Feb. 17, 2020
I began recording on Tuesday at Interstate’s first rehearsal. Director Jesca Prudencio, writers Kit Yan and Melissa Li, and all of Interstate’s eight person cast settled around a table in the rehearsal space for the first script read through. I sat with Molly Brandt, Mixed Blood Theatre’s Program Assistant, on a couple of unassuming chairs by the doorway, coffee mugs and cameras in hand. After introductions, with MBT Stage Manager Raúl Ramos’s blessing, we slipped off our chairs and spent the next couple of hours circling the director/writer/cast table taking pictures and videos from any conceivable angle. Molly’s goal was to capture content for the theater’s social medias. My goal was to start building a photo collection for the documentary and archive. Halfway through the rehearsal, Molly asked me if I was getting good stuff. My honest answer – I have no idea.
Here’s a little more honesty. Last semester, I was fortunate to schedule a meeting with Charlie from the University of Minnesota Libraries’ SMART Learning Commons. Over the course of one hour, Charlie gave me an impressively comprehensive crash course on basic video and audio recording technique. The purpose of this was to prepare me to produce a five minute “digital narrative” for one of my graduate courses. In November, I borrowed a mic and camera from SMART, filmed this class project within the comfort of my apartment, and employed the help of precisely two additional people. From start to finish this project spanned about three weeks and pretty much sums up the entirety of my digital recording experience.
As soon as I began interning at Mixed Blood, I realized that this documentary would be… a little more intensive. Before my naivety surpasses redemption let me just say – of course I knew this project would be different. Of course I knew that within an established theater company populated by theater industry professionals, a multi media documentary project would call for getting to know a new environment, forming new relationships, and climbing an industry learning curve. Compared to these priorities, technical film and photography skills even take back seat while still requiring time and energy. However, despite all anticipated challenges at the time I entered MBT a few weeks ago I felt reasonably prepared. For the past few years I have worked in various capacities in a number of local arts spaces, ranging from creative literary centers to museums to volunteer run community organizations. I spent all of childhood attending a Chinese dance school in Saint Paul, a let’s just say formative experience which very much influences my fascination (academic and IRL) in the ways ethnic dance performances are inevitably sites of community, identity, and politics.
Theater, I am quickly learning, is a different animal! Growing up in Minneapolis, I was aware that the Twin Cities is home to a sizable theater community. But I had only ever attended shows and not been exposed to the production side of this world. Now I am learning, for example, that it is normal for a superhuman skeleton crew of theater house staff to manage set, sound, costumes, auditions, communications, community engagement, EVERYBODY’S schedules, and, most crucial for success, rehearsal snacks. It is not usual for a musical premiere in the upper midwest to fly their director in from California, the playwrights in from New York, joined by a cast assembled from around the country. Not to mention, none of these folks have all been in one room together until the first rehearsal just four weeks before opening night. Even more wild was the ability of the cast to rehearse the entire musical together on the first try. Granted this was the first script read through I have had the opportunity to sit in on, so I didn’t have much to compare with. But listening to them I could not believe this cast had never before practiced together. (If museum boards operated with this kind of speed and flexibility, oh my word I would not even recognize them as museum boards.) So while getting acquainted with the workings of at least this particular production, not to mention the norms of the theater industry as a whole, I am also distantly wondering, while fumbling with the exposure settings on something called a Vixia, if I am getting good stuff.
Thankfully – here is the beauty and the privilege of my internship – there is relatively little at stake and endless opportunities to learn. Furthermore, I am not starting on nothing. What really excites me about the chance to self-direct the work I do at Mixed Blood is that I am able to explore new ways of applying the class discussions and the literature I am immersed in as public history graduate student to a space that is not traditionally considered a site of public history. The making of physical, social, and political spaces (including performance spaces) always engages with histories of place and people. A large chunk of my personal motivation to intern at Mixed Blood Theatre is the organization’s self awareness as a site of history and community. Tim Komatsu, Mixed Blood’s Audience Engagement Manager, works close to 24/7 during shows to organize and facilitate audience Talk Backs, and to communicate with MBT’s three community advisory councils. A quick conversation with Kit and Melissa (Interstate’s writers) the other day gave me a better understanding of just how committed both writers are to Interstate’s relationship with local queer and trans Asian communities. They began forging friendships and tapping into Twin Cities activist circles over 10 years ago, when their 2008 cross country tour that later inspired Interstate made a stop in Minneapolis.
All of this has been informing my reflections on the ways theater practices can challenge and contribute to the (slow but quickening!) transformation of the public history field, and to expand conceptions of where history can be created and witnessed in the first place. I feel especially inspired by the attention and intention that Interstate’s team places on language, consent, positioning and moving of bodies, and cultivating of community relations. It would feel revolutionary for museums and other traditional sites of historic interpretation to integrate such practices on the level of depth and sustained commitment that has been written into the production of Interstate. Ultimately, if I am able to “capture” and convey at least some of these inspirations in the documentary that would be nice! Though I am keeping things open ended for now, and feel it will be better for my sanity anyway to not fixate on whether I am getting everything I need.
The late winter season always has me feeling a little overrun, and this year is no exception. My wish for everyone including myself is to enjoy a bowl of pho this week. (If you are in Minneapolis, I highly recommend Phở Hòa on Eat Street.)