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Interview by Peter Davis

Photography by Bobby Kintz

Gumbo is a festival, a two week hot house to nurture and generate artistic responses to recent conversations on the work of Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist Dr. Eric Kandel about the brain, perception, and creativity. Generous Co. challenged visual artists, sculptors, musicians, and playwrights to read one accessible chapter from Kandel’s book on the artistic brain* and then create a piece of work in response.

* The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (2012)

All this and they feed everyone who shows up home made gumbo, too! Great gumbo takes time. So does great art. We don’t experience their shows very often because they aren’t obligated to a deadline. They don’t produce seasons. When their collective is inspired they go to work. They produce when the piece demands its ultimate collaborator the audience. These are artists, not by claim but by process. Driven, not by need, but gratitude.

 

Representing Generous Company in this interview:

Rebecca Eastman

Will Manning

Mike Vandercook

Dave White

 

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Answering the call.

 

PETER

How did (the first) Gumbo (last year) come together?

 

MIKE

As an opportunity to get several companies with new work together and check in with an audience. An opportunity people don’t get very often. Usually everyone is focused on trying to get to that end-perfect-thing before they let anybody see it. We wanted to create an environment where that wasn’t necessary. And to create an experience where people could come and enjoy the space, break bread and have conversations in between all the various works.

 

DAVE

It very practically came about because we had this show, I Am A Machine Gunner, at the Theatre Project (TP). TP invited Generous to become a company in residence, and asked “What do you want to do next?” We thought, well, why not have a festival that would encourage conversation, and create the environment we like with good food, good music, good art, and TP seemed to think that was a good match.

 

PETER

Explain the Gumbo concept.

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DAVE

Gumbo is something that’s been part of several people in this company’s lives. A few of us have roots that go to Southern Louisiana, and we really enjoy gumbo. It’s something that families and groups of people come together over. And gumbo is also kind of, what do I have here that I can put in this to make it better? So, it also implies that gathering of disparate things you might have around into something that brings people together for conversation, good times, for laughs, sing a song…

 

PETER

What’s the mission of Gumbo this year?

 

DAVE

The mission of Gumbo overall is to create an environment in which conversations can happen around new works and new ideas. Last year the mission was large: let’s have a lot of new works and new companies come in. This year it’s what if the new works have a focus? What if a lot of new works have a singular idea? And that idea is how the brain responds art and neurobiology.

 

PETER

How did you land on that?

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REBECCA

David picked up the Age of Insight out of curiosity and was pouring through it, and kept going, “You should read this part…and this part!” And talking to Mike, “This is fascinating, and ties into what we do, as artists” It really does. It’s about perception and memory and empathy, and all the things that theater can do really well, and more directly (than other art forms). He kept trying to get other people to read the book and—it’s a little intimidating—I don’t think anybody wanted to, at first, read this book on neurobiology! Then, the notion evolved into, let’s do a piece of art about this. At the end of the book Kandel puts out a challenge to artists. He said (paraphrasing) I’ve made this information understandable to non scientists, but this information will never get out to the world, at large unless artists do something with it.

 

So, we answered the call.

 

DAVE

Theater can be a great tool to investigate ideas. We can get swept up in story and character, which are wonderful, and the event we’re creating will have all of these elements. But, theater can also be an interesting way to say, I want to learn about fill in the blank. And through creating art about neurobiology we’ve all had the chance to step outside of our theatrical background and learn about something new in an in-depth manner. This is a journey to share that experience of learning with a larger group of people. And get people excited about thinking about these ideas.

 

PETER

Why do I need to know about neurobiology?

 

REBECCA

To me, by understanding how we think we are one step closer to changing how we think.

 

PETER

Wow.

I’m preoccupied, lately, with changing how I think. I realize my memories are really just fictions. My reactions to those fictions aren’t always useful.

 

REBECCA

We’re learning that these memories or fictions physically changed your brain. If you want to exorcise them, understanding how that memory is physically placed in your brain is one step closer to that goal.

 

DAVE

Memory affecting you is one of the 5 topics addressed in the piece we are creating. The 5 are perception, memory, emotions, empathy and creativity. We want to have a conversation with the Gumbo audience about how those 5 topics work together to create a conversation between the viewer and the artist around the art.

 

PETER

How did you sell this to your people? What was your strategy to get buy-in?

 

MIKE

This topic is not a hard sell in a company full of Geeks, let’s be clear.

 

PETER

I’m stuck on Kandel’s challenge to artists and Generous Company answering the call. What’s in it for Generous Company?

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DAVE

What he asserts in The Age of Insight is that Freud made a conscious decision to take one step forward and say I’m going to investigate the mind…mind being the ego, id and all those things, and brain being the biological function behind that. So, Freud took this step to mind. What Kandel is asserting, is that with the current technology, that next step beyond Freud is being taken. As theater artists we are engaged, not just in behavior on the stage, but also how what we do on the stage shapes other people’s behavior (audience). Freud has been key to the last 120 years of theater. So, the question becomes, if this (Kandel’s work) is the next step (after Freud’s) in this field of study, is this the next step forward in our field (theater)?

 

PETER

Heady stuff…how will you make this entertaining?

 

REBECCA

Once we understood, as best we could as lay people, the biology of all of it, we then set it aside. Now we’re focusing on the experience of it. The entertainment comes in seeing the stories that are inspiring us, out of the science that we’ve learned.

 

DAVE

We’re interested in the conversation. As we started to get excited about this and would reach out to others, they would get excited about it and say, well, I want to be involved in that project. As we got deeper into it we reached out to a bigger group of people. We sent emails to about 60 playwrights asking, if we send you one idea would you write a play responding to that one idea in neurobiology? And 18 playwrights said, yes, I’ll take a month and write a new play based on that.

 

I think that even though it’s heady, you have a whole lot of people trying to understand it and voice our understanding of it through our art.

 

WILL

It’s a lot about you, too, and people are endlessly fascinated by themselves.

 

PETER

What artists are involved in this year’s Gumbo?

 

DAVE

It’s a collection of about 40 artists from a variety of mediums; theater, art, music, all coming together to participate in the conversation.

 

WILL

Having just seen the movie Lincoln and hearing the way that Obama is setting up his Cabinet, similar to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, it’s about surrounding yourself with not-like minds to get different perspectives, to argue, hash-out topics. To polish a stone you need sand…friction.

 

DAVE

All 18 playwrights from across the country have a chance to participate, can see their work via live stream, and participate in the conversation with the audience via Skype and projection.

 

PETER

Why should I come more than once?

 

REBECCA

It’s going to be different every night. The Beholder’s Share (Generous Company’s piece) will run every night, and be evolving. What comes before that will be different every night, as well. Sometimes it will be a couple of short plays, or a reading of one. Different bands every night. You’ll want to see how the canvas (by visual artist Brian Baker) is evolving in the lobby. And there’s gumbo every night, so come have dinner with us.

 

We’re really hoping, as people come night after night, they can start to realize how last night’s piece relates to tonight’s piece and some aspect of the 5 topics. Essentially we’re sharing what we’re learning and you’re gathering new memories and those new memories are changing perception of what they’re seeing the next night.

 

DAVE

Our devised work (The Beholder’s Share) is based on perception, so depending on where an audience member sits on a given night will change their experience of it. The audience will be situated primarily on the stage.

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WILL

What I like about that is that you’re comfortable. You can ease into these “thinky” topics. It’s not uncomfortable like a classroom…it’s more like a coffee house.

 

DAVE

With comfy chairs and real coffee tables on stage to sit around.

 

PETER

After this what’s next for Generous Company?

 

REBECCA

We’re planning on continuing with The Beholder’s Share for a full production in August or September. Good chance it will be at The Theatre Project.

 

DAVE

What we’re presenting here is a 30-minute sketch. One of the things I’ve learned watching visual artists work, is that they aren’t afraid to do sketches before they figure out how the master work will come together. Our sketch of The Beholder’s Share will evolve over the 2-weeks and we’ll build upon that towards a full production. The mission that Mike set up for Generous Company is that we wouldn’t feel rushed to bring a work of art to life.

 

PETER

Dave, you’ve got one hand on the book (Kandels’Age of Enlightenment) and one hand raised in the air. It’s a Biblical tableau. Please…testify!

 

DAVE

This is what it’s about–Vienna 1900 when art and sciences both took a step forward by coming together. And it’s 2012 and the world didn’t end. Well, maybe it’s time to come together and see what’s the next step for all of us is; within ourselves.

 

Another thing I thought was fascinating is he (Kandel) posits the notion that if we understand what’s in our brains and how we function biologically we might begin to understand the limits of free will. This is something that theater has been concerned with since the Greeks! The question is what if the Gods aren’t on Mount Olympus. What if they’re inside of us? What if our destiny, our fate, our free will is inside? I think that’s something that theater has been trying to answer for a long time. This information brings us closer to being able to consider that question than we’ve been before.

 

PETER

I look forward to participating in the conversation.

 

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Generous Company’s GUMBO returns to Baltimore Theatre Project January 31 through February 9, 2013. This festival will consist of presentations of over 25 new works in various stages of development over two weeks.

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About The Author

Peter is a branding consultant based in Baltimore