Tag Archives: theatre

Practice for Being Human – September 11th

Not surprisingly, in light of the ten year anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences on September 11, 2001. Also not surprisingly, in light of the current direction my life is taking, I’ve been thinking a lot about why theatre matters (if, in fact, it does). Today, I’m going to try to share a few of my thoughts on both things. I hope they make sense to someone besides me.

I was living in “America’s Biggest Small Town” somewhere in Texas and attending college in 2001. On the morning of September 11 everyone in the school was being heavily incentivized to attend the inauguration ceremony for the new college president. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a morning listening to a bunch of old people give speeches about a “president” that I had not been involved in “electing” but I was under the influence of an extra credit bribe. I rolled out of bed feeling especially grumpy, shuffled into some clothes that were debatably more presentable than my pajamas and walked out into the lobby of the dorm. I was met there by my dorm director who was usually bubbly, full of enthusiasm for everything about life and always very attractively made-up. That morning she burst out of her apartment with her usual level of energy but her attitude was very different than I had ever seen it, so was her appearance. She was angry, her hair was a mess and she wasn’t wearing any makeup.

“I can’t believe we are having to do this!” she exclaimed the second she caught site of me. It was the kind of thing I would normally say. I’ve never been the compliant type.

“I know.” I said.

“I don’t want to go anywhere! I just want to stay in and watch the t.v.” she said. I agreed with her (thought I would rather have staid in and slept) and began to walk away.

I was in college. It was before 10am. My brain was moving slowly. As I walked away, I began to assimilate the information. A, usually very enthusiastic woman, was complaining. A, usually very nicely made up woman, was walking around in a semi-public area looking more disheveled than I looked. She wanted to watch t.v. Maybe there was something in particular on the t.v. that needed to be seen.

I stopped just before reaching the door. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Look!” she said, pointing. I turned and took in the television for the first time since I had entered the lobby. It wasn’t usually on in the mornings. From the moment I saw the screen, my mind was engulfed in a confused haze and stayed there for the rest of the day. The sound was turned down low, I couldn’t hear what the newscasters were saying and I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I can’t remember exactly what time it was, so I’ve never been able to figure out if what I saw was a replay or if I was actually witnessing the moment when the second plane hit the South Tower. I had no idea where the images I was seeing were coming from. It looked like New York City but I couldn’t comprehend something like this happening in my own country.

I must have asked questions. I must have turned up the volume on the t.v. I must have stayed for some time and absorbed the images that were coming across the screen. I don’t remember any of it clearly. I remember being confused. I remember not being sure that these things were really happening, in real time. I took in as much as I could handle and walked out of the dorm.

I saw people gathered in front of the college chapel, lined up for the inauguration ceremony and assumed they would all be talking about what I had just seen. I walked over to them hoping that someone would be able to explain it to me.  As I got closer, it was apparent from the sounds of their small talk, that most of the students standing outside had not seen a television yet. Only a few minutes before, I had been just like them but, now that I had some awareness that something much bigger than our mundane lives needed our attention, I was angry at them for their ignorance. I saw my brother’s girlfriend standing by the door of the building and went to her.

“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked.

She told me that she had called my brother and that he had refused to come to the inauguration because he wanted to watch the news. She said, “He says we are probably going to go to war. He says this is going to change everything.”

I wanted to leave before the ceremony started. I wanted to watch t.v. but somehow it felt morbid and voyeuristic to want to watch other people suffer. I decided to attend the ceremony thinking that surely someone would make an announcement. I thought it would be meaningful to be with other people when the announcement was made. I wanted to pray with them. I wanted to have an opportunity to talk about what this meant.

When I think about that inauguration ceremony now, I am ashamed for the president of the university. I cannot reflect on it without feeling that the entire event made him appear small minded and deeply selfish.

There was no announcement. There were no prayers. There was not a moment of silence or a time for people to turn to one another to ask questions, discuss or shed tears.

We followed the program for the event just as if nothing was happening. It was a disturbing experience standing in a dark room singing a hymn, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. The last verse of the hymn used a metaphor about soldiers fighting a war. I couldn’t sing. I felt insulted, confused and sick.

Later in the ceremony my creative writing instructor read a poem he had written for the new president. The poem was spoken from the perspective of a well known former president of the university reflecting on his own experience and giving insight to the new president. One line stated, “I pray you never have to see your boys go to war.” The day it was written, that line had been a kind sentiment and a reflection on the pain of the past. The day it was read, it became an erie foreshadowing of the direction in which our country had suddenly found itself moving.

I was convinced until the last moment of the ceremony that someone was going to say something about the events of the day. When we reached the end of the program I walked out feeling stunned and angry. The major donors and community officials who were in attendance ambled over to a picnic on the lawn and students rushed off to their afternoon classes.

I tried to tell myself that people just didn’t know. Those who did know were in shock. When they had time to process what was happening they would respond.

I waited for the response. Being a Resident Assistant in the dorms, I felt that perhaps it was my role to facilitate a time of discussion, reflection and prayer. I put up signs inviting dorm residents to join me that evening. No one came. I went around to people’s rooms to find out if they had seen the signs. People were in. They had seen the signs. They just had a lot of homework to do, tests to study for, plans for the evening.

I know that there were people on campus who were deeply affected by that day. I know that all over the school there were people like my dorm director, my brother and my future sister-in-law who were trying to process that day in their own ways.

Sadly, I also know that there were people who simply didn’t care. They didn’t know anyone in New York City. It didn’t feel real to them.

I will confess, a thousand thoughts ran through my head that day but I don’t remember feeling very much emotion. I responded emotionally to the people around me but I could not emotionally grasp the reality of what was happening in NYC, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. When I thought about it, I just felt dazed and blank.

I was in need of some way to put that experience into perspective. I was in need of some way to connect with my own community in order to empathize with those communities that were immediately affected by the tragedy.

The inauguration ceremony was an opportunity for everyone on my campus to respond, to process, to identify. Using that gathering as an opportunity to bring people together around something much bigger than their own preoccupations might have resulted in a campus full of compassionate, socially active and, in my opinion, more deeply human individuals. Instead, as a result of the administration’s choice to ignore the events, the entire campus was emotionally euthanized.

People processed the events of that day on their own or, possibly, in small groups but there was no sense that our community, as a whole, was in any way connected to the greater community of those who were suffering.

That’s what I’m reflecting on today. It seems important to me but it leads to several questions: Does it matter that there was no public recognition of this tragedy at my university? Does a “community response” have more relevance than an individual response? What does any of this have to do with theatre?

Maybe the answer to the first question seems obvious. Yes, someone should have said something in the ceremony. This event completely and permanently changed the status quo for our American lives. It was wrong that it didn’t alter the plans for a largely meaningless campus event. But what good would it have done to change those plans? What difference would it have made for the people in that auditorium?

There are some concrete answers to those questions. It might have motivated people to “take action.” They might have been more likely to give blood, donate to the red cross and participate in other relief efforts. That would have made a literal and tangible impact (however minor in the grand scheme of things).

But I think there is something less concrete that was missed that day. Connecting with other people’s pain makes us better at being human. That is not something I can quantify or even give very good examples to express but it is something I know to be essentially true. People need to take time to understand one another. They need to take opportunities to reflect on the realities of one another’s existence on this earth.

Tragedy in such massive proportions is incredibly difficult to grasp on a personal level but eventually it comes to effect our every day lives. It changes the way we travel. It changes our relationship to war. It changes our political views, religious views and social interactions. Before we experience all of these changes, we need to experience the reality of the event that leads to them. We need to connect to it, talk about it in all it’s complexity, feel the pain of it’s reality. If we do not do these things we cannot take a human approach to the subsequent changes it brings into our lives. Without a connection to the tragedy itself, we experience these changes as inconveniences, distant events and opinions. We don’t experience them as expressions of a deeply complex and life alteringly painful reality. If we don’t connect to that reality, all of our experiences with the fallout are less empathetic, less insightful, less human.

That leads to the second question. If each person processes the event and responds individually, is there any need for a “community response?” Again it is difficult for me to pinpoint concrete support for my instinctive belief that a sense of community in times of tragedy is important. Ultimately, I think it comes back, once again, to connecting with humanity. We need to be present with real people. We can empathize with the people we see on television but only distantly. They do not see us. We cannot reach out to them physically. It is always necessary to remember that each of us is only one of billions of people trying to exist on this plant but it is, perhaps, more necessary than normal to have a vibrant reminder of the closeness of other people’s existence when we are processing a large scale tragedy. We need to see just how many ways people respond. We need to interact with the depth of one another’s emotions. We need to speak about what we have seen and give others an opportunity to be heard.

I cannot make a simple list of the benefits of this type of connection because I don’t think they are straightforward or easily defined. I can, however, point out (without having done any research but still with assurance that I am not making a wild unfounded assumption) that every culture everywhere in the history of the world has used gatherings of one kind or another as an opportunity to process the realities of their lives. We sing communally. We pray communally. We gather for the purpose of listening to people speak about issues that are relevant to us. We express ourselves artistically in front of others. We give time, money and energy into the effort of observing and discussing other people’s artistic expressions. We have a need as human beings to interact in communal ways. These communal expressions remind us of our own humanity, the humanity of others and the reality that their is more to our lives than our own individual experiences.

That leads to my final question. What does any of this have to do with theatre? My experience on September 11, 2001 was a life changing example of what happens when people who have the power to speak, to create community and to inspire a more human reaction, choose instead to carry on with their usual plans and place undue importance on meaningless ceremony.

Depending on who you are and how you relate to the world my story may bring about a completely different thought process for you (I’d love to hear about that) but, as I think about it in reference to what I have to offer, I am compelled to apply this experience to the way I make theatre.

Theatre can very easily become ceremony for the sake of ceremony. It’s creators can get so caught up in what they think their event should be about that they can suffocate the expression of what the event needs to be about. In every community, the people who gather to empathize, explore and be entertained, have shared experiences that need expression. I want to create theatre that is local enough to reflect those shared experiences, flexible enough to respond as those experiences change and small enough to give audience members a sense of personal connection with the event.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what that looks like. I know how depressed I get when I see a play that in no way achieves these goals. I know how much more alive I feel when I go to a play that does achieve them, even in part. But I’m not entirely sure I know what it looks like for me. That may make me seem aimless or unorganized but I think what it really reflects is my willingness to let the process of devising theatre yield it’s own results.

For me, it is important to have a broad idea of what I think theatre should achieve before I begin creating it but if my ideas are too specific, I won’t have the flexibility I need in order to respond to the discoveries that come about in the creative process. Like the people who planned the inauguration ceremony at my university I could easily get so caught up in what I’m trying to do that I fail to realize that what I’m doing is no longer important. Theatre that is created without a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to speak into the realities that surround it’s expression. Theatre that is created with too rigid a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to adjust to the changing needs of it’s community.

My experience on September 11, along with a number of other life experiences has convinced me that sometimes people need to practice being human. Intimately encountering another person’s humanity can be difficult on many levels. One of the difficulties it brings about is the fact that it causes us to reflect on our own humanity. People come up with many different way of avoiding the reality of their own humanity and the humanity of others. At my university, on September 11, 2001 the popular approach was denial and avoidance. I believe that theatre can be an intermediary…like humanity with training wheels. It can give us the opportunity to explore what it is that makes us real while pretending that what we are experiencing is fiction. I imagine I’ll write more about this concept in the future but today I wanted to remember one of the sources of my belief in the importance of what I do. I help people to be more human, I create an opportunity for people to explore their humanity in community with others. I have seen first hand how failure to provide those experiences creates silence and isolation. I hope that what I do will instead create space for compassion and community to emerge.





The Search for a Home

So far, the most interesting challenge about opening an acting studio in a new city has been selecting the right location. I’ve done a lot of space shopping in the Austin area and the decision never gets easier. The dilemma isn’t uncommon or surprising. Though I’ve never undergone this kind of search before, I watch enough HGTV to know that it’s the same simple dilemma everyone faces when searching for the right place: Do I pay more and sacrifice a lot of what I think I want in order to be in a more trendy location? Or, do I choose the right space at the right price even though it isn’t centrally located?

In my case, I’d really like to believe that the famous real estate adage, “Location, Location, Location,” can be interpreted loosely. (Notice I didn’t say, I hope the adage is wrong.) I found a place pretty early in my search that was exactly what I was looking for in terms of square footage and layout and I even got an offer that was considerably lower than the advertised rate. The space itself looked like a great find but I wanted to be closer into the city. I kept looking around, thinking I’d find something similar somewhere else but  the more I looked the more amazed I was that a big empty room could be so hard to come by. I checked out availabilities on  the East side, where all the cool kids go to make art, and I could see why it is becoming such a popular place to create. There is a lot of cool stuff going on there and there is an exciting mix of people from various backgrounds but as soon as a place starts getting cool it also starts getting expensive. That means the spaces in my price range are really small. I’d have to decrease my class sizes and rehearsal requirements just to make them fit into the space and, with so many people in that area making theatre on a larger scale, I just don’t think a cramped little acting studio could compete.

The first location I looked at was pretty far north of Austin  so it would be a long drive for city dwellers but North Austin is a highly populated area. It isn’t a place where people commute to work or play. It’s a place where people make their homes and send their kids to school. I’m sure there are tons of families in the area who would be happy to pick there kids up from school and not have to drive back into the city to take them to acting class. The part I’m less sure about is the location’s ability to attract working theatre artists.

A major aspect of my vision is to create a space where actors, playwrights, and various collaborators  can come together to train, get feedback on their work and exchange creative insights. I believe that in order for a studio to be successful, it has to not only provide great training and be a source of excellent work, it also has to feel like a creative home to a core group of people who see it as a place to turn for inspiration and support. If I have to drag artists out from the East Side to my North Side studio, they may be willing to commute on a short-term basis in order to be involved in an interesting project, but it is doubtful that they will keep coming out for training and feedback when the project is over. If, on the other hand, the quickly growing population of Austin’s North Side is home to a number of talented theatre artists who would love to work in a creative space that doesn’t involve a twenty minute drive into the city, I might have a very good chance of making the North Side BNTC’s new home.

The more I look at my options, the more attached I get to this possibility, but I’m not just going to jump into something that I hope will work out. So, like the responsible business person that I am, I’m in the process of conducting preliminary research to find out if there is a hidden well-spring of theatre artists on the North Side who are searching for a creative home.

Now this is the point where those readers who have had even the most minor experience in real estate are starting to get uncomfortable. Why are they uncomfortable? Because they are remembering what I said earlier about finding the North Side location “pretty early in my search.” A good space doesn’t just sit on the market waiting for people to complete their research. I stumbled upon this location while I was just looking around to get an idea of price ranges in different areas. I didn’t mean to find what I wanted right away!

I was feeling pretty pressured for time when I went out the other day to take another look at the space but I learned while I was there that another space with the same layout would be opening up in October. I went home feeling encouraged that this new information had possibly bought me some time and I emailed the leasing agent to let him know I’d like to be the first to hear when the other space became available. After sending the email, I went to bed feeling relieved from the pressure that had been building with each passing day since the first space had hit the market.

The relief lasted exactly 24 hours. When the leasing agent wrote back, it was to say that they were going to start aggressively marketing both spaces next week. For those of you who have searched for a home or work-space, or know anyone who has, I’m sure this story is a tired repeat of the same old ups and downs that you are all too familiar with yourself. Nonetheless, I’m sure you also remember how important it feels when it’s happening to you.

At this point, there isn’t much I can do. I can’t rush into something unless I know it will work for my business and I can’t make them save the space for me until I’ve finished my research. I’ve got a meeting tomorrow afternoon with a guy who is part of a professional theatre company on the North side. The company started just a few years ago so they have first hand experience with the challenge of finding artists to work with in this area. I’m hoping he will be able to give me some much-needed insight about what lies ahead and I’m also hoping (as I always do) that our companies will find ways to benefit from one another’s work rather than viewing ourselves as competitors.

The list of things I need to get done if I’m going to move into this space is ever increasing and yet the main priority right now is to determine if the North Side is actually the right place for BNTC. With that in mind, it’s time for the “call to action.” The part of the blog where I ask you to help me out. If you know of any individual or organization associated with the arts in North Austin please put them in contact with me. If you are a theatre artist or parent of a child who is interested in acting, please let me know if you think you’d like to part of BNTC. Finally, no matter where you are located, if you are supporting this project even just by keeping up with how things are going, please let me know who you are. Here’s a form to fill out so you don’t even have to go to your email account.

BNTC in North Austin 

Update: Immediately after posting this, I received word that the space I was looking at got leased to someone else. The other space with the same layout is still available but now the pressure is really on. *Sigh!*

Up to Now

BNTC started in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2005 as a name to put on my various directing/producing  projects. I didn’t really have any ambition for the company at the time. I just thought the title “The Brand New Theatre Co.” would look better on a poster than, “Something Kara Saunders Decided to Do.” BNTC’s first production was the world-premier of a one act play by David Ives called Roll Over Beethoven. Interestingly, a major theme of the play was the importance of letting go and learning to approach art playfully rather than feeling that you have to become the master of it.  It’s a theme that has come to resonate with me even more deeply as theatre devising has taken on importance in BNTC’s repertoire.

Roll Over Beethoven was presented at a one act festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma and, though it was well received, it didn’t exactly rocket my directing career straight to the heights of Broadway (or wherever people go to actually make a living directing theatre). Over the next couple of years I did some freelance directing under my own name and used BNTC’s name to land such illustrious jobs as writing/directing the entertainment for the Bama Pie Company Party, and playing the role of the Princess of Katroo at a six year old’s Birthday. At that point, BNTC wasn’t so much a theatre company as it was an excuse to make a few extra bucks and score some free hors d’oeuvres.

In 2007, I had started to teach high school and middle school drama part-time and I realized I probably knew enough kids who wanted acting lessons, that I could put party appearances behind me and start offering acting classes on a regular basis. I reunited with an old friend from my childhood theatre days (because, of course, I had been a child actress) and we started advertising acting lessons primarily to students at the schools where we taught. It turned out that she had been directing an Improv group for a number of years so I decided to do some producing as well. BNTC helped Crayons Improv to transition from a season of scattered un-paid shows to a schedule of monthly professional performances that got them voted “Best Improv in Tulsa” in the 2008 “Best Of” issue of Tulsa People Magazine.

By 2008, regular professional productions and ongoing acting classes were starting to give BNTC its shape and I was starting to deepen my interest in theatre devising (aka: collaborative theatre creation). What started out as acting exercises with my students was coming to result in some exciting work but I didn’t feel that I had a firm enough grip on the process of playwriting. Fortunately, with a name like Brand New Theatre Co. even the slightest internet presence was enough to attract the attention of a few playwrights. I contacted some experienced writers and some complete novices (like myself) and we began meeting regularly to discuss our individual work and brainstorm ideas about creating in community.

Steam was starting to build behind my ideas for the company but I felt that I was also beginning to hit a wall in terms of the progress I could make in a city that was not known for supporting the professional careers of its theatre artists. I wanted to make actor-training my primary vocation and needed to deepen my understanding of the training I had received as an actress in order to do that. I also wanted an opportunity to focus my energy as a director on the work of devising theatre so I needed to be in a city that was home to a large concentration of professional actors and playwrights.

I moved to England in the fall of 2009 to earn a master’s degree in Actor Training and Coaching at one of the country’s top Drama Schools (University of London: Central School of Speech and Drama). While studying there, I held a position as a visiting tutor at another major Drama School called Rose Bruford. I also took advantage of the city’s  vast resource of professional actors to expanded my work in devising by offering workshops in Viewpoints and Composition (a technique developed for theatre by an American director named Anne Bogart) .

When I returned to the U.S. in 2010 I was excited about the possibilities I saw for ongoing actor training with professional actors and I was eager to explore a number of new approaches to theatre devising. I also began restructuring the training programs I had previously developed for young actors in order to provide a more in-depth ground-work for advanced training (should my young students choose to continue acting as adults).

With a clear vision for the future of BNTC, I began offering short term workshops on advanced acting techniques while I visited various U.S. cities to research the best location to launch the next phase of the company’s development.  I arrived in Austin in May of 2011 and was immediately struck by the amount of pride Austinites take in their city’s creative culture.

Austin is known as a center of both artistic and commercial creativity that starts from the ground up. People here seem to start collaborating before they have finished their first cup of coffee in the morning and they are not precious with their creative resources. Whereas, in other cities I heard phrases like, “it’s a hard place to make a start but if you just trust the system you’ll get there eventually,” in Austin people would listen with delight to my ideas and reply, “I know a guy who might be interested in that!” Rather than feeling overwhelmed with a sense that there was an all powerful “industry” that needed “breaking into” I felt that people in Austin had grabbed the idea of “being their own industry” and run with it.

In other cities I heard, “Well I don’t know how you’re going to get an audience. People here only want to see things they’re familiar with,” but Austinites said, “That sounds cool! I know some people who might be able to help you. I’ll send you a link to their Facebook page.” Rather than resisting new ideas or discouraging “competition” the people I met here seemed to be thrilled to support any creative endeavor they encountered. I have been amazed to find that absolutely everyone I’ve met has not only had some resource or connection to offer but they have also offered it without a hint of fear that there aren’t enough resources to go around.

By late June I had finished making the rounds and investigating possible cities and had decided to make Austin BNTC’s new home. I’m looking forward to being a part of the vibrant creative community that makes this city such an amazing cultural center. I’m still settling in and feeling like I’ll never learn my way around but I think I’ll start feeling like I fit in here the first time I get the opportunity to listen to someone else’s creative vision and say, “I love that idea. How can I help?”