We spend so little time really making a study of the way another group of performers works. As part of the ERPA program, Joanna Mendl Shaw, artistic director of The Equus Projects and I were tasked with finding out what we lessons we might share with The Field from the lives of our performing ensembles.
Joanna’s company dances with horses. My company, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, makes five course meals for our audiences. We both engage with a specific community that has a secondary interest other than theater or dance (food and horses). We both need a certain level of participation or “buy in” from the audience or community in order for the performance to exist. (Joanna needs people to lend her their horses. I need them to eat my food.) Joanna’s company has been working for decades. Mine will celebrate its fourth birthday this Wednesday. Her company has gone through several stages of turnover with the dancers. Mine is still founder-driven, but we have significantly padded ourselves with new people this year.
Naturally, we thought we might compare our experiences with the lifecycle of an ensemble and explore the question of “keeping the spark alive” when working with the same group of people over time. But this begged the question of what that spark is exactly that we are trying to keep alive. For both of our companies, we boiled it down to something Joanna calls real time. I call it suspense or the feeling that anything can happen in the room.
In the work of both companies, events unfold in front of an audience in real time as part of an intricately orchestrated, but unset, performance. Joanna talks about physical listening. The need for it is obvious. Her dancers are doing something that seems to me akin to a kind of intuitive, subtle, speedy, gorgeous, concentrated, wildly reactive computer programming. (If I do A the horse does B. If the horse does C, I must do D or I will get trampled.) In my company, we balance all the logistics and timing of meal preparation and service with our performance, thus our characters have occupations that empower us to able to troubleshoot and make speedy adjustments from within the world. For both of our companies, the performance involves crucial unpredictable components not completely within the performers’ control.
The experiment of it is so compelling that, for both of us, doing the work has a kind of self-propagating curiosity, and it draws people in—ensemble members and audience alike. Thanks, Joanna, for your commitment to your work and for sharing it with me!
The Equus Projects will be in Prospect Park on October 30. www.dancingwithhorses.org.
Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant will be at Cleveland Public Theatre December 2-19.