Although only just under an hour long, So’s newest project Where (we) Live is dense, enigmatic, and chaotic. Some elements – such as the music – are straightforward, at least in the sense that they resemble work that we’ve been doing for years.
But a few other elements are very new to us. We purposefully set it up that way, bringing people whom we admire into the room without steering them too strongly towards a specific purpose. Each of our core collaborators was given the power to influence the outcome of the project.
Here are the elements of the live show:
- So Percussion
- Grey Mcmurray, guitar, live processing, and vocals
- Martin Schmidt’s videos (controlled by So Percussion members)
- Nightly special guest artist/artisan: we’ve had a blacksmith, a seamstress, a potter, several visual artists, a graphic novel author.
- Emily Johnson: the “note giver.”
- Ain Gordon, the director
Two of the collaborators infused material directly into the show: Grey McMurray’s music and Martin Schmidt’s videos are instantly attributable, and have their own strong profile.
Our director Ain Gordon has a role that is also traditionally defined, even though he is tasked with directing an un-traditional performance. He stands apart from the show, helping us understand whether our creation is making any sense.
Even the special guest, who is different every night, has a clear task: to make their work in co-existence with the other performers.
But we have one final collaborator, whose role and tasks have proven more difficult to explain.
Choreographer and performance artist Emily Johnson (who was honored with a Bessie Award for Oustanding Production this year) is our “note giver.” She sits quietly at a desk stage left, listening and watching. When it strikes her, she writes notes down on little scraps of paper and hands them out to any of the other performers during the show. We offered her complete latitude with regard to what instruction she might pass, and when.
We also gave ourselves a rule: to acknowledge and attempt whatever she asks. The trust we place in her to perform this task is immense, because she now has the power to balance the dynamic and flow of the show, or possibly to completely derail it.
These instructions can range anywhere from the very concrete (“walk to the back of the hall”), to the mysterious (“believe”). They are designed to create unexpected dynamics and relationships among the performers in real time, while also revealing new possibilities for the arch of the theatrical situation.
As such, there’s a kind of improvisation happening, although our musical performance is quite fixed and rehearsed. Far from freeing us of the burden of tight preparation, this embedded x-factor actually requires us to labor even more heavily at knowing the material.
Of course, anybody who works with improvisation or flexible elements in performance will tell you how very much preparation is actually necessary.
So Emily has omniscience, and also agency. She alone knows what instructions each performer has received (we are not privy to each other’s notes).
As if Ain didn’t have enough to keep track of at this point, now he has somebody making unplanned decisions in real time affecting every aspect of the show!
I asked Emily and Ain to talk about their roles in Where (we) Live. Grey contributed his own short description of what it is like to have this “note giver” in our midst.
I think of action all the time. And stillness. I think about how action and stillness intersect with our thoughts, bodies, curiosities, values, needs, wants… In WwL I listen. I look at the house we are in. Empty space and full space. I see, hear, and feel Jason, Eric, Adam, Josh, Grey, and Ain and I think my role is a link in the space: between them; between now, what just happened, and what is coming; and between where they are and where the audience is. I try to make that space smaller somehow. Or maybe smaller is the wrong word. Maybe the word is thicker. I offer action or stillness or thought or a million other things as choice on little bits of paper and sometimes I demand something, too. I know where we are trying to get to but I always have to find a new way. I have to be ready for sound and space to jolt me into writing something down; I have to trust it immediately or wait a bit and see where it fits in. It’s terrifying and it’s the best thing. I try to: make us all (performers and audience) feel at home or for a moment lost, dig something up or reveal something we forgot. When I see one of them doing or attempting to do one of the directions I gave them I get a sense that many things are happening at once. There’s the thinking about the action/stillness and there is the doing. We are doing what we know and at the same time making something we don’t know yet. These moments jump through space and make me feel super alive and I hope they do that a bit for the audience, too.
“Directing” this project is an accurate title and a nutty word for the task. I am there to uncover the work’s core intention and shape options to constantly re-reveal that core while constantly defending the performer’s ability to choose another “option.” So, we honed a mutually agreed upon “script” with a million options to step off that grid and clear imperative avenues for returning – at least, that’s all true when it works. I feel a kinship with Emily’s role because I am the offstage her or she is the onstage me. We are using different lenses and timelines to coax out the molten core – at least that is how I think of it.
Whenever I’m alone for a stretch, I will inevitably confront the thought of how I’d like to be, or I’ll ask myself how I’m doing being what I hope I am, or more specifically, what the time-spending-activities are that I wish I would do to be more like the perfect person I can imagine. In other words, I find myself detaching and looking at myself, so I can imagine I’m less alone. Of course, when I don’t detach, I am less alone. When Emily hands a note to me during the performance, no matter how I think I’m doing, or how I’m doing trying not to think about how I’m doing, I devote full attention to her written instruction / request / demand / hope-for-a-better-performance note. If I bump into an unknown someone on the street, I get out of my head the same way. Some notes induce strange movements, others hopeful thoughts, but no matter the content, Emily’s free compositional sensitivity always takes me away from myself when I might be fading-in, and places me back where I am. Her words-on-scraps are my healthy aloneness. I would do better if I got her notes everyday.