Collaborative Theater Alive and Well in CollaborationTown

 
As I climbed the creaky stairs to the building's top floor, I was told that the homeless man out front was a "friend" and was instructed to be quiet as we passed the yoga studio. Eventually, we reached the top—a spacious, somewhat dirty loft with screens dividing it in half. One half was being used for a photography shoot, with a number of women in ridiculous costumes and garish makeup, conversing and posing. On the other side was a group of unassuming-looking young men and women sitting in a circle, eating and laughing. They are CollaborationTown.


One writes in a notebook; two others are going over poster designs
("I don't like that. This is nice…"). Another woman sits off to the side, sewing costumes. After a while, one of them jumps to his feet and says, "All right. Should we start?" The group scuffles around the room as one member turns on his iPod, and everyone—actors, writers, and directors alike—begins a physical warm-up. This reflects the work that


CollaborationTown in Rehearsal
went into the creation and rehearsal of their newest piece, The Astronomer's Triangle. Each member participates in every aspect of the production.

A small group of theater artists, CollaborationTown is still in its infancy. Most of the company has been in New York City for less than two years, and so far it has three shows under its tight belt. But all this gives it the requisites for an effective troupe—young, fresh, hard-working, and optimistic.

There was a time when Off-Off-Broadway was practically synonymous with "collaboration." Working with little space and even less money, young groups put up shows in lofts in SoHo and the East Village, creating them with a utopian ethic. The Performance Group, the Living Theatre, and Bread and Puppet, among others, worked to create new performances through a physical, textual, and critical exploration of a particular piece, or explored the group's aims in general. Every member had a say in the direction of the piece, and ideas were often generated by group exercises or brainstorming. These works had a vital focus on process, with rehearsal and preparations taking months, sometimes years—a far cry from today's common four-week rehearsals. This extremely exhaustive method was largely inspired by the influence of Jerzy Grotowski's 1968 book Towards a Poor Theater and his Polish Laboratory Theater, which made its mark on the American experimental scene with a controversial stance against popular, illusion-driven theater. Grotowski believed that with practically no costumes or sets, the physical exchange between actor and actor—and actor and spectator—could realize the theater's ultimate purpose.

This theatrical modus operandi was also largely a product of its time and place. In the midst of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, the arts were being supported more than ever while simultaneously struggling to find a new voice amid the political and social turmoil. Collaboration sent a message of equality and harmony:these social microcosms could exist without conflict and without oppression.

But times have changed. The utopian lifestyle has vanished, for the most part, and while the ideas and people from that

era still have a strong influence, the collaborative method within theater companies is very rare. Most designate each role in a production—actor, director, writer, designer—to only one member, who may or may not excel in it. Every once in a while, though, a group braves the process of collaboration again.

With a core membership of seven and a number of associates, CollaborationTown is attempting to keep that tradition alive and well. The group has no professional boundaries in its members' functions. According to its mission statement, "Actors can be writers, writers directors, directors designers, and designers actors."

Most of CollaborationTown's members met doing their undergraduate work at Boston University in a new program that went beyond simple conservatory training. In their theater studies, they learned about experimental traditions and alternative ways of creating performances. When they graduated, they all made their way to New York, equipped with the tools to create their own theater.

Last year, the group made and performed The Trading Floor, a piece based on a 1989 demonstration by the AIDS activist group Act Up in protest of the exorbitant prices for the drug AZT. The demonstration shut down the New York Stock Exchange for the first time in history. In addition to feeding the process with their own rehearsals and emotions, the group interviewed many of the protest's participants.

Currently, CollaborationTown is preparing The Astronomer's Triangle—"a love story by way of map." On the heels of the unnervingly real and narrative Trading Floor, the group took a much more abstract starting point: a meditation on love Working out of a church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, they came together with favorite books, music, and pieces of their own

A scene from The Trading Floor

writing to begin the script, now credited as written by Jordan Seavey and the members of CollaborationTown.


The Astronomer's Triangle
is "much more about myth now," Seavey said. With their limited experience in the matter—all of the members are in their early 20s—the piece is much more about the legends and expectations of love than the all-too-fleeting experience itself.

"This is not When Harry Met Sally…," said Amanda Berkowitz, the company's managing director. "It's about the possibilities of finding love." The result is a story about "an astronomer, a waitress, and a cartographer [who] find themselves in a disorienting, explosive, and unknown scientific state: LOVE," the group's Web site says.

At this point in the process, roles both on and offstage are pretty much settled-characters have been cast, the script has been written, and Matthew Hopkins has taken on the part of "director." But the group is quick to point out that anything goes. "We're really supporting each other," Hopkins said. And despite the collective nature of the process, there hasn't been much conflict or head butting.

"We'll have hardy debates," member Boo Killebrew said. "You have to fight for your vision." The personal negotiation is outweighed, however, by their accomplishments as a group. "As a group, we never have to compromise our vision or integrity," Killebrew added.

Hopkins readily admits that the group is still "just learning." Their process continues to be formed and improved upon daily. It's clear that they are very young and carry all the signs of untainted artistry.

Yet there is no reason to believe that CollaborationTown won't succeed. The art of collaborative theater is by no means dead, but few have learned how to let the process of process evolve.

Grotowski's methodology belongs very much to the 1960's, yet a new form of theatrical collaboration could be important and thrive in the 21st century. And perhaps CollaborationTown's strong base and exuberance will find that form and give it a new home.

The Astronomer's Triangle opens March 17.


For more information, visit www.collaborationtown.org.

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