Acting on Activism

The Iowa City area seems to be experiencing a renaissance in the area of live theater. In recent years several new organizations have joined the long-running Riverside Theatre and Iowa City Community Theatre in putting on local shows. Working Group Theatre is one such organization and in the last two years they’ve gained notice for their site-specific productions and presentations of new work by younger playwrights. I spoke with them before a rehearsal for their new production Atlas Of Mud.

Artistic Director Sean Lewis and his wife Jennifer Fawcett (associate director of Working Group) are graduates of The University of Iowa who returned to Iowa City after having completed playwriting residencies at theatres in Denver and Philadelphia. With Martin Andrew (Producing Director) and Josh Beadle (Managing Director) they founded Working Group in August of 2009 out of desire to present new work that engaged with social issues affecting Iowa and the Midwest.

“A lot of the issues that are happening in this state right now are things that are at the front of the national debate,” says Lewis, “Between Postville, gay marriage being passed before New York state, Burundi and Somali refugees throughout Des Moines. It’s amazing to me what’s going on.”

The Working Group founders see themselves as part of a growing group of artists and professionals who have worked elsewhere in the country and then chose to return to Iowa City. Jennifer Fawcett says “There’s been a really interesting artistic migration back to Iowa City. A number of artists we know, people that are in their 30s, they want to live in a different way. It becomes very practical, it’s just about time and space. Art can’t happen without both of them. I love big cities, but I need time and space to do what I’m going to do.”

Fawcett is the author of new work Atlas of Mud, which Working Group will be premiering Dec. 3 at Riverside Theatre. She says the play was was “originally inspired by flood mythology, before Hurricane Katrina and the Iowa floods. I wasn’t personally affected by Hurricane Katrina, but I was definitely affected by the Iowa flood. So that sort of has been swirled into the play.”

It is the largest production the company has produced. “Atlas of Mud is an epic thing,” Fawcett says, “We’ve basically got a 23-foot boat on stage, six actors plus a small chorus. It starts in what seems to be a recognizable world but it moves into the land of myth. It’s a retelling of the Flood myth. It’s very much about how we create hope in the face of disaster.”

Working Group put their plays in social context by including panel discussions about each play’s subject. The Sunday matinee of Atlas will feature local environmentalists, who Producing Director Martin Andrew says will “talk about the threats, what you do to prevent pollution, what you can do to prevent runoff,” adding that a portion of the proceeds from the Sunday matinee will go to Iowa River Call, a spring event to celebrate the Iowa River and educate schoolchildren about conserving and restoring Iowa’s rivers and streams.

By utilizing unconventional staging locations (they’ve previously performed on a farm and around a back yard pool, for example) and adding supplemental programming to engage all ages in the social issues their plays address, they hope to attract an audience beyond the usual theater-going demographic.

Martin Andrew said “We have these brilliant ideas about how we can make this–from the moment you buy your ticket to after the show, when you’re in your drive home…but first we have to build a 23-foot boat on stage.”

Atlas Of Mud debuts in the not-so-unconventional (but well-loved nonetheless) Riverside Theatre on Friday, Dec. 3.

An Interview with Working Group

Artistic Director Sean Lewis
Associate Director Jennifer Fawcett
Managing Director Josh Beadle
Producing Director Martin Andrews

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LV: Where do you think your company fits in the continuum of Iowa City Theatre?

Martin: If you define a professional company as one that pays their actors, then only Riverside falls into that category. We hope to one day to pay our actors. In terms of what we’re doing, actors that normally get paid are working for us right now and they’re doing it as volunteers. I think that says something about what they think that the quality of what we’re doing, maybe the belief that some day it will pay off. Also there’s a sense of responsibility for us because they’re giving up their time, in very busy schedules to work with us.

We do not do Godspell, that’s not us.

Sean: We do mainly new work. We do work that tends more towards social or political issues. Our big interest is creating a way for topics that are major issues in Iowa right now. Our big goal is to make our company as well the issues that we’re approaching within the work to be part of the national dialog. None of us except for Josh are from Iowa originally, we all came here and either decided to stay or move back. We all went through the University of Iowa… And I know a big thing for when Jen and I moved back a big part of what we were talking about — we’d both done playwriting residencies at theaters in Denver and Philadelphia — we kept coming through Iowa and a big thing for me was just a lot of the issues that are happening in this state right now are things that are at the front of the national debate. Which is something I found fascinating. I was in Philadelphia for a year and I was working at a theater that it’s entire mission is political, social work. And they’d been around for twenty years, really well respected, but the thing is on the coasts, you truly are preaching to the converted. You’re not going to see sweeping change in Philadelphia, it’s as liberal as it’s basically going to get. But in Iowa, there’s just things happening here that aren’t happening anywhere else. Between Postville, Gay marriage being passed before new york state, Burundi and Somali refugees throughout Des Moines. It’s amazing to me what’s going on.

So big part of what I was interested in was how do we approach those issues by living where the issues are happening. We’re also very ambitious. How do we make a company that can be in Iowa that still has a national reach and a national reputation? So touring has become a big part of our early mission. We just toured our first show up to Michigan and it’s going to go on to be performed other places. It’s a bigger ideology thing. because the idea is you can’t have a career … I’m from New York originally and I have a lot of friends who are playwrights or actors and they hate New York and they feel they have to live there, or they live in Los Angeles and they hate Los Angeles and they feel like they have to live there. And we just want to live here and a big part of it for me was thinking about changing that dynamic of being allowed to make work anywhere and make it just as legitimate, that it’s still about the work not about the location. So we’re actually doing a weird thing, we’re starting to branch out and tour things from Iowa. Usually things come from New York to the regions. We’re starting to talk with companies about bringing shows from our region to New York, which we have a benefit of having either worked with people or known people before we moved here, connections that allow for that.

But I think it’s an important thing that has to happen. Technology makes it easier to do but also, I don’t want to see another f*cking play about a rich 25 or 30 woman who is really upset about .. SCENE OPENS, NEW YORK APARTMENT … as soon as I read that, that’s not the plays we do either. As soon as I read that, I don’t think that’s the country. It doesn’t relate to me and I’m from New York. I start to read though about … SCENE OPENS: IOWA FARM, FORECLOSED, HISPANIC BOY RUNS IN. Suddenly, I’m going to read that play because I’m like “OK this is already something shifting and I’m at the first stage direction. I also want to make that play. So being here seems to be the better option for it.

So between what’s happing in the country, the financial freedom being in Iowa allows us we’re also allowed to make whatever the hell we want.

Martin: People are coming back here. People are moving from LA, and you might know this too, they’re coming back. Because they can’t afford anything in those spaces.and they’re finding an openness and a freedom to live they can’t find there. That’s exciting. We’re putting the call out: “Come on! Come on back!”

Jennifer: There’s been a really interesting sort of artistic migration back to Iowa City. A number of artists we know, people that are in their 30s and they want a different, they want to live in a different way. And I really wonder in the next 10-15 years if there’s going to be … I feel like we’re at the beginning of a larger shift. Some of those big cities are maybe … I don’t know, I read New York is hard to live in as an artist. It becomes very practical, it’s just about time and space. Art can’t happen without both of them. I love big cities but I need time and space to do what I’m going to do.

Sean: and you also have to be able to fail I mean, the thing is if you’re paying $2500 a month you’re work invariably becomes safer because you understand that a theatre is only going to do a three person play that’s not issue based, that’s not idea based, because they know they can sell it, a lot sooner than you’re going to do an 8-12 person play about something. I just don’t have as much interest in a 3 person play that’s about nothing. So we want to do bigger work but that might fail, that’s the only way that stuff ends up actually being great.

I think that’s something that gets really skewed too. Most of the art forms are highly consumer based in a way that they never were before, or that they gradually become … it hurts the work.

Martin: as an actor in this model with the play that we just did Denali, we did it 4 times in Iowa, now we’ve done it twice in Michigan and we’re hoping to do it for a week in Cincinatti, then Chicago. It becomes distilled. You move into a brand new space, you com in an hour before, you fix this, you fix that, you realize we didn’t need that, we didn’t need this, all the fat gets trimmed away. You get left with what’s essential, and you start as an actor to develop and make choices that you would never get to make in a standard run of a play. That’s what’s exciting for me about the model for me as an actor.

Sean: The writer we worked with on Denali this guy Austin Bunn we went to school with who graduated from the Writer’s Workshop, for him it’s great because the play keeps growing. Instead of just sending it out and getting rejection letters — the rejection letters are always absurd: “We love your play it was amazing except scene 2 was a little bit confusing” and that’s about as deep as it goes. Now he’s actually seen his play 3 or 4 times. And now changes are happening because of that. SO the play is getting stronger every time that we do it.

??? and as an actor, changes happen because of you. Because you find something.and he’s like “Oh my god! I never…that was…” you get written around which is kind of cool.

Jennifer: you have a feeling of ownership too that you have with a normal run.

LV: What is Denali about?

Denali is a 3 character play mainly about authorship and authenticity. It’s about 3 friends who go up to climb Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, only two of them come down. One of them dies up there of mysterious causes. One of the two that survives writes a book about it, and the other one move back to their home town and never moves forward. He moves back to their home town and dates the sister of the guy who died. And it takes place when the writer comes backs to that town to give a reading of the book, and they all get together.

What we like about it is that it sounds very naturalistic but then it moves around in time, so you meet them in the present then you move back to the past on the the mountain and between the two you start piecing together the crime. Then it moves forward to a Nancy Grace type talk show. It’s kind of a combination of the James Frey incident of authenticity. Like, who owns the story and what’s true about the story, as well the whole John Krakauer Into Thin Air thing. What would have happened if the only persons that made it down were Krakauer and another guy and they had disputing ideas about what actually happened.

That one’s been a very cool project to do, we’ve known it for a while, Austin wrote while we were in grad school and basically wrote for us to be in. We flirted with the idea of doing it since we were in school and then decided to kick off the season. It’s a movable, exciting piece so people are inviting us to do it.

Jennifer: It’s an hour long, 3 actors, 2 chairs and a table. But within that there’s a mystery.
Last june we did a piece on a farm which was actually the second piece that we’ve produced in a natural setting and it was a children’s play. It was an adaptation of Odysseus, and we called it Odysseus, Iowa. So it was a family friendly show and we went all over this beautiful farm —

Sean: it was a promenade so you walked from scene to scene around the farm.

Jennifer: And now we’re doing Atlas Of Mud which is this epic thing. We’ve basically got a 23 foot boat on stage. Six actors plus a small chorus. We’ve got a fantastic set that’s being created by Sean Johnson who’s the technical director of Riverside Theater but he’s also a visual artist in his own right. Skye Carrasco who is a local musician. So Skye has a Beethoven Sonata in the piece that’s really important. It this is what Martin meant at the beginning was like all these artists and people are coming to us, there’s this sort of energy that is happening. And we’re making contact with people and saying I want to work with you, and lets find a way to make that happen and we are finding a way to make that happen. It’s really exciting. There’s this wonderful team for this production that’s growing. Some of those relationships started with Denali, some of them started with Odysseus, Iowa, some of them started with the play before that which involved a swimming pool.

Sean: The truth is, we’ve been lucky. Part of the trust that we’re gaining with people is doing smaller projects where they start to say “I really enjoyed that I liked working with you and we believe in the next project.”

The touring has worked that way. We’re in Iowa so we’re working without booking management, without the type of things you have in New York. But every time we’ve done a show we’ve been invited to another city, another place to bring it. That’s ultimate goal in my mind is that we start working without New York, but still maintaining the level of career that we all want to have. And also maintaining the level of work that people can’t have here. It’s nots anyone fault, there’s just not enough equity theater, professional theater in in Iowa City to support people for a year.

LV: There’s a general problem of Iowa City being a great place but just small enough of a market that it’s missing a critical mass for a lot of things.

Sean: We were amazed to get the cast that we have for this show it’s basically like an all star Iowa City… it’s the best actors I can imagine for getting a show in town. And it was completely easy, it was no wheeling deal, it was like “we’re doing a play. you want to do a play” “YES” It was great, it was fantastic. And it’s partially too because people want to do something good and exciting. And new! The fact that it is big and unwieldy.. It’s a really challenging piece, but I think that’s what a lot of the actors like about it because we’re not just doing another Neil Simon comedy where it’s like a waltz, it has a beat. It’s a different animal.

LV: So what is the elevator pitch for Atlas of Mud?

Jennifer: It starts in what seems to be a recognizable world but it moves into the land of myth. It’s a retelling of the Flood myth. It’s very much about how we create hope in the face of disaster. It was originally inspired by flood mythology before Hurricane Katrina and the Iowa floods, and then the play has been shaped tremendously because while I started working on it these huge events happened. I wasn’t personally affected by Hurricane Katrina but I was definitely affected by the Iowa Flood. So that sort has been swirled into the play. It’s sort of about the end of the world but really about the beginning of the world. Another thing we’re really trying to do is cultivate community. Everybody knows the demographic that generally goes to theater and so we’re really trying hard to find ways to push beyond that demographic. We have a Sunday series at the Riverside Theater that really tries to push programming different directions. We have got remarkably different audiences in for those shows. It’s incredible, one show is all people under the age of thirty and another show is all people over the age of 50. It’s all over the place.

So with this show we’re also organizing a number of events around the show. Post-show discussions, panels.

Sean: It’s a different kind of talk-backs. I don’t know how interested people actually are in the “how you learned that many lines” talk-backs. It’s not a lot of actor talk-backs, it’s more about bringing people in to talk about issues that are important to the community.

Josh: The first night we do the show we have this panel of people from all the other theaters actually. And we’re going to talk about the Iowa City theater scene. What does it need, what do we have, how could it be better?

Martin: At the Sunday matinee, because the show has such environmental themes we wanted to link it up with different groups that are working towards bettering the environment, specifically for me, focused on the river. We have Fred Myer from backyard abundance to talk to people about how in their backyard they can filter out pollution and prevent runoff to the river and and urban flooding. We have Kelly Putnam who is the commissioner of the soil and water conservation district. And Kate Giannini who’s a soil and water conservationist. Chris Vinsonhaler who’s the director of Iowa River Call, amazing lady, a professional storyteller. And then Joe Henneger who’s the founder of Blue Planet Green Living, which is a really great website. So they will have a panel and talk about the threats, what you do to prevent pollution, what you can do to prevent runoff, and a portion of the proceeds from that show are going to go to benefit a healthy river.

Jennifer: We did a couple of these panels after Denali, and I think it’s a great way to reach beyond the usual theater demographic and really try and foster a sense of of community. Also to say that theater is more than just what happens at 8 o clock and then ends at 9:30 or 10 when the lights go back up and you fold up your program and you leave. It’s bigger than that and it can foster conversation. So we’re actually trying to do something about that and see what happens. Using the piece of theater that also hopefully entertaining but as a springboard for something else. I think that’s different in this community.

Martin: It’s linked to our idea “it’s not over when the show’s over.”

Jennifer: Theater is an event. I think that your experience begins as soon as you buy a ticket.

Martin: We have these brilliant ideas about how we can make this from the moment you buy your ticket to after the show when you’re in your drive home … CDs you can play on the way to the theater. We have all these ideas, but … step by step. First we have to build a 23 foot boat on stage.

Jennifer: We’re also four people holding multiple roles in the production of the show. There’s a lot of juggling. That’s how it goes.

Sean: We just want to explore the shit out of it.To be honest. It can just be so boring. Theater is a dirty word almost like politics in a way. It’s like as soon as you hear it it’s like “Oh that’s when I sit down in a crappy chair and I watch people pretend to be somebody for like an hour in front of me, it’s miserable.”

We’re just constantly just pushing how can we make this as exciting as possible across ages. Music and sound are a huge thing for us. We’ve got a guy that designs who designs rock and roll light shows to do the lights for this show. It’s going to be a mix of Skye, Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails and … which actually sounds crazy that sounds like a bad sound design but it’s coming together really well. I watched a movie like “The Social Network” and I left that movie thinking “why the f*ck aren’t people writing about the sound design?” because as good as the movie is, it’s such a sound of our generation, it’s pulsating, it’s amazing, I was blown away. I mean I loved the movie but it’s like encompassing in a way that theater forgets to be. People kind of look at the proscenium and say “that’s where the play stops and you just watch that.” It’s like “f*ck that!”

Josh: which is sad because it the most capability to break the proscenium.

Martin: The only advantage of theater is the capability to break the proscenium. Other than that why are we just not at a movie? I can eat popcorn…

Sean: That’s the thing with Denali we’ve been doing, at our tour stops we’ve been putting people on stage.

Martin: we put people… at one of these places this amazing theater, this old corset factory that had been renovated into a theater, we got there no one was there, we were going from room to room and there were all these bedrooms, it was like Wonderland. They had this amazing stage and lights set up, we took the audience and we put them on stage with us. So they were like this close, we were performing at their feet. There’s like no way, you can’t lie…

Sean: A part of that is how our generation is, we have these iPhones and everything at any moment you can escape into your own world and decide to bail out. You can bail out any moment you really want. So it’s become a big increasing issue I feel like, in looking at how to put together plays and make them work is how do you not give an audience the opportunity to … because I don’t even think people are looking to bail out it’s just that we’re so used to it, that if for a moment you’ll be like “oh it’s a long scene change I’m going to see if I’ve got a text message.”

Martin: I think that’s why we should do more site specific stuff. You take somebody you put them, like, “I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what’s coming. I’m not just sitting in a seat, I’m walking out to this thing, and I don’t know what’s around that corner.” They’re heightened in way that they don’t get sitting down in a darkened theater.

For the first play we ever did it was in the back yard of somebody’s house, because it required a pool. Nobody wanted to do the play and we we were like “we’ll find a pool.” So no one knew when they came to the play no one knew where they were going. SO they find this huge house —

Jennifer: We didn’t advertise where it was because it was a private home so you had to actually call me and reserve tickets and I would give them direction.

Martin: So they show up they’re like “what? where?” and beside the pool in this setting. Already they were heightened they’re ready to receive something.

Jennifer: the feedback after that show was just so many people were just like “that was so fun. like i had such a great evening! coming out here I got a glass of wine and a brownie. And I watched this hour long play, it was a great play, very well performed, I hung out for a little bit after.” They still went and just saw a play but there was something about it that was different. The level of engagement was so much higher. And people were saying “I can hear crickets!” You hear crickets every night! But tonight for some reason it was really exciting for you to hear crickets because they were part of the play.