It’s five months since Yinzerspielen ended and five months that this blog has been silent. A few times between then and now, I’ve been encouraged to reflect, but I haven’t felt particularly ready. The planning and implementation of Yinzerspielen took place during an intense year of my life, a time of seemingly countless transitions and daunting decisions. I was writing my senior thesis as I was writing You Can’t Get Lost in America, applying for graduation as we were applying for grants, and considering moving out of Pittsburgh for good as I was boarding a plane to Germany for the summer. The Yinzerspielen experience was hard to form opinions about; it was too integral to my process of forming opinions about what I’d do with my life at 23 with my B.A. in physics/philosophy of science/writing, my mixed love of/frustration with theatre, and my restlessness.
Five months later, a lot has changed. I live in Chicago. I work as an intern for About Face Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company, just finished the Fresh Eyes Project with Red Tape Theatre, am assistant directing/co-writing an adaptation of Iphigenia, and have a play in the Sketchbook X festival at Collaboraction. (And as so many American theatre artists do, I support my extravagant lifestyle by working at a restaurant.) As I’m getting adjusted to this direction I have — for the moment — settled on for my life, I find that Yinzerspielen comes up constantly: in interviews, in casual conversation with other theatre folk, in collaborative environments. And here are the things I find myself constantly saying or thinking about:
- Our group created our own language. I mean a literal language of strange bastardized Germenglish, Engerman, where we’d stumble over our words and exclaim “My English fell down!” or sprint across the parking lot at the Abraxas in Augsburg shrieking “DU! Du bist du!” But I also mean a language of shared experiences and a level of trust and understanding that were absolutely crucial to the success of the project and to our survival as collaborators. We’d know what we meant, for example, if one of us described someone’s behavior as “very American” or “very German,” because there was an unspoken definition we’d built as a group. What I think we sometimes tended to forget was that this was a private micro-vocabulary that couldn’t necessarily be applied to the world outside of the group. “American theatre” in our micro-vocabulary actually referred to the way that Christina, Cory, Lauren, Parag, Mary, Lily, Martel, Jackie, Cara, Dale, Amy, and Jeremy do theatre; “German theatre” referred to the way Nora, Basti, Vinz, Simon, the Evas, Mareike, Iris, Ulli, Julia, Katharina, and Wolfgang do theatre. Both terms are also somewhat informed by a few productions we saw in Germany and the States, but not wholly, because the whole group didn’t always see those productions and it wasn’t a referent we all had. Though each group certainly represented to some degree the American or German perspective on theatre and methodology of creating theatre, each group was undeniably composed of very young theatre artists engaged in figuring out their artistic identities and voices and how they themselves feel about theatre. A micro-vocabulary is important but it’s also dangerous. It allowed us to communicate and understand each other, but I think it sometimes tricked us into thinking we knew more than we did. We are all still apprentices. A play is never finished and an artist is never done learning.
- Communication is SO IMPORTANT. Communication is central in collaboration. Why? Because effective communication is what allows everyone to feel ownership of a project. If you feel out of the loop, you don’t feel qualified to contribute to discussions, to give suggestions, to have any kind of artistic say-so.
- International theatre is hard and it is expensive and it is scary and it is wonderful. I’m not sure that we ever did an adequate job of justifying our commitment to it, and in fact I think it’s something I’ll continue to struggle with personally over the coming years. Why is international collaboration important? At the moment, I suspect the answer for me goes something like this: Theatre is an art of immediacy. It is, as Peter Brook said, written on the wind. And we are a global society. Thanks to Skype, I still talk to Nora in Augsburg (and to Christina, who now lives in Germany) about as much as I talk to friends who live in New York or Pittsburgh or L.A. Physical distance shrinks daily as travel becomes ever faster and more commonplace and convenient, as the internet takes over (you know the US Postal Service is petitioning to drop Saturday delivery because they’re losing money?), as we become ever more aware of how the global economic situation affects our day-to-day lives…Political isolationism is simply not an option anymore. Cultural isolationism ought not to be, either.
- We took a lot on our plate. And we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. And I think we ended up with something really cool. And next time around? It’ll be that much better. As long as we retain a commitment to learning and growing, and thinking creatively. I learned so much during Yinzerspielen, on my own, through our experiences, and from my German and American colleagues. I have learned so much since then from working with the companies I’ve been working with in Chicago — about development, staffing, delegation, financials, hell the whole crazy nonprofit world, programming, fundraising, networking, marketing…It has only strengthened my belief that you gotta know everything. EVERYTHING. And that there are always new things to learn. I am totally surprised (and this goes back to my first point), after having spent 4 months as an intern at two established theatre companies, by what I didn’t know about American theatre. Just think how many more new hidden assumptions I’ll be bringing to my next international experience, ripe for exposure!
- Young theatre artists in every country have to be talking and analyzing and thinking about the future of theatre. We shouldn’t want to just become part of the system. We should be able to think critically about the system, because it isn’t a perfect one. And that’s another reason for this kind of collaboration. It’s another tool that helps us think critically about our own system and about unfamiliar systems by colliding them with one another. It’s a diagnostic tool, in a way. BUT — here is the big, big but — it is too early for us to draw conclusions from it. Not after one collaboration. Not when we all still have so much to learn. Use it to identify our assumptions, the cracks in our foundations, the blips on our radar screens. But I think the next step is to investigate further the things we have identified.
And that last point is why I am trying to go to Germany next year to study German theatre practices, in depth. And it is why I am working with a bunch of different American theatre companies now. It is the scientific method, in fact. (Y’all know I was a physics major, right?) Form a hypothesis. Then test it. You can’t leave out the testing step and jump straight to confirmation or disagreement.