Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's all in the Company

Contributed by Laura Leffler-McCabe

Company is a word that has been on my mind a lot over the past year and a half.

In the theatre world, the term company conjures many fleeting thoughts for me. The Federal Theatre Project, SITI Company, A Chorus Line - yes, different modes and hierarchies, but all companies, nonetheless.. We in the theatre have a pretty solid understanding of a "company" as a group of artists - usually actors with a director - who train and work together. Company is a catch all term - I’ll get to defining it. Hang on.

And then if I try to ignore the theatre part of my brain (which is hard to do), the term brings to mind big companies like 3M, Target, General Mills, and along with those companies, I see people in business suits, carrying briefcases, scurrying.

Okay, hold those thoughts, as I sidestep as nimbly as possible here.

In early 2010 I directed a production, an adaptation of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (which is a beautiful book you should totally read). I worked with the actors and production team over a period of seven months, workshopping, creating the script, sharing a physical vocabulary, working with a composer. It was difficult, yet amazing.

Then it was over. After all that work creating common vocabulary with all those great artists, there I was. Alone and dreading the thought of starting from scratch - again - to create that understanding that just comes after months of working together. And with my highly practical art degrees, I was also without a whole lot of preparation to run a company.

Now we’re back to company.

So. Wild experiment time. What if I started a theatre company that was both Federal-Theatre-Project-company and 3M-company? What if I got together a group of like-minded artists who wanted both to work and train together creatively, but also who wanted to be independent and produce our own shows? What if we were a company that was also a company? And we could provide each other company?

Fast forward 18 months, and here I am, Artistic Director of Savage Umbrella, a group that co-operates as a company to create new works of theatre, constantly striving to engage artists and audiences in vital discourse. And all because we envision theatre as critical shelter, embodying compassionate space for relevant conversation.

We’re trying to define company for ourselves, with all the facets that the word reflects. And there’s clearly a giant learning curve. Though growing can be painful, we feel taller, more flexible. We've had members come and go in that time - it's certainly not a model that works for every artist.

But for those of us it is working for, we embrace this idea of a 360 degree artist. We swap roles. We all write and perform and design; we all write e-mail blasts and create budgets and write grants. We seek to be jacks- and jills-of-all-trades. We seek to do it together. Together is better than alone, as we say in our manifesto.

We succeed; we fail - but we do it together, and that feels right. I often say in meetings, "We can do whatever we want!"

For now, we are.

We're a company-company, providing each other company. It feels good.

(Because we are passionate about conversation, we'd love to hear from you. What do you think of our model? How does your company - or company - operate? Email us at savageumbrella[at]gmail.com. If you're in Minneapolis, drop us a line - we'd love to meet you!).


Laura Leffler-McCabe is a founder of Savage Umbrella and a freelance director and theatre-maker. Previous work in the Twin Cities includes directing and creating many shows for Savage Umbrella, assistant directing for Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Fishtank\ and The MovingCompany (Come Hell and High Water), costuming for Theatre Latte Da and 20% Theatre Company, and performing with the Bedlam Theatre, Mixed Precipitation and others. She did her undergraduate at Baker University and earned an M.A. in theatre (emphasis in directing) from the University of Kansas. More than anything, she likes camping, roller skating, new work creation and reinterpreting classics for the contemporary stage.

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