Company Spotlight: Mugwumpin
Monday, July 14, 2014
By Nirmala Nataraj
Whether raiding our closets to excavate skeletons and prized possessions, or helming colossal site-specific works that interrogate our unconscious beliefs about home and country, Mugwumpin has entertained audiences from San Francisco to Cairo with its inimitable approach to cobbling together ideas, scripts and ensembles.
Rami Margron, Natalie Greene and Soren Santos in Mugwumpin's Super:Anti:Reluctant. Photo: Pak Han
To see a Mugwumpin show isn't to merely witness a spectacle—it is to take active part in a staged exploration that is equal parts messy and transcendent. The ensemble works collaboratively, fashioning a tangled web of intersecting stories.
Now in its 10th year, the company has seen a number of dramatic changes over the past decade. The biggest shift came in 2009 and 2010, as the company was making its show This Is All I Need (which it's remounting this summer in the Mugwumpin10 celebration). Artistic director and cofounder Christopher W. White notes, "That was the first time we developed a piece over a long period. At the same time, we launched our Occurrences series of performances for nontheatre spaces, which gave us the freedom to experiment in less formalized settings."
These changes set into motion an evolution in the company's process, which had been loose and experimental. A methodical, more leisurely approach to theatre-making allows for more focus and risk-taking. "In the early days," says White, "we made our work so quickly that we often had no idea what a piece was until it was closing. We made some great work that way, but rolling on pure instinct has its disadvantages."
Most would place Mugwumpin under the aegis of devised theatre, combining improvisation and theatre games with collaboration and audience engagement. "The number of practices that it encompasses is pretty vast," White says. "For me, it means a more horizontal creative structure in which all the artists involved have a strong voice in the development of a piece."
Another aspect of this type of theatre-making is the blurring of boundaries between audience and performer. For the Occurrences series, Mugwumpin members proposed questions to the audiences, whose responses became part of the content.
"We are a DIY ensemble making our shows from scratch," says ensemble member Madeline H.D. Brown. "We are going to fail. Hopefully, they will be beautiful and big failures, and from those attempts we learn that it's okay to fall on your face and make a mess. And then you see the thought-provoking messes you can make give birth to moments of beauty. This helps you see it is possible to trust your own power."
The theme of Mugwumpin10 is "Look back: move forward." White explains, "We're trying to get an understanding of where we are coming from while looking at what's coming down the road, so that we can bring considered development and growth to the next decade."
The company is reviving two of its past shows, Super:Anti:Reluctant, originally created in 2006, and This Is All I Need from 2010. Both shows examine the deeper undercurrents of American consciousness to better understand who we are as a country. "They also have a sort of mosaic approach to structure—they're less about telling a single story than refracting the theme to pose several questions or conflicting truths," says White.
Mugwumpin will also be revealing an in-process version of its latest piece, Blockbuster Season, which looks at disaster as it really happens versus how it is popularly portrayed, and is creating a new performance and photography installation in collaboration with photographer Pak Han for the Asian Art Museum titled Luster.
As an ensemble-based company, Mugwumpin's stature has been somewhat singular. "The Bay Area has such a rich tradition around developing new playwrights and their work," says White. "Other traditions—of ensemble-created work, or immersive work, or hybrid movement-performance work—are less entrenched here. It can sometimes feel like a lonely state of affairs." That's why, for its upcoming series of workshops starting with a salon on June 16, the company will share some specific viewpoints on collaborative creation that may inspire artists to work in a similar way.
Achieving a lot on limited resources can be taxing, but "we try to remain constantly vigilant about burnout," says White. "Being small means that we're also relatively nimble. We can continue to evolve and try new things, which keeps us invested and curious."
Nirmala Nataraj is an arts writer based in San Francisco.