The Age of Synthesis

Posted on November 30, 2011 by Peter Davis

By Peter Davis
Photos by Brooke Hall

As I get to know people in Baltimore and do theater with them, two (Erin Boots and Heather Joi) have suggested that I meet Mike Vandercook from Generous Company, the folks who run WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory. So I did. I had coffee at Spro with Mike and David White to get acquainted and land on an approach to the piece. Both are smart, ambitious, grounded, and stand for something. When we agreed to do the column, I asked them (as I have others) to think of a venue where we could have our conversation that might speak to what they do and inspire the photographer. Most of the time it takes place in a theater: Center Stage, Single Carrot, Glass Mind. Mike and Dave suggested a kitchen, and offered Brooke and me a meal after the interview. I’m all for breaking bread.

Present at the interview were Mike, Dave and Rebecca Eastman. When I asked them their titles for Generous Company they insisted it didn’t matter.

Peter

What is Generous Company?

Dave

Generous is a collective bringing ideas forward and providing direction for the company.

Peter

How did you come to be a collective?

Rebecca

Many of us went to school together. They are artists whose work we thought was strong, and we also felt that the way they approached their work was strong: generously, collaboratively….that their way of working melded with ours.

Dave

A fine example of that idea is working with somebody out of our field.

Rebecca

Right!

Dave

We have a mathematician. I knew when I met him and the way he described to me what he did, that he was somebody we could talk with; someone that was looking at their field in a similar way to how we look at our field. That was bringing the same spirit of adventure that we want to have. Something outside of what we do.

Rebecca

And being excited about going to theater and talking about theater with us. About how he was seeing different patterns and structures within the theater we saw together. Those conversations started to shift into what we were doing at WordBRIDGE, and his interest in that.

Dave

And now he’s a full collaborator in that process.

Peter

How did you end up in Baltimore?

Rebecca

Dave got a job here. Once we got here we realized this was a place we wanted to stay for awhile. We liked the atmosphere.

Dave

We told Mike (they met in Kansas City, MO) this is a great place to do theater and work.

Mike

I spent 2 or 3 years visiting. When I finished grad school, I came down so we could finally have a core company in one place for awhile.

Peter

Which came first, Generous Company or WordBRIDGE?

Dave

WordBRIDGE was founded in 1994 in St. Petersburg, Florida by Richard Rice; modeled after the Playwrights Laboratory at the Sundance Institute. He wanted to provide opportunities to pre-professional writers. I attended that as a playwright in 2003 and was taken with it. That was a real watershed moment for me about the philosophies of generosity. I talked to them (Rebecca and Mike) about it. Then WordBRIDGE was supposed to move and the places it was to move to couldn’t pull it together and make the Lab happen. Three years being dormant. We decided to take it on, a program for playwrights who are underserved. In 2006 we moved to take WordBRIDGE over. We had the people, the skills, and the company to put this Lab back together and breathe new life into it.

Peter

Because if you do that and succeed then what happens?

Dave

As a playwright I wanted to give back to playwrights. We, as a company, love new work. Empowering writers. We believe WordBRIDGE is the most effective way to empower writers.

Rebecca

Empower and nurture. Part of it is to retain relationships with each playwright after they’ve been with us. Some come back as Dramaturgs. They feel like they have a home at WordBRIDGE.

Dave

Some call and volunteer, “Can I come back and cook next year?” How can I just be present within this world from year to year?

Peter

Dave, you called it a watershed moment for you.You went from what to what?

Dave

I went from being a playwright who didn’t necessarily know what my role in a rehearsal room was. Didn’t really know what it was to revise a play, to rewrite a play, to work with actors, or to have a vision.

First time I took a play to WordBRIDGE I was pretty comfortable with it and then rewrote 60% of it. Made it into a play that really said what I wanted to say. Because I had artists… a storytelling artist sit down and tell me what my story meant in terms of Greek Mythology. Now all of a sudden you’re getting into archetype…the larger world in which your work exists! For me, that was the moment. I had only been a playwright in college. WordBRIDGE provided me with my first professional interaction.

Peter

WordBRIDGE…a bridge from what to what?

Dave

Training to the profession.

Peter

If WordBRIDGE is the answer, what’s the problem?

Dave

There are about a dozen of these types of labs around the country. They’re focused on emerging works, but none of them is focused on emerging writers. We’re only going to accept writers that have never had a professional interaction. We solve the problem of that writer not having to compete with those who have been professionally produced already. There the focus is on the work rather than the writer. We give them the same opportunities professionals are getting, but very early on in their careers.

Peter

What do you (Generous members) get out of it?

Rebecca

It feeds my creativity for a year.

Peter

In what way?

Rebecca

I can experiment as a costume designer with the process in a way I could never do otherwise. Every day the play is different. So every day I can respond to the changes in the play through my work as a designer. But, it isn’t just clothes, drawing pictures of clothes, it’s also about a room of resource artists—some are theater artists, some who are not—and getting to pick apart this play, word by word, on a board, and having these fantastic discussions with visual artists and scientists and psychologists I would otherwise never be able to have, every day, with about 6 different plays for about 2 weeks. I leave those 2 weeks physically exhausted and artistically filled to the brim.

Mike

In theater there’s a big difference between the artistic and production sides. The production side doesn’t get to participate in those conversations very much. With WordBRIDGE I’m in the room having these conversations on a daily basis.

I think of some theaters as product driven institutions, producing a thing. I view Generous Company and WordBRIDGE as service institutions. We provide services to writers, artists, and to ourselves. I can give in a meaningful way.

I cook 2 meals a day for 60 people for 2 weeks of WordBRIDGE. That’s one of the roles I play, along with administration, Executive Chef. We all throw in. When a Director has his rehearsal cancelled that day that Director shows up in my kitchen saying, “Hey, what can I do?” It becomes this incredible collaborative environment, not just in the rehearsal room but the community in general. We move that onto our production model. When we do a show we spend an extended period of time on these things and we get together for a weekend or a week at a time with all 10 or 11 of us, and we eat meals together and work together and we have this collaborative process. For somebody who spends their time in front of a computer screen and a table saw, to have those interactions and conversations is welcome.

Peter

Living together.

Rebecca

Living life.

Peter

The cycles and rituals of life.

(PAUSE)

What does a day at the WordBRIDGE Lab look like? Is each play a universe unto itself in terms of writer/play development process?

Dave

Absolutely. The only thing we try to define is the amount of rehearsal time. What happens in that time is between the playwright, the director, and the dramaturg. They chart the course.

Peter

How do you make the match?

Rebecca

Lot’s of interviews and conversations.

Dave

Interview 16 playwrights to get down to 4 plays.

Rebecca

It isn’t just finding the right play, it’s finding the right playwright. Once you get to know them the rest of the team comes together.

Dave

A director tends to find his own niche, where they’re going to land. I talk to directors (many new to the process) for hours to make sure we’re on the same page.

Peter

Who has the last word?

Dave

The playwright. It’s flexible. We can change up a team on day 1. The actors get it. It’s not them. All the artists know we’re there to serve the play and playwright.

Mike

Everyone checks their ego at the door, except the playwright. They get to keep theirs.

Rebecca

It’s a generous collaborative environment about the play.

Peter

What are you fighting for? What standard to you bear? You have a knife clenched in your teeth, you’re going to battle for what?

Mike

To do good work for the right reasons. Many choose work based on what they think the audience wants, or funders want. Create programs to get grants, not realizing that what comes with it is infrastructure to serve product. We don’t want to do that. We want to do work we feel strongly about, passionately about, and we want to do it on our terms. To focus on process. Help people make leaps they couldn’t make before.

Dave

A way of doing work that is personally satisfying. That fills us up as well as breaks us down, on our terms.

Peter

What are you against? Where you draw the line in the sand and say “Fuck it, not on my watch!”

Dave

Arrogance.

Mike

We take our work seriously and ourselves, not so much.

Peter

Why do we need playwrights and new plays?

Dave

For myself, in the United States, our theater is new. 1916 is when our theater started to take shape. When O’Neil started crafting serious drama, taking us away from melodrama, an adoptive form. So, we’re still really trying to define our voice. We’re still finding our topics. Our culture wasn’t represented on the stage until less than a hundred years ago. The reason we need new plays and playwrights is because we’re still trying to play into that conversation that the rest of the world has been having for centuries.

Mike

Art is R & D for culture. You experiment, ask hard questions, pit things against each other, and see how they come out. You can experiment with things that if you did them in real life would have dire consequences.

Peter

What can Business learn from Theater?

Dave

Stepping outside your bubble. If you’re an accountant maybe you talk to an artist. Maybe we’re in the Age of Synthesis.

Mike

Art is a collaborative form, where every person is critical to its completion. In business, people are dispensable and treated as such, not as a community with shared purpose.

Peter

Center Stage will host the next WordBRIDGE. How did this relationship come together?

Mike

They came to see our production of, I Am the Machine Gunner, loved, and we struck up a conversation which ended with “Anything we can do to help, give Center Stage a call.” I did. Over time, I shared the WordBRIDGE story with them. When Kwame came on they talked to him and he felt strongly about our model, and they offered us space this summer.

Peter

Your selection criterion for WordBRIDGE playwrights emphasizes voice. What do you mean by that?

Dave

A story that hasn’t been told. A way of telling a story that hasn’t been seen.

Rebecca

Places in the world we haven’t heard stories from. That’s part of it too.

Dave

Rhythms! It’s hard to describe, but I connect it to Jazz.

Peter

Where circular time has no value.

Dave

None.

Peter

In the 3 years I’ve been in Baltimore, Machine Gunner is the only show you’ve produced. How do you decide…and then what?

Rebecca

There was no choice whether to produce Machine Gunner. The minute we saw it we knew. We saw it in Slovakia in Russian.

Dave

I walked out of that performance—not speaking a word of Russian—knowing who I wanted to cast and that I wanted to do it…purely off of rhythm.

Rebecca

And commissioned the English translation on the walk home.

Dave

We started with the actor a month later and work shopped it for 2 years.

Peter

What’s next?

Rebecca/Dave

Bad Panda. (By Megan Gogerty).

Dave

We all love the script.

Rebecca

It’s a WordBRIDGE script.

Dave

I was at an art opening in NYC and a friend of mine came up to me and said, “The next thing our company must do is Bad Panda with him in it, and pointed to one of our other actors. If one actor is going to come up to me and demand we use another actor in a great script—

Peter

—I’m listening.

Dave

I’m listening. I brought the news back to them (Rebecca, Mike and others) and we’re all like, “OK!”

Rebecca

We love Megan, we love the script, we love the actor, we HAVE to do that.

Mike

The projects choose us.

We also have a 3 week residency in January at Theatre Project.

Dave

Called Generous Company’s Gumbo. We like gumbo. It’s the metaphor for what we put into our work—feeding your soul. So, we’re doing 17 new pieces in January in 3 weeks as a gumbo of what Generous Company does.

Peter

I can’t wait to take my friends to see it. Thanks for sharing who you are, what you want, what you do, and how you do it. You give me hope that life is good, Baltimore is good, theater is good, and we’re all going to make it.

Rebecca

Here, here!

Dave

Let’s go have gumbo.

*

And so we did. A delicious meal by prepared by Mike with home made andouille sausage and Rebecca’s to-die-for apple pie. We ate, we laughed, and we talked about theater and life.

Their Lab, like all labs, is conducted behind closed doors. You can’t see it or touch it before you decide to support it with time, energy or money. Not only that, risk and failure are built into the process. Most enterprises acquire talent possessing the skills to minimize risk. Generous does the opposite. In business you call failure unacceptable. In theater we call it rehearsal. Rehearsal is where you learn what doesn’t work. Rehearsal is where you try things, where you go for the big “what if.” Generous Company and their WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab are a beautiful leap of faith.

6 Comments

  • Courtney B. December 5, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Baltimore is such a theater town! And now I see it has been greatly enhanced by this endeavor!
    Brava!  What a generous and productive project to undertake for burgeoning playwrights!  I hope I cross paths with WordBRIDGE at some point in the future.

    Reply
  • cyria smills December 2, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for the info. Would’ve otherwise never known. And I am so excited about Bad Panda coming to town. I love Megan Gogerty and her work! One of the most talented theatre people I’ve ever met. Been hoping there would be a chance to see it one day in person. When? When? 

    Reply
  • Boot December 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    This is so invigorating! When I see a story like this I know I live in the city of my dreams!

    Reply
  • Justin December 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    The pictures totally take you there.

    Reply
  • Anne Fulwiler December 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Terrific article. Thanks for sharing news about this great company

    Reply
  • Peter December 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Brooke, the pictures!

    Reply

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