The Evolution of a Theater Company
Susan Mosakowski and Creation Production Company, the company that she co-founded with her partner Matthew Maguire, are spending a lot of time lately thinking about evolution. Both in their artistic output and in the management of the company, adaptation in order to survive has become a thematic focus as well as a professional necessity.
The company’s latest production, Man-Made—opening March 2 at the Ohio Theatre—suggests that the science and ideas generated by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Mary Shelley, will soon reach their logical conclusion in genetically-engineered humans.
Man-Made begins with Darwin and Wallace’s work on the theory of evolution. Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin’s who arrived at very similar conclusions about species and their differentiation. In fact, Darwin had only sketched out his ideas by the time Wallace hit on one of the key pieces in the evolutionary puzzle—the theory of divergence, a concept that demonstrated how and why new species develop from a similar ancestor. Wallace, working as a field naturalist in the Malay Archipelago, sent the paper outlining this important theory to Darwin, asking him to send it on to their colleagues if he saw any value in it.
Darwin, whose scientific status was far greater than Wallace’s, recognized the importance of the paper and arranged a presentation of his own work, along with Wallace’s, in 1859 at the Linnean Society (an important scientific society of the time). The presentation treated Wallace’s work as secondary to Darwin’s and helped to ensure that Wallace would not be credited for the discovery. In the words of Mosakowski: “[Wallace’s paper] was treated like a footnote to Darwin’s.” Later that same year, Darwin pushed his famous book, On the Origin of Species, into publication. Today, history tells us that Darwin did the work largely on his own, even though, as is true across the sciences, a slew of preceding and accompanying work helped him arrive at his conclusions.
Initially grounded by this realistic, human conflict, the story of Man-Made leaps into a fantastical realm through Darwin and Wallace’s dream-life. Mary Shelley and her famous Creature enter the story along with the character Eugenie Doe, an entirely ‘man-made’ woman (in the sense that she has been engineered entirely by science and was born in a laboratory). For Mosakowski, Eugenie Doe represents the natural fulfillment of Wallace and Darwin’s work, an inevitable move towards more constructed environments. As Mosakowski noted in our recent discussion of the piece and her company, “We’ve reached a threshold where we can’t go back.”
Mosakowski’s interest in genetic-engineering is a natural follow-up to her 1998 play, Harry and the Cannibals, in which the characters find themselves inhabited by genetic materials not their own, either through organ transplants, cosmetic surgery or limb replacement. Both plays raise questions about science, ethics and evolution, but also about identity—a particular focus of much of Mosakowski’s work.
Creation Production Company has been undergoing an evolution of its own in the past decade. When the company started in 1977 and as it developed into the 80s (Man-Made is its 48th production), the co-founders were able to support themselves entirely through their theater work, with occasional teaching jobs. In fact, until the ’90s, the company included a salaried troupe of actors for part of the year.
From their first show, an adaptation of Max Ernst’s collage novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, through to the present, an aesthetic signature has remained, often inspired by the Surrealists. In reviews and in their own discussion of their work, the word collage comes up again and again to describe both the aesthetic experience of the plays as well as the structure of the writing. It’s also clear that the influence of their contemporaries was and remains very strong, primary among them Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Jerzy Grotowski, and Martha Graham. At its peak, the company produced as many as four shows a year, and through ‘86 and ‘88, they produced some of their most critically acclaimed work, epitomized by The Rotary Notary and His Hotplate, the final piece in a trilogy of plays inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Large Glass.
In the early ’90s, however, with the art world reeling from the stock market crash in the late ‘80s and caught up in the turmoil surrounding the NEA Four and the attempt by Jesse Helms and his cronies to quash public funding for the arts, Creation—like many small companies—faced serious difficulties. According to Mosakowski, “The money started to dry up.” Since then, they’ve re-evaluated how they produce work, and there have been fewer original productions—their last show was in 2004 at the Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory festival.
Going forward, with a new need to find other means of supporting themselves than simply teaching and taking directing gigs out of the city, they’ve refocused their efforts. “We adopted a different approach,” Mosakowski says. “We said, okay, we’re going to let other people produce us. And so what happened was that other people did produce us, but we’re not producing as much as when we were doing it ourselves…because we weren’t at the mercy of anyone’s tastes.”
As any artist working at the fringes of the performing arts knows too well, the economics of New York theater have shifted dramatically. You have to have non-artistic cash-flow, you often have to pay out of your own pocket to produce your work, finding rehearsal and performance space is difficult and expensive, you’re much more reliant on government and corporate money, and you have little choice but to do less than you’d like to because of it. New models can be hard to imagine as it seems they’ve all been tried.
And the question of what an experimental theater is and what audience it serves has never been more complicated to answer. In Creation’s generation and those that directly preceded it in the U.S. and Europe, theatrical forms blew wide open—anything can and did appear on stage and what comprised a stage transcended most boundaries. With the big boys that history remembers best, along with that slew of accompanying girls and boys left largely uncredited (like Wallace and his many unknown contemporaries), came a world of experimental aesthetics that have now been absorbed piecemeal into the mainstream. Defining what ‘experimental’ means today is as difficult a task as finding the cash to fund the undefined work. Technology is certainly a buzz word, but as Mosakowski nicely puts it: “Do we want [theater] to be an inter-media experience? Certainly that can be very exciting, but I’m also not interested in theater where you see a lot of technology but nothing is happening on stage. Putting up eye-candy is not theater, it’s just a component.”
And so Mosakowski and my own younger generation of theater artists are left with a lot of unknowns. As with any art form, evolution and change are both inevitable and necessary for the survival of the species. Theater has been evolving since the events at the beginnings of the 20th century took it out of the popular culture and consciousness and dropped it into a realm that is still difficult to pin down. It does feel like there’s been a resurgence of theatrical work on the fringes in recent years—a deliberate attempt at reshaping. But sustainability remains a serious hurdle to overcome, as much for new artists as for companies like Mosakowski and Maguire’s. As Darwin’s wife Emma notes in Man-Made, “We sit upon a dangerous branch.”
Man-Made runs February 28 to March 22to at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, Soho (between Spring and Broome). Please visit www.creationproduction.org for more information.
Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Her film All We’ve Got, examining LGBTQ women’s communities, is available for screenings. Her podcast, The Answer is No, which shares stories of artists challenging the conditions under which work, is available on podcast apps. Learn more: alexisclements.com.
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