Supporting creative work by women
Pictured: Ellenor Riley-Condit, Megan Paradis Hanley and Alanna Coby
The Syndicate was founded four years ago by a group of SITI Conservatory graduates, who wanted to create and devise work together. From August 25 to September 16, the company’s Syndicated–a festival of new work–takes over the IRT Theater in downtown Manhattan. The festival features the world premieres of Bluets, a solo adaptation of Maggie Nelson‘s revered book of prose poetry, and Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium, a play that excavates the false steps America made in 1999 that led to our current political climate amid a backdrop of a dance competition. Between those two plays, Syndicated will feature First Read, readings of plays that center queer, trans and non-binary voices, including The Beasts of Warren by Azure D. Osborne-Lee, the desert play by Hal C. and Hunting by Nelle Tankus.
Works by Women spoke with The Syndicate company members Ellenor Riley-Condit, Megan Paradis Hanley and Alanna Coby about their process, the First Read Series and what’s the most exciting piece of theater they have seen recently.
WORKS BY WOMEN: How did The Syndicate come to be? What was the impulse to work together as a company?
ELLENOR RILEY-CONDIT: We all met while training with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company during their Conservatory program. We felt drawn to each other’s work and wanted to continue creating together after the program ended. But then we quickly realized that forming a company wasn’t just about us. Yes, we love Suzuki and Viewpoints training that we take with us from our time at SITI, and we love creating plays together as an ensemble, but we also realized that The Syndicate is greater than just our missions as a group of artists. We want to move the industry forward. We want more stories by women, queer, and trans artists on stage. We want ethical creative processes. We want to make space to share with other artists. So our mission quickly became greater than just ourselves.
MEGAN PARADIS HANLEY: After ten years of making work in New York City, one of my big realizations is how hard it is for women, queer, and trans or non-binary people to be able to make mainstream work that features our bodies and stories. Don’t get me wrong; I love underground performance, and there’s no shortage of brilliant, queer work happening there. But before helping to form The Syndicate, I was feeling really alone. I was auditioning for and performing in plays that didn’t pass the Bechdel Test (which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), and I was tired of it. So I looked to many of the artists I most admire–SITI Company, Split Britches, and Yuyachkani, a brilliant company in Peru, to name a few–and decided that if my goal is to sustain an artistic practice throughout my life, then I needed a community. Building The Syndicate has been about growing that community, not only for me or, to name it clearly, not only for cis, white, queer women. But we’re also building a “mutual aid” producing model that allows us to support a diverse pool of artists who, like I did, need a community in which to make work.
WBW: What is your development process like?
ERC: Our development process is unique. Sometimes we start from a known text like with Civility!, our show that was inspired by Euripedes’ Bacchae or Bluets, which is adapted from the book by Maggie Nelson. Sometimes one of us has a story idea and just starts writing as Alanna Coby did with Graceful Exit. We like to take the time to ask “What does this piece need?” Do we have an idea but need to come up with a bunch of different options for staging to see where it’s going? Do we need a dramaturgical session to hash out the structure? Do we need studio time to play with design possibilities? We really take into account the DNA of each piece in development and don’t subscribe to any one method for completing a project: it’s up to the artists on the team and the piece itself.
ALANNA COBY: Writing a play out of a devising process is tricky, because the piece is never just one person’s idea, and many voices need to be contained within the final script. Writing Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium took a long time, in part because we are so rarely in the room together, and because it was a tricky puzzle to piece together. But through the process of Tiny Errors, we discovered that we can play to each other’s strengths instead of expecting everyone to be good at everything, which is an easy trap to fall into in devising. I am good at generating first drafts quickly, and at finding the poetry in a scene. Megan knows how to turn her brilliant ideas into clear proposals for things that a script may be missing. Ellenor is a fabulous dramaturg, and knows how to ask questions that point scenes in interesting new directions. We don’t all have the same innate gifts, and so when we all bring our strengths to the table, we are able to work quickly and effectively together towards the creation of a whole piece.
MPH: We are a de-centered company, which means that we’re not all in one place, and we’re often collaborating across distance. So we’ve figured out all these zany ways to deal with that. That’s a part of our work that really challenges me in a good way. In a political climate where borders are increasingly enforced, I think many artists already know creative ways to break down those borders or collaborate across them. It’s an important skill, one that I hope artists can bring into organizing and movement work.
Promo shot for Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium | photo by Liesl Henrichsen
WBW: To that end, tell me about the First Read series and all it entails.
ERC: First Read is a new play development workshop and readings series that centers trans and non-binary theater artists. When we got the 3B residency at IRT Theater, we asked ourselves “How can we share this resource? What do we want to see more of in theater?” And the answer we came up with was “We are on a mission to produce more plays by queer and trans artists, so let’s make sure that work and those artists have a paid opportunity to develop new plays in a supportive environment.” We selected three plays to workshop and connected the writers with directors and teams of actors. We are taking care of all the logistics that will allow them to work on their scripts and then hear them out loud for the first time in front of an audience. For us, it’s not just about the plays, it’s about community building. We will spend time talking with these artists about who they are, what they need, and how those of us who are cis white theater makers can use our privilege to move the industry forward.
MPH: We are so excited about this first cohort of First Read playwrights. If all goes well, I hope we’ll produce First Read next year in our other artistic home, Chicago, so this series can become an annual event. There are tons of amazing playwrights out there who want to be heard!
WBW: What excites you about Syndicated and what it holds for audiences?
AC: Syndicated is three weeks of brand new plays by artists who are still (STILL!) underrepresented in the mainstream theater. I am incredibly excited for the festival, not only because it is our chance to introduce The Syndicate and our guest artists to a wider audience, but because each piece in the festival highlights the incredible spirit of collaboration that imbues all of our work. We are inviting our audiences in with us–we don’t just want you to come and sit in a theater and politely clap. We want to engage with you in a meaningful way, hear your thoughts, learn about who you are, hopefully over drinks in the lobby. This is part of why we kept the cost of festival passes so low–$25 for four tickets to Syndicated shows means that we have a real shot at creating authentic relationships with audience members who join us several times over the course of three weeks. Our audience members are part of our community, and I am incredibly excited to get to know all the new faces who will join us for Syndicated.
MPH: In addition to the three First Read pieces, the two Syndicate projects are radically different and really exciting. The first is an adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I love how Nelson mixes theory, autobiography, sex, poetry … it’s gorgeous writing and so exciting to hear out loud. The second play, Tiny Errors at the End of the Millennium, started out as a devised piece based on our interest in 1999. As we’ve built the piece, we’ve been looking back at the politics and pop culture of that moment and studying both the ridiculous and the most resonant flashpoints. It’s a brand-new play, the ensemble is incredible, our director Mikhaela Mahony is fantastic, and I haven’t had the Backstreet Boys stuck in my head this consistently for almost 20 years, so that’s great… In the past few years, I’ve been happy to see a lot of theaters and performance spaces in New York City curating explicitly queer work that deals with queer identities and features queer performers. What’s unique about Syndicated is that it’s all queer work, told through many different queer lenses.
Promo photo for Bluets | photo by Nate DuFort
WBW: Why theater? What does it hold? mean?
AC: I once had a teacher say to my class that when he goes to the theater, and there’s a sink onstage, he doesn’t want to see water come out of it; he wants it to stream green glitter. I think about this desire, to see something real re-imagined in ways I never could have predicted, every time I see a play, because it’s why I think the theater exists: people make theater so we can share our humanity in new, surprising, sometimes devastating ways. Committing myself to this challenging work in such terrifying times for our country and our world feels more important than ever before.
MPH: I’ve been asking myself “why theater?” a lot this year. For now my answer is that I desperately need to have spaces that are about transferring knowledge between people, face-to-face, body-to-body. The rest of my world is so mediated, and most of the media I receive are trying to turn me into a disassociating hyper-consumer. I’m trying to make work that offers more space for creative thought and political engagement in the face of all that. If nothing else, the theater is a place I can go to practice listening.
ERC: That’s a hard question that I have to keep asking myself every few weeks, especially in this world and it’s clear to me that everyone in The Syndicate is thinking about this both for themselves and for us as a company. It can be easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. Recently I’ve been trying to live this truth: I may not be working on the border, or in human rights law, or as a doctor or nurse, but that’s just not who I am. I’ve been doing theater my whole life, it’s the skill that I have, so I need to make it radical. I need to make space, to listen, to grow community, through theater. It’s what I’ve got, so I’m going to use it well to inch this world forward.
WBW: What’s the most inspiring piece of theater you’ve seen recently?
AC: I went to see the remounted Broadway production of Once on This Island with no expectations at all, and thought the production was breathtakingly gorgeous in its simplicity and power–also it has live animals onstage.
MPH: Pig Iron’s A Period Of Animate Existence, a five act symphony. It was collaboration between musicians and performers dealing with life and climate change. It was brilliant.
ERC: Will Davis’s Picnic at American Theater Company in Chicago. I’m still thinking about it months and months later. It was queer, radical, precise, opinionated–it was wonderful. Chicago lost Will Davis after ATC closed recently, and I’m so bummed. Wherever Will works in the world, magic is happening there.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
ERC: Go before you’re ready.
AC: Be patient and ravenous.
MPH: Oh man. I’m tempted to land on my favorite piece of advice, from my father-in-law, which is “The key to happiness is a good night’s sleep and low expectations,” but that makes it sound like we have low expectations for ourselves, which we don’t! So I’ll also share this anecdote: A few years ago I was talking with a friend from Mexico, an incredible performer and activist. I asked her how she keeps going even when it feels hopeless, and she said, “I don’t rely on hope so much. I like justice more.”
For more on The Syndicate and Syndicated, running August 25 through September 16 at the IRT Theater in New York City, visit www.wearethesyndicate.com/syndicated.