This interview was conducted in San Francisco on February 21, 2018, leading up to their premiere of their latest work, Good Strong Hands.
Good Strong Hands World Premiere
March 16 & 18, 2018
CounterPulse, San Francisco
Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for this work?
Adam Smith: Usually what happens in our process, is that we talk about the things we’ve been interested in lately - maybe a picture, or singular moment, or general theme. Lately, I’ve been interested in a performance situation where, if I punched my thigh and gave myself a bruise one night. And then the next night the audience sees that bruise, but then sees me punching somewhere else on my thigh, what is the narrative that they will create in their own heads? So, considering incremental change from performance to performance, and the idea of object permanence applying to live performance...that something exists before the audience is there, it exists in front of them, and it will continue to exist after they leave the theater.
Arletta Anderson: So, that was our initial thought of object permanence as a theatrical device. And, then we we got this opportunity at CounterPulse where we're doing only two shows. Because of that, we realized that making a structure that could change from night to night would require a much longer run. That specific ideas has morphed, but the theory of object permanence has led us to think a lot more about presence and absence, and the presence of absence. How we experience loss or the removal of something, and what fills that emptiness. That made us think about tangible objects and materials, and the intangible and ephemeral. Oftentimes start with broad ideas, and then start to narrow the theme based on the people in the room. We’ve been watching a lot of sleight-of-hand videos, and have been having conversations about things that we’ve lost and people that we’ve lost, and our relationship to that. So, now we’ve gone beyond our initial inspiration and have become more interested in how the spaces get filled when something is lost or absent.
CSW: Are there other things that have shifted along the way?
AA: We had imagined at some point filling the space with stuff, of having a lot of objects in the space, but we’ve been pairing that away as the work has gotten more and more specific. This has been a pretty compressed creative process, too, so maybe if we had had more time we would have kept more of the objects around to figure out how to make them work within this piece.
CSW: Did you have the thoughts for this work before you knew that it would be at CounterPulse and on this timeline?
AA: Yes. We knew that we would either have an opportunity like this or that we would self-produce in another space later in the year. So, the circumstances of this production have shifted our timeline and creative process.
CSW: Is there anything you would like audiences to know before they see the work?
AS: We don’t lie or pretend. One of the core elements of the work we tend to make is the recognition that we’re [artists and audience] literally a group of people in a room together.
CSW: How do you think that shifts or can shift the way the audience experiences the work?
AS: I think it becomes a lot less presentational without the fourth wall. Even if we're not doing direct audience interaction, in that sense, there's more of a connection with the performers and artists and the content that's happening, rather than just sitting back and watching. It's not like looking at a painting, you’re having a more indirect conversation with the work.
AA: And part of what we're interested in live performance is this happening of real time. That we're all gathering in a space for a set period of time and we'll all continue on after that. It's not like watching a movie that you can pause and rewind and replay, and that has been produced and edited - we’re humans with errors, and all coming together with this agreement that we're going to experience the liveness of the performance. There is something magical about the theater and we're drawn to that, but we're also drawn to dispelling that magic. We just in a square room with curtains that are just pieces of fabric hanging from the wall. That play between the magic and the reality is exiting to us. We’re not any more magical than the audience members sitting there.
AS: It’s a weird place to be at, to constantly insist that 'this is not magical', but to want the audience to keep looking.
CSW: What are the benefits of working together, presumably with two different perspectives and skill sets?
AA: Our approaches to process are pretty different [from each other]. When we first started making work together, our first few rehearsals would feel like an awkward first date, figuring out what you want to do and what the other person wants to do. In terms of process, as a dancer, I'm used to getting into a studio with other people and collaborating, making, working, and refining together. Adam sometimes, as a writer, needs to go work and think by himself for a while. So, it has taken us time to figure out when it's a conversation and when it's more independent work. For us now, it's often movement first (as a result of many conversations), and then a lot of the text that gets shaped is Adam's work on his own. Then we refine together.
AS: The text is sourced from conversations we've had and from our collaborators.
CSW: What do you think working together in this way provides?
AA: I'm not really interested in making/creating alone. Adam has been the driving force in us making work together.
AS: For me, coming from [the Neo-Futurist work of] the non-illusory, non-pretending, no fourth wall, task-driven, you-are-who-you-are kind of world...I noticed a lot of overlap between that and contemporary dance. We tend to align in our viewpoints and aesthetics, and so it's a good collaboration for us.
AA: This also came out of many years of seeing shows together and talking about shows. Our sensibilities are very much the same, and so that led us into thinking about how our forms and approaches could work together. We're interested in abstracted language, and task-driven movement, and finding ways for these to work together. We're really interested in how these forms [dance and theater] can not be distinct, but can be something together.
CSW: What are the downsides of working together?
AS: We've definitely had to find time to just be spouses together. It's the good and the bad at the same time - anytime we have dinner together at home for the last month we end up talking a lot about work, and we've made a lot of progress on the piece. And at the same time, working from home, we have to decide to stop working and just be humans together. With any partnership, we both try to defer to the other person to progress to the next step. When you're working alone you just make those choices by yourself, but there's more back and forth as we try to make decisions together.
AA: That might be a little less efficient than working by yourself, but at the same time we share responsibilities so that helps a lot.
CSW: How did you choose Eric Garcia and Melissa Lewis as collaborators? What does collaboration mean, in the context of this cast and this work?
AS: This is the first time we’re working with other performers, and we wanted to work with people who were familiar and friendly and people who we respected as artists.
AA: We also wanted to work with people who we knew were game for this type of work - not specifically dance and not specifically theater...people who had the facilities to do both - to speak and move - and people who we knew would be voices in the process. People who would be fully open to being collaborators. We’ve been driving the ship in terms of ideas and shaping, but the work would be very different if they weren’t involved. They’ve developed much of the movement and contributed a lot of language and personal narratives. It also felt very important to include people whose experiences were not ours. And, through that process, even though we weren't seeking this specifically, some things have come up around the difference between their cultures and familial experiences and ours.
CSW: How is this work similar to or a departure from your past works?
AS: It’s similar because we’re still looking at the deconstruction of theatrical experience...putting process on stage in some ways.
AA: And with that, we’re still interested in the functioning of lighting and sound as things that are part of the happening on stage. Working with lamps and practical lighting elements, and having a lot of the sounds coming from us on stage. That's an on-going interest of ours - how sound and lighting can be a component of the work as it's being built and as it's being performed. It’s different in that we have other people in the work.
AS: It’s a continued exploration of what we’ve been doing, but just a different path.
CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?
AA: Working with specific collaborators has been really valuable for us. As collaborative makers, where there’s a constant dialogue between the two of us which is not always clear, it’s great to have people in the room who are patient with our process and back-and-forth. As we move forward we've realized that it's important to have collaborators who understand what they're going in to.
AS: This has helped us solidified some parts of the creative process, like story-boarding. We experimented with story-boarding in our last work, and decided that that’s something we like to continue doing. Some of the [creative] development practices we've toyed with in the past have become more codified in this process.
CSW: Do you see this work participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?
AA: Yes and…there’s a way in which we’re thinking specifically about things. Especially having other people in the space with us, we’ve been very conscious about how people are being represented, about who is saying what and about whose words are being spoken by whom. I recently read a short interview with Anish Kapoor. He was asked about if he made political work, and the way he talked about that resonated with me. He spoke about how, once you label a work as being 'about' something, it only exists within that [frame]. But that if a thing can have many interpretations it can sit in one context and then maybe years later have another context. That feels really important for us in making work - not that we intend to have a legacy that can be looked at 10 years from now - but that our work is not intended to be read in only one way. We have our own interpretation of our work, and a specific set of experiences, and privileges, and ways in which we read the world. We intend that our work can be an experience with different lenses, that can be read by different people in different ways.
There's a lot of work being made right now that's very specific with its political and social situations and intentions. My experience of seeing work like that is that it can be very narrowing in my ability to have an experience with the work.
CSW: As an estimate, how many creative hours would you say it took to make this work?
AA & AS: 300.
CSW: How many administrative hours?
AA & AS: 80
CSW: How is this production funded?
AA: It’s personally funded. We applied for Zellerbach, which we’ll know about just before the show, but otherwise it’s funded by our own resources and ticket sales.
AS: There are some parts of producing that we're really good at, but grant writing is something that is still a new part of our practice.
CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?
AA: Typical. With the exception of weather // body - which was funded through the Edge Residency at CounterPulse.
CSW: What are one or two things about this project that have been challenging?
AA: The time constraint. That was partly just the circumstance of having this opportunity, because we had previously thought about showing the work later in the year. And, managing developments in our own personal lives as partners - job changes and busy schedules and all that.
CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?
AA: The collaborators. They’ve been really great to have in the room.
AS: And, the continued way in which we discover vocabulary has been satisfying.
AA: And, the ability to make a work in the space where you’ll be performing it. This was so crucial for weather // body, and it feels like a luxury right now for any work making.
AS: Being in the space where we'll be performing the work has moved us along way faster [in the process] than if we were making it in another space.
CSW: Anything else to say about Good Strong Hands?
AS: I’m excited to witness people witnessing it...to see how people interact with it and what their experiences are, both positive and negative.
CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many works have you created?
CSW: Do you each create independently, as well, or do you now primarily or exclusively create together?
AA: I don't make work independently.
AS: I write on my own, I write with us in mind, and I co-write with other colleagues.
CSW: What motivates you to make work?
AS: I'm constantly thinking about: what if? wouldn't it be neat if? couldn't it be interesting if x happened on stage? This process isn't necessarily fun, but it’s definitely satisfying.
AA: My relationship to making is specific to working with Adam. I'm interested in the work I'm making as a dancer for other choreographers because it is collaborative, at least in some degree. I wonder if that will shift at some point, and what that transition would look like.
CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?
AA: Mode of making up to now has been around what’s easy, inexpensive, can fit in one suitcase, and can travel. Maybe that’s valuable but also limiting in some ways. It’s interesting for us to start to think on a larger scale. Part of that is a financially larger scale, and curious about how big we might be able to think if we had the means to do something a little bit larger.
CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?
AS: Money and general resources in terms of venues and flexibility growing.
AA: The lack of commissioning fees.
CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?
AS: The Monster at the End of This Book - features Grover from Sesame Street. The entire book is Grover pleading with the reader to not turn the page because there's a monster at the end of the book. And then you get to the end of the book and the monster is just Grover. This was my first lesson in destroying the fourth wall. It's fun and cute, and something I keep thinking back on.
AA: Most formative for me was living in New York and seeing a lot of work. This was invaluable as a maker - to witness and have conversations about work.
CSW: What is something you didn’t know about work making that you wish someone had told you?
AA: That you don’t always have to know the answers...that not knowing is a part of making work.
AS: The allowance for chance and chaos and change.
AA: The reality that in any one moment there are infinite choices to make, and you sometimes have to just make one.
AS: And that sometimes the most arbitrary choices are the ones that are most exciting for people.
AA: Trusting instinct.
CSW: When you experience a work of art that resonates with you, what are some of the components in the work that are typically present?
AA: Commitment to idea. I saw Tense Dave in 2005 at Dance Theater Workshop, and I cannot forget about it. There was an on-going commitment to one idea that I still think about.
AS: Goes back to the sleight-of-hand thing. Where you are seeing movement and language happening the whole time but, but something else is somehow hidden from view and then revealed at the end. Reminds me of a piece I saw around 2005 by 33 Fainting Spells.
CSW: What qualities or attributes do you think helps one be a compelling artist?
AS: Someone who likes to problem solve and also gives themselves problems to solve.
AA: A curiosity. A willingness to not know.
AS: A good brainstormer.
CSW: What attributes, perspectives, knowledge, or dispositions make for an ideal audience member?
AA: The same attributes as a good artist - a willingness to not know.
AS: Someone who isn’t tied to the idea of getting it or liking it or not liking it. With paintings we often consider the work rather than having to decide if we like it or not.
Arletta Anderson and Adam Smith are a dance artist and a theater artist, respectively. Locally, Arletta has danced with GERALDCASELDANCE, Christy Funsch, Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations. Adam is most known for his work with the San Francisco Neo-Futurists and his critically acclaimed docu-theatre experiment, Theatre Show. Together they create multidisciplinary performance that brings together movement, theater and music. Their work exists in real time: there are no characters, no fake sets, no suspension of disbelief. Anderson and Smith have shared their work at ODC (Pilot Program), The Garage, Exit Theatre, and in the Boulder Fringe Festival in Boulder, CO.