by Neal Utterback · August 4, 2014
Neal Utterback is part of the FringeU panel "Devising Indie Theater at Colleges and Universities" on Wednesday, August 20 at 1pm.
I am a theatre maker. I am also a theatre educator. Well, facilitator. I facilitate experiences for my students. In that way I think my professional life in academe and my professional life in the theatre are able to co-exist and even converge. I am one of the artistic directors of The Gravity Partners, a professional theatre ensemble that creates new work that tours festivals around the world. What makes our ensemble somewhat special is that other than myself and the other co-AD, Kate Clarke, the ensemble is made up entirely of top-notch theatre students in the Juniata College theatre program, whose campus we use as an incubator. Our production of The Picture (of Dorian Gray) at FringeNYC came out of this crucible.
Much of our work is at least partially devised by which I mean that I usually have some framework of a script that the ensemble experiments and tinkers with. So, while I have a guiding hand in the work, I am not the guiding body. I have always believed that “we” are smarter than “me.” Working in this way also means that everyone has to work with a sense of holding on tightly, letting go lightly (stolen from Anne Bogart). We fight for the thing we believe in—a script idea, an image, a movement sequence—until it no longer serves the greater good of the whole and then let it go. I also believe that working in this way empowers young theatre makers to be total theatre artists. They have the skills to go out into the world and make their own opportunities and mark their own territory. Having an ensemble, a family, also means that you don’t have to forge the trail alone. It also allows you to develop of kind of intimate shorthand. Some of my students have worked and trained with me long enough now that we can finish each other’s sentences. We anticipate and predict which makes the improvisations and play building that much faster and fruitful.
I am currently working on an adaptation of Dr. James Hughes' seminal work on transhumanism and democracy, Citizen Cyborg. I cast the show in a month but that ensemble won’t read the script I have spent all summer chipping away it. Instead, they will build an entirely new show collaboratively and then, once finished, we will sit down with both scripts and choose one—or a fusion of the two—to pursue for production in the spring. We enter into the entire process knowing that we will all have to hold onto something and let go of something. It is, at its essence, what I strive to engender in my students. Our work in the theatre is ephemeral and ever-changing, ever-evolving. Unlike a film that is, for the most part, finished once it’s in the proverbial can, a play is always in a state of flux, of potential. That makes some people nervous. I am entering into Cyborg in a kind of delightful panic. I have no idea what it will be, only that we have to show the world something in November. And, because I’m a little prideful, we have to show them something kickass. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure going into that process without a solid script. But that’s where the letting go comes in handy. And that’s where ensemble comes in super handy. I trust—and hope to nurture trust in my students—that through hard work, discipline, generosity, and bravery a product full of questions and wonder and love will emerge out of the chaos.