Monday, June 2, 2014

Works in Progress: Searching for Sebald with Adam J. Thompson

Name: Adam J. Thompson

What is your role in Searching for Sebald?: I founded and am the director of The Deconstructive Theatre Project, and am the lead artist behind and director of Searching for Sebald.

Tell us a little bit about The Deconstructive Theatre Project: The Deconstructive Theatre Project is a seven-year-old Brooklyn-based not-for-profit ensemble performance laboratory that exists to devise and premiere new hybrid media work and that is currently creating a series of projects at the intersection of live performance, the neuroscience of creativity, and interactive technology. In addition to the creation and presentation of performance work, we also operate a collaborative devised performance education program for middle school students in Brooklyn, and a community social engagement program through which our audiences directly participate in the creation of the annual performance work.

How is the creation process going so far?: We create new work using a company-developed three stage creative process: Creation of Vocabulary, Development of Content, and Editing and Rehearsal. The first two stages are much more expressive in that company members are encouraged to try all manner of ideas without regard for feasibility or long-term viability. We’re currently wrapping up our three-month-long second stage of Searching for Sebald, and I’m pleased to say that it’s been an incredibly fruitful and orienting experience. We began this stage with a number of potential directions for the piece, and have spent the majority of our time exploring performance vocabularies and the relationships between those vocabularies as a means of trimming down the number of possible directions and moving toward a more fully realized dramaturgical structure. I’m looking forward to spending the summer working with my team to wade through the incredible amount of information that we’ve compiled, and to reassembling the rehearsal room in September with a firmer infrastructure in place. During stage three, we’ll spend more time editing and finalizing the performance toward its world premiere in early 2015.

What is the developmental process like for you as an artist?: I rely very heavily on the role of chance in my creative process. I often begin with a large and seemingly un-stageable idea, and trust that I’ll encounter the right resources and inspirational materials at the right time in order to realize the methods through which I can transform an abstract notion into a visual, visceral, and emotional performance experience. Collaboration is also a necessity for me, and I rely on my company members to pick up and run with my initial ideas, allowing me to respond to and edit their work toward a final product. I’ve spent the majority of this developmental stage of Searching for Sebald assigning small sections of the text to the company members, who subsequently use the vocabularies in our collective palette to construct small self-contained performance sequences. Each day, between one and three company members will mini-direct their own sequence, assigning roles and tasks, working with each of our designers in the rehearsal room, and presenting the piece for feedback and shaping. I will sometimes work directly with the creator of the piece on making alterations or exploring different facets of their idea, and I will sometimes make a mental note that the piece has uncovered a new theme or performance vocabulary that I’d like to explore later in the developmental process. I’m not the sort of artists who – like a more traditional playwright, I think – can work in a solitary space. I crave and in fact need a room full of people responding to my ideas and to whose own ideas I can also respond. I often say that we “write in space,” as our rehearsal room is always very active, with a lot of tasks happening simultaneously and a lot of energy zooming around. This chaos fuels my artistic sensibility, and I’m completely lost without it.

What is it like working with mixed media? What are some challenges, benefits, etc?: I feel very strongly that mixed media is an absolute requirement if we’re going to attempt to capture the fragmented experience of how we all exist in the world in the present. Working simultaneously with live performance, digital video, and analogue film, as well as with live soundscapes and manipulated audio, allows me and the other embers of the company to more accurately layer and integrate the simultaneous broad and deeply intimate or small experiences of our own lives into our performance work. The benefit of a live theatrical performance is of course the breadth of scope; to use a filmic vocabulary, every moment is a wide shot. Integrating digital video and analogue film into our work allows us to also explore close ups and more abstract and poetic methods of conveying narrative and emotion. I am also deeply interested in creative process as creative experience, and the mixing of theatrical and filmic worlds enables me to create two very different performance landscapes that feed into and off of one another in a single space. In my work, the cross-pollination of these vocabularies is an integral component of the structure of the project, so much so that no element can contextually exist without the interaction of the others. The challenges of mixed media, of course, are that computers, cameras, projectors and the like often pitch off the rails and we’ve on many occasions spent hours of rehearsal time attempting to figure out why a bit of programming won’t work, why a projection looks wrong, or how to flatten out a piece of analogue film that’s just been devoured by a 16mm projector. While these situations are always frustrating, the company members has become attuned to their inevitability, and are always patient and kind with their time.

Tell us a little about W.G. Sebald and "The Rings of Saturn": W.G. Sebald is a German expatriate writer who was born at the end of World War II and grew up in the Bavarian Alps before leaving Germany – first for Switzerland and then for England. He eventually settled in Norfolk, a county in the northern part of the country, just west of the North Sea. He trained as an academic (as opposed to a creative writer) and became a professor of European Literature and of Literature in Translation at the University of East Anglia before becoming something of an overnight sensation via the publication of four hybrid fiction/non-fiction prose books, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. Each of these books are primarily concerned with themes of memory and loss of memory (both personal and collective) and decay (of civilizations, traditions, and physical objects). They are attempts to reconcile Sebald’s own identity as a German expatriate with the atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly with the traumas of World War II and the resulting “conspiracy of silence” (as Sebald termed it) concerning the inability of the German people to discuss the happenings during and immediately following the War. "The Rings of Saturn", his third book, recounts - on the surface - a simple walk taken by a Sebald-like narrator along the North Sea coast through the English county of Suffolk, which is riddled with geographical and architectural remnants of the past. The true nature of the narrative is the mirrored meanderings of the narrator’s thoughts which extend to topics across time and place, including lonely eccentrics, Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, recession-hit seaside towns, Joseph Conrad, Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson,” Jewish exiles, and the massive war-time bombings of the 1940s. Sebald was widely rumored to be a top contender for the Noble Prize in Literature when he died tragically in a car crash in December 2001. His work continues to inspire contemporary artists working across all mediums all around the world.

What is the importance/relationship of memory and the wandering mind to you as an artist?: I have a terrible memory – most of my own personal history is a giant blank in my mind – so I’m very interested in an ongoing investigation of what memory is and how it functions. Memory, too, is so necessary for artistic encounters, as everything with which we interact is contextualized by our previous experiences. Searching for Sebald is in large part about this idea – how does who we are and the specifics of our own histories shape the way we experience and relate to art – here, a work of prose fiction. The wandering mind is such a large part of being alive, especially in this contemporary climate of mass information. I can recall being much younger and sitting and reading a book for hours, yet now I begin to lose interest or worry about other tasks I need to accomplish in a matter of pages. Such a small portion of our brains have been mapped, and I am excited by the relationship we are creating in Searching for Sebald between the narrator who is wandering the Suffolk landscape and discovering detritus of the collective past and my company members who are wandering the landscape of their own minds discovering remnants of their own personal past.

What is it like exploring neuroscience through creativity?: I stumbled into this interest in neuroaesthetics – the neuroscience of creativity – while we were in the early stages of creating our previous piece, The Orpheus Variations. I am interested in the relationship between content and form in my work, and the science provides me with a bit of a road map in thinking about and constructing those relationships – i.e. in creating a piece about memory, how do the different pieces of a memory coalesce in the brain?; in creating a piece about the relationship of an individual to a book, how does the brain go about transforming the symbols on a page into an internal emotional experience?

Why Searching for Sebald now?: Searching for Sebald is above all an attempt to create a performance that is about the people who are making it. Last June, as we wrapped up the reprise engagement of The Orpheus Variations at HERE, I began thinking about how I might make a new work that revealed the unique personalities of all of my company members; I had simultaneously just begun reading "The Rings of Saturn", and the book’s form of revealing the preoccupations of its narrator through his interactions with the landscape became the perfect model for and lens through which to execute this idea. I also wanted to continue to expand the forms of and ways in which performance vocabularies might interact with one another, and Sebald is a perfect collaborator for this exploration, as he is well-known for expanding the boundaries of narrative by seamlessly merging fiction and non-fiction and incorporating photographs into his texts.

What can we expect to see in Searching for Sebald?: You can expect to see the live creation of a documentary film that weaves together a trio of narratives that explore "The Rings of Saturn", my personal experience visiting the Suffolk landscape, and the relationship of the company members to the text. The performance is a visually and sonically immersive experience that collides live performance, digital video, analogue film, Foley soundscapes, and an original cinematic musical score. You can sneak peek at the process on Instagram using the hashtag #searchingforsebald, or join us for our upcoming work-in-progress sharing on June 4 and 5 at FiveMyles gallery in Brooklyn.