Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creative Collaboration


Some of the Treehouse Shakers'  company backstage after Let's Talk About IT!, NYC  2010
Theater is about collaboration. So is dance. Having a dance and theater company means a lot of collaboration. Over the past thirteen years, Emily and I have created all of our eleven shows together. I write, she choreographs. I direct, she directs, sometimes both of us direct. At times she has written ideas, thoughts, and I have reworked those thoughts into the script. We have built on how we work over the years. Sometimes it has been hard, I don't always get to write the story I originally intended. With the choreography, she has to make the dancers look good, but also the actors. She has to weave dance into the script. I give suggestions about where I think the dance should play out between the words, woven within the rhythm of the speech. She may tell me she doesn't understand a character, or questions a structure. We talk it out. We are always trying to improve our working habits, our style, and our communication with each other. Our performance company has a lot of input in our creative process as well. They throw out ideas when we are building the piece. For all of our young audiences dance-plays, our amazing percussionist, Roderick Jackson, blends the art forms together. Perfectly communicating the writing, the movement, and the acting, through music. We meld what works. We created this process together, the way we work, the way we collaborate.


Mara and Emily at a Treehouse Shakers' Gathering, Brooklyn, 2008
In many ways Emily and I collaborate because we have similar reference points. When I was little I was surrounded by artists. Emily was too. My mother is a painter, I used to joke that as an only child of an artist, her canvases were my other siblings. Her friends were other artists. We went camping with musicians, on picnics with sculptors, dinners with writers. My father, a pipe fitter by day, is a notorious storyteller. He can turn any incident into a tale that is captivating, interesting, and mesmerizing. He used to dabble in acting at the community playhouses. Emily's dad is a sculptor, and her grandmother was a modern dancer, she danced in NYC. Her great-aunt Susie was a painter. Susie was my mother's mentor, and in many ways my surrogate grandmother. Emily and I were raised to live creative lives.
Mara and Emily NYC, 2002 The year we premiered "Outside of Kissing Rock." about our lives growing up in Wyoming.
As Treehouse Shakers grows, changes, expands, explores our boundaries, so will our collaboration process. I am positive we won't be the only collaborators in the Treehouse Shakers of the future. Recently, I have been meditating on how to expand our creative process. Change directions with the company, slightly. Build a company that can sustain without us controlling every string. Perhaps we will bring in a new choreographer, a new director, take submissions for scripts. No matter what changes we implement, I will always want to be a part of the creative process. I see the collaboration as my paintings. My children. I don't want to give this making part, up. I love it too much. It is my breath. After all I was raised to create. I would be going against my own nature if I didn't write, dream, make, collaborate.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fundraising, The Other Artistic Plight

Anyone who has ever raised money for a film, a play, or a new album, knows that the artist must wear two shoes. Shoes of different colors, shoes of different sizes. A shoe for their art, and a just-right shoe for fundraising.


The play can be good, but if the theater is too small, the audience too sparse, the publicity narrow to nil, then the show might not matter in the long run. Without a backer, without a publicist, without the finances for the theater of choice, without being able to pay the actors, the dancers, the videographers, the technical director, the lighting designer, the stage manager, the sound designer, without an audience,without the ability to keep the company in rehearsals, creating, performing on stage, the Artistic Director has nothing.
Coyotes Dance at The Ailey Citigroup Theater, NYC Photo by Mercedes McAndrew
It all comes back to knowing how to ask for money, when to ask for money, the never-ending cycle of asking for money, building the board, building a network, building the audience, build, build, build, and then asking for money again. Even after one raises the finances, someone will say, it is not enough. They will say, why can't we raise money like Lincoln Center (seriously, someone in our company once asked me this). I didn't get my MBA, and on some meager days I think I should have. Our society loves the people who make money. If you make money, we are told, then you have succeeded.

I have stayed and made this company, even when my fundraising shoe was too small, and pinched my toes. I stayed when I wasn't being paid, but my company was. I stayed after starting a family (most people at this stage in life, on my income, keep it only as a hobby). I do it because I believe in the work. I believe in what will come. I believe in the art. I believe in the audiences who see the work.

Students post-show Animal Rhythms with Treehouse Shakers' dancer, Malinda Crump, NYC
Sometimes I am asked to add something desperate to our mission; we could raise more money if we helped starving children in Africa, cured cancer, or ended wars. All those things I wish Treehouse Shakers' could do. Our mission though, is to strengthen imaginations. Envision a society without art, without dance, without play, without music, without creativity, without thought, without reflections, without joy. What Treehouse Shakers makes is important. We give actors jobs, dancers jobs, musicians jobs, technical jobs, publicists jobs. I am in the business of making people explore, think, reflect. Imagine. Play. That is important.

Care to donate?
Treehouse Shakers Virtual Auction
Treehouse Shakers Tax-Deductible Donation

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Beginning

In 1997, I created Treehouse Shakers with collaborator, Emily Bunning, in NYC. I remember the moment I knew I wanted to have a company. I was in my junior year of college. I went to my theater advisor and asked if I could have an independent class in theater production. I wanted to know how did one own a thriving and professional theater company?  I never did get an independent study in the subject (I think we needed three willing students to put the study together). I had the dream. I knew it could be done, but there weren't any classes, and there weren't any textbooks. The only thing I had read was on the creation of Provincetown Playhouse (which made me want to reach my dream all the more more). I knew I wanted to write, act, direct, create, and produce. I wanted to have my own company.

After college I spent a year in Santa Fe working for Southwest Children's Theater Company. That's where I began to learn the ropes of owning a company, so generously guided by Artistic Director, Rebecca Morgan. A year later, under Rebecca's gentle urgings, I moved to New York City. The city was unlike anywhere I had lived before. It felt raw, unkempt, and I felt like I was standing on the edge of an urban cliff. The more productions I saw, the more my dreams began to blow up in size. After nearly a year pounding the pavement as an actor, with my headshot in permanent tow, being in performances where my friends were the only people in the audience, being cast by directors who reused identical blocking from previous shows (okay, only one director in particular, but boy was I scarred when she even made us do the Macarena to fill up the stage time), I knew that I wanted my own company. I had a vision. I had written a play while living in Santa Fe called, "Dance of My Daughter" and I began to envision it with dance. Dance-theater wasn't even a buzz word yet. It was 1997.

I remember the coffee shop, I remember the feeling on the city streets, and I remember thinking this is the moment. I was sitting across the table from one of my oldest acquaintances. Emily and I grew up together in Southwest Wyoming. We used to take art classes every Saturday with Emily's great aunt Susie. We were friends, had gone to college together, and had collaborated a few times mixing modern dance with poetry. Emily was seeking her life as a dancer and choreographer, and I was seeking life as an actor and writer. Surely, we could meld these forms together. And so without knowing what a backer was, without a business plan, with our newly acquired B.F.A's, we put our creative brains together and named our new dance and theater company, Treehouse Shakers. "Dance of My Daughter" premiered that same November at Ensemble Studio Theatre. We dove off the cliff together; head first, arms spread, and our hearts thumping so loud, we were sure the whole city could hear us.