Getting to Know Critical Mass



by Emily Abbott

Co-productions at Boston Court allow us to experience a new energy and process on the main stage.  Critical Mass Performance Group does exactly this.  Their unique style is highly performative with a knack for turning the familiar on its head.  With the strong opening of Alcestis this weekend, we thought it appropriate to give you some more context about our fantastic production teammates.  Below is a discussion I had with Alcestis writer, director, and set designer as well as Critical Mass’s creator/director, Nancy Keystone.

Emily: Why did you start Critical Mass Performance Group?

Nancy: I was influenced by ensemble work beginning in high school.  I was part of a company at that time, which had a real ensemble ethos, and I really believed in this kind of work, understood that the long-term, collaborative relationship of the ensemble was one of the strengths.  At UCLA I came to learn about Peter Brook, and Ariane Mnouchkine and Jerzy Grotowski, all of whom became inspirations, confirming and solidifying my ideas about the importance of ensemble.

I felt in my bones that that was what I wanted to do.  Critical Mass Performance Group came out of an independent project I did while I was a student at UCLA.

Emily: Critical Mass has now lasted for 25 years, what has allowed it to thrive for so long?

Nancy: Laughter and snacks.  And a fabulous group of collaborators, and a lot of will power, elbow grease and perseverance.

Emily How would you explain the Critical Mass development process?alcestis1

Nancy: We are interested in doing what can only be done in the theatre, to explode the poetic and intellectual potential of the medium.  Therefore, our process supports the questioning, digging, experimentation, risk-taking, and evaluation; which (hopefully) helps us discover the most compelling ways of telling the story, and the rigor required to perform it.

The “writing” of the piece entails much more than text on a page.   We develop the work together, on our feet, through intensive collaboration, often over several years.  This allows us to sketch layers of ideas, which gain complexity and depth through multiple workshops.  The process builds on the unique abilities and experiences of each participant, empowering the collective as much as the individual.

Each workshop phase of development consists of the following steps:

1) RESEARCH of source material is the foundation upon which the piece is built.  This is all about collective learning, and we devote several weeks just to reading, film/video screening, listening to music, looking at images, guest speakers, occasional field trips, etc.   There’s a lot of brainstorming about what material might be particularly useful for the piece, and we share ideas about different characters, images and scenarios that might be in the piece, as well as theatrical possibilities.  We meet at my house, and it’s pretty social, we have food, and sometimes we sit outside, we laugh a lot, and generally get the juices flowing.  The ensemble gets deeply invested in the piece through this process, and it’s quite an education for all of us. We never stop doing research–it’s a core part of the process.

2) LABORATORY transforms the research material into a theatrical event.  This evolution entails extensive physical and vocal training to build strength, endurance, agility, precision, and ensemble unity. Exercises and improvisations help process the subject matter intuitively, to find our way into the particular psychological and physical conditions of the piece.  Later work involves development of specific characters and situations, and the creation of both non-verbal and text-based sequences.  The piece is created as an organic whole, as designers participate in the workshops, and design elements are built into the piece and continuously refined.

Alcestis63) PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS of work-in-progress are the culmination of each workshop phase.  Presentations are fully staged with design and technical elements.  Sharing the work is an important extension of our ensemble process, and we perform at different sites to engage with different communities, evaluate our efforts, and determine the next phase of development.

Emily: In this process what is the relationship between director/performer and how does it differ from traditional plays.

Nancy: In the case of our devised work it differs a great deal from a “traditional” play, in that we are all creating the work out of nothing.  In the case of “Alcestis,” because this is an adaptation, there is a lot of source material and already a very strong structure in place, so a lot of what we’re doing is discovering what is interesting to us about that, what we want to keep, what we want to add, and what we want to jettison, and what is the best form to contain our explorations.  The relationship of director and performer is very collaborative–everyone takes part in the creation of the piece; it’s an intense and exhilarating conversation.

Emily: What inspires the subjects of your plays?

Nancy: Mostly I become inspired by things I read about–usually things that have happened in real life–and by the different connections that come to mind.  We began by doing contemporary reinventions of classic plays (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Aphra Behn, Sophocles).   Over the past 13 years, we have focused much more on historical subjects; I didn’t set out to do history plays, but real life is so often much more astonishing and compelling than what I could make up!  Whether the idea is based in an actual historic event, or is a Greek myth, the material that is most interesting to me is inspired by humans struggle to navigate a difficult & bewildering world.  I’m compelled by ideas that offer opportunities for melding the intellectual, physical, and intuitive with a sense, even in the most serious of subjects, of play and whimsy.

Click here to buy tickets for Alcestis

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