Paulina Guerrero is the choreographer for the tenth year anniversary of suicide.chat.room, opening this week at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Guerrero joins us to talk about the differences of building this remounted production from a script versus from scratch, and how her movements affect the overall story. This expands on our talk with Taffety Punk director Marcus Kyd.
I’m curious as to your take on the evolution of the suicide.chat.room over the last ten years.
Every time this piece is re-mounted [in 2010, 2012 and 2020], it changes because it is a collaboration with the actors and the whole cast. The movement is so highly individualized, and based on the creativity of the individuals who are performing the piece, there are some significant changes with each cast, and even with each performance. There are core, group phrases and some key important solos that have remained the same, but even these always changed with each new cast because each group brings a different and new raw energy. That’s what makes these re-mounts so exciting.
You began the first production without a script. How are you building the choreography now that you’re working from one?
That’s a great question because, as a choreographer working with plays, I rarely start with the actual script, which is different than how most theater people do it! I start with the basic concepts of the play, and maybe build a core phrase from it, but I try not to think about it too much or do anything too literal. I think our guts and our instincts are a little smarter when it comes to movement.
Oftentimes I will just start creating movement and only after the show do I realize what the movement and choreography really means. I start reading the script once the actors have the basic movements down, because it helps me communicate clearer intentions with them. But generally speaking, I feel that the movement communicates the subtexts and unspoken elements of the script, which always feels really subversive.
Suicide Chat Room runs February 26-29, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
What did you learn from working on the piece the first time around?
That it is possible to build and create beautiful, exciting, raw, and fearless choreography without the trappings of conventional dance technique or dance choreography techniques. I have always felt strongly about this, but the first piece really reinforced for me that I am in love with the way people move and create, and when you’re not hamstrung by idea of what is “pretty” or “dancey” you get movement that is twice as interesting, at least for me.
I used to be a little bit more married to my own choreography, and I have simply learned to let all of that go. There is no one move, or one phrase that will make or break a show for me. The important thing is that performers feel comfortable and connected to the movement, and once you get that-BOOM! That is when the fireworks and explosive performances happen. That is not to say you shouldn’t push people, I definitely believe in pushing people’s limits, or that there shouldn’t be movement themes-because that is important also. But with time I have realized that I am simply not interested in the product if the process was horrible or painful or you have to physically sacrifice something for a performance.
Where are you as an artist today?
At 41, it is hard to dance full out and not feel like you got run over by a Mack truck. I am transitioning to more writing and collaborative projects than just straight choreography. I love jamming with people and riffing with people over ideas, themes, and discoveries whether it is short stories or a research project or some weird-ass performance art piece. That just hits the sweet spot for me.
I used to do what most traditional choreographers do: create all the movement on my own, show up to rehearsal, teach it, then set-it and clean-it in a space. I also have done significant amounts of research and writing on my own. That just seems a bit weird to me now. Homo sapiens’ greatest achievement is not technological advances, but collaboration. It is how we have survived. We belong to each other and 100% collaboration with other people is totally where I am at now.
With the increasing rate of suicide in this country, what reactions to you expect from the audience?
I never know what to expect from audiences and I try not to worry about it too much because this piece is important no matter what reactions they may have. Suicide in the 21st century has seen such a major spike in the U.S. (A national epidemiologic survey of 69?341 US adults found the percentage of adults attempting suicide increased from 0.62% in 2004 through 2005 to 0.79% in 2012 through 2013, )that it is considered a major public health crisis and 50% of suicides are by firearms. We pathologize and stigmatize suicide so much, that we push people into hiding and they don’t communicate or try to connect with anyone. Having suicidal thoughts is actually a part of being human-but we don’t say these thoughts out loud because we fear that people will jump out and institutionalize us. This is not the way to solve this problem. We need to take a long hard look of how our culture and society in the U.S. has created a toxic and unsustainable existence for many folks. I think this has become ever more salient in the last 10 years.
What are you most excited about the 2020 suicide.chat.room
This cast! [Kimberly Gilbert, Omar Cruz, Safi Harriott, Charlotte Vaughn Raines, Kathryn Zoerb, Connor Padilla, Lise Bruneau (voice over). And the other creative team members! Erin [Mitchell Nelson, choreography], Marcus [Kyd, director] and Chad [Clark, composer, Beauty Pill score] are just such incredible artists and always level things up. It is always so good for me to work with them because I have to push myself to keep up. This cast is made of some super talented and incredible people. They have just jumped right into this process and have brought new fresh energy to it as well. It has been amazing to watch them make it their own.