Wednesday, May 21, 2014

6 QUESTIONS - George Drance

photo by Ron Rinaldi

George Drance, of Magis Theatre Company, will be performing *mark, a new solo performance based on The Gospel of Mark, at La MaMa, May 29th - June 15th. Here, he answers our six questions.

1. You describe *mark as seeking "to reclaim the original power and urgency" of the message contained in the Gospel of Mark. How would you describe that message?
The resounding refrain of this text is: do not be afraid, have faith. It’s probably the most repeated phrase in the whole of the Gospel, which makes you believe that the people who first heard the message were probably afraid and probably felt challenged about believing. On the surface, not much has changed. Fear still plays a huge part in keeping us from becoming all that we can possibly become. And faith seems to be something that we find on t-shirts and coffee mugs but not so much anchored in our hearts. What keeps changing the particular fears and challenges we face each day? We don’t seem to know where to put our faith any more. The community that first heard these words was a community in crisis. Empires were rising and falling, society was in constant flux, and this group of people who simply wanted to turn their hearts back to the source of all that is, was ridiculed, persecuted, and killed. To speak of what Nero did to that community would be too distasteful, but it happened and they had every reason to be afraid of power-gone-mad. But they also overcame their fears, and encouraged each other to make it through, to be a support to one another, and to let go of what “kingdom” meant to the power structures of their time, while choosing instead to establish an interior kingdom reigned by faith in divine love. The power of knowing oneself as “beloved” can do this, can give us this strength, quite miraculously.

2. What role does Liz Swados' music play in the performance?
This piece marks the 20th time Liz and I have worked together (or is it 21? I lose count). We are like sister and brother at this point… We share a common language and understanding that goes beyond words. 

So really, to answer the question, I have to say that all of Liz’ music that I’ve sung or heard over the years has lived inside me and has really shaped me as an artist.  There is a daring about it, a trust, a faith that continues to resonate inside me if I’m working on a La MaMa piece, or teaching my own students, or doing something with Magis Theatre. There are moments in the piece where I rely on the music to fill me with what I need to tell this story. There are moments in the music that are the perfect blend of visions, not only hers and mine, but also those of director Luann Purcell Jennings, and musical director Ryan Cantwell, and the amazing musicians we work with. 

Looking at any given moment of the piece, we each might have our own perspective about it, but there’s a thrill when something happens and we all know “that’s it!” It can deepen a story, or surprise the audience, or give a breath or a smile or a jolt just when needed.  Without the music it would be like breathing in thin air. The most humbling part of it all is that when I told Liz that I was doing this show, before I could even ask her, she said “I want to do the music.” It’s this kind of synergy that has characterized the whole process.

3. Would you describe *mark as a religious, or christian, performance? How does the piece relate to your own spirituality? 
*mark is the first full performance of “the Logos Project,” an initiative of the Magis Theatre Company that explores the place of performance in all sacred traditions of the world.  “Logos” is Greek for “word.” The first words that I spoke at La MaMa were Greek, and the Gospel of Mark was written in Greek.  Most sacred traditions have stories and teachings that go beyond an everyday understanding. They are heightened in some way to emphasize the importance of the “word.”  Performance is one of the ways that different world traditions mark a special “extra-daily” quality.

Ellen Stewart’s vision of the world being “one” and all the people in the world being “the same person” took form in how she brought many of the ancient stories to the stage. They deal with a commonality of human experience that spans both centuries and cultures. They deal with timeless emotions, urgings and longings. Working with such epic themes was always been a spiritual experience for Ellen and for the people who saw her work with the Great Jones Company.

This text is specifically Christian in its origin, just as Shakuntala, the last text that Magis performed at La MaMa, was specifically Hindu.  So *mark is truly Christian, but not exclusively Christian. Bringing these specific traditions to Ellen’s home, I follow her example, reverencing the origin while performing for a universal audience. It's going to the heart of the piece, whether it’s Greek or Christian or Hindu or anything, that opens it up for everyone. 

In a sense, “The Logos Project” seeks to do just this, focusing on both the distinctness of each piece, while celebrating the commonalities. One of the reasons that Liz and I work together so well is that we are both Ellen's spiritual "babies." Liz included a section in her “La MaMa Cantata” about how Ellen always wanted her to get back to her Jewish roots, and that's perfect. We can’t forget that Jesus was Jewish. And I can’t forget that I’m Catholic. So was Ellen. Remember, the word “catholic” means “universal.” She and I prayed together on every tour we did, and sometimes she’s ask me to lead the entire company in prayer. Working on *mark has been an opportunity to walk in the shoes of my ancestors. I’ve been humbled, challenged, and moved by this work: it makes me both shudder and glow at the same time.

4. What are the challenges and/or advantages of solo performance, for you specifically?
Well, truly I’ve found that solo performance is not solo work. I could not have done it without Luann, my director; Amanda and Cesca, my stage managers; Liz and Ryan, and many other collaborators.  Yet I can’t deny that I am going to have to be on for the entire time.  Luann’s been preparing me like a coach for a marathon since it will take that much energy.  But I’m confident that the music, the lights, and the magic of the audience changing from day to day will be my partners.

5. How has teaching theatre affected your work with Magis, your own company?
At our end of the year faculty meeting at Fordham University Lincoln Center, Matthew Maguire recited a quote, “to teach is to learn twice.” This really resonated with me. I love teaching and I feel that when I’m working with my students, I’m always learning. The creative landscape is always changing and both as a teacher and as a performer and truly “being in the moment” requires a flexibility and a suppleness that can move with these changes. 

I’m constantly calling upon lessons I’ve learned from my teachers: Niky Wolcz, Andrei Serban, Priscilla Smith, Anne Bogart and so many others. When I convey their lessons, I can’t help but hold myself accountable to the same standards.  

The classroom can be like a laboratory for the stage, and the stage a crucible for the classroom. With Magis I’m lucky enough have a group of colleagues dedicated to the unity of training, teaching and acting. We train every week together, whether we are in production or not, and have developed a unique training vocabulary that is based on the specific demands of our craft being fused with the freshness of the moment and the impulse. We look at differing theatre techniques, which some would see as incompatible, and try to find the common theatrical ground they share. Margi Sharp Douglas, my main collaborator at Magis, and I are constantly finding connections between her background with movement and anatomy as an Alexander/Pilates instructor and the acting work that we do with the company.

To be able to work with a company of actors who share a common training is a very rare thing. We open our training to other actors and artists, and when we do we deepen our connection to the training and our desire to put it into whatever we are developing for performance.  The greatest thing about a being part of a wide community of collaborating artists, like Magis, is that we develop a richness of experience together that none of us could have developed on our own. We’re stimulated, nudged and inspired to put all of it into our work. 

6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?
It means “home” to me, first and foremost. It’s been eighteen years since I first started working here, thanks to one of my classmates in graduate school, Mia Yoo, who asked me to replace an actor who was unable to continue to the next phase of a project she was creating.  Mia introduced me to Ellen, and I guess I passed the “beep” test, because Ellen kept asking me back.  I can’t express how much of an honor it is to be even the smallest part of a place like LaMaMa that has given so much to theatre, to art, and to the world.  Artists that I’ve met here and worked with continue to inspire and challenge me. 
It means that I’ve been invited to share in the gift, but also that I have a responsibility to participate in the vision.  

La MaMa presents:


By  Magis Theatre Company
Performed by George Drance
Directed by Luann Jennings

May 29 – June 15, 2014
Thursday - Saturday @ 7:30pm / Sunday @ 2:30pm

The First Floor Theatre @ La MaMa
74a East 4th Street
(between Bowery and Second Avenue)
New York, NY 10003

Tickets: $18 Adults - $13 Student/Senior; ten tickets priced at $10 are available, in advance, for every performance via web, phone or box office as part of La MaMa's 10@$10 ticketing initiative. 10@$10 tickets not available day of show.

For Tickets and Info: CLICK HERE