Strike Anywhere Brings Haiku Flights Downstairs

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Friday March 11th, The Cornelia Street Café will present Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble in a new theatre piece entitled Haiku Flights.  Strike Anywhere was formed in 1997, and has since come to be known as one of the most innovative and exciting theatre companies in New York. We recently had the chance to chat with artistic director, Leese Walker, and to hear a little more about the company’s origins, their current work, and whether a course on the history of jazz can help shape a theatrical vision.

Leese, tell us a little about Strike Anywhere’s mission statement, and its origins.

Strike Anywhere’s mission is to promote empathy, freethinking and greater social awareness through provocative theatre and educational outreach.  We are guided by the words of Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”  I really respond to that idea.  Back at Dartmouth, I met a political theater artist from Nicaragua named Alan Bolt and even though he was only at school for 3 days, he really opened my eyes to how theater could be used to address current issues, to instigate dialogue and to make change.

Theater has been in my blood since I was a child.  My parents love to tell the story about how we would go over to my grandparents every Sunday when I was a kid and after dinner we would listen to an entire album of a Broadway musical.  I would sing and act it out.  They used to fall off the couch laughing watching this little 5 year-old dance and belt her guts out to the song from Chorus Line, Tits and Ass.  Ai Yai Yai!!! By the time I was 9, I was organizing the neighborhood kids and making plays in the backyard.  I was selling tickets, making the programs, casting, directing, performing….things haven’t really changed all that much I guess!

Strike Anywhere really grew out of an improv class I was taking in the mid-nineties.  Four of us decided to meet outside of class to experiment with the ideas and techniques we were learning in class.  After about two years of meeting every Sunday night, we took our sessions into Central Park and started sharing our experiments with an audience.  After a summer of learning from the audience, we decided to make it official.  In the fall of 1997, we held auditions and that is really when SA was born.

Of course it was a very different company then.  Back then, we had 5 actors and one musician.  Now the balance is very different, we have 3 kick-ass jazz musicians, a modern dancer and 2 actors.  But back then, we were really working with long-form improv, using forms like the “Harold” which is a structure to guide an evening-length improvisation.  Music took more of a back-seat role then, it served as accompaniment, mood, and though it sometimes dictated endings or instigated a tempo change in the scene, our violinist, Todd Reynolds, used to stand for the most part, on the periphery of the playing space.  Today, we strive to have equal balance between the disciplines, to have an actor back-up the musician or comp when a dancer takes the lead.   Musicians are front and center – they have left the edge of off-stage.

How do you begin the creation of a new piece? Will the initial thought process be purely ensemble oriented, or will one person bring an idea to the group with the hopes of fleshing it out further?

Usually one person will bring an idea to the group.  If there is enough passion around the idea, we go forward.  Once we are working on a piece, I will bring in ideas to lead our experiments in rehearsal.  However, it is critical that everyone has a voice.  I have an amazing group of performers who work well with this process.  No egos.  That is key.  Everyone has to be willing to put forth an idea that may or may not be accepted by the group.  Including me…although I could overrule something, I rarely do… I strive for consensus and I set up situations to instigate performer-generated material.  If it comes from the performer, it will be far richer than if I impose it on the performer.

Sometimes we create work that directly addresses a current socio-political issue, such as this new show we are working on called SAME RIVER.  It’s an interview-based show about how fracking, a controversial natural gas drilling technique, is affecting people’s every day lives.  Other times though, shows might not be so obviously political.  However, the ethos of the company is really reflected in the way we operate…we are an ensemble and so power is shared laterally.  I think of myself more as a facilitator than a director.

Tell us about Haiku Flights. What can we expect to see on the 11th?

Haiku Flights will be totally improvised.  We will bring in a series of haikus.  Someone will read a haiku and that will serve as the launch pad for an improvisation.  It is material from which we will improvise.   Donna might create a movement phrase that comes directly from an image in the haiku while Rolf might mirror that movement physically while playing a minimalist phrase on the guitar.  Perhaps Damen will be inspired to launch into a monologue of a character that grows out of the repetitive musical phrase.  Its totally open.  Anything could happen!

Finally, I must admit I’m curious….You and I took a famously wonderful jazz history class in college together. I see how much of a role jazz plays in your work now, and the thrilling way you’re able to merge jazz into a theatrical idiom. Is it safe to say that discovering a passion for jazz helped shape your vision as theatre artist, or do you find that jazz and other idioms simply help layer an already fervent theatrical vision?

I adore jazz.  I lap it up.  That is so funny that you bring up that class….god that feels like a million years ago but you hit it.  That jazz history class really sparked my love for the music.  That was at the same time that I discovered John Coltrane and it was a real awakening for me musically.  That was the beginning of diving into jazz, of listening to this incredible art form.  Over the last 6 years or so, we have been examining jazz structures and concepts and applying these to theater and movement.  It’s been really exciting to come at the work from this angle.  I am incredibly lucky to have such bad-ass musicians.  Rolf Sturm is probably one of the most sensitive and giving musicians you will ever work with.  Bob Bowen, our bass player who died this past fall, he taught us all so much about trust… trusting the moment, the players, ourselves…his famous mantra was, “Let it suck” which is essentially a way of saying, trust that what comes out is the right thing, that the other players will support, build and develop that idea so that it will be the right thing. Rob Henke is just hands-down one of the best improvisers around.  He is our trumpeter.

So borrowing my notes from that class helped?

You bet!  Of all the people’s notes I borrowed, yours were the most legible!

Joshua Rebell is a playwright and Spoken Word Curator at the Cornelia Street Cafe. He is also fluent in Jazz and speaks several dialects of LA. Eager readers, speakers and performers can show love and petition him for stagetime at jazzrebell@earthlink.net

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