A little over a year has passed since I took the helm of Mugwumpin, a performance ensemble that is often identified as a theater company. This came after more than a decade in the dance world: performing, teaching and creating dance theater. Now, as I approach a room full of actors and interdisciplinary artists as the director of what will become a play, I draw from the huge toolkit that I developed as a choreographer. I started to wonder if devised theater is the same as dance theater?
With this question as a starting point, I sat down with Eric Garcia and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. We identified that our performance practices push against the binary that exists between dance and theater. We are each making collaborative, interdisciplinary work, no matter what we call it. Instead of trying to define the difference between the two genres, we found it more valuable to tap directly into our own artistic identities and interrogate the binary that asks us to choose.
What is “devised theater”?
Erin Mei-Ling Stuart: My basic understanding is that it is live theater that is created with something other than a written script as a starting point. Beyond that, it might disrupt the idea of linear narrative where A leads to B leads to C. If there is a story told, it might be told in a fragmented way. Spoken text will probably not be the only way of getting ideas across. Of course, even in traditional plays spoken text is not the only way of transmitting ideas. Staging and design elements (sets, costume, lighting etc.) help to create the story. But in devised theater, the text is less likely to be dominant, with more use of movement or other elements.
How do you define your work?
Eric Garcia: If we’re looking at a spectrum with dance and theater sitting on either side, I would find myself closer to dance. It’s familiar. It’s what I trained in. It’s where I meet most of my collaborators. I have little-to-no training in acting or traditional theater (let alone any sort of devised theater), so it’s logical that my creative mind gravitates towards more movement-based thinking. At the same time, my interest in watching pure movement is slowly dwindling which naturally informs how I’m currently making work. Our current project Fugue, for example, marks the first time we are collaborating with playwrights in the creation of scripts. This growth is blurring what genre we exist in. Saying that our work is “dance” isn’t 100% representative. Even saying “dance-theater” doesn’t quite fit. I currently define my work as “devised performance” – it implies ensemble creation across multiple performance-based disciplines.
How does your creative process relate to this spectrum?
EMS: As a performer, I’ve worked at the far ends of the dance-theater spectrum, from performing or choreographing abstract dance to acting in plays, and at many points between. I shapeshift to meet the needs of a project and work on its terms. But I also bring my perspective from working in different realms to whatever I’m doing.
With EmSpace Dance, I’ve been working in the in-between for a while; making shows with casts that include dancers and actors (usually dancers who are comfortable speaking and actors who are good movers). I’ve done a lot of playing in the space where performing artists cross the border from their native form into another in which they might be less fluent.
I crave deeply collaborative creative process with theater artists who are fluent in multiple forms. I come from dance and I work quite a bit as an actor these days, but my artistic home is in interdisciplinary work. It’s the place where I can bring my full creative self.
I appreciate a process in which an ensemble of performers is engaged in many aspects of creating a piece. For context, almost every dance and dance theater project I’ve been a part of has involved some level of collaboration with the performers. As a dancer in San Francisco, it’s pretty much a given that you will generate movement phrases, or even create entire solos or duets. So you’re contributing, but it’s “on assignment”. As a performer in dance theater work, I’ve found the collaboration to be a little deeper, with more discussion and opportunities to ask big questions or offer ideas. I’ve been in some really satisfying projects with that level of collaboration. Now I’m interested in dropping in even deeper, with performer-collaborators involved in more aspects of creating the work, such as research, bringing in new ideas, leading parts of development, and shaping the structure.
The three of us have expressed a desire for the performers in a project to be deeply involved. As a director, I had this kind of ideal in mind, and I edged towards it, but only so far. I like a certain degree of control. As a performer-creator, I love working together with the right ensemble and director to create and shape a show.
How do you negotiate the friction between collaboration and control?
EG: On paper, democratic processes sound sexy. I’m tenaciously drawn to the idea of an ensemble that shares decision-making and contributes to the greater well-being of the organism. It feels essential to the type of work I want to be creating and to the communities I belong to. The reality is that democracy is messy (though not impossible). There’s no clearly defined way of navigating such a complex system. It requires structure, dialogue, flexibility, accountability and patience.
Does detour dance operate under democracy? No. I use the ideal of democratic collaborations as a compass point while also acknowledging my desire to be at the helm. To a certain extent, I feel successful collaborations have someone guiding the ship to keep folks on track and to move the process forward. It’s a bit of a paradox to prioritize ensemble-devised work and simultaneously balance my leadership role within the company. I have to maintain a healthy amount of self-work around ego and surrender – not always easy, but very important.
detour dance’s devising process is completely dependent on every single one of my collaborators (generating movement/text, building characters, scheming entire sections, identifying narrative arcs, stitching together vignettes, sound design, costume design, etc.). I’m tasked with creating a container for the company to feel supported in their research and execution of the work all while allowing space for shared creation and pushing my own aesthetics and larger vision forward. It’s about being clear on my role as an outside perspective, as someone who can provide resources to the ensemble and as a consistent presence that ensures everyone feels connected to the work and each other.
Mugwumpin is working in a deeply collaborative way. Natalie, what does that look like?
Natalie Greene: We’re trying to create a nexus for deep thinking, social engagement, and human connection, for artists and audiences alike. We are more interested in questions, and less interested in answers. I see myself as a creative facilitator, providing structures to ask questions in the most dynamic and fascinating ways. These priorities pertain to intention and process. For the most part, I do not dictate what forms and techniques will be employed in the investigation.
If someone brings in a piece of text, it’s just as likely to be performed as a monologue as it is to be transformed into song lyrics, design elements, wordless choreography or other visual metaphor. It can be anything. I’m game. Or rather, I’m the referee of the game. And the game doesn’t exist before we start playing, so we are making up the rules as we go. The game is created in conversation with our values, ideas, interests and questions. And then I challenge the artists to PLAY. HARD.
In fact, I’m both referee and coach. The artists make one team, and the opposition is time. And just like any game with high stakes, it can be difficult, emotional and incredibly rewarding. Group agreements and dramaturgical structures certainly help when things get messy, as they can protect the feelings and contributions of deeply invested collaborators. We can be game for anything when we feel safe and know how to play.
I call it creative practice. I call it rigorous play. I call it collaborative interdisciplinary performance process. And most of all, I call it FUN. Then sometimes I have to check a box calling it “theater” or “dance,” and then…. I have a hard time.
What’s in a name?
EMS: These designations “dance theater” and “devised theater” are shortcuts. If you are familiar with the terms, hearing that a company does one or the other gives you a little (possibly inaccurate) information about them. Devised theater is a funny term, because it seems to speak to how it was made but not what it is. Coming first from the dance and dance-theater worlds, I found the term devised theater kind of hilarious because I thought, oh, you make it up from scratch? Like we’ve been doing the whole time? Cool!
I think the trouble with both of these terms is that people outside of our small communities have no idea what they mean. Or maybe that’s trouble that goes beyond nomenclature.
Maybe that trouble has to do with the system of binary thinking we’re trying to operate within in order to be legible and manageable to the rest of the world. I like to imagine a world in which we don’t feel the need to place ourselves on a spectrum that’s based on a dance/theater (or any other) binary. I’m not a dancer making dance theater or an actor making devised theater, but a genrequeer artist working with other genrequeer artists to make work that bends in the direction of our curiosity. If we start calling ourselves what we already are (and maybe that’s “genrequeer”) will it help to create that world?
That world sounds exciting. What’s next?
NG: I’m certainly leaving this conversation with more questions than answers. Now isn’t that appropriate? I love the idea that we’re genrequeer, but I recognize that queer performance art is an established form of its own. How does that community feel about this phraseology? Where do musical theater artists place themselves on the dance/theater spectrum? Will some of you readers chime in, and help us continue this conversation? Who else wants to defy the genre binary, loud and proud?