Artists communicate in different forms. But whether the message is through visual or performing art, it always comes back to the essence of the human experience.
Two groups have been in residence for the past two weeks at the Vineyard Arts Project, working to highlight both the dark and exhilarating sides of the human experience. This weekend they go public with their work.
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is performing two plays written during their stay on the Vineyard and Armitage Gone! Dance opens with a new dance piece celebrating the human form and all of its eccentricities.
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is headquartered in London and boasts illustrious alumni such as Ralph Fiennes, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman. The six recent graduates who are performing this weekend have been working on new works by playwrights David Simpatico and Saviana Stanescu. The writers were selected through applications from the Lark Theater in New York city to write specifically for this group of actors.
Some of the actors knew each other, some knew of each other, but none had worked previously together. Associate director of the academy, Nona Sheppard, also made the trip and her first task was to shape the group into a company. She did this through improvisation and drama exercises and what she referred to as a “dish of Shakespeare” for a benefit dinner last weekend, where the actors performed bits of sonnets and scenes.
Then it was time to get down to business.
After talking about what issues were most relevant to them in that moment, the group decided to focus on a subject close to their hearts, the recent riots in London.
The contrast between the images of rioting in London and the tranquil atmosphere at the Vineyard studio couldn’t be greater, Ms. Sheppard admitted. One of the main challenges was incorporating those two worlds into the plays.
“We’ll need to see what we can do with that because it is quite tricky,” Ms. Sheppard said, while sitting on the studio floor in Edgartown earlier this week, her notes sprawled before her.
Both writers felt the contrast had been inspiring and helped them to focus on the subtleties of the human experience rather than the bold headlines of the outside world.
“Being able to live, breathe, work, think, write, act, dance together all in the same place is really rare and it helps us focus,” Mr. Simpatico said. “To sit here and write about these [events], it’s so sad, and so horrific, and such an eruption of society ... and then you come outside and it’s just la-la-la.”
Ms. Stanescu, a Romanian born writer who moved to America ten years ago, agreed. “For me I went through the revolution in eastern Europe and then I got to New York and Sept. 11 happened, and now these riots. I’m interested in how this mixture of events and trauma affects the individual so I’m trying to write that, how people’s lives are affected and how you respond on a bigger level and smaller level. It helps it’s so beautiful here so we can focus on this beautiful human connection and friendship and going to the beach but also think of the big social issues that affect our lives.”
Incorporating the different voices into the play has also proven to be a challenge, and the actors are working hard to incorporate their personal experiences while remaining unbiased about the events.
“We’re trying to look at it from every angle; it’s very easy to vilify some and not others,” actor Lauren Swann said. “To be able to use it as a platform to just make people re-examine their choices and look at a situation from different perspectives, that’s what we do, we communicate.”
Mr. Simpatico agreed that it was a fine line of educating and dramatizing.
“You don’t want to vilify either side, but there’s a real human need and history and context that leads up to this,” he said. “To understand it and explore it rather than judge it is a much more effective and fruitful engagement for both us and the audience.”
Exploring the depths of human experience is one that transcends time, the actors and writers agreed, and they were confident the work they produce while at the Vineyard Arts Project would be relevant in the years to come.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next ten years. The world is a bit mad, isn’t it?” Ms. Swann said. “What’s so great about working on a piece like this is it is about exactly this moment in time.”
In contrast to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts piece is choreographer Karole Armitage’s celebration of the capabilities of the human body. Her new piece, Rave, also appearing this weekend, combines ballet, capoeira, a Chinese martial art called wushu, and vogueing, all to techno music.
“It’s finding kind of the connecting tissue before all these different forms,” she said. “The body is the same in every form, two knees, hip joints bend the same way, one head, so the body can only move in a certain kind of a way.”
Ms. Armitage described Rave as a carnival where the “underdog takes on the role of the powerful people” and democracy has a chance to thrive. It’s a joyous piece with some political elements, she said.
All of this can be seen in the costumes the dancers wear, including Marilyn Monroe and Marcello Mastroianni, and through the various forms of dance.
“Ballet is a virtuoso and it’s very refined, well, so is vogueing which came from the ghetto... and [is] about being absolutely as fierce as possible,” she said. “We might think high art, low art, well, that’s not true. They’re both equally high art. It’s partially bringing that recognition to the table.”
As for the dancers’ time on the Vineyard, Ms. Armitage couldn’t be happier with the Vineyard Arts Project. She hailed it as “the best dance studio on the East Coast,” and felt the Island setting made it easier to focus on her choreography.
“When you’re doing something new, that is the hardest thing in the world, because really you don’t know where you’re going. You’re just on a dare yourself trying to figure so many things out. Being able to do that in a relaxed environment, it takes away some of the stress and anxiety so you can just hone in on what’s really important. It’s invaluable.”
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art performs tonight and Sunday at 6 p.m., and Armitage Gone! Dance performs Saturday night at 6 p.m at the Vineyard Arts Project at 215 Upper Main street in Edgartown. Tickets are “pay what you can” and available at ticketsmv.com and at the door.