A woman slides a cabinet in front of a mysterious glowing door. A giant squid flees a sperm whale. A hockey mom operatically sings about “a Lake Superior nudist compound.” It’s time for Savage Umbrella’s Night of New Works.
For the last ten years, Savage Umbrella has presented works in progress to the public in order to gain feedback for the artist and invite the audience into the process.
This year’s presentations included: We Had A Second Bathroom by Eva Adderley and Jordan Lee Thompson, which followed a woman returning to her childhood home to discover secrets of her past and present; A Squid Has Three Hearts by Mark Sweeney which explored building a family in an uncertain world and the mysteries of life and the ocean; and Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County by Scotty Reynolds, a transplantation of the 1849 opera The Merry Wives of Windsor to northern Minnesota in the 1980s during the closing of the Reserve Mining Corporation. The pieces were influenced by fairy tales, biology, and Bruce Springsteen (listed by Reynolds as a collaborator on his opera). They were alternately beautiful and harrowing, ominous and uproarious.
They were also explicitly unfinished.
“What we’ve found is that audiences give much more useful and inspiring feedback when they perceive the piece as being unfinished with room to grow,” Managing Director Hannah K. Holman said, via email. “If a piece seems too polished, it puts up a barrier for the audience which leads to less feedback, and audience members sometimes feel the need to defend their opinions. Our goal is to create an environment where all thoughts and ideas can be heard and processed as part of a whole reaction to the work.”
Calling a work “rough around the edges” can be seen as a critique, but for this project it’s an aesthetic choice. “We find this phrase to be freeing,” Holman said. “It allows artists to focus on the messier, meatier parts of the work. They can ask bigger questions without feeling pressured to come up with all the answers or be memorized.”
Writer Mark Sweeney enthusiastically agrees. “It's liberating,” Sweeney said via email. “I was able to use the studio time to comfortably get lost in the process and not worry about the 'polish' of a presentation. I felt free to present snapshots of songs, scenes and physical compositions with none of the pressure of a finished work and I think this benefited the presentation.”
I’m someone who goes to a lot of play readings, and I was struck by how physical the presentations were. In Adderley and Thompson’s piece, a performer emerged from the titular second bathroom as a gargoyle and grew 500 arms and 500 legs by adding a second performer to their body. A character in Sweeney’s piece enacted a nightmare in which a crowd of people become a stalking squid only when her character’s back was turned. As a placeholder for a romantic duet in Reynold’s opera, the two stalwart Minnesotan lovers posed furiously to lively piano music, gazing into one another’s eyes with more passion than one assumed stalwart Minnesotans were capable of.
This physicality is no coincidence. The project leaders are creating from a shared toolbox of sorts, often the same one the company uses to create their own pieces. “In our own work, Savage Umbrella balances strong emphasis on both text- and movement-based creation. We believe both are important storytelling tools that work together to tease out the most intriguing and complex parts of the work,” Holman said. “As part of our initial ‘meet and greet’ session with all the project leaders, we have a hands-on sharing session with a few of our favorite tools to inspire movement creation, generate text, develop characters, and build ensemble.”
Sweeney embraced these methods in the rehearsal room. “I had done a lot of squid research for a project that never got off the ground and with the personal news of a child on the way; I had this idea for a show,” he said. “With Corita Kent in one hand and Greg Allen in the other, I armed my ensemble with these vague themes and we created a lot of compositions, either physical, text or musical.”
The piece as presented ended with a myth of sorts, about a little boy whose house has flooded and what happens when he dives back into the water. The story began as a writing exercise with three of the performers, but it seemed at first like that it would stay an exercise. “It was a little weird, and I think after we read the scenes, most of the ensemble assumed we'd shelve them. But that little boy stayed in my mind,” said Sweeney. At a later rehearsal, Sweeney asked the team to discover what happened next. “Within twenty minutes they had plotted out this new story told with a lot of the physical modeling we were working on, and it was fascinating and full of wonder and eventually touched on so many of our themes. It was a discovery.”
It’s the kind of discovery one hopes for in a collaboration and the post-show discussion, many audience members said that the myth of The Boy and The Shopkeeper, as Sweeney calls it, really resonated with them, myself included. The discussion was lively and well attended. Artistic Director Laura Leffler facilitated with an eye toward constructive comments, asking questions like, “What did you want to see more of? What did you want to see differently?”
Each program also contained feedback surveys where audiences could write more detailed comments and observations, or share things they may have been shy about saying in front of a crowd.
“One of my favorite written survey answers from last year was, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I liked it!’” Holman said. “Of course, during our post-show conversations, we would try to dig in further to a comment like this, but it’s pretty awesome to know that an audience member had a positive experience with something they didn’t quite understand yet! To a new work maker, that’s pretty sexy.”
As a new work watcher, I agree. If making a play is like cooking a meal, the Night of New Works was like having the chef offer you a tasting spoon. Some flavors aren’t fully developed, maybe something could use a bit more mixing, but you really get a sense of what these works could be when they’re done simmering. And I’m hungry for more.