“HOW I WORK”
Or, The Syndicate: We’re Working On It.
(With Thanks to Lee Breuer)
by Alanna Coby
Recently some people have asked me how I work. Well. Here’s how I do it these days.
I am working on a play. The play is called Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium, and it is about a dancer obsessively working to correct the mistakes she makes while participating in a competitive dance show in 1999. It is also about the million small and human mistakes Western societies have made in the first 17 years of the 21st century that have landed us where we are today.
Although I am writing the script for Tiny Errors, mine is not the only vision for the play. The initial stages of development were collective, with the company participating in the generation of ideas and materials over the course of many months. With that stage completed, it’s now my role to take our collective work and wrestle it into a written script.
To do so, I have at my disposal all the ideas that The Syndicate generated for Tiny Errors via Skype and two separate week-long developmental periods, plus the feedback we received when we shared those ideas in workshop showings. I have YouTube. I have the Moby station on Pandora. I have (praise be) Celine Dion. And I have the utter freedom to use or discard whatever materials I want to write a play that my company will be excited to perform. I truly have everything I need to write Tiny Errors. Everything, that is, except most of my company mates.
The Syndicate is a de-centralized company, meaning that half of us live and work quite far away from the other half, and much of our work together is, by necessity, conducted online. Writing a play can be shockingly lonely work, difficult to do in the best of circumstances, but especially tricky when working in isolation from the collaborators who created the bones of a piece that I am now responsible for.
Being a playwright is a lot like what I imagine being a fisher-person must be like; long stretches of staring at a great blue expanse of nothingness mixed in with periods of intensely bloody and exhausting work. Or, as The Syndicate often says during devising sessions, “Like that but not like that.” When struggling with writing Tiny Errors, I found myself longing for the physical presence of my collaborators in a way that almost felt like a form of writer’s block; how could I possibly write a play for my company when I can’t be in the same room with them? I want the bodies and brains of my company mates to illuminate my ideas with me and for me, challenging the notion that writing for the theatre must be a solitary art.
When Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines wrote HOW WE WORK, he started with that famous sentence; “RECENTLY SOME PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ASKING US HOW WE WORK.” HOW WE WORK goes on to describe how, despite the lack of heat, and boredom, and company bickering, and high rent, and creative differences of opinion, Mabou Mines created theatre that changed the landscape of the 70s because they just kept showing up and dealing with each other and their ideas until, eventually, they made a play. HOW WE WORK cheekily articulates, in caps lock, what every artist knows; while the inspiration behind one’s art might be rooted in Big Magic, the work of making that art is often tedious. And it helps to have some people around you who are doing exactly the same thing you are doing.
Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium takes place in 1999, a moment in very recent history when the Internet was not yet ubiquitous. The possibilities of an online world were still open, and at times almost shockingly optimistic. Some of the technical artists (I want to call them wizards, but they were really just humans with great ideas), or rather, the people who designed what would become the Internet, thought that the creation of an online network might one day change the world in an utterly positive way; the World Wide Web would create networks across vast distances, offering opportunities for people to connect with each other in profoundly new ways. As one of the characters says in Tiny Errors:
There has always been a web.
Because, you see, once there were no bodies.
Once, everything occupied the same immense space, and inside of it was everything, all of the experiences of the universe all jumbled there, together, wriggling around on top of each other.
You must remember that it took billions of years to make bodies.
Each element had to be built, and that took a lot of trial and error.
But finally –success.
Success in the form of humans, these fragile little bodies covered in a very thin layer of skin; an organ, can you believe it? Skin is an organ. There so that you might perceive the rest of the world while remaining separate from all the other bodies.
Skin was created to distinguish you from the everything.
No amount of trial and error ever changed that.
Of course this was there, too, or the possibility of it.
This world wide web, I mean.
But the possibility of bodies was a greater one than the possibility of this web, so all of the everything went flying out into space, and the web went with it, too.
And it took many more millions of years for ligaments and liquids to grow into generations. The web was imagined constantly, briefly, by the collective feelings of a hundred million billion human souls, swarming through the sub-consciousness of history, until it was born.
It—the great technology.
Which is to say: People made the world wide web, out of the same stuff that they were made of.
Isn’t that fabulous?
I do not know the solution for being so far apart from most of my creative soul mates, but maybe The Syndicate, a company that would literally not exist without Skype, or Google hang outs, or text messaging, or email, is finding our way to a creative model surprisingly like the utopic 21st century the World Wide Web first envisioned. Maybe, just by continuing to work together despite the vast distances between us, we will find a new way of working, creating our own HOW WE WORK document for a new age; one that details the joy, the frustrations, and the weird fun of working together while in isolation from each other. It will be a difficult art form to master. But we are working on it.