New Hampshire Theatre Projects Creates Theatre for Times of Trouble
New Hampshire Theatre Project has been making theatre with communities for over thirty years, and now in the wake of the Covid-19 Global Pandemic they are returning to their roots to create a new work for the stage. Resident and Company Artists along with Executive Director Genevieve Aichele and Artistic Director Catherine Stewart are gathering accounts from individuals, holding space for community dialogue, and reflecting on the new normal that the world finds itself in.
"We were in an emergency board meeting, and we knew we had to do something," says Stewart. The board, which consists of 11 members, 6 of which are new in 2020, gathered in March to discuss the effects of social distancing on the company and the 50-seat blackbox theatre that they run in Portsmouth's West End. As the gathered team of professionals, lawyers, marketeers, business owners and education specialists, and the staff discussed the emerging challenges, Marketing Director Janice Hastings shared a moment of reflection, "We just can't plan that far ahead, we have to think about what our community needs now because, we just don't know what this is yet!" And with that sentiment the new Artistic Director felt the spark of creativity. "So let's make a piece of theatre about that!" Stewart proclaimed.
We Don't Know What This Is Yet is a new play in production behind the scenes at NHTP, and even in its early stages there is a powerful value at the core of the piece. "Even, or perhaps especially, in uncertainty we can find beauty," explains Stewart. Stewart and Aichele are working closely with NHTP Resident Artist CJ Lewis to gather source material for the new work. As with other works created by the company such as Dreaming Again which explored the experience of immigrants coming to New Hampshire, or Neighborhoods which recorded the history of Portsmouth's North End and the gentrification of the city over many decades, We Don't Know What This Is Yet is a work grounded in the traditions of docudrama. "We are currently gathering accounts, stories, and experiences from the community," says Lewis. "We're doing this in a really thoughtful way, that aims to help individuals explore hidden feelings, moments of tension, or experiences that they might not be able to articulate just yet."
The core team spent the initial weeks of the project preparing the interview approach and structure. They then ran a number of test interviews with several demographics of company artists who are trained in utilizing non-fiction work as a basis of performance. Now, it's time to open the process up to the general public. "It's hard to know what to expect when the Working Title is as open as it is but we're hoping people trust us enough to leap into the unknown," adds Stewart.
So, what does participating look like? "Our artists will begin a video interview, with a simple focus and breathing task," Lewis says. "We'll provide a prompt, and from there let the responses flow." He adds, "We're there to truly listen to what someone has to say. We don't direct the conversation, we help it unfold."
Individuals who want to participate in this part of the creative process can visit https://www.nhtheatreproject.org/onstagenow to sign up for a 15-minute online conversation with one of NHTP's Company Artists. People can also leave a response on a dedicated phone line created for the project. The caller is asked to identify themselves and then they are given a prompt to respond to. An opportunity to submit a written response is also available, along with additional information on the project at https://www.nhtheatreproject.org/onstagenow.
The project team recognizes that the front line of this public health crisis are the healthcare and other essential workers who face the threat of Covd-19 every day. "But we've been asking ourselves, what do theatre makers do in the time of a pandemic?" says Stewart. "I like to think of us as Second Responders. Artists look at the world, we gather information and then we interpret it. We tease it apart and we ask difficult questions, we look for bias and unique perspectives. Then we turn those findings into work - pieces of art, music, literature and in our case, theatre."
What these accounts will become, the company doesn't know yet. "It's in the title, right?" laughs Stewart. "We have to trust the creative process. Right now we're gathering and at some point we'll sense we have enough to start to work with the source material - cutting it together and putting different ideas next to one another. Perhaps focusing on a story or two - who knows." The work may end up being presented on a virtual platform, or it might exist as a bank of stories documenting this unprecedented time. It might also find its way to NHTP's stage when the community who played a vital role in making the new play can come together and share in its magic.
For more information about New Hampshire Theatre Project, and how to support the company during the Covid-19 Global Pandemic, visit nhtheatreproject.org.