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TBA Online: News & Features: October 2018

A Church for All Generations

Tuesday, October 2, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

For its latest offering, Crowded Fire is taking Bay Area audiences to Church. A play that explores our relationship to faith, its discontents, and ecstasies, Church marks the third Young Jean Lee play produced by the company, the second to be directed by artistic director, Mina Morita, who helmed Lee’s equally provocative The Shipment last season. With this production, Crowded Fire is doing something a little different—spreading the gospel of experimental theatre by partnering with the Oakland School for the Arts to share the play’s Bay Area Premiere.

Jordan María Don, Lawrence Radecker, Nkechi Emeruwa, Alison Whismore in Crowded Fire's production of Church.

Photo by Hillary Goidell.

OSA, a public charter school in heart of downtown Oakland, has long held a prominent role in nurturing the Bay Area’s most promising young talent. The school’s high school theatre program allows students to major in specific disciplines such as Acting, Musical Theatre, or Playwriting and Play Development, and claims several notable alumni, most recently Tony award-winner Ari Statchel from The Band’s Visit.

The school’s partnership with Crowded Fire, one that Morita describes as “both organic and intentional,” began three years ago when the company cast Chelsea Looy, an OSA acting student, in its 2015 production of Truck Stop. Morita, newly minted as artistic director, met the theatre school’s chair and artistic director, Matthew Travisano. The two shared a mutual respect for and interest in each other’s work and Morita soon became a frequent guest in the OSA classroom.

Having already launched a mentorship program with Stanford University, Morita envisioned ways in which Crowded Fire could provide a pipeline to professionalization for OSA students. She worked with Travisano to establish a program where students could apply to apprentice with the company during its Matchbox Reading Series. The apprenticeship would integrate the students into a professional theater setting and expose them to new work development. The success of the program supported Morita’s ongoing advocacy for the inclusion of young people in professional art making as a means of amplifying the impact of the work.

Matthew Travisano. Photo courtesy Mr. Travisano

“Mina’s approach to theatre is to make it accessible, to keep it from becoming precious or exclusionary,” Travisano says, “Theatre for/by/about young people is seen as amateurish or quaint. Mina expressed to me her view that there’s a need for theatre to be intergenerational. She took the work we were doing seriously.” When Crowded Fire decided to expand their literary committee to include external partners, Morita invited Travisano as she knew he was seeking new plays for the school of theatre to produce.

“We choose plays for our season because of the challenges they offer, as a way to assess our students’ skills and to find out where we can do better as a training program,” Travisano explains. He was immediately taken by one play in particular, Young Jean Lee’s Church, which he calls a “unique test for the actor. When I read it I was blown away by a play in which the actor’s scene partner is an audience, and an audience that may well be highly activated by the text.”

Morita felt a similar passion for the play and Crowded Fire selected it as one of the two plays the company would produce in their 2018 season.  Given that both organizations planned to produce Church in the same year, Morita and Travisano began to explore ways in which they could exploit the parallel productions as an opportunity to deepen the organizations’ already existing partnership.

After several meetings, the two directors decided that their casts would share a week and a half of rehearsal at the start of Crowded Fire’s process when they would collaborate on both a dramaturgical exploration of the script and building choreography for the play’s dance moments. Although the finished productions would be unique from each other owing to each director’s vision and the differences in performance spaces—Crowded Fire performs in Portrero Stage’s black box space while OSA will perform in the historic Sweet’s Ballroom—they suspected that pairing young, budding artists with established professionals might yield a fertile ground for creation. By their accounts, that suspicion proved correct.

Mina Morita. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Morita describes her experience with the students as humbling, even from the very first read through. “At some point, we all learn how to speak or present an idea—even a vulnerable one to each other. Even [during] table work. But it was so apparent the moment there was a student in the room there was no guile. I was crying even in the first day because of how the students were struggling with how to share their struggles with life and faith. It suddenly took away all of the shielding that we naturally do, trying to say something smart. They brought a vulnerability and clarity—communicating what was true.”

Lawrence Radecker, a resident artist with Crowded Fire, who plays one of the Reverends in Church, remarks on how much he learned from the students, going so far as to ask his young counterpart if he had any thoughts or insight about their character that Lawrence might take into consideration as they rehearsed.

In terms of the students’ learning, Travisano speaks to the value of the mentorship they received while working with Crowded Fire. “A mentor is someone who has experience in an area of study, and then supports the student as they acquire knowledge for themselves,” he says, “Mina and her team modeled for my students how to approach a text with authenticity while also being open to being changed by it.”

Cast member Jordan Don stresses how valuable this kind of experience is for young people. “I was involved in performing arts and theatre in high school but never saw it as anything more than a hobby. I didn't realize the importance and value of the work we do until I got older and was exposed to pieces like Church where both actor and audience are challenged. So the fact that [these students] are taking on this piece at such a young age is amazing to me.” Morita and several of the cast members will visit the OSA rehearsal hall in the coming weeks to assist the students as they prepare to open their own run of Church and plan on catching one of the students’ performances.

Both organizations view Church as another step in the evolution of a rich relationship they hope will last for years to come. The success of their venture has led both organizations to develop other partnerships that will support intergenerational art making. Crowded Fire has recently connected with Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre in Oakland as part of their Hive Project audience-sharing initiative and OSA is about to begin working on Hamlet with Ubuntu theater.

“It’s my goal to compel professional theatre companies to think creatively about how to incorporate the talents of young artists, even in their mainstage or marquee projects. Forgive the cliché, but I believe intergenerational theatre is a tide that lifts all boats,” says Travisano.

If Church serves to examine the quandaries of belief, it seems fitting that the collaboration behind the productions offers a kind of antidote to nonbelievers, restoring faith once again in the possibility of tomorrow.

“It was encouraging to see these young kids had confidence in their own voice,” says Radecker, “ The times we’re in...you can get kinda down when you think about the future, but these kids really got me excited to think about what they’re going bring to us. After the few days we had with them I really felt so inspired and I felt like maybe this world has a future.”

Church runs at Crowded Fire till Oct 6.

The OSA production of Church runs from Oct 24 to Oct 27.

Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.