It is not always easy to find information on the avant garde theatre companies and artists who participate on the theatrical festival circuit of which the San Francisco International Arts Festival is a part. Almost by definition, festival artists are part of a world wide underground of under-the-radar performers, known to the theatrically woke, but often unnoticed by the mainstream.
But the Source Material Collective, founded in 2014, tends to get noticed. The company is a loose association of artists from around the world, with bases on both coasts of the United States, and Reykjavik, Iceland. It is in Reykjavik that their work was called out by legendary Icelandic performance artist Bjork, who now claims them as an inspiration. Well, in my book, that counts as a bona fide if anything does.
When I spoke recently with founder and artistic director Samantha Shay, one of the first things she said was that she is really, really interested in cross cultural pedagogy. That was a good place to start talking.
Here follows a more or less complete transcription of our conversation. If you’re anything like me, you will want to follow up on it and see “The Source Material” in performance.
Charles: How would you describe your work?
Samantha: I have a really big curiosity about cross cultural pedagogy. I’m really interested how we reinterpret classical plays and writers. I’ve spent a lot of time abroad studying and working with different people, in Poland, Russia and Eastern Europe. I want to create pieces that reflect an aesthetic diversity and different ways of story telling that maybe are a bit unconventional for an American audience.
For example,our present performance is a devised piece, a “love letter to Anton Chekhov.” Here, we utilize polyphonic singing, physical gestures, pictures we create. It’s not just characters and psychological relationship as the primary center of the story: it could be a song or an image.
Charles: What are some of your influences?
Samantha: The Grotowski Institute and Teatr Zar have been a very big influence. I saw their performance, “Caesarean Section,” and was struck by how sound could function as a form of story telling and also physicality—the combination of polyphonic singing and physical gesture. This evoked something very ritualistic for me. I had never experienced catharsis like I experienced at Teatr Zar. It may be one of the best performances I’ve ever seen; it was that moving. I also like the way they work with objects—dragging furniture to make sound, for example. The director of Teatre Zar talks about “the theatre of sound” and I have tried to incorporate that idea into my work.
THe first version of “I Should Have A Party” was developed not long after I saw Zar and right after I studied in Russia. So it is very influenced, structurally, by Eastern European theatre. But it is also inspired by Chekhov as I came to understand him in Russia. So often, we think of Chekhov as this very aristocratic, classical writer. But his writing is quite often awkward and uncomfortable. Still, theatrical companies approach him in a “proper” way. Even though his people are actually doing weird stuff and making everyone uncomfortable. This piece is about social awkwardness in human connections—it has a lot of really dark comedy.
When I went to Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre I discovered a Russian sense of humor that is really dark. The history of Russia—even to the present day—is so oppressive and intense that there is this level of ridiculousness. Let me tell you a story.
I got lost one day in Moscow on my way to class. I got on the subway going the wrong way. I ended up at the airport and went wandering around Moscow with a ticket stub to the Moscow Art Theatre hoping someone would tell me where to go. Finally someone sent me back to the subway and the woman there decided to ignore me. On purpose. I said, “Please” in Russian, and then I made the horrible mistake of tapping on the glass of the ticket booth and she started screaming at me. I thought, “Okay. I’m in a movie. I’ll laugh!” But I felt like crying. I finally figured out that the subway stop was on the back of the ticket. I got to class, and met a truly mean teacher—someone who won’t tolerate lateness.Well, I knew I would find teachers like that at the Moscow Art Theatre.
At the end of class, two other girls started crying and one said, “I didn’t mean to be late, but on the way to class I got hit by a car and I think I need to go the hospital.”
What could I possibly make of all that absurdity and stress—funny, but not funny?
“I Should Have A Party” is structured as a funeral and a funeral reception. Think of the social awkwardness about not knowing how to talk about grief and sadness. There’s something hilarious about it, isn’t there? We’ve all had that sort of experience.
We first created this piece in 2012, but every time I remount a piece, we consider adding things to it. Right now, we are considering adding a standup routine. And maybe we will. Wouldn’t that be out of the box? Anything can happen, right up to the moment of performance. Our work has structure, but there is always room for a new idea.
Charles: How would you describe your daily artistic practice?
Samantha: I am an intellectual, but I do a lot of physical practice, very dance-influenced. I also like to do Shakespeare by myself, or sing a Bulgarian song or a polyphonic song. My way into my work is always through my body. That is really important to my directing, so I have to keep the physical instrument in shape. As a company, we are an international, nomadic group. We come together from different places. I’ve been working with the same people for quite a while, so when we work together we can drop into it pretty quickly. In the beginning stages, I’ll tell everyone what the project is and give them some assignments, and they’ll bring in material. For example, for “I Should Have A Party,” I gave the assignment,”bring in a piece of text from a Chekhov play, or a piece of music, or a physical sequence inspired by the text.” It depends on the actor, and what I know of their work, what the assignment will be. It’s a very intuitive process. In the very beginning, it’s about figuring out what our collective story is, as inspired by the play. We explore this through workshopping, and it becomes more and more clear over time. It’s all very collaborative. Everyone takes ownership. I guide it, for sure, but the performers and designers I like to work with the most are the ones who challenge each other and question how we’re constructing and telling the story. It’s not just “stand over there and say this line.”
Charles: . How does the upcoming performance planned for SFIAF relate to the Festival theme of “The Path to Democracy?” What are you specifically seeking to address?
Samantha:What I’m really passionate about right now is cross cultural pedagogy and aesthetic diversity. This is a way of creating more inclusiveness in the theatre community. Part of the reason I make the kind of work I make—so-called experiental theatre—is that very often classical plays are limited by assumptions about how it’s done well and who has permission to do it. It is important to fight these limitations. Devised theatre allows more accessibility to all kinds of performers. It creates access. In America, we still subscribe to a pretty dated aesthetic. If you go abroad, you’ll find plays being staged with a much more adventurous approach. It’s the aesthetic of our piece that speaks to democracy. Who gets to do Chekhov? What is proper and right? Who is this for?
Just a short while ago, we did a production of King Lear for which I cut Lear out of the piece. We gave the story over to all of the other characters who were disenfranchised by Lear. So, that was a kind of an out of the box way of doing it. It offended one critic so badly he harassed me by e-mail, writing “how dare you?”
Charles: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?
Samantha: Wow. That’s a big question. I would say “Go towards what you’re attracted to.”
What I mean by that is really get quiet with yourself and ask what are the voices inside of you that are someone else’s voice telling you what you should do and what is the voice that is your clear “Yes.” Go towards the “yes.”
I would also say that if you are interested in leadership, especially as an artist which is a personal and professional vocation, take it on as a tool for your own growth. Because leadership will ask of you that you become a better person. So when you have that opportunity, don’t avoid it. It can lead to really beautiful experiences personally and professionally; you can build powerful relationships and community. It will be a challenge. That’s for sure.
But it can be really exciting.
Source Material Collective will perform “I Should Have A Party for All The Thoughts I Didn’t Say” at The Chapel at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture on May 24, 25th and 26th. For times and ticket information, CLICK HERE.
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performances as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 23, 2019 to June 2, 2019. The Festival features performances by more than 50 different artists, ensembles, and companies including dance, theatre, music, and comedy, plus various educational activities and public receptions. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows by buying a Festival pass. More details CLICK HERE.