An Interview with Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia of “The Seagull Project”

Dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek’s series of interviews with BOA writers concludes with a special dual interview of Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia, members of 11th Hour Ensemble and directors of “The Seagull Project.”

11th Hour Ensemble, a San Francisco theater company focusing on physical theater and devised work, appeared in BOA 2011 with the piece “Cloud Flower.” Their newest piece, “The Seagull Project,” which uses Chekhov’s classic play as a jumping-off point to explore what it means to be a young artist, is in this year’s BOA. All of the performers of the piece are credited as its creators, with the (non-performing) Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia as directors.

Marissa: “Devised work” is one of the hottest things in the American theater right now, but some of our readers may not know what that is – and also, the wonderful thing about devised work is that every troupe’s process is different. So, can you tell us a little about your process in creating “The Seagull Project”? What initially made you want to use Chekhov’s The Seagull as a jumping-off point for an exploration of what it means to be a young artist?

Megan: Our process, like all our processes, was rich with ritual and repetition. Every meeting begins with a silent period of time the actors use to strengthen their bodies and sharpen their focus.  We move on to an improvised exercise where the ensemble gets used to each other’s bodies, impulses, and style.  This is an important transition from the hustle and bustle of work or school to a mental state that is ready to create.

Initially, James and I were not sure through which lens we wanted to start exploring The Seagull.  We studied this play intensely in our senior year at San Francisco State University and were indelibly changed by it.  After a few brainstorming sessions, we boiled down our interests to just a few key themes: finding your voice as a young artist, what it means to achieve success, and unrequited love.  These are all pretty hefty ideas. For the sake of our 15 minute piece, James and I decided to focus most intently on finding one’s voice and the struggle to create good art.  We figured this was the most poignant, relatable way into the play.  We hope to expand this piece on to further iterations that will eventually grow into a full length production.

James: The warm-up period that Megan mentioned is just part of the first half of our rehearsals. After the improvisation exercise, we move on to a series of physical exercises that help us build a vocabulary, so that we can all communicate on the same wavelength, when it comes time to talking about and building the piece. These exercises are primarily derived from Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints, along with several exercises we learned while in drama school. These exercises help heighten the actor’s kinesthetic response, so that he or she is constantly aware of what is happening in time and space on the stage.

The second half of rehearsals, in the early stages at least, are spent doing table-work. Since we didn’t actually have a script for our own piece, the obvious choice was to read Chekhov’s play. After physical work, we would sit down and read the play. After each scene, we would discuss it, analyze it, and see what moments were related to our larger question: when do you find your voice as an artist? Our piece is very much a distillation and abstraction of many scenes that are in The Seagull as well as the moments between scenes, which Chekhov didn’t actually write. This is where our imagination as directors came into play.

Additionally, we also did a series of personal histories, in which Megan and I asked the actors personal questions about the actor’s actual lives, such as, “Have you ever done something artistically, or otherwise, to win over someone’s heart?” “Can you think of a moment when you were most disappointed with yourself?” Transcriptions from these personal histories are interwoven throughout the piece. Let’s see if all you Chekhov lovers out there can spot them!

Marissa: Chekhov’s plays are known for their understatement, subtext, and repressed, constrained characters. 11th Hour is a devised-work physical theater ensemble. What was it like to be inspired by a writer whose work would not seem to lend itself to physicality? Did that cause any difficulties during the process?

Megan: What’s so nice about physicalized theatre is that it gives those repressed, constrained characters an outlet for everything that’s boiling under the surface.  It delves into what is REALLY happening with these people on a subconscious, internal level.  It is certainly not traditional to tell this particular tale with more pictures than words.  These characters bring with them such extreme intentions and yearnings, however, that in a very strange way it feels more natural to depict their causes in this highly expressive manner.

James: It was a challenge to turn Chekhov into a physical piece, but an extremely fun and enjoyable challenge. What I find so fun and interesting about physical theatre is that you can bring all of Chekhov’s subtext and understatement to the surface in an expressive and stylized manner, in ways perhaps that you never thought possible before. Let’s say that instead of just playing a scene for “real,” where we see characters in their happiest emotional state, we turn the emotional state into a gestural composition or a dance. Or perhaps maybe instead of a character “realistically” giving a monologue, he “floats” a gestural composition on top of the monologue that express the character’s emotional arc. Trying to bring out what’s really happening on the inside of the characters in an expressive, physical manner.

The most challenging part of the process was the dramaturgy: keeping track of the story line and emotional arc. The piece was developed around a series of improvisations, so we didn’t always have a logical reason for where we placed each scene or why we chose the moments we did. We had make choices and refine what we felt each moment meant and how it fed into and related to the next scene.

Marissa: What has been the most wonderful discovery and most frustrating challenge in creating “The Seagull Project”?

Megan: The most wonderful discovery was seeing what our actors brought with them into the room.  They were all so beautifully committed and willing to share themselves with us. The piece reflects many discoveries that could only have happened with these specific people. The most frustrating challenge was finding rehearsal space :)

James: I agree with Megan: the most wonderful discovery of “The Seagull Project” was seeing what our actors brought to the table. The piece became so personal for them, that we found exciting answers and discoveries at each rehearsal. Sometimes, we as directors had moments where we felt confused, and the actors would give us a suggestion or an idea and we’d think “duh! Why didn’t we see that before?” It’s amazing how much your colleagues can teach you, and this to me is one of my favorite parts of the rehearsal process. And yes, the most difficult part of the rehearsal process was finding a rehearsal space.

Marissa: How is “The Seagull Project” similar to or different from previous 11th Hour projects?

Megan: “The Seagull Project” definitely feels different from 11th Hour’s previous projects.  Like any young theatre company, we are still learning what works best for us; where are strengths are best showcased.  This particular project stemmed from the passion we share for the story we are telling.  That has been the most important part of developing this piece.  The entire ensemble studied at SFSU and almost all of us studied The Seagull with Barbara Damashek there.  That shared history gives “The Seagull Project” a type of momentum we haven’t had before.  I believe this the first of many lives this piece will have.

James: This is the first time we developed a devised piece based on an existing, and extremely well-known, piece of dramatic literature. All of our other pieces were either based on another devised piece, or a story/idea. I feel this has been one of the most heavy subjects we have tackled. It has challenged us in so many ways, and I think it will give us a better idea of our range as theatre artists, and help push us in new directions.

Marissa: “The Seagull Project” explores the frustrations of being a young artist, struggling to create great work. What are some of your own personal strategies for dealing with creative blockages or feelings of inadequacy? Are there any quotes/mantras/works of art that you find particularly inspirational?

Megan: I have serious moments of crippling insecurity in just about every process I go through and I find it futile to attempt to prevent it or ward it off.  What I do find useful, is to remind myself that the inadequate sensation I am experiencing, while terrifying and painful, is probably a sign that I really care about what I’m doing.  It also helps to express myself creatively outside of rehearsal in a way that has nothing to do with the play I’m currently struggling with.  Helps to keep the creativity flowing despite certain blockages.I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids last year, and this passage has helped me pull myself up by my own bootstraps on several occasions:

I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems.  I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in.

James: I generally never really feel satisfied with my work. I always feel there is something I missed or didn’t realize until it was over. I just remind myself that it’s important to keep on working and growing because you are always bound to discover new and exciting things. Sometimes you just have to wait a little longer. I once received a Martha Graham quote from our acting class with Barbara Damashek that has always been very inspiring for me. I actually received it when we studied “The Seagull”:

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “The Seagull Project”?

Megan: I hope the audience will be surprised.  I hope they will not only relate to our main character’s struggle, but be reminded of their own triumphs or failures in overcoming adversity.  And what either outcome taught them.  I hope some of them go home and read the original play!  That would be great.  Mostly, I hope it gets them excited to create some art of their own.

James: I hope the audience will question what they see. I hope they get some sort of emotional response to the images they see. Like Megan, I hope they will be able to relate to our central character Konstantin and his struggle to finding his voice. I hope the audience will laugh and hopefully, provoke some thought. I, too, hope the audience will read Chekhov’s original play! It’s still so relevant and full of humanity.

Marissa: 11th Hour Ensemble has produced short pieces for BOA, as well as evening-length pieces of devised work. How does your process differ when creating a short piece as opposed to a longer one?

Megan: The processes themselves, ideally, don’t actually differ that much.  Like I mentioned earlier, we believe in ritual and repetition, whether the piece runs an hour or fifteen minutes long.  Each is built on a foundation formed and fortified by the trust and willingness of everyone in the room and created with a physical vocabulary developed through specific exercises.  The length of the piece doesn’t affect this process at all.

James: I would say the only difference may be the amount of time we spend on each project, although the process itself is not different. The so few moments in life when you can create a sacred and safe environment for everyone to work in. I think this goes along with what Megan was saying about ritual and repetition. Creating theatre for us, is a time to discipline and challenge ourselves, and to learn and grow. Our first major show, Alice, was developed over a period of 2 years, before it became a full-length feature. We have only been working on The Seagull since January.

Marissa: What’s up next for you and for 11th Hour Ensemble?

Megan: 11th Hour Ensemble has a few projects in our back pocket.  No definite dates yet, but please visit our website and we will keep you posted!

James: I think we all have a few ideas and projects we’d like to explore. Hopefully something very soon after BOA!

Marissa: Megan and James, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your work. It’s interesting to discuss your artistic process like this — and then see how those same themes are reflected onstage, through physical theater, in ‘The Seagull Project.”

“The Seagull Project” appears in Program 1 of BOA 2012.

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