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Blind Dreamers

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Sheryl Stoodley
July 25, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Artistic Director.

What is your show about?
With song, text, and live music, Blind Dreamers, a work of devised physical theatre, explores what lies beneath one family’s veneer of polite civility.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
A long time ago, I used to make up plays and adapt story ideas with the neighborhood kids. I would entice them with promises of glory, and then enslave them in endless rehearsals in my large cellar, which my family had given over to me as a creative space! At that young age, I had no theatre training and whatever we chose to believe and share seemed true enough to me. I was passionate about these moments shared with friends spending hours creating together- for me “serious play!” Some time later, I went to college and chose to study theatre. My training started with the Method, as so often happens in this country. I codified and intellectualized what I learned into a strict set of rules, thus providing myself with a solid set of ideas as to what was right and what was wrong-what was good and what was bad in theatre work. I fancied that I was becoming more discerning but I grew to dislike almost everything I was involved with in theatre. This was a problem. For while I enjoyed being able to analyze the work I saw from a specific point of view, I missed the risk taking, the experimenting and the trust in my own ideas-my own inspiration. How would the two ever merge? While I was engaged in that questioning, I happened to see productions by Andre Gregory and his ensemble’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” I also saw work from Joe Chaiken’s Open Theatre, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, and Kaleel Sakakeeny’s “Gertrude og Ophelia” from Stage One Theater Lab at Boston’s Center for the Arts. Here were productions that defied the definition of “good theater”. They had schtick, they had style, clarity of moment and engaging movement. They looked as though they might have been created by my friends on a rainy day in my cellar years ago-and they felt honest and true. Of course the actors in these theatre ensembles in the 1970’s, The Manhattan Project, the Open Theatre, the Performance Group and Stage One Theatre Lab, had amazing technique. Their evocation of child’s play was a deception- a deception of simplicity-the best kind in art. Why was their work so enthralling and why was it well beyond what audiences normally conceive of in American theatre? My conclusion was something was missing in actor training that they had discovered! So I went and studied a physical approach to acting with the artists at Stage One Theater Lab at the Boston Center for the Arts and worked with that ensemble for a number of years. What I realized was missing is what most young actors are missing when they begin the pilgrimage into a performing life-the ability to synthesize. Discipline and spontaneity, knowledge and instinct, technique and inspiration-how do you reach the place where these are integrated? A sudden simple insight: the BODY is the instrument. The crossroads exist within the body. In performance, the actor’s body---alignment, shape, senses, eye focus, impulse, sound, gestures, relationship to one another, honest connection, tells the story. The words, the text, the sound, and music must be supported by the truth of the actor’s body in each moment on stage. Start with the body. Movement doesn’t lie. This is why training in “a physical approach to theatre in an ensemble setting” needs to be required in all acting programs across the USA. I have worked to share this approach for the last 25yrs with my own ensemble and with student actors of all ages. To some it is a radical idea but I believe it is the only way to put inspiration, honesty and artistry back into American performance. (…Sheryl Stoodley/Artistic Director & Co-Founder/Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble based in Northampton MA)

What are some of your previous theater credits? (Be specific! Name shows, etc.)
Sheryl Stoodley, is Artistic Director and Co-founder of Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble, a project of Cultural Images Group Inc., Northampton, MA. and a member of the Network of Ensemble Theaters She has performed, taught and directed with regional and academic theatres throughout New England for the past 30 years. She has directed over 28 productions with Serious Play! including the premiere productions of Alice Tuan’s "Coastline" and Lenelle Moise's Matermorphosis which toured to the KO Festival. Other productions include:What’s Left is Not Right: Marat/Sade with new music by Elizabeth Swados; Becoming Antigone,developed in collaboration with the spoken word ensemble Universes; and, "Hamlet – Asalto a la Inocencia," an adaptation of the play with additional text by Migdalia Cruz and co-directed with Shakespeare & Company’s Jonathan Croy. Coastline toured to New York City and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for an acclaimed month-long run. Marat/Sade toured to New York City and London. Hamlet toured to the 5th International Women Playwrights' Festival in Athens. Sheryl developed, co-directed and toured “Milosevic at the Hague” to the October 2009 JoakimInterfest in Serbia where the production received an international theatre award, and a write up in American Theatre Magazine. Recently, Sheryl worked with NYC playwright Jessica Litwak on her original scripts The Snake & the Falcon and Wider Than The Sky; the latter received much acclaim as a staged reading at the Boston Museum of Science. Last year, Sheryl adapted and directed a staged reading of “I Am An Emotional Creature” by Eve Ensler. For the last two summers she has been developing her devised ensemble production Blind Dreamers inspired by the rehearsal process of German choreographer Pina Bausch. Sheryl holds an MA in Theatre from Smith College and is a professor of Theatre & Movement at Holyoke Community College. As part of her Masters work at Smith College, Stoodley conducted a three year program of theatre workshops with incarcerated women in Massachusetts, published two books of the inmates' writings, and developed, produced and toured an original play, Ain't No Man Dragged That Moon Down Yet. She has directed all of the presentations of “Celebrate the Children of Resistance” for the Rosenberg Fund for Children from Berkeley to Boston to NYC, working with Susan Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Danny Glover, Ossie Davis, Tovah Feldshuh, David Strathairn, and this past June with Eve Ensler, Cotter Smith and Angela Davis at NY’s Town Hall in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Sheryl leads workshops in the Serious Play! Intensive Theatre Training process incorporating the methodology of Tadashi Suzuki, Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints vocabulary and other ensemble-oriented physical acting techniques. Ms. Stoodley received the Jane Ahfeld Award for Dynamic Impact in the Arts from the Northampton Arts Council in 1999. (Contact Sheryl and Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble at seriousplaytheatre@gmail.com or visit our website at www.seriousplay.org)

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?
As a young ensemble actor in the late 1970s, I would travel long distances to see Pina Bausch’s ensemble perform whenever they toured to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music.) There was something deeply profound and truthful in the theatrical movement that Pina created with the Tanztheater that resonated with me. I was driven by the desire to create collaborative ensemble theatre that took as a starting point the condition of our bodies in revelation of human experience. Time spent training and performing at Stage One Theatre Lab in Boston, exposure to Pina’s work, my Smith College graduate work developing theatre through movement behind shadow screens with women in Massachusetts prisons, my studying and connection to the Suzuki exercises & the Viewpoints vocabulary shared through the SITI Company with Will Bond and Anne Bogart, all led to the founding of Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble and Training in 1992. Last summer some 20 years and lots of productions later, I finally felt ready to explore and embrace Pina’s rehearsal process as a starting point for a new devised production. I was ready to inspire and lead the composition work, and assign “actor tasks” toward unearthing the ensemble’s physical vocabulary. We are actors who move! I felt ready to watch, listen, edit and shape. We started what was to become BLIND DREAMERS, with 10 actors from 21 to 72 years of age in a large open space. We later introduced 10 chairs and a table. I am continually inspired to organize action in a way that addresses life itself rather than an imitation of life from a comfortable distance. In BLIND DREAMERS, the family members strive for connection while struggling to meet familial and societal expectations. Drawing from the actors’ personal experiences as Pina had done, and translating them into motifs of connection, personal encounter and striking interaction, I asked the actors to embrace a genuine sense of presence, vulnerability and offer an honest connection with the audience and with one another. The relationships and poetic narrative evolved through our intense work together over many months.

Which character from a Shakespeare play would like your show the best: King Lear, Puck, Rosalind, or Lady Macbeth -- and why?
King Lear would be the Shakespearian character I would most like to have attend “Blind Dreamers.” Though I didn’t make the connection at first there is a bit of poetic imagery in having the “blind” controlling old king in our audience. He would definitely identify with the Father character in our piece. Lear would more importantly know the frustrations of a father in trying to understand and communicate with his children and he would defend our Father saying that perhaps this man is merely doing what he feels is best for his family. He would identify with the slow but ever so inevitable unraveling of the bonds of family under the pressure of rules, custom, and social civility. He would recognize the power struggles and the personal struggles, that can rip families apart- and the exhaustion and tragic emptiness when things settle unresolved.

If you had ten million dollars that you had to spend on theatrical endeavors, how would you use the money?
Without question with a sum of money like that, I would seek to create a fund around which to raise support to provide more large open creative space for performing artists in this country. Large uncluttered open space with a smooth wooden floor is home for me. It's where I can return to with a new idea, or to regroup and keep my artistic bearings. Knowing that a space like that is always there, gives me the freedom to venture out, to be bold, to collaborate with others, and freely risk falling flat on my face. Space doesn't create a moment of movement, or write a monologue, or compose a soundscape, but it is where creative potential comes alive. It’s where your ideas first take flight and you are fascinated and scared all at once. Space is the firm footing for the creative act. Spaces like these are the artistic incubators that birth the new ideas, the new voices and the new perspectives into the arts much like the incubators of the "dot.com" days provided the ideas and companies that are changing the way people around the world communicate and work today. If the business analogy isn't enough, look to the natural world for a similar interdependence. Destroy the shallow coastal estuaries where sea life of all sorts spends its vulnerable formative years and you’ll lose the mature stock vital for food and commerce. Northampton MA built a reputation as an arts magnet in large part on the backs of a host of small arts organizations that emerged in the mid 1970s - each with its own unique character and creative process. We survived because space was affordable, the mix of ideas, messages, and resources was rich, and because Northampton welcomed us. Many arts projects and organizations continued to come to Northampton for many years and chose to make Northampton their home. I would likely have never been able to hold that first ensemble together if it had not been for Gordon Thorne and Thornes Marketplace. It was Gordon’s generous offer to provide artspace at an insanely low price there on the 3rd floor facing Main Street in Northampton that allowed me to take the risk and start the ensemble. The A.P.E. ArtSpace became the incubator for my work with Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble and though we had to dodge the squeakiest of floor boards during shows, and avoid Suzuki stomping exercises during business hours for shops below us, it was wonderful and inspiring. I had seen my former theater home, Stage One Theater Lab in Boston transformed by developers into restaurant space so I crossed my fingers A.P.E. would last for a while. It did. And 20 years later when at last the developers arrived to erase the evidence of so much sweat, pain, collaborative thinking, discovery and joy, we were forced to seek out that special space again. Gordon’s new space just down the street called “Window”, a gallery space, would work some of the time for certain types of performance but it was clear it was not a long-term solution. We now move from process/ rehearsal space to space around the Northampton area trying to find open space at a low cost…. and we are not alone. I know the same scenario plays out for artists around this country. So without a doubt, I’d put that ten million to work to do as much as possible to make large open creative space possible for many American performing artists and ensembles.