I began the process of founding ERA, which stands for “Equally Represented Arts”, in 2004. Inequality among the different disciplines within my college’s Theatre Department led my to frustration. Acting was represented stronger than any other - and this was initially more a fact than an injustice. However, as I recall, acting students received more credit, both literally and figuratively, than students concentrating on other theatre arts. It felt unnatural. It was not that I believed the college treated me, personally, unfairly. It was the fact that the simple college credit system could not account for a fundamental truth about theatre: that it requires the intelligence, creativity, selflessness, and devotion of many hours of stressful work from not just several "types" of theatre-artists, but of specialized ones, who depend on one another for their unique contributions. In other words, the scenic design concentration did not exist solely to give those techie-kids something to do. Nor should it be thought of second to last, before lighting, for every production.
WHAT IS THEATRE?
I also began to question the interchangeability of the words “play” and “production”. Was the “play,” not the script, a portion of a theatrical production equal to all others?
I realize that there are an infinite number of artistic processes in the world. However, the kind of process in which the entire theatrical work hinges upon the play is, in my opinion, the most prevelant.
Fortunately, Professor Gautam Dasgupta spoke eloquently, knowledgeably (as I imagine he still does), and, inspirationally about art to me. He told a story in class about director-scenographer Robert Wilson. Robert Wilson came to PAJ Publications and said (completely my own version of the story, by the way), “Gautam I have a lighting design, do you have a play?” Gautam of course gave him PAJ’s then recent publication of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine. Wilson’s lighting plot was too long for the text. In order to incorporate all of Wilson's contribution, the actors simply went through the text 4 times to fit the design.
FAST-FORWARD TO THE MORAL
I still love this story - of course the novelty is that, presumably, Wilson made the lighting design for his “play” before he ever had a play; he modified the text to go with his design.
I never saw this production but, regardless of its success or any misremembering of the story on anyone's part, both the story and the play were momentous in that they generated the concept of a theatre company where every discipline and artist were treated with equal importance.
Of course, just as there are leading roles, many productions are built with a hierarchy of their respective artistic elements; this occurs naturally in any healthy, theatre-making environment, and the heirarchy is not detrimental to the identity or success of a work. Take Wilson’s production for example, in which lighting came first. But a lack of equal potential among all theatrical disciplines, potential to live at the top of that theatrical pyramid, can stifle theatre as a practice.
Thus, the initial idea for ERA went like this: twelve people put the names of twelve theatrical elements into a hat. These twelve people are all very capable, multi-disciplinary theatre-artists. In another hat, we place all of their names. We draw one name from each hat. The first person selected begins the making of a theatrical work by creating the first theatrical element drawn for this project; they choose the content. This continues as the piece is built one element at a time. We would redraw elements and names to go with them for every production.
THE IMPERFECTIONS AND PERFECTIONS
As I thought more and more about this process, I fell in love with it as much as I began to notice its problems. ERA continues to work with mainting equal representation among all theatrical elements. The concept of the ensemble remains the ideal; we need a consistant group of people in order to pass around creative ownsership evenly. These artists must be skilled in more than one discipline in order to give us more potential in creation and in order to keep major creative elements within the ensemble. Obstructions are a gift to artists. Different processes equals different results and vice versa. But the company cannot afford to be as strict in process as the original idea, not in its formative years at least. Limited flexibility needs unlimited resources. And I’ve learned in the last couple years, from working with some of the most intelligent and selfless artists in the world, that one can achieve the principles of equally represented arts without so much rigor as initially thought. I also know that I cannot possibly know all that there is to expect when it comes to having a company. But, I have learned to embrace the unknown.
Please, welcome ERA to the world.
Lucy Cashion, 2010