Storytelling is at the heart of culture and without culture, human beings do not survive on the face of the Earth. Therefore, as long as human beings survive, the theatre--always dying--will also survive. Each nurtures the other through the darkest of times; disease, war, and famine. The theatre is medicine, the theatre is healing. The theatre is the creative embodiment of our collective consciousness. The theatre always finds a way.
Enter The Black C Art Gallery and Performance Space with its founder Ani Collier - an international dancer, choreographer, director and visual artist joining forces with Creative Director Lauren Warhol Caldwell, actor, director, teacher, creative artist, former Creative Director of the Hippodrome Theatre for near three-decades, and former assistant to Liza freakin' Minnelli!
They call it an experiment, and it is generally agreed among reasonable people that science is a requirement for survival: Tea for Two: COVID-19 SOCIALLY DISTANCED THEATRE - 2 Actors, 2 Audience Members and now, an August Strindberg One-Act Play from 1889 (Influenza Pandemic) re-imagined and interpreted as a modern mashup of visual, sonic, psychological, theatrical dance & prose.
And I'm invited!
So imagine, I approach the facade of the space, almost invisible to casual passers-by, the windows blocked out with paper. There's no telling this is Gainesville's most diverse gallery and performance space Downtown from the looks of things.
A simple but tasteful sign indicates you have arrived:
Inside, two actors at a respectful distance from me, the Director and a stage-manager/sound & light person. The stage is set. A table with iridescent shot glasses, each filled with a mysterious liquid. Umbrellas. Black tapestries adorn the wall. Two chairs on either side of the table. An array of lighting instruments spaced out along the ceiling. Even at the Covid-safe distance, with my face-mask secured, I feel finally a sense of true intimacy in this modest space - intimacy denied by our pandemic. I am greeted warmly by the Director.
"Would you like some tea?"
"No thank you."
"How about a beer?"
"I can't say no to a beer."
"This is your seat."
And then we talk.
Actor Sara Morsey, elegant and brightly shining - I paraphrase: "This is needed. We need it. The audience needs it. We're performers, it's in our blood. We're made to do this. This is an experiment." Sara, by the way, is a treasure of an actor - capable of expressing the entire range of known emotions and occasionally those unknown. Classical, yet punk. Soothing, edgy, raconteur. To have seen her in the Hippodrome's Suddenly Last Summer, or Doubt, or as Amanda in Glass Menagerie is to see the craft in its highest form. I've told her many times that in Doubt, she was better than Meryl streep was in the film.
I ask her if, outside the stage, just knowing theatre continues is important? Is there a social consciousness on which Tea for Two and The Stronger is felt. Yes! To know theatre continues in the service of humanity's higher ideals, even outside the performance space, it is a healing matter one can experience even sequestered safely at home.
A reward just to know theatre still carries on.
"I have always been fascinated by the work of German playwrights," Lauren Warhol Caldwell tells me. "Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart, JoAnne Akalaitis, Richard Foreman, I can go on and on with these artists that I've really felt a connection to, to the kind of work that they're doing. In Black C Gallery, this is my chance to do that."
I gather the solidity of her point, say, versus the somewhat structured confinements of traditional regional theatre. Not that the Hippodrome, under Caldwell's creative direction, didn't experiment, break conventions, push boundaries, provoke audiences...they did. Beautifully so. They just didn't do it so damn close to your face, so personal, to the point that the line between actor and audience is all but removed and in a way, you as audience are in the play.
In Ani Collier's multi-faceted performance space, restrictions become freedoms, intimacy transforms into the unbounded expanse of imagination. Here, convention is upended, pushed, pounded, heated, tested, measured, this is an experiment; an experiment with art - the non-measurable. The measure is only the found and lost moment. This is where you mainline theatre directly into arteries which nourish the brain and thereby the soul. This is immersion. A particle and a wave, a mixture and a solution, all happening at the same time.
"It's highly collaborated with these two, since I've known them and worked with them for so long. It's a mash-up, and then I make the final call."
Lauren continues, "It was especially fun to come back to it. We did it about a year ago, but I didn't think it worked so well. Returning to this piece, there were a lot of things we tended to. The most gratifying is to always dig deeper. We changed quite a few things."
Indeed! The original play, a one-page short, the two characters are Mrs. X, who speaks. Ms. Y, who does not. On the one hand, a battle of wills over a marriage, on the other hand a reflection of self. In this collaborative modern retelling, we the audience hear Ms. Y's thoughts, some of which come from an entirely other piece, a short story called Mistress of Many Moons by Sylvia Brownrigg. Each work elevates the other. Brownrigg's story contains one of the most beautiful and moving passages I've ever heard articulated in any theatre. You should hear it.
Bringing unique and overlapping skill-sets to the piece, Sara and Ani speak to each other and to us in the forms of dance, mime, movement, light, words, music, and thoughts. The use of space is mesmerizing, especially given that within the bones of the structure, much of the choreography is improvised in the moment. This is true organic composition. Actors will literally leave the building, welcoming in the exterior ambience - light and sound from the streets, if only for a moment, to remind us of our collective agreement to suspend belief and welcome fantasy. They work with umbrellas, flashlights, glowing hula-hoops, and iridescent plastic shot glasses that remind one of either chess pieces or stars in the darker black-light scenes.
It's a short work, running about a half-hour, but the experience goes beyond. When the lights come up, there is a conversation - audience, director, actors, and stage manager. How was this music chosen? Which character had the power? Were they two facets of one character? Is it night or day or both? Where are we? Are the drinking of the shots a competition? Are the umbrellas for sunlight or rain? Why is this so meaningful in Gainesville 2020 as it was in Sweden in 1889?
Afterwards, we must have talked for an hour. The play went by in what seemed like twenty minutes, the conversation of an hour, in ten. I asked a few questions of the light and sound engineer.
"What is it like operating Bob Robins' lighting design and Lauren Caldwell's sound for this production? Are you just firing cues, or are also you a collaborative participant, an actor of sorts with the others?"
Laurie Tejada, who was seamless and perfection in her technical work, said there is emotion, there is timing, there is precision, there is a living relationship in how she comports with the performers and the show.
"That's the only way to do it!" Sara adds.
Of course Laurie Tejada is also the Stage Manager, a revered position of high authority after the Director has done her job. If you've not heard the quote, I'll share: "If all the world's a stage, then the Stage Manager must be God."
The music choices, courtesy of the Director, evoke nostalgia. Classic and classical moon songs, with a few ear-popping Caldwellisms. Ani's dance is evocative, resonate. Somehow, through movement alone, she draws us in, effortlessly balancing on one leg atop a precarious plastic chair - excitement, fear, the body as voice. If I tried to do that, I'd break a hip.
"I'd rather dance than speak," Ani assures me. And yet she speaks, powerfully so, with dance.
There is no experience like this. I dare say they reach something new.
Human beings have the capacity to engage creativity unlike any other living thing. To be faced with the menace of an invisible destructive force that dispassionately has the power to silence our voices, here an opportunity arises to speak more loudly, more clearly, more profoundly in new ways; ways discovered by the necessity of creativity. To die to survive.
An opportunity for just you alone, or you and a guest, maybe three if you're lucky but that's it, to enter into this shared space, safely, enjoy some tea and be welcomed to wonder, to marvel at the foundational magic of storytelling, and then to share your voice with the voice of theatre itself, this is what Black C Gallery and its multi-talented muses challenge you to experience.
BLACK C ART GALLERY
EVENT: Tea for Two Performance Series
(Based on August Strindberg's One Act Play)
Director and Playwright:
Lauren Warhol Caldwell
Ms. Y / Emily