Making Space for Devised Theatermaking

What began as a clever solution to a rehearsal space shortage has inspired a new ethos for creative development. When we in the Public Theater’s Devised Theater Initiative first came to the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, our self-assigned challenge was to develop a more adaptive approach to creative development that recognized the unique needs of each artistic project. Our initial survey of the field brought us to a rather obvious—yet nonetheless important—conclusion: devised theatermaking requires a lot of time, and a lot of space. Our inquiry, then, was threefold:

  1. how can we transform time-in-space into a non-rivalrous good by making more available outside of our building (and outside of our organizational means);
  2. how can we make funds available to make this time-in-space productive; and
  3. how can we—at The Public and across the field—reconsider the long-range development needs of devised theater to be a valued feature of this art, not a liability.

To that end, we created our Making Space prototype to look at the ways in which we might activate unused or underused space—what we termed dark capital (after the unused “dark fiber” optic cable laid during the dotcom boom in California, which inspired our neologism). We achieved this in two ways: through the granting of time-in-space at the Public for creative development, and through national university residency partnerships. For our purposes here, I will focus on the latter.

From the beginning, we really did believe that universities were this untapped resource of creative space, just waiting to be activated. And if you know anything about academic administration, you’re probably laughing right now. After some initial planning conversations with our first partners (who were all, thankfully, patient friends and colleagues) we quickly realized that we had stumbled upon a brilliant answer to our complex challenge. You see, when we named this prototype Making Space, we meant it literally. We were making workspace where there wasn’t workspace before. Over time, however, this title—Making Space—has been endowed with a more complex meaning that reflects everything we learned through the experiment. By partnering with universities, we were inadvertently (at least at the start) engaging in a new mode of cultural production. Michel de Certeau said it best in The Practice of Everyday Life: “space is a practiced place.” Just as the streets of New York are activated by pedestrians who transform the city through their tracing of the grid, so too are the places we enter—the aging classrooms and university theaters—transformed into space through the practice of their inhabitants: namely, research.

Each residency starts with a research question: what idea or complex challenge does the artist want investigate, and what small experiments can we conduct toward that end? Here I must acknowledge the profound effect EmcArts has had on my thinking: their vocabulary and strategies for addressing complex challenges not only informs my approach to problem solving–it is at the core of my dramaturgical practice. Once the artist can articulate their research question, we then can match them with a university. We are always working to establish new and deeper partnerships with universities—conducting site visits and meetings with faculty and staff to better understand the practice of each space: what resources and expertise does a theater program have, yes, but also what are their learning goals, and what is at stake for them? Once we find a creative match, then we set about designing a bespoke residency.

Our residencies are not transactional; we find there is no need for artists to provide master classes or in any other way rationalize their consuming of university resources. Rather, we discover time and again that there is mutual benefit to be harvested from an artist researching and making work as an active member of a learning community. A key component to the success of these residencies is that we, The Public Theater, also establish ourselves in residence on these campuses alongside the artists: we provide educational context, engage faculty and administration, and custom design the residency activities to maximize artistic discovery and learning. My time in residence is sometimes “glamorous”—like having drinks with the university administration—but more often it involves doing whatever it takes to ensure a successful residency; recently, I hid in the corner of a visual art final exam, quietly flipping circuit breakers so our resident artist could figure out how to redistribute the lighting load to prevent tripping circuits in rehearsal.

Working with our current university partners—including Brooklyn College, the New York City College of Technology, Arizona State University, Johnson State College in Vermont, and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs—we have discovered that when creative development is structured around learning—rather than making—we not only see our resources go farther, but we also discover other dark capital hidden throughout these universities—knowledge, research materials, and alternative creative maker spaces.

Last year, we partnered with Arizona State and the University of Colorado to support six weeks of funded research for our commissioned production of The Fever by 600 HIGHWAYMEN. Each two-week period was structured around a distinct learning goal: at the Public we interrogated the language we use (both verbal and physical) to invite audience interaction; at ASU we experimented with design and architecture; and at UCCS we explored the piece in an alternative, nontheatrical space. Click through the digital story below to see how this New York Times Critic’s Pick production was realized through Making Space research residencies.

 

 

In a 2015 Data Brief by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a marked shortcoming of theater education programs identified by alumni was in entrepreneurship—students felt their programs underprepared them for a career in the arts. The impact Making Space has had on the art, particularly in the case of The Fever, has been profound. But the benefits for the students is an equally significant metric for us in this experiment. Online surveys from previous Making Space residencies reflected that students felt that they experienced deeper learning (through working groups, class visits, and direct contact with the artists). One ASU student remarked: “being able to watch and talk to them about process was incredibly valuable. It was exciting to see all of the possibilities that theatre and performance can have…it was a gift.” We have found, through our Making Space residencies, that if students are given a chance to see, support, and work with reputable independent theatermakers and top producing organizations, they will be empowered with the skills they will need for a profession in the performing arts.

About
Andrew Kircher

ANDREW KIRCHER is the Director of the Devised Theater Initiative at the Public Theater. As a creative producer, he has worked with companies including Ars Nova, Les Freres Corbusier, and Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and was previously the associate director of the Under the Radar Festival. He is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center-with a focus on intellectual property and contemporary theater and teaches in the Brooklyn College Performance And Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) MFA program. He also has a masters degree in theater history, with a focus on chicano drama. He serves on the Electronic Technology Committee of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, has presented research at ATHE, ASTR, IFTR, and MATC, and has served on panels with NEFA, Creative Capital, and the Segal Center, among others. He will curate the 2017 Prelude Festival.