that was productive for Chadsey’s character without the requirement it be part of a finished product. Talijancic felt the important thing was for Chadsey to know who her character was, to have a baseline for how to react and interact.
The second and third studies happened some months later, at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center in June 2015. A two-scene presentation, this version of PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! extended logically from the first part, casting and exploring Chadsey’s character’s partner (“Paulette,” inspired by Chekhov’s “Polina” and performed by Melody Bates) and daughter (“Marsha” in WaxFactory’s version, played by Erika Latta). While the two visually and design-intensive scenes were essentially independent of one another, the first stirrings of character interaction took place.
A very minor character from Chekhov’s text, an unnamed maid, explored in the study by Kestrel Leah, emerged as an important character in the company’s adaptation. Recast as a Polish immigrant maid named “Agnieszka,” the character that emerged from the collaborative process was more fleshed out and dynamic than in Chekhov’s original.
This productive interaction inspired Talijancic to more fully tackle the dynamics between characters in the most recent study. Subtitle #montage study, it focuses on these interactions by filling out the dynamics between the Shanrayev family and, at the same time, adding a new character: the version of “Medvedenko,” the teacher (the character’s modernized name will be developed as part of the process), played by Todd Peters. The study will be developed over a week-long intensive residency at 3LD, permitting WaxFactory to bring together their entire creative team assembled so far—including video designer Antonio Giacomin and sound designer Yiannis Christofides—over half of whom do not live in New York.
As a whole, the project the company has undertaken is remarkable for how it shifts the way in which collaborators ask the audience to engage with the work. Previously, I was engaged by a dance/performance company from Seattle, zoe|juniper, to document a similar process for creating a work (BeginAgain, which played in New York at Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of the 2015 PS122 COIL Festival). I’ve always been struck by choreographer Zoe Scofield’s comment that her reasoning behind staging and documenting process was because “audiences don’t get to see ninety-nine percent of what we do.”
A similar logic underlies WaxFactory’s approach with PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!. Confronted with nearly insurmountable challenges in realizing such an ambitious project, Talijancic and his collaborators have elected to demonstrate the creative process step-by-step, a sort of reverse deconstruction in which the show can be revealed through the creative process, which may itself never actually lead to a completed product. But given his commitment to that vision, the series of studies at least point to what it could be. And they’re far from finished. The Shamrayev family are all supporting characters in the text: WaxFactory hasn’t yet even approached the main cast, consisting of an aging actress, a pretentious middle-brow writer, an upstart avant-gardist, and an ingénue.
What PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! offers audiences is the opportunity to join the company in the experience of constructing a show, while at the same time it shifts the definition of what constitutes the “work.” By making the process of creation part of the experience, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! becomes an experiential, durational process, rewarding the ongoing engagement of audiences with the artists as they discover what the piece wants to be.
PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! #montage study will be presented May 18 & 19, 2016 at 8:30pm at 3LD Art & Technology Center, Studio A (80 Greenwich Street, Manhattan). Free admission, reservations required. For further information about WaxFactory, visit http://waxfactory.nyc/. To reserve tickets, visit http://www.3ldnyc.org/what-s-happening.html.
ContributorJeremy M. Barker
JEREMY M. BARKER is a critic and dramaturg based in Brooklyn. The editor of Chance magazine and the former editor of Culturebot.org, his writing has appeared in Theater magazine, American Theatre magazine, and elsewhere. He is the dramaturg for the performance group Sister Sylvester, whose most recent show, They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain, appeared at the Public Theater’s 2016 Under the Radar Festival.