“Artistic Blind Dates” is the perfect title for the shows on view at the Source Festival this week: organizers invited three creators – from music, theater and dance – to make something in three months. They had never worked together before and were not even familiar with the other artists’ productions.
The festival selected and joined the groups based on their applications and interests, and the results are varied and fascinating. Best of all, Source stays true to the spirit of experimentation — emphasizing the importance of process alongside product — and lets the audience hear from the creators during post-performance discussions after each piece. The performances are short, approximately 25 to 30 minutes, and each program this week includes two.
The first on view Tuesday was It’s Me You Should Blame created by choreographer Angella Foster, playwright/actor James Hesla, and vocalist L’Tanya’ Mari. The second was A Great(er) Depression by choreographer Jane Franklin, director/actor Matt Ripa, and composer/musician Brad Linde. While the first was a collage of scenes linked by a common topic – confessions, the second was more chronological and developed a contemporary character based on the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Both pieces used music and text to reinforce particular moods and images; the choreography was less integrated, perhaps due to limited time to develop movement languages specific to the characters and situations. The actors in A Great(er) Depression were especially strong, and in the discussion following this piece the creators revealed that tonight’s performance was the first time the entire cast had done the piece together. Due to busy schedules, much of the creative process took place through emails and shared files on Google docs.
A Great(er) Depression begins with a live jazz quartet: Eric Harper on bass, Sarah Hughes on flute and alto saxophone, Linde on tenor sax, and Tony Martucci on drums. A human resource manager is telling a group of people (us, the audience) that we are being let go. Suddenly a man in the back row bursts out. It’s Ripa and he is unhappy, confused, angry, almost hostile. He walks down the steps to the stage and the contrast between his vulnerability and the officiousness of the manager is gripping. As the piece develops, Ripa creates a resume (hilarious spoof on the lingo used today), interviews for other jobs, sheds layers literally and metaphorically. His body language is as sincere and focused as the dancers’ choreography is bland and disconnected. At one point a dancer slides off a table into a headstand and straddles her legs. Their steps seem to be more about stunts than connecting to the characters and emotional climate.
Although the program does not list all their names – only Ashley DeMain, Alyssa Hayek, and Ripa – the actors are excellent. Ripa said in the discussion that they come from his group, Misfit Theatre Company. They make clear the links between the loss of jobs and the loss of identity. Stories are projected about the violence that has followed certain layoffs. Ultimately Ripa gives a closing statement about wanting to be defined – not by his occupation – but by who he is, the sum of his life’s actions. Even if this moment is redundant, the piece as a whole is commanding and heartfelt. It lives up to Ripa’s pursuit, as he described afterwards, to use performance as a tool for social change and to create opportunities for us to look at the values and assumptions we hold true.
It’s Me You Should Blame opens with a production stage manager (played by Foster) preparing a cast of dancers, singer and keyboardist for the “L’Tanya’ After Dark” show. Four women do cutesy, backup singer moves in tight black dresses and red shoes. The choreography is kitschy and cliché, while the singer (Mari) is sultry. The scene shifts as the first caller appears on stage to request a song. Her story about her own three divorces and her boyfriend’s two, then becomes a confession about a fight, and L’Tanya’ offers “the perfect song.” “If I could turn back time…” filters through the theater. Two women perform a series of confrontational moves, hand gestures, and acrobatic lifts.
The next scene presents a man (Hesla) troubled by an alter ego which appears as a projection. Another scene features the stereotypical political confession with the familiar trappings: a press conference on the lawn of the guilty, apologies to the family, requests for forgiveness. It was interesting to see how predictable these tropes have become in our media and society.
After the performance each creator spoke of enjoying the experience of the unknown which is essential to collaborating, particularly when there was “three-part stake, three-part say” as Foster explained. Each creator had equal influence, although Hesla admitted to thinking half-way through the process “Maybe we should hire a director?”
But the openness of their structure in It’s Me… was inspiring: the glue between the scenes became our minds. We could connect the varied approaches to confessions and confessing, and decide how or if they resonated with one another, what they shared in common. The weakest element in both pieces was the choreography. The dancers’ movement was generic, with almost identical steps — handstands, leg extensions — repeated in both pieces.
These collaborations, like dates with strangers, are risks. They can blossom or bust. Both of the pieces Tuesday shed light on unique ways of developing images and ideas, new forms of communicating, and innovative ways of mixing varied disciplines. It was as intriguing to hear the behind-the-scenes stories as it was to see the results of their twelve weeks together.