Art Talk with Rachel Grossman
From the premiere of dog & pony dc's A Killing Game, which included live and scripted tweeting by characters and audience. Foreground, from left to right: Sean Paul Ellis, J. Argyl Plath, and Genna Davidson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography
For thousands of years, theater has operated in pretty much the same way: audience members sit in seats facing a stage and watch actors and actresses as they perform. But at dog & pony dc, the line between player and spectator has become increasingly blurred. Using social media, games, and other forms of interaction, the company has sought to make the audience an active member of each production. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with dog & pony dc co-founder Rachel Grossman, who defined the concept of “devised theater,” and shared her thoughts on the intersection of art and technology, her journey to becoming a theater professional, and where dog & pony dc looks for inspiration.
NEA: What do you remember as the very first time you engaged with the arts in any way at all?
RACHEL GROSSMAN: For eight years before I was born and two years after, my father was a theater professor at a liberal arts college. So I probably was engaging with the arts before I actually remember engaging with the arts. He was a huge opera buff, so there was always opera being played every Sunday morning my entire childhood into teenage years. I took dance lessons and wanted to be a ballerina until my body stopped growing proportionally in a way that was beneficial to that. So I don't know that I can say I either remember learning how to swim or being in love with the performing arts because it was always a part of my upbringing.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a working artist?
GROSSMAN: My undergraduate degree is in political science with an emphasis in political theory, which I'm not really putting to immediate, obvious good use. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated from college and I was thinking, well, the one thing I could do is just make more theater. At that point theater became my primary art form, and I do mean theater-making sort of broadly. I performed, I had some directing, [I had] done a lot of backstage works and design works…. I ended up getting an internship at Baltimore Center Stage… So in the first 12 years basically, I was a theater artist in the sense that I was facilitating experiences through community arts projects and education programming for students, which was predominantly older elementary, middle, and high school, but I've worked or run programs from say, pre-K all the way through senior citizens. I've had the benefit of working at five major regional theaters in the DC-Baltimore metropolitan area…. So the trajectory to me becoming the artist that I am today is really about [realizing] I was making all this art with other people for them and facilitating those programs and those processes and finally said, "What if I make it for myself with my peers?" And then that transitioned into founding dog & pony dc. It transitioned into me leaving my 12-year career in education for I-don't-know-what and then immediately ending up at Woolly [Mammoth Theatre] working with them to help launch the Connectivity Initiative, which I think is its own form of artistry. And then eventually I moved on and focus now solely on dog & pony and its growth.
NEA: Before we move on to your current art practice, I’m curious, from your years working in arts education, what you saw as the benefits of that work?
GROSSMAN: It’s become a bit passé now to say, but I really strongly believe we are moving as an economy and a culture---both in the country and worldwide---from this information society to a creative and innovation information society. And with that shift comes a real need for changing the way that we are thinking and using our brains. American culture and education has been dominated by very left-brained, fact and information-driven, linear thinking.… I loathe to say no one is an artist, or that being a doctor or being a lawyer or being an accountant is not creative, but there is a [mindset] of “I learn these rules and then I apply these rules.” I think to be able to recombine ideas, to look to the next generation of ideas, to work collectively, to do any of the things that are being done in technology really requires the exercising of the right side of the brain and creativity. And I think that’s why arts education is so important because we need to be… training our youth how to think and how to be analytic and interpretive and how to apply knowledge and concepts in a way that is growing the idea and moving it forward. I think that's exactly what the arts do… in addition to just being awesome and fun.
NEA: Let's return to dog and pony dc. Can you talk about your mission, and also explain what devised theater is?
GROSSMAN: dog and pony dc is an ensemble-based, devised theater company focused on creating performances that provide audiences new ways of experiencing theater. So that's the mission speak for you. Breaking it down, we are a company of artists [who] create our own work, devising it collectively as an ensemble…. [We] all identify as cross-disciplinary even though some of [us] are professional artists making [our] living in one area.
One of the guiding principles of dog and pony dc, or an underlying tenet is called audience integration, which is about the intentional incorporation of the audience into the devising process, focusing on what the impact of the performance is going to be on the audience and what the role of the audience is going to be in the show. Role is [a] kind of elastic or flexible term. [It] could be the role in the narrative, the role in the experience. But it’s sort of seeking to exploit and capitalize on that special energy of a community of people that are in one room together. That's like glomming all the performers and the audience together into one so that all of us are the agents of action of the night out together.
NEA: Can you give that a little context? Is it a new idea, is it an old idea?
GROSSMAN: I think in some ways it [goes] back to the original roots of theater, and goes back to moments of theater happenings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The idea that we are acknowledging the audience as opposed to turning off the lights…and pretend[ing] theater is being produced in spite of the audience. We do our thing and you do your thing, and there are appropriate ways the audience can respond or engage with the work, but only as laughter or being moved or applauding.
So I don't know that it's revolutionary. I think all of us in the company, to varying degrees, were getting bored with going to theater and being ignored in the experience, or feeling like what was happening on stage was happening whether or not we were actually watching it. We're looking for experiences [that are] intentionally trying to move us in some ways. And certainly [we] would rejoice in experiences that literally moved us, asked us to do something or to be a part of that live experience.
NEA: Do you think you ever run the risk of having an audience member walk in and think, "I don't want any part of this?" How do you get a more traditional spectator to become comfortable with participatory theater?
GROSSMAN: We're always really conscience that at least right now, in the phase the company is in, we are not making work in a warehouse. We are not making work outside of an identifiable, traditional theatrical construct where we have a playing area and an audience area. If you didn't want to fully engage, and you wanted to step back and witness, that's perfectly legitimate and perfectly fine. There should never be anything that you are forced to do.
That being said, we construct our shows as delicately and intricately as possible. We tend to use the word “scaffolding.” So we scaffold the experience so that we are progressively trying to invite everyone every step of the way into engaging with the show to their maximum capacity and comfort level. Our show Beertown I think is the clearest example. The first thing we do before the show even starts is invite everyone to come with a dessert to the potluck. If you have brought something to the potluck, you're already taking a step towards saying, "Okay, I'll buy into this experience as something I am not just going to watch." Everybody gets a name tag, everybody gets a commemorative t-shirt. We count off in the audience. So just saying your number out loud is the invitation to engage in a non-traditional sense. But looking at our newest piece, A Killing Game, everybody is asked to change seats at one point---we call it "redistricting"---and everyone has a random color they are assigned. We say, "Okay, redistricting begins now," and we tell them where they go. But we don't say, "Everybody show me your purple card," so if you chose to just sit where you were in the audience and the audience redistricted around you, that would be fine. But we have yet to have that happen. I think that's because nothing is forced; everything is an invitation, not an expectation. There is a point at which you say, "Where is this going to take me?" and curiosity gets the better of you.
NEA: How do ideas spark for dog & pony?
GROSSMAN: All of our worked is framed or begins with some sort of question that we are interested in. We're interested in exploring the answer to a guiding question or an essential question. How do individuals navigate community? is the question for Beertown. How do we perpetuate hype in the face of crisis? is the question for A Killing Game. By the time we have made a piece and are performing it, we are actually posing that same question, through the performance, to the audience.
So to go back to this concept of idea and sources, for Beertown we basically started exploring the idea of individual within the community as being an American identity. [We] did a lot of work on how has that idea been expressed, did a lot of reading, a group reading of novels and other plays, and watching movies. A constant synthesizing between what ideas we are actually attracted to and then how do we make those ideas performative. I don't know what that process is other than just research, analysis, and then synthesis into performance.
For A Killing Game, it actually started with Eugène Ionesco’s play, Jeux de Massacre, which is translated into Killing Game; the phenomenon around the 1932 War of the World's broadcast which we heard about first in a Radio Lab episode; and the game, Flux, which is a card game with ever-changing [rules]. So it’s looking at these three sources and how they, in different ways, tell the story of the way we respond to crisis and emergency, and the way that people form community and play at crisis and emergency. The ideas of the show sort of grew out of that.
NEA: One of the other things I am really interested in is how you integrate social media into the productions. Has that always been a part of what you were doing?
GROSSMAN: A Killing Game has social media built into the performance, and Beertown has social media extend the performance out into the real world. Beertown had a town website, and characters had Facebook pages and some characters had e-mail addresses which everyone had access to and would e-mail. We made the decision to do that because it sort of serves as that final bridge between the world of the play and our world. [It] playfully legitimized a town that we made up in the eyes of all the audience members. It was sort of our version of program notes, if you will. In a program, they say, "This is the history of the play and this is the background of the characters and this is what the characters are like." But it comes from a very removed and academic place. So we just said, “What if all that information was given to you by a website as if it was written by the town citizens and headed by the librarian, and if you had further questions about things you wanted to know about the town or the history or something that happened in the show, you would just ask them?” Just like you would ask any person.
It seemed like the natural choice to do at that point and when we moved into creating A Killing Game, we were looking at hype and hysteria and how crises are managed now. Twitter and social media platforms are such a part of the way we communicate in times of crisis. You look at natural disasters: it's coming out on Twitter before it ever hits a regular news cycle. Sadly after the campus shooting at Virginia Tech, all of a sudden, nationwide campuses started text and Twitter campaigns in case of an emergency. So it just seemed appropriate that we should have that embedded in our show as part of the storytelling.
NEA: There's this huge discussion going on allowing social media in the theatrical space. What are your thoughts on this?
GROSSMAN: Because [social media] was a part of the story arc and the experience arc of the show, there is pretty much no problem from our standpoint about it. There's been very little problem from the audience's standpoint about it, to the point that cell phones go off in the middle of the show and no one actually turns their head to look, which is shocking. The first night that happened, where a cell phone loudly went off, I was very conscious because where I was sitting, I had most of the audience around me. I was very conscience that nobody flinched, nobody looked, nobody did anything and it actually rang a couple times and it went off. It was very low-key because we all had our phones on. It was sort of an acceptable part of where we were. The biggest concern we've had is people feeling like they might be missing something. [In] one of the scenes right now, there's an auditory series of newscasts that are tuning in and out on the radio, and there's a Twitter script as well. So if you are on Twitter and you're looking and you're listening, you get to see what characters are tweeting about it---that complements what's happening. And then of course you have audience members tweeting about what they are seeing as well. [But] if you don't tweet, it doesn't matter. You can follow along if you want to, or we'll send you what happened the next day or we'll publish what happened the day before---the scripted, so to speak, tweet. The Twitter components are always the same every night.
NEA: Do you think there's a way to integrate social media into more traditional theater pieces?
GROSSMAN: I am talking with other companies at this point about projects for that. I think a lot of it has to do with clear communication, and that's something we have certainly done with this show. It’s clearly communicating, “This is a part of the experience." There are a lot of perceived negatives. Like it’s going to be distracting, it’s going to ruin the design, people aren't going to pay attention to what's happening on stage, they are going to be so engrossed in their device, it's rude. I think those are all prejudgments that people have made before they have actually tested or used any of it…. I think we have yet to think creatively about how to use it, but we've been able to build up a lot of concern about what would happen if we did do anything. I feel like each theater or each organization saying, "We're going to try to use this type of technology, in this select way and see what happens," is a more healthy way to approach it rather than, "There are going to be all these problems, we have to contain it and control it."
NEA: There seems to be this really fertile ground where arts and technology intersect. Let’s talk about that space.
GROSSMAN: I think technology and Web 2.0 culture is a creative culture, a creative economy. I think when we look at the intersection, it’s because it is artistic. It is about generating ideas, creating conversation. And it is about storytelling. Stories are happening. People are self-curating all the time on the web through video and through Facebook, through Twitter. It’s like people looking at…an avocado and a strawberry and being like, “What would we do with these things? What if you put them in a salad and put some spinach on it?" They are not actually that different, but there is this perception that they are two separate things. Technology has this perception right now of being so accessible, because it is, and so immediate and so understandable and recognizable. And there are so many art forms that aren't, that don't have that perception of having open access and immediate sharing and the sense of community building, which is bizarre. So I think there is this idea that one can help us get to the other, to what we are missing in the other.
NEA: In your pie in the sky vision of ten years from now, how would you love to see theater transformed by technology?
GROSSMAN: This trajectory that we are on right now with using Twitter in the show is how we can really continue to expand and explode the live possibility of theater by using social media. How are all the immediate elements that technology provides us able to infuse performances, and also create greater access for people to engage in that live experience that may not actually be live in the room that night. Our dream, in some ways, particularly for A Killing Game, is that people would be tweeting from outside the show into the show and that would be affecting what was happening inside the show. So it takes our audience integration to the next level. Our audience could be in Hawaii.
NEA: How does that then expand your idea of audience?
GROSSMAN: I think it allows us to tap into arts experiences very much the way we'd like to happen to the lives of others. It creates a new vision for access. Accessibility is one of those words I kind of get a shiver about because I think it’s co-opted and buzzed so much… [But] if I am sending tweets [during a play] like "Oh my gosh, I just died," and "Holy cow, look at this woman, she's so crazy," and I take a picture of one of the characters and you say "Oh my god, what are you doing," and I am like, "We are at this play," and we start a conversation about what I'm doing in a performance that really challenges openly, and very publicly, what your perception of theater actually is, you're like, "Well, if I can take my phone in that's great, I would love to go in there.” I want to start controlling, self-curating, and having fun within this experience. Right now people are writing plays in 140 characters and I think that's interesting, but for me it doesn't expand the art. What's inherent within the art form is the live communal conversation that happens around a shared artistic event. So I am curious how technology can infuse and further exploit the live-ness, but also open up visions of what the art form is to others.
NEA: What do you think the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, do you think the community has a responsibility to the artist, and if so, what is it?
GROSSMAN: I am a theater artist that's drawn to making work that's conversational in nature. So I feel like the role of the artist is to be a conversation-starter. It's about framing a topic, a subject, a statement in a different manner and a different way than we have it framed for us every day. That hopefully suggests or provokes deeper contemplation and dialogue about that topic or that issue. Hopefully inherent in that is the artist then also is more of a provocateur as opposed to an entertainment…The artist is saying, "Let me challenge those ideas that make you comfortable, or that make you secure, or that validate ways that you think about the world and how you operate within it." I think that's the artist's responsibility, to serve its community---community being a very elastic word.
I think the community's responsibility back to the artist is to value and support the role of inquiry and of questioning.