This is the third post in a series of guest blogs about our upcoming production, The Ravagers, which will be presented at Tarnish and Gold on March 4th and 5th. See the first post by playwright Blake E. Bolan here and the second post by director Sarah Teich here.
Today's entry is from Rachel Nelson, an actor, Savage Umbrella member, and participant in the US workshops.
"So for this next exercise, I want you guys to improv a wedding night. Here's the twist: the woman is supposed to kill the man. He's supposed to rape her. Who knows what actually happens, but start there. Got it? Ok, let's get started." Welcome to your first rehearsal of The Ravagers.
This kind of stuff isn't exactly easy improv, especially with a room full of people who just met each other. In my relatively short time working with Savage Umbrella, I've figured out this is just how they do things round these parts: intense, straight to the point, and full of risks.
I find my partner, and we retire to the corner. We start talking about The Suppliants, the Greek myth this scene is pulled from. This leads to a conversation about relationships, about power, about submission, about intimate propaganda. It's an odd sensation to discuss these kinds of hot button issues two minutes after shaking hands. In a culture obsessed with boundaries, there is something intensely cathartic about this kind of conversation with strangers. There's a kind of relief in just letting intimacy not be weird.
As I write this, the members of Savage Umbrella are trying to hash out our mission statement, and the conversations around that process have made me realize that this sense of intelligent and relevant risk-taking is at the heart of how many of the company members think about theater-making. Our world is changing constantly: reality is being renegotiated and altered every time we turn on the TV, fight with a loved one, lose a parent, move to another city, and the list goes on and on. Increasingly, we are part of a global awareness, a tangled web of identities that leaves easy conclusions in the dust.
"An artist can show things other people are terrified of expressing," wrote Louise Bourgeois. No shit. The Ravagers is a perfect example of this: we are making a play about everything that I've always been terrified to directly address in personal relationships. There is something powerful about that. Even this early in the process, I find myself returning again and again to the concept of catharsis. A cleansing. A dramatic change in emotion. A purification.
In order for theater to to serve as an active discussion and response to the world, we have to be willing to redesign the format, to find new ways of making meaning. For Savage Umbrella, this means a lot of talking. It means a lot of reading. It means a lot of challenging (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoints. It means reexamining the hierarchy of theater companies. And sometimes, it means improvising your way through a doomed wedding night with a complete stranger.
So eventually everybody gets up and does their scenes. Many of them are excruciatingly intense: this is every kind of subject matter that is theatrically stomach turning. Beautiful moments and ideas are exposed, dutifully noted and recorded to send to Blake in South Korea to eventually (maybe) find their way into our final script. Eventually, a couple scenes emerge that are funny. There isn't any way to improv sex without it eventually getting hilarious. This room full of semi-strangers rolls around laughing for a while, and I'm reminded how cathartic that can be. There it is again: this idea of release, of changing the emotional status quo. Maybe it's possible that the theater of the future isn't just radical and emotionally wrenching and raw: maybe it's full of laughter. Maybe sometimes, it's just really, really funny.