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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2019

Couples In Theatre 2019: Love Under New Management—the Art of Artistic Partnerships

Wednesday, February 6, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

February is a month for lovers. (At least that is what the greeting card companies invite us to believe.) However, beyond the commodification of partnership, there’s an exciting opportunity to reflect on what makes a good partner, why we choose a partner, how do we ensure the longevity of our most intimate collaborations.  Theatre Bay Area explored these questions with four pairs of artists who work in partnership. They allowed us a tender glimpse into the magic of four of the Bay’s most impactful artistic couplings.

Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Margot Melcon knew co-playwright Lauren Gunderson was the one when Gunderson described her as “the dramaturgical equivalent of the friend who will tell you your ass looks fat in those jeans.”

“[That] made me feel like I could say anything to her, theatrically speaking, and I wasn’t going to have to sugarcoat. We hit a certain level of intimacy.” Melcon had previously worked on several of Gunderson’s plays as the literary director and dramaturg at Marin Theatre Company and a friendship blossomed between the two as they grew to know each other in rehearsals. Melcon proudly recounts dropping Gunderson off for her first date with her now husband.This friendship and Gunderson’s confidence in Melcon’s dramaturgical prowess ultimately led the two to collaborate in writing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the first in a now in-demand trilogy of Austen-inspired holiday plays.

“One of the things that makes us good partners is that we have the same priorities for theater...female stories, sister stories, stories about more than one woman,” Gunderson says.

In the Pemberley plays, the playwrights explore questions of female identity and ambition, and what prevents us from achieving that which we desire, questions that Melcon and Gunderson say they discuss with each other about their own lives.


Joan Osato and Sean San Jose.

This bleed of life experience into art making is one that is innately shared by Sean San Jose and Joan Osato who work side by side as the programs director and producing director of the twenty-three year old, San Francisco theatre company, Campo Santo. The native San Franciscans ran along what San Jose describes as concurrent train tracks for many years prior to their first meeting at his performance of Pieces of the Quilt at Magic Theatre.

“Joanie has been a part of movements of all kindsnot just theatre companies but cultural and community movements so I was affected by her work prior to even meeting her in my nascent steps into the cultural artistic world of the Bay Area,” San Jose explains, making specific reference to Osato’s work with the Asian American Theater Company. “Joanie was establishing pathways for the multiplicity of voices... I responded to it as something that felt more intimate, more cultivated, more supported, and felt more neighborhood,” San Jose explains.

That neighborhood vibe became a central component of Campo Santo, the theatre company San Jose co-founded in 1996 with Luis Saguar, Margo Hall, and Michael Torres. Youth Speaks and The Living Word Projecta youth poetry and spoken word platform led in part by Osatowas founded in the same year and, in a stroke of destiny, became a company in residence at Intersection for the Arts alongside Campo Santo. A vibrant partnership flourished between Osato and San Jose as their organizations frequently collaborated, sharing both resources and up-and-coming writers such as Chinaka Hodge and Dennis Kim.

After working together on several festivals and productions San Jose says he began to wonder, “Why are we cooking in two pots when we can cook in one really well together?” San Jose says. He describes the courtship as a long one given Osato’s already full plate. “It took a lot of begging and a lot of late night emails of insistence.” Ultimately, he won Osato over and she took on the role of Campo Santo’s producing director.

In every partnership there comes pivotal moments of conflict, from within or without, that test its durability and its flexibility. One particular moment of duress that Osato names occured in 2015 when Intersection for the Arts restructured, leaving Campo Santo and many of their other resident organizations without a home. It could have been a moment of demise for the company as many peer arts organizations did not survive. However San Jose credits the survival of the company to Osato, calling her the “engine” of Campo Santo.

“Joan came in with the idea of purposefully orbiting other spaces as a nomadic company. She had the experience, having organized festivals for literally 100,000 people. When we get into moments of pressure like how do we get an audience, how do we fulfill the last third of our operating budget, Joan has the wherewithal, the veracity, the spirit, the indomitability to keep going,” he says.

Osato explains, “I felt Campo’s work was so unique it really needed to survive, so that’s when I got really more involved to find new collaborators. For the last three years we have made some really incredible work and that’s all without an institution, without an infrastructure. It’s really been a labor of love.”

Melonie and Melorra Green.

That fertile crossroads where labor and love meet is a familiar landing place for twin sisters Melonie and Melorra Green who currently serve as coexecutive directors of the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco.  When Melonie Green describes her collaborative work with her twin sister, Melorra, she talks about breadth and depth. “Our partnership spans everything from media to fine arts to activism finding ways to be space makers, space keepers, we try to find ways to give it all away as best we can.”

“Giving it away” has meant coexecutive producing the Black Film Festival, hosting their KPOO radio show, The Ibeji Lounge, or curating for galleries like SOMArts and Oakland’s Omi Gallery among other shared ventures. This impulse to co-create began early during their childhood in Memphis, when they would wrangle nieces and nephews into dramatic skits, and has remained a constant through their 18-year artistic tenure in the Bay.

Similarly to San Jose and Osato, times of conflict have played an essential role in the evolution of their creative journey. Melonie believes conflict in a collaborative relationship is akin to fire.

“And what could we eat without fire?” she asks “It’s about not rejecting that energy but honoring it and it’s up to me to acknowledge whatever this moment is but not to let it spill over into everything you do because that just kills the vision.”

“Each moment like that is a seed,” Melorra adds, “What are you putting in the ground? Are you planting a seed of blossoming jealousy later? To blossom competition later? What seed are your dropping in this moment where this headbutting is happening?”

Some of the seeds the sisters are planting at present include The Twin Project, a documentary, book, and exhibit that engages ten sets of twins in order to explore how art impacts identity and a production house for Black artists and curators working on Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. Melorra views the present moment as a manifestation of her long held fantasy that she and her sister “would come together and really create a viable company or a movement where we’re able to bring our vision together, because no one understands you like your womb mate.”


Wiley naaman-Strasser and El Beh

That gift of deep understanding is an element that actors and musicians El Beh and Wiley Namman-Strasser also cherish in their artistic partnership. The pair had their meet cute arranged by mutual actor friend Madeline H.D. Brown, who thought they might hit it off, when she realized they would be auditioning for Shotgun Players’ Woyzeck around the same time.

“I walked out of BART with my accordion,” recalls Namman-Strasser and saw this girl with her cello in the parking lot, singing Tom Waits.” While it would be three years before the two shared the stage, Namman-Strasser  credits their deep artistic bond to the time they spent seeing theatre and working on auditions together. “That was huge part of building our friendship. Learning about each other’s tendencies and opinions and esthetics,” he says.

“We are both really process oriented,” Beh explains, “We want to keep mining, refining, getting more and more specific. I don’t think either of us believe that there is an end to that. There is always more to discover.” This shared ethic of curiosity has supported the pair in their various collaborations such as Shotgun Players’ Our Town and, most recently, SF Playhouse’s Mary Poppins, with Beh in the title role opposite Namman-Strasser’s Bert. The opportunity to perform opposite each other was a motivating factor for both when accepting the roles.

“What was so huge about me having him as Bert was knowing I had someone I could trust in partnership with me...someone I could ask questions of and keep investigating with,” Beh says.

The project also allowed the two to reflect on that they have learned from each other throughout their artistic partnershipparticularly how they work through potential conflict.

“We have both really grown in our own awareness and our communication of our own personal boundaries and how we respect the others’ observation,” Beh says,“It’s definitely something that takes practice and we fail all the time but we also try to have deep compassion for ourselves and each other as we learn,” Beh says. A majority of that learning stems from honoring the ways in which they complement each other while making work. El Beh praises Namman-Strasser’s instinct to approach all collaboration from a “base level of grace and kindness,” while Namman-Strasser speaks to Beh’s willingness to communicate her needs.

“Something I have learned from working with Behand she is an inspiration in thisis about healthy boundaries, what I am able to give, what I am not able to give and when and how...That has been a really huge lesson for me.”

Celebrating the different strengths that each pair brings to the proverbial table is what Melonie Green calls being “hungry for the mashup,” an appetite that is unique to each partnership. For example, while San Jose christens Osato the engine of Campo Santo, she quickly counters that he is the heart. “Sean is the soul, he carries the legacy of this group. I admire that beyond all of this new work... there’s always that honoring of the past and the people that came before us. Sean is that memory.”

The mashup for Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon means harnessing the magic in the blend of their wildly different writing styles with Melcon maintaining the Austen style and global vision of the play and Gunderson providing the more incisive wit.  For the Green sisters, it consists of marrying Melonie’s ability to “start ugly and dirty and rough” with Melorra’s talent for refining and polishing the end product. At the end of the day, the Green sisters promote radical self acceptance of one’s own particular talents as the beginning of true collaboration and partnership.

“It’s really about accepting your way, allowing it to be fully what it is and playing fully with the other part,” Melonie says, “We have to get curious about our function and reimagine the work we do... to me that is self care, that is self preservation, that is love under new management.”

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