The Sandbox Theatre creative team had finished their warmups — rolled their heads, windmilled their arms, stretched their legs. Now they were striking poses — physical interpretations of “joy, intrigue, force, charisma.”
Soon would come the guided improvisations intended to build a kinetic vocabulary for Sandbox’s new play, “Queens,” which opens Friday on the Boss Thrust stage at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. No one was reading from the script because there was no script. No one knew how the play would end. With three weeks remaining until opening night, the ingredients were still being cooked.
“Three days before our last show opened, we didn’t have the final 15 minutes,” said Matt Glover, who is leading “Queens,” about a 1900s black boxer fighting for recognition.
Sandbox is one of several companies in the Twin Cities that build theater through the work of a collective. Sometimes experimental, sometimes referred to as company-devised or ensemble work, this kind of theater is nearly as important for its process as for what lands on stage. Actors are not simply handed a script and told to memorize lines, to move stage left, then right, then sit on the couch, rise and exit. Directors harness a larger vision and guide the building of a play, block by block.
LiveAction Set, Transatlantic Love Affair, the Four Humors, the Moving Company (and its ancestor Jeune Lune) and the Brave New Workshop are examples of Twin Cities troupes that start with an idea, bust it into pieces, hand it to a team and then see what comes of it. By design, this process is longer and less efficient and carries no guarantee that the end product will be superior to the traditional model that starts with a written script.
It does, though, hold the potential for alchemy, and in a culture that has come to feel it is necessary to celebrate “Our Town’s Greatest Workplaces!” the theater collective can feel fulfilling.
“The ensemble movement took a vertical hierarchy, turned it horizontal and then exploded it out to make it a circle,” said Lisa Channer, who uses devised-work techniques with her company, Theatre Novi Most, and teaches ensemble theater at the University of Minnesota. “It means there is a director but everyone is on a genuinely equal footing with others.”
Derek Lee Miller, who has worked with Sandbox and Transatlantic Love Affair, said the form appealed to him because he was “never satisfied with being just an actor.”
“I like creating my own stuff.”
The price of democracy
Sandbox formed from the ashes of 15 Head, a collective that disbanded in 2005 after 10 years of work. Heather Stone is the last of the founding group still with the company. “It was eye-opening that I had a voice in the creative process,” said Stone, who was among the team members building “Queens” in Sandbox’s tiny south Minneapolis studio in late April.
Members of the collective gather each year for pitch sessions. Glover, a boxing fan from his youth, tossed out the idea of a boxer who never got a shot at the title but was regarded as one of the best fighters of his day. He based the character partly on Sam Langford, regarded by many historians as the greatest boxer ever — too good, it seemed, because champions of the early 1900s wanted no part of him.
The partners said yes to Glover’s idea, and Theo Langason took on directing duties. He also filled one of the three acting roles after a performer dropped out.
“We’ve had actors through the years who will say at the end of the show, ‘I think you’re great, but I never want to work with you again,’ ” said Glover. “It’s not for everyone.”
It is, however, for actor Emily Madigan. She heard that Sandbox was looking for actors of color (all three cast members are black) and quickly fell in love with the creative process.
“Being a dancer, I was intrigued by the physicality of it,” Madigan said. “I’ve never done anything that has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone and yet was so immediately rewarding.”
During rehearsal, Madigan listened as Glover outlined what he wanted two teams of three to devise during a short exercise:
The scene must include a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have a boxing physicality represented, three moments when power shifts, a floor pattern repeated two times, three gestures repeated three times each, a moment of unison movement, a dynamic shift in tempo, a moment of extreme duration and a dramatic use of different physical planes.
Seventeen minutes later, the teams showed each other what they had. Everything was recorded on video to be checked later for useful stuff.
“You might use a two-hour rehearsal to build a five-minute scene,” Langason said. “It is the harder and longer way of creating something.”
‘A scary process’
American theater, Channer noted, is often like an assembly line: A script is chosen; directors, actors and designers are hired; rehearsal is three to five weeks; the show opens; on closing night, it all goes into the dumpster.
Ensemble work intentionally changes the hierarchical model.
“The labor relationship is different,” said Channer. “If you are a hired actor, the value of this experience for you is less. In an ensemble, everyone wants to be there and is invested.”
Luverne Seifert, a veteran actor who worked often with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, said devised work always carries a big risk because the road map is less defined and audience expectations need to be managed.
“It’s a scary process because you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s in front of people,” he said. “Sometimes it’s very clear, and other times it’s a free-for-all and you’re figuring it out on the fly.”
Miller recognizes the risks, but he remains pretty avid about the inclusivity of devised ensemble work. He is designing the set for “Queens,” and last summer he acted in “105 Proof,” Transatlantic’s hit show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
“The method of creation is more in line with how a younger generation is thinking — like the ‘remix’ culture,” Miller said. “Sandbox makes you do homework and find images and texts that create a starting base.”
Will it all come together in a compelling show?
As Yogi Berra might have said, we won’t know if it’s ready until it’s over.