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awe

Teddy Bergman on including the Audience in Ambitious Theatrical Worlds

Teddy Bergman. Credit Blair Mezibov.

Teddy Bergman. Credit Blair Mezibov.

TEDDY BERGMAN is the artistic director of Woodshed Collective, one of the country’s premier immersive theatre companies. Since 2006, the company has presented large-scale theatrical events, including Twelve Ophelias, performed in McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, The Confidence Man, adapted from Melville's novel and performed on a decommissioned steamship in the Hudson River, and The Tenant, adapted from the novel and film and performed in a five-story 19th-century parish house on the Upper West Side. Most recently, Woodshed Collective presented the critically acclaimed Empire Travel Agency, a grail quest criss-crossing Lower Manhattan. They are currently under commission from Ars Nova and the Ma-Yi Theater Company for a new immersive theatre experience. Driven by the belief in the combined power of stories and architecture to break down the barriers of everyday life, Woodshed Collective aims to create genuine awe. 

 

We understand immersivity as an expansion of performance to include the audience in the envelope of the show.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work?

Teddy Bergman: Woodshed Collective exists to make ambitious theatrical worlds that invigorate our audiences' imaginations. 

 

OW: How do you understand immersivity? How does it work and what is the point?

TB: We understand immersivity as an expansion of performance to include the audience in the envelope of the show. This can mean a lot of things.  It can include 360-degree design, direct address, game play, physical engagement of the audience...but more than anything, I think it rests on an awareness that the audience is there, and that the nature of our relationship to them can't be simply assumed.

 

We want the scope of our shows to move physically, emotionally, and intellectually beyond what you thought you were getting into, and possibly beyond what you thought a show could or should be.

 

OW: You say that your productions aim to generate awe. Can you tell us more about that?

TB: Maybe "sublime" is a better word, in the sense that sublime experiences tend to have ambitious scopes. In our case, we are aiming to have the power to threaten your predetermined idea of what a performance can entail. I think that starts to get at an idea of awe. We want the scope of our shows to move physically, emotionally, and intellectually beyond what you thought you were getting into, and possibly beyond what you thought a show could or should be.

 

A scene from  Empire Travel Agency , a 2015 immersive production that took place throughout Lower Manhattan. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro.

A scene from Empire Travel Agency, a 2015 immersive production that took place throughout Lower Manhattan. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro.

 

OW: How does the “set” of an immersive play differ from the set of a traditional play? What is the role of architecture in your work? 

TB: We tend to believe that all work is site-specific: a church, a boat, a black box, a white box, and the Booth Theatre all carry with them unique histories, and everyone has certain feelings and assumptions about them.  Since we think immersive theatre is about including the audience, we take into account the relationships that people have to the spaces we work in, and we incorporate those histories into our shows. And architecture is a major collaborator in our work.

 

We try to create conversations between buildings and texts.

 

OW: What is your process for developing a piece? 

TB: We talk and argue a lot. We read. We work with writers to generate material. We talk a lot more. We find spaces. We try to create conversations between buildings and texts. We help design the script. We talk a lot more.  Then we starting drawing and rehearsing and building. Then we talk a lot more. Then we have previews. Then we talk a lot more and fix as much as we can. Then we run out of time and open the show and hope for the best.

 

Another scene from  Empire Travel Agency . Credit Ben Fink Shapiro. 

Another scene from Empire Travel Agency. Credit Ben Fink Shapiro. 

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

TB: Some of the people and institutions we love are En Garde Arts, Guy Debord, Richard Schechner, Herbert Blau, and Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson's immersive installation The Weather Project at the Tate Modern changed my life. It was a synthetic yet natural public space that nourished, humbled, and inspired every person who walked into it.

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Interview by Ana Freeman

TIU DE HAAN ON ACCESSING WONDER

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

 

TIU DE HAAN is an Oxford-educated celebrant, creative facilitator, writer, and singer. She marries, buries, and names people, as well as creating experiential workshops that remind people of all ages how to see the magic in the mundane.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry.

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work?

Tiu de Haan: My work is about creating experiences that connect people to the heart, to the possibility of wonder, to each other, and to their own creativity.

As a celebrant, I create non-religious ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, and baby namings, as well as other rituals of all kinds. As a facilitator, I create experiential workshops that wake up the imagination, reboot our innate playfulness, and shift our perspective to see the wonder in the world.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry. Or at the very least, get a little shiny-eyed. And I’m only half joking when I say this.

The celebrant work I do is about creating rituals that honor the big moments, the transitions of life, love, and death that merit a moment of reflection, emotion, and celebration. As my line of work entails tackling the big subjects, namely love and death, I have this incredible privilege of co-creating the emotional heart of some of the biggest days of people’s lives. So, yes, weird as it may sound, I am trying to make people cry. Or, to put it another way, to create an experience in which everyone present will feel truly touched.

In the case of the experiential workshops, I aim for a slightly less dramatic result—tears are welcome and they have often arrived, but when I send people off on adventures that crack open their capacity for wonder, I look for shining eyes at the end, rather than out-and-out weeping. An openness, an aliveness, an awe, a joy, visible on the features.

In both cases, my aim is to create moments of real meaning and magic, unique and profound experiences where people connect to the heart as well as to each other.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

TdH: Bringing creativity to the matter of making meaningful experiences is to marry our innate imagination with the very stuff of being alive.

We all create experiences as a matter of course, whether intentionally or not. It’s just that some of us choose to use it as our artistic medium, which is when things get really interesting.

When treated as an art form, experience is like no other medium. It can encompass all sorts of other art forms and weave them into one powerful whole.  It can incorporate the written and spoken word, music, scent, flavor, light, color, movement, and the creation of a physical space that houses the experience itself. It creates a liminal field where everyone has the possibility of contributing to the experience with both their attention and their intention, even if they don’t play an obviously active role. It harnesses emotions and channels them towards a point of focus that has the power to transform. It is inclusive, nebulous, malleable, and potentially profoundly meaningful.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

It spans all emotional states and needs, too—a bespoke experience can be calibrated to serve joy or grief, silence or celebration, playfulness or empowerment. It can be solitary or communal, simple or complex. It can feed body and soul as well as heart and mind. It cannot be captured and it is fleeting—and all the more beautiful for it.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

TdH: In my line of work as a celebrant, the term “audience” doesn’t really cover what is going on. Similarly, with the experiential workshops, the artwork is the experience of the people who participate in it. The content is in part my contribution, but ultimately, it is the emotions, realizations, words, thoughts, and experiences of those who step into the frame. They are not merely passive receptors. They are making it what it is by being a part of it, by bringing their energy to the collaboration.

Their participation is what gives the moment the power to transform. I am there as a facilitator, a catalyst, a guide, a creator of the parameters, and the holder of the space—the frame in which we co-create the magic of the moment.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

TdH: The light on my horizon, the point by which I steer in all that I do, is the possibility of wonder. To me, wonder speaks to the moments when something beautiful, astonishing, and enlivening happens and our worldview tilts on its axis and new ways of seeing open up — if only for an instant. It is the state that makes life feel like an adventure. I seek it selfishly, in how I live my own life and navigate my own waters, because it is what lights me up. In so doing, I have picked up a lot of clues along the way as to how to share my findings with others, through the myriad treasures of artists, teachers, explorers, and livers of magical lives throughout our world—as well as through the experiences I create.

There are few clearly defined maps to show us how to reconnect with that universal human experience of awe, delight, and mind-opening possibility—and I emphasize the fact that it is a possibility rather than a probability, because accessing wonder is an inexact science. It exists in the moments, in the gaps, in the tributaries and the serendipities, so you can’t guarantee its appearance. But you can create the optimum conditions that will allow it to happen all by itself.

This is where my work resides. Exploring those conditions, through non-religious experiences, and learning for myself and others how to access and prompt the possibility of that state of wonder at will, in all areas of life, including love, work, and play.

 

OW: You have a unique process for creating your work; talk about how you developed it.

TdH: There is a clear distinction between the process for my celebrant work and the process of the creation of the experiential workshops.

However, in both cases, I start with the moment of most emotive power in mind and work back from there.  The expressions on the faces, the richness of the silence, the tears in the eyes, the inaudible sound of hearts opening in unison following a moment of magic, connection, and power—these nebulous things are my guides and my goals. I keep coming back to them when logistics and practicalities start to usurp the to-do list. I navigate by the light of the heart, and it always shines through if you know to give it due attention and care.

The celebrant work is always bespoke, so that the process is about getting to know the stories of the people with whom I am collaborating. I spend as much time as possible with the people I am marrying, the families of those who have died, the parents of the baby I am naming, or the person who needs a particular ceremony to be created just for their particular needs. The questions I ask are intimate, spanning everything from divergent spiritual traditions, to dysfunctional family dynamics, to the biggest moments that have defined their lives, to the meaning of love itself. I empathize with their emotions, their hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

In order to be able to do my job well, I need to tune myself up to be at the top of my game, both inner and outer, so I have practices I use daily to keep myself present, healthy, and emotionally open. I choose to work from the heart, and so sometimes this means being with raw, visceral grief, as well as vast, heart-cracking love. I am configured for it. I know both love and death all too well. And I consider myself blessed to be able to be a part of such powerful experiences in the lives of others, to learn from them, and to share what tools I can with anyone who chooses to collaborate with me. It is intense, glorious, profound, and the most fulfilling work imaginable.

 

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

TdH: I don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Since my medium is experience, the way I live my life is my art practice. Without wanting to sound preposterously pompous, the art of living a creative life blurs all boundaries between experience and the creativity with which I try to live. I mean, ok, not every day contains life-changing moments of wonder and magic. But I might argue that that’s just a failure of the imagination.

The world can be a wonderful place if only we know how to see it as such. And that is where a shift of perspective, a reinvigoration of the imagination, and a retraining of our senses can take us. That is what I see as my art practice—indistinguishable from life itself, because it’s not what we see, it’s how we see it. And in seeing the magic, I find ways to draw back the invisible curtain so that others can see, too.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

So many. But in terms of experiences that move the heart, it has to be Marina Abramovic. It was the last day of her residency at the Serpentine Gallery in London, in August 2014. The exhibit consisted of only Marina and her facilitators, the public, and time. I should also say that I was in a very intense and dream-like grief. A week earlier, a huge love of mine had died.

I entered this big white space full of people in silence and stillness. About an hour after I entered the space, I approached a plinth in the middle of a room.  I stepped on and took my place in one of the concentric circles of people, and closed my eyes. It didn’t take long before I felt this enormous sense of love and gratitude cracking me open. I started to hear a kind of voice in my head, which started to list all that I was grateful for. The love I had felt and still felt for the man who had died and the love he had felt, and perhaps still felt, for me. The very fact that people could gather in such a profoundly beautiful way, without a deity or a discipline to draw them together. I became quietly euphoric, tears streaming down my cheeks. I opened my eyes to see that the plinth had now filled up, circles upon circles of people standing in silence, overflowing into the rest of the space which was now full of people also standing with eyes closed and palms open, their faces beatific, intense, smiling, crying, joyful, alive, still.  I stood there a little longer, then I decided to leave while it remained at this silent crescendo.

As I gathered up my things, I saw that there was still a huge queue outside, hoping for a glimpse of the artist. I was asked by a security guard to hang back inside. When the exhibition ended, Marina appeared. She came out to speak to the waiting crowds and the news cameras that clustered together in the rain. When she finished, the security guard told me I could leave. But she was still standing in the doorway and so I had to go right past her in order to exit. She stopped me, held me in an embrace, looked me in the eye, and asked me how I was. I simply said “I am in my heart” and smiled with the tears in my eyes. “Yes! Yes!” she replied, and gave me a huge hug. And then I walked off into the rain, heart open wide, mind still overflowing with gratitude, soul restored, grief released—forever changed.