Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Thursday, June 13, 2013

16 Years: The Journey, The Wooster Group & Natural Disasters

I haven't written since April. Mostly because May marked Treehouse Shakers' 16th performance season. I have wanted to write a blog about these 16 years, but haven't been able to wrap my head around how many years have passed since the beginning. 

Mara & Emily at This Year's Benefit Celebration in May
Emily and I started young. The year, 1997. I had been in this city for barely a year; pounding the pavement, auditioning, go-sees, castings. I was two years out of college and experimenting in the downtown theater scene. I was hooked on the Labyrinth Theater, in awe of Naked Angels, and hoping I would bump into William H. Macy in the UWS. I was a fan of Steve Buscemi and didn't take the subway for weeks just to save money to see the Wooster Group on a weeknight. I was surrounded by friends, new friends, and a gritty hell's kitchen scene to call home. I'll never forget Emily and I discussing the idea of our company. It seemed so fresh, thrilling. Let's call it Treehouse; let's call it Treehouse Shakers for the idea of melding dance to story; let's call it Treehouse Shakers Movers and Shakers. And for 10 brief seconds, I listened as Emily, always the internal banker, justified how we would support ourselves also as a moving company. Emily can lift, she's always been the go to lifter in the company, but me, I've got toothpick arms. Or did. Moving a piano seemed awful, the biggest tragedy, and downright impossible. So we we were born Treehouse Shakers. Like that.

No business plan.
No artistic long-term plan.
No marketing plan (we didn't even have computers).
No board.
No company.

But we did have a script. I had written my first play a year earlier, "Dance of My Daughter." Emily took that script and created movement that told the story so powerfully. My words lay still upon the page, but with her amazing talent they moved, they split apart. She created dance, imagery through movement. A few months later we had a fully staged show at the Ensemble Studio Theater, and packed houses. The adrenaline rush, our sense of accomplishment, our creating, was just too good. We couldn't stop.
Mara and Emily PR photo for Outside of Kissing Rock 2002
But we did get smarter. We worked smaller for awhile, came up with budgets, discovered the ins and outs of the non-profit world and worked. No pay. Worked harder. Small stipends. By 2001 we had our process down. We worked out of a small space close to the World Trade center. We always left rehearsal smelling of Indian food from the restaurant downstairs. When 9/11 happened I guess we just didn't think to stop. The only way we knew how to make the world better, was to make art. It saved us. NYC stood still in sadness, broken hearts, and pain so acute, just glancing at a stranger on the subway would make both people cry. Humanity was a small, thin tightrope. Art was the mat below the rope, the on-call therapist, the audience still with breath.

We made more dance-plays. We began leaving NYC to tour. We grew. We began working in the schools, raising money, cultivating followers, donors.

THS Company on tour in Arizona 2005
The recession hit. It hit the whole country. Then it swallowed us. The small arts company in NYC. We suddenly had less grant monies to apply for, less donor giving, but we still had children who needed the arts. We stayed. We felt like we were going to be swallowed into our own third world country. We ran up our first debt, and yet we kept making work. We tried to slow down. But it didn't last long, and suddenly the wave, the crush of the downturn, lifted. I think. We hope.

There is so much that has happened to us in 16 years. We have created twelve original shows, five of which are currently on tour. We have created our process, taken it apart and worked it in different ways, kneading it, questioning it, and baking it again. We both have married, have children, moved out of Hell's Kitchen. But we are still the same. We have met, performed and taught tens of thousands of young people. We have performed in homeless shelters, world renown festivals, and Broadway style theaters. We have driven our company through New York City, the desert, the mountains, the beaches. We have been through a terrorist attack, natural disasters, financial doomsday. But we are still the same. We are not stopping. Artists do not turn off what they must do.

After 16 years I still love to write, to tell stories with words. Emily still loves to make dance. To tell stories with movement. That will never change. I still want to run into William H. Macy, think Naked Angels is genius, and the Lab company changed the performance landscape. Steve Buscemi will always rock. And Treehouse Shakers, a non-profit dance theater company, is still hard at work, celebrating its 16th year!

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