Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Vanity 8: The Team/Mission Drift

In an ideal world, I'd have posted a whole bunch of stuff on here during May: the 8000-word transcript of my interview with Nature Theater of Oklahoma plus sort-of review of Life and Times (at current rate of progress, that might just about be finished in August); a thing on Gertrude Stein, Anthony Neilson's Narrative and our incomprehensible minds (now light-pencilled for 2015); not to mention the big number on Chris Goode's God/Head (quite sure I'll be a grandmother before that's through). But this is not an ideal world. Certainly not today: I could have written twice as much about the Team as I did for the Guardian, and that was before two-thirds of what I did write had to be cut to fit it on a single G2 page. Snip snip snip. Time being short, I've had to abandon the idea of rewriting it for here: what follows is just what I originally filed. It's not a great piece by any means, but at least it's longer.

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A lot of what you need to know about American theatre company the Team can be discovered from the story of how they got their name. At root it's quite a short story: the founding group of six graduates from New York University called themselves after their artistic director, Rachel Chavkin: “the team” was her nickname. But the important bit is that their first project together in 2004 was to treat the word as an acronym and figure out what it stood for. The suggestions, Chavkin says, were mostly ridiculous – but from them they settled on “Theatre of the Emerging American Moment”. Chavkin adds: “We came up with our name and our mission statement in the same breath.”

Although the company have quietly shed the phrase over the past few months – understandably, it being cumbersome and off-puttingly dry – the manifesto holds truer than ever. In the UK they've been making their name with a series of works that examine American culture, history, politics and mythology with as much irreverence as fierce intelligence: first with Particularly in the Heartland (2006), which looked at neo-conservatism through the lens of The Wizard of Oz; then with Architecting (2008), which contemplated the legacy of the civil war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina via Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind; and now with Mission Drift, a musical about capitalism and the pioneer spirit, which was a hit at the Edinburgh festival in 2011 and opens at the National Theatre [this month].

That nutshell description does nothing to convey the vibrancy, the sheer sexiness, of Mission Drift. In its quest to understand how capitalism built America, it crosses centuries and the entire continent, following Dutch immigrants Joris and Catalina from New Amsterdam to the Nevada desert, marvelling as they adapt to each new territory and new era. At the end of their journey lies Las Vegas, where their story becomes entwined with that of Chris and Joan, two people broken by the 21st-century financial crisis. Overlooking them all is the sultry, snaky figure of Miss Atomic, played by self-styled “avant-torch” singer HeatherChristian, whose husky songs help to narrate and comment on this fast-moving tale.

With so much story and information crammed in, it's no surprise that Mission Drift took years to put together. Work on it began in 2008 with some intensive reading: “No one in the company knew how capitalism or economics work – we're all theatre people,” says Chavkin deprecatingly. So its 14 members were each assigned an area of study, ranging from the history of Wall Street to the writings of key economists including John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, which they would later present to each other, helping to build what Chavkin calls “a collective unconscious”.

Absorbing the ideas was the easy part: the difficulty lay in trying to express them emotionally. “These concepts are fascinating because they govern lives,” says Brian Hastert, a Team founder who plays Joris. “So that was the quest: how do we make this human?” Through a series of improvisation and writing sessions – all the Team's work is scripted collaboratively – myriad characters and possible scenarios emerged and were discarded. Among the abandoned material are scenes full of galloping horses and talking lizards, and a long story about two investment bankers on a violent crime spree. Even Joris and Catalina were killed off for several months: “The performers had felt really icky about playing period characters – it was like a Disney musical,” explains Chavkin.

Their first breakthrough came in summer 2010, when the company decamped to Las Vegas for a month of research and development. The experience was eye-opening: “Everything degenerate that you can think of, you have the freedom to do in Las Vegas without judgment,” says Christian, whose character Miss Atomic represents the heart of Vegas in the production. Hastert admits: “There's a list of things I had not done before that trip. You want them? I'd never been to a strip club – I was a Nebraskan boy! – I'd never gambled, I had never smoked pot, I had never been inside a casino: check, check, check, check.” The advantage of staying for an extended period, says Christian, is that: “You get it out of your system – then you can watch other people have this revelation.”

The debauchery in Vegas heightened their appreciation of the excitement of capitalism – what Hastert calls “the extraordinary passion of the desire for growth” – but more contemplative encounters with people who had grown up in the city also helped them understand its costs. One of the houses they rented there had been lost by its owners when their mortgage was foreclosed. And it's a generally accepted fact in the city that within a generation or two it will run out of water. “There's an easy metaphor of Las Vegas as a manifestation of greed,” says Chavkin. “But that's much less interesting to me than what we found out: that Las Vegas is a boom town that grew too fast, because all these resources went into it very suddenly. It's really a metaphor for human sustainability, and the larger thing that's happening with America being so slow to come to the table of environmental sustainability.”

Libby King, who plays Catalina in Mission Drift, admits that as the impact of the financial crash began to be felt in 2008, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, few members of the Team (now expanded to a core group of 13, plus several associates) felt personally affected. “Most of us live hand to mouth: we don't save anything, we don't invest anything, so the idea of a financial crisis – other than funding drying up – was kind of a far-fetched one. At least I understand it now.” She was also struck by how quickly trust in the system was restored. Christian hopes that: “To a certain extent, we're more responsible as a nation. People are a little more realistic about what they can afford.” It comes down, she argues, to the American Dream: “This nebulous idea that you can live in a house with a pool and granite worktops and stainless steel appliances – and all those houses look the same because everybody's dream looks the same.” It is this nebulous idea that the Team are focused on dismantling.

And yet, argues Hastert, they all feel “very patriotic: we kind of love America”. Which is why it hit hard that performances of Mission Drift in New York earlier this year were received much less positively than elsewhere in the world. Charles Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, found: “its ideas about the destructive force of American capitalism … belabored to the point of tedium”. Whereas, says Hastert, in countries still in the thick of financial crisis, such as Portugal, “people were eager to talk to us about the ideas after the show”.

The company have continued to work on Mission Drift since that New York run – it now has an interval, and Christian says the character of Miss Atomic is clearer – so it should feel different even to people who saw it in Edinburgh 18 months ago. At the same time, they're working on multiple other projects, notably RoosevElvis, which interlaces the stories of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley to examine the making of American myths, and so the making of Americans; and Primer for a Failed Superpower, which is attempting to frame America's shifting position as a world power within 1980s post-punk music.

Christian, as an associate rather than core member of the Team, offers an intriguing outsider's perspective on their accumulating body of work: “They've been together almost 10 years, the kind of Americans that they are and their relationship to the country changes the older they get. Particularly in the Heartland was about feeling displaced in New York City; Architecting was about relationships and romantic views of America; with Mission Drift, all of us had just turned 30, entering the age of being an adult, and thinking about the span of a life, how you sustain that logistically, and reconcile that to the hunger you feel as an American to keep going forward.” Now one of their members is about to become a parent – so Primer for a Failed Superpower, says King, “is us thinking about our children”.

Hastert, though, has a more dispassionate take on the Team's sources of inspiration. “If you want to make plays about the American soul, the American spirit, you will never run dry. There is always some craziness, because it is a big, nutball place.”

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