By Andy Horwitz, Founder, Culturebot Arts & Media, Inc.
The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.
In June 2013 I went to see The Talking Band’s play Marcellus Shale at the La Mama Theater in New York City’s East Village. I’ll be honest; I was skeptical. I had heard the play was about fracking and I attended the show fully expecting to be subjected to a didactic story told through familiar diatribes about the environmental and economic destruction wrought by corporate oil on unsuspecting American citizens.
I guess somehow I forgot that that is not what The Talking Band does.
Marcellus Shale, inspired by Talking Band members Paul Zimet & Ellen Maddow’s firsthand experience when their upstate New York community was divided by fracking, offers a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of this divisive and contentious issue.
The opposing views of a spectrum of characters – a veteran with PTSD, local farmers who sold their rights, and those who refused, women “Prayer Warriors” from the local church, spectral “Men In Suits”, Occupy Wall Street-style radicals – all are given equal weight and complexity. The story is told in such a way that each character has respect and dignity; they struggle to maintain their human connections even as they hold ideologically irreconcilable positions.
In Marcellus Shale, The Talking Band moves beyond the talking points and into the underlying questions we all face when struggling with life-altering (and possibly life-threatening) decisions: “What really matters to you? What would be the last thing that you would give up? What do you consider a good life? Have you lived one? Are you living one now?”
After the performance Paul and I stood in front of La Mama on East 4th Street and talked about the play. He told me about the process of making the play, of the challenge of bringing the voices and stories of his upstate neighbors onto the stage, of honoring their human complexity while staying true to the Talking Band’s 40-year creative practice of collaboration and experimentation in theater.
As we talked, we started to think about how the play might work if individual regional productions were developed through a transparent, collaborative, community-engaged process. What would it look like to engage local individuals and groups associated with the various ideological positions represented in the play in a collaborative, creative process of making the play?
But let me explain – and maybe this is a bit of theater “insider baseball” – The Talking Band’s original interdisciplinary performance work has been a cornerstone of New York City’s avant-garde theater community for 40 years. Founded in 1974 by Paul Zimet, Ellen Maddow, and Tina Shepard (all former members of Joseph Chaikin’s seminal Open Theater), the company has produced over forty new works marked by a commitment to radical collaboration and a fusion of diverse theatrical styles and perspectives.
For 40 years The Talking Band has been illuminating the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life through their elegant, eloquent, profound performance work. Combining richly textured music-theater with striking visual imagery, their work is infused with creative generosity that makes each show an experience that is as emotionally moving as it is aesthetically rich.
In a cultural moment where the infinite imagined futures of theater (and cultural life in America, generally) seem to be narrowed to a very few, mostly commercial and market-driven visions, The Talking Band stands in stark contrast. Their body of work and their way of working offers a powerful alternative, demonstrating the viability of a lived and living theater that is created by a community of artists and creates new communities around the ideas, questions, values and processes from which the work is born.
So we started imagining a framework where local productions of the play Marcellus Shale serve as platforms for civil discourse and civic engagement around the issue of fracking.
A conversation with Jan Cohen-Cruz led to a conference call with Scott J. Peters, Monica Hargraves and Rod Howe, where we learned about the Extension Reconsidered Initiative. After a thoughtful, wide-ranging and productive conversation we exchanged links and source materials via email. While reading Scott Peters’ preface to the new edition of Ruby Green Smith’s The People’s Colleges, we were struck by his words:
But people have more than problems; they have knowledge and creativity, hopes and ambitions, values and ideals. And they have a desire to learn and grow and to contribute to and make a difference in the world. Organizing opportunities for people to come together to develop, express, and pursue these things has been a part of what extension has done for over a century.
The belief that creativity and a desire to learn and grow is inherent in all people is central to The Talking Band’s understanding of theater as an art form; it infuses how they make their work and how they intend it to be received.
And as we consider the framework for building Marcellus Shale in and with communities, we are trying to be as expansively imaginative as possible. For inasmuch as it is a play about fracking, it is a play about people; it is influenced by Dostoevsky’s fiercely political novel Demons, some of the characters were inspired by the work of American photographer Alec Soth known for his “large-scale American projects” combining cinematic grandeur with the mythic scope of folklore, the design of the set and lights were influenced by the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who shares a similar aesthetic of finding the epic in everyday American life. So even as Marcellus Shale tackles the problem of fracking, it touches on many influences and poses questions about faith, family, community, ethics, history and philosophy.
Later in his preface to The People’s Colleges, Dr. Peters writes:
[The pursuit of the people’s college ideal] can be interwoven with gritty, down to earth problem-solving that involves ordinary, everyday things in ordinary, everyday places — things like weeds and diseases and pests on farms or disagreement and conflict in neighborhoods and communities. When it includes opportunities for meaningful contribution, for learning and growth, for the development and expression of people’s talents, power, creativity, imagination, judgment, and knowledge, problem solving can lead to personal and public happiness.
Our premise is to create partner cohorts comprised of a theatrical producing partner, an academic partner and a civic partner in communities affected by, or concerned about, fracking. These partners, in collaboration with The Talking Band, will develop and present unique versions of the play; the entire creative process will move in tandem with a participatory program of discussions, social events and open rehearsals.
We also hope that through this process we will provide local theater artists (and interested community members) an opportunity to be exposed to the theater-making practices of The Talking Band.
Over the course of forty years as one of America’s foremost collaborative ensembles, The Talking Band has developed a vast body of practical and theoretical strategies for making performance collaboratively and across disciplines. From acting to directing to music performance and stunning visuals, The Talking Band has pioneered an integrated, collaborative approach to theater making that resonates widely with young artists.
We are currently in the process of identifying and organizing local cohorts across the country and are in conversation with colleagues in Charleston, West Virginia; Telluride, Colorado; Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans. We are actively seeking additional partners in those cities as well as partners in Pennsylvania, New York and other communities where there is interest. We are especially looking for producing partners and/or academic partners who are interested in co-developing the framework.
If you are interested in participating or learning more, we’ll be at the Imagining America Conference in Atlanta, please find us. And if you are interested but unable to be in Atlanta, please drop us a line!
Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.
Photos courtesy of The Talking Band
Marcellus Shale Prayer Warriors
Golden Toad Ep. 2 SONGBUS
Golden Toad Ep. 2 GHOSTBUS