Since its debut in December 2008, The Working Theater Collective has created and produced new theatre at a rapid pace – 6 new plays (including Pedal(Shift)PedalStopBreatheSee, a mobilized theatrical adventure included in last summer’s Pedalpalooza) written primarily by collective members Nate Harpel and Eva Suter. For Fertile Ground, audiences get a peek into the young workings of WTC’s Spring show ___not____, which is still very much in the early stages of development. The afternoon I met with director Ashley Hollingshead and co-writer Eva Suter (co-writer Nate Harpel chimed in later via e-mail), a scene in a strip club had just been discovered. Talking with Ashley and Eva, I was reminded how surprising and mutable the artistic journey is. At first glance, the end product may appear to have little relation to the initial inspiration; the apple transforms into orange; the inside joke becomes philosophical treatise. And beginning in Fertile Ground and continuing through production, WTC invites us on the journey. For all I know, that scene in the strip club? It may already be gone.
theresa – Give me a short background about your company. When I read your website it looks like you’re pretty much geared towards new work – specifically company-generated new work.
Ashley Hollingshead – The company started when Nate Harpel and I decided that we were tired of just talking about starting a company and decided we’d actually do it. In terms of creating new works, we have six collective members, two of whom are writers and another two of whom are interested in devised pieces and new work, and it seems kind of silly to be doing other people’s plays. I think a lot of people say that they want to do new works and then it happens very infrequently because in the end they say, “Oh, should we take a risk on an unknown writer? I don’t know.” No matter what company you look at maybe only one or two shows a season are new things. And even then it’s probably a newish something by someone that’s already been heard about.
Nate Harpel – We do more original works than anyone in Portland, I’m sure.
Eva Suter – As a writer it’s nice having the opportunity to have the pressure to be producing at that rate. To be required to have a new full-length play, plus whatever else, every season is a really good thing. I have always been interested in the beginning-to-end process of creating theatre. Rather than taking an extant play and trying to find your spin on it and trying to bring something new to it, the entire play is new. Not just the production.
Nate – Also, there’s so many companies doing previously produced works, so it seems kinda pointless to have one more group of people doing theatre by dead playwrights. Leave that to the universities and community theatres to do. We’ll do our own fucking theatre. Frankly, I think the arts world needs more of that thinking.
th – You [Eva] and Nate are both writing.
Eva – This is actually our first collaborative script effort, which is kind of exciting. I think we’re in a really good place for collaboration because we’re both very familiar with each others work and style, enough so that for over the last year or two we can definitely see each other leeching things off of each other anyway, so co-writing was the obvious next step.
Ashley – The three of us have all worked together in so many different ways over the past five or six years. I’ve directed stuff by both Nate and Eva, Nate has directed Eva’s stuff, Eva’s directed Nate’s stuff, Nate used to act in a bunch of our plays. Eva’s probably been in something by Nate at some point. We all know our strengths and weaknesses and know how to work with each other and what we can all get out of each other, know the areas where each other needs to grow and things that will challenge us all.
th – Where are you in the process? What was the inspiration for this project?
Eva – The base inspiration for this project, the tentative title, which is probably going to bumped down to a sub-title, is _____not_____ [“blank not blank”], which has come out of some light mocking of Miss Ashley. Her speech patterns. A bit of an inside joke, of which the only remnant is the title.
th – What was the joke?
Ashley – The idea of when you’re out with someone and you find yourself thinking, “Hey, maybe we’re on a date, maybe we’re not.” And you don’t know until maybe halfway through the evening. It’s, you know, a date not date. It’s been pointed out that I describe many things as being something-not-something.
ES – It’s a way of looking at things. Refusing to be pinned down to any singular statement.
Nate – Allowing for other ways of looking at anything. Date not date, bicycle not bicycle, table not table. Working in a de facto sort of aesthetic we have to make things do a lot. A platform may have been a city road sign at some point. Now it’s a platform. Part of our philosophy, maybe. Philosophy not philosophy.
th – How do you make that into a theatre piece?
Eva – Mostly, all of us were talking about what we wanted out of this project. For instance, we just produced a lot of heavy depressing shit so we wanted something that’s going to be a little lighter in tone than people going crazy and sleeping with their children or…
Ashley – Killing people, themselves.
Nate – And this isn’t that. We wanted to take the idea of looking at life from two directions, to allowing for possibility, and turn that into a piece. Something light. Maybe fun. Dealing with the ambiguity of the modern world.
Eva – We wanted something that was set in Portland. If it’s not actually here and now, something that feels a lot like here and now. These are things we were pretty sure about. We’re starting out with a couple different concepts that are fusing together at the moment. One of the things we’re looking at and thinking a lot about is [how] people our age or a bit older [20s – 30s] drift in and out of each others’ lives. And we’re working with kind of heavy physics metaphor / slight change of the world to represent that.
Nate – How things are not necessarily how they seem. How we self-identify, how we create the world around us based on our perception of said world. We’re still working on it. In the end it’s a fun piece about people dealing with a Portland gone askew.
Eva – At the stage it’s the first step of showing our beginning, middle, end. To say: this is the thing. But it’s not the thing. We’re taking the spring to develop the script from this point. It’s really cool to have this show-and-tell period with it.
th – How are decisions made between you and Nate in terms of what to keep in the script?
Eva – We talk it out. We agree mostly. We agree that these are scenes that need to happen, so you write this one, I’ll write this one, and then we’re going to trade off.
Ashley – And we’ve also been friends for six years. That was something that, when we had one of our first meetings about this, I was like, “You know what’s nice is that we can all tell each other to fuck off and we’ll all be fine tomorrow.”
Eva – Pretty much.
Ashley – And sometimes that happens.
th – What makes this piece kick ass?
Eva – I find having three of us actually working together on the same project is a lot of awesome in one bucket.
Ashley – I think the three of us all bring out very good things in each other and especially in terms of collaboration.
Nate – This is the opportunity for us to make exactly the kind of theatre that we want to make. We can create the type of work that we want to make, want to see. We have a space that we really like, we have an assortment of artists with whom we like to work, we have two writers and a director, designers, everything. We can create from within and make a kick-ass piece that’s different from anything anyone else is doing. And that’s a good thing.
th – Are there any other shows in the festival that you’re excited about?
Ashley – They’re doing a reading of the Devo [Granmo] musical – it’s about carnies.
Eva – Devo wrote a musical about carnies? I’m so excited! Okay that’s what I’m excited for.
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___not___ plays January 26th,8pm at eff Space, #14 333 NE Hancock, PDX. Free.
Check them out at www.theworkingtheatrecollective.com