A Para-Classical Theater Company
or: why i’m ignoring good advice.
To begin with, I want to call quick attention (as if enough hasn’t already been made of it) to an article published in 2011 that went thoroughly “viral” in my circles, called “Please, Don’t Start A Theater Company!”
It was ubiquitous in conversations with people working in low-budget and off-off-off theater for a little while. The frequency with which I noticed it being brought up at parties, openings, and preproduction coffee meetings probably owes something to the fact that I went to school at the Atlantic Theater Company. The Atlantic espouses a contrary doctrine. They encourage their acting students in their final year to make their own work by banding together to create a company, because that’s what they did.
We did it too, and that company was called Grey Room and we put up a handful of plays and then went on an amicable Indefinite Hiatus. And I can say it’s at least 80% less likely I’d be a theater director now if I hadn’t been able to take my first stabs in the dark with Grey Room. We were unsustainable as a model for all the reasons the article above highlights, but especially because it lacked a mission and a method, and because its practical goals (a permanent home, a consistent infrastructure of funding) outran both. I had plenty of opinions about trying to solve that problem, as did many other people.
This month, Artilliers premiered publicly. This is a company I’ve been incubating with director Nik Aliye and actors Trey Fillmore and Serena Berman — all of whom have articulated and developed its size and scope alongside me. But this, for the first time ever, is my company. I have been signing its emails as “Jake Beckhard, Producing Artistic Director”. There’s a little dopamine buzz in writing that signature. It’s enough to make you think the Atlantic might have been onto something about making your own work.
Below I’ve tried to unpack what it is Artilliers wants to do. More to the point, I’ve tried to pose an answer — both to that skeptical article and to my own nagging fears.
Artilliers is what we’re calling a Para-Classical Theater Company. Its bread and butter are the Great Plays of any era. The greatest ideas in history are distilled to their most volatile elements in these plays. They are alchemical: as you sit in your seat, they spin your old self into a new one by simple incantation.
And yet over and over again, we can’t, or don’t, hear the magic words. It’s not for lack of trying on either side of the footlights. On and Off-Broadway, nine fully staged Shakespeare plays alone went up in the 2013–2014 season. And that’s not even counting Shakespeare in the Park, which bumps that number up to eleven.
I don’t speak for anyone else, but I know my post-show conversations following these plays usually consist of report cards. “[X] was good. [Y] was underwhelming. They really missed the mark with [Z].” This seems so fucking deadly, for us as the audience and for them as the performers. They want you to hear “Lear” as much as you want to hear “Lear”! And even if you try to hear Lear and respond to it as Lear and Lear alone, you end up just falling back on who did what better than the last time you saw someone cry “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”.
I want to overcome that impulse to play compare and contrast. I don’t think it’s just a matter of shaking our artists and yelling at them to skate better. It requires some reorientation. We need to be able to see old plays in new ways, and to use new plays to channel old wisdoms.
Two plays per season: one old play and one new play, produced in any order and performed in rep at the end. The old play is one of those any-era classics— the kind of play your teachers recommend like “oh you haven’t read [A]? You should read [A]” — then hand it to you with the knowing smile of “you’re in for something big.” The new play is a wholly original creation devised with the same cast of actors. This is important.
Artilliers believes that in the process of rehearsing any play, a language is developed at the intersection of its collaborating artists. You teach that language to your audience nightly in an immersive sort of osmosis.
We are asking our team to take the languages they build together, and use them again on a different project in the same season to see what happens. This is what I mean when I say Artilliers is a theater in a love affair with investigation. It gives our performances a distinctly Lab-like atmosphere.
Juxtaposing the two plays in a season together is the beginning of that dramaturgical expedition. But it’s by allowing them to influence each other, performing them in repertory with the same actors, letting the process of rehearsal and development for each be forever ongoing, that we begin to give the audience license to watch these plays with fresh eyes. In rep, they should tumble in and out of each other naturally and acrobatically.
What happens when you take the language developed in the volcanic heart of “A Dream Play” and write something totally new with that nascent grammar? What happens to A Dream Play, when you return to it? What happens to the language? What happens to your audience?
The Goals (to date)
- To develop a core ensemble of actors.
No advance in the field of acting or performing has come without the combined effort of a resident ensemble of actors with a single unifying goal.
- To develop personal methods of rehearsing classics.
We want to make plays out of classic texts that do not look or feel like any others. To accomplish this, we’ll experiment by trial-and-error with practices and exercises, in the hopes that we discover what satisfies our particular ensemble and its needs. In that way we can codify a system by which we approach our classics.
- To develop personal methods of devising new works.
Similarly, as we’ll be developing our new works from the inside out, we expect to create (by trial and error) our own generative process. The challenge here is to ensure that the process is honed enough that we’re not starting from diddly every time we begin, but that it remains open enough that each play has room to grow as it develops its own creative identity.
We’re still little babies. One day we’ll be big babies. There are more things this company is and isn’t, and the people who enter its auspices and who change its architectural design will shift and improve everything we can be and will be. More goals, practical and ephemeral, will develop — goals that I approve of, and goals I will resist.
And that’s as it should be. That’s what gets my heart racing, hunched over a laptop at six in the morning. None of it is easy — for all the reasons that have been covered by smarter, more articulate people than me. But it’s why I’m asking you in. Because if you think what we’re doing deserves to be done, we want you to join us in whatever / way / you / can.
See you there.