Lyle Sweppenhieser is the 19-20 Education and Outreach Apprentice, and will be serving as the director of the 19-20 ASFWD Apprentice Cohort’s Original Piece, FIVE TIMES AROUND.
“You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself” – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
I love collaborating on projects, and I love telling stories. When I discovered devised theatre, it felt like I found something I never knew I was looking for. Devised theatre as an alternative to the conventional, and I realized pretty quickly that I do not enjoy theatre when it is “conventional.” I like plays that defy expectations, are dynamic and can only be seen live in a theatre. The first devised production I ever saw was ANIMAL FARM at Baltimore Center Stage, and I was sold. I couldn’t believe that I had seen a production like that. The actors were moving throughout the space in a way I had never seen before; there were montages, puppets and signs all over the theatre. After the show, I took my program home and began digging in and researching. I wanted to know what allowed for something like that to exist. When I noticed that there was still a director for the production, I knew I wanted to work on shows like that. Towards the end of my time at York College, we began working with compositions a lot, and I felt something inside me was clicking. I was really starting to understand the process and how it worked, and then after graduation, I felt like I had all these tools that I was unsure of when I would be using them again.
I was always interested in directing. In my first directing class, we were assigned to read “A Director Prepares” by Anne Bogart. I read that pretty quickly and moved onto reading “Viewpoints” by Bogart and Tina Landau, and then “Culture is the Body” by Tadashi Suzuki. These three books have become some of my greatest resources. Whenever there is an obstacle to work around, I look back to these books. They may not always have the answer, but I find they often point me in the right direction. When we started devising over Zoom, I made a list of the challenges that could come up. Using that list I went back and looked at “Viewpoints” to see what we could do and couldn’t do in a virtual setting. Moment work was very challenging, but composition has worked really well. The book does such a great job at breaking composition down into elements, that it made it easy to pick and choose what specifically would work for us.
Devised theatre is creating something from nothing, and there are many different forms of it. It starts with an idea, or a spark of inspiration. A group of artists then get together to create a theatrical piece from the ground up. The biggest thing about devised theatre is that it is all about collaboration, and everyone who was involved has their voice in work. There are so many different ways to create devised theatre, some of my favorite examples are The Siti Company and Elevator Repair Service.
I was excited for the opportunity to devise a piece with my fellow apprentices at American Stage for many reasons, but mainly it was the support of the organization around the piece, and the fact that all of the apprentices are insanely talented. I couldn’t wait to work and collaborate with them. There is nothing like collaborating with a group of artists to create something new, something out of nothing. So when American Stage told we would be devising, I was instantly all in.
I think challenges and obstacles create the most interesting art, and we have had plenty of them since we began. While they can be frustrating in the moment, it is very rewarding to take a step back and realize that this group of artists are working on something really unique that hasn’t been done before. So having challenges is a great sign that we are on the right path. We had our first meeting about devised all the way back in October, just to discuss what our likes and interests are, what we love about theatre, and our knowledge of devised plays or works. It was a really great meeting, and we created resource documents with all of that information. We had more sessions as well as some really fantastic workshops with Theatre Grottesco and Kate Berg (SILENT SKY). As time went on, our roles within the piece, and the theme of it began to present themselves. I started doing preparation for directing the piece, reading a lot and taking notes on everything. We also had some really interesting discussions on art, and how it relates to our identity. I began to revisit my favorite plays, novels, films and paintings to try and pinpoint what is it about them exactly that speaks to me, and how I could bring that into our piece.
As March came, we were starting to have more sessions, and it was clear that we were getting into the next stage and a lot of work was on the horizon. But it was so exciting, we were really clicking as a group and there was so much inspiration and vulnerability in the room, it was clear that the piece was going to be special. Then all of a sudden, before we had a session one morning, I got a call saying that we need to prepare to work on this remotely. I felt like everything we had worked on was disappearing. How could we possibly devise a piece, when the very nature of devised theatre relies on everyone sharing a space and being connected? Devised theatre cannot exist in a vacuum, and we had ostensibly been thrown into a vacuum. We knew we were going to create something, but how?
Since quarantine has started, I’ve found a lot of comfort in my favorite books, films, plays and music. It is so relieving to revisit a piece of art and find that, not only does it welcome you back. but maybe it affects you in a whole new way. I have been having that experience reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” again. Early in the book, the character McMurphy makes a bet that he could break out of the psychiatric hospital by pulling a large metal control panel out of the floor and smashing the windows. He fails, but he takes pride in the fact that he tried. He walks away with his head held high and palms bloody.
I believe the Apprentice Cohort has adapted the best that we can. If you had told me back in October that we would be devising a piece through Zoom, I would have been less than thrilled. But the pandemic has created an unprecedented time, so we’ve had to adapt to that, and that is what makes this exciting. This has given us a chance to do something really special that can speak to this unique time. That is what led us to creating a new interpretation of “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio. Much like the original goal of the Decameron, our goal with this piece is to provide a document of life at this unique time, and to show how storytelling can bring us together and unite us.
The production will be released in episodes, available on YouTube in August.