For those of you who like your theatergoing a little more risky and adventurous, you need look no further than The Nerve Tank. Billing itself as “the exploratory and development wing” of its parent organization, LIVE Theater Company, The Nerve Tank creates theatrical performances through non-traditional rehearsal and composition methods with its tight-knit band of actors and designers. Their current production, A Gathering, epitomizes The Nerve Tank’s ethos perfectly: the piece is a dark, metaphysical thriller that questions identity and uses movement, spoken word, design elements, and a rotating cast of six actors to smash theatrical conventions.
With the show currently in the middle of a three month run at The Brooklyn Lyceum‘s downstairs theater – which is a 4,000 square foot former public bath – Chance Muehleck, co-founder of The Nerve Tank and author of A Gathering, visited the ol’ blog to chat about the show, the company, and what the heck it all means. Check it out…
I’d like to start by asking you what A Gathering is about and where the idea for it came from.
The idea came in a recycled thought. I had this raw, cavernous warehouse in mind, and was imagining who might live there. They would need to seem like extensions of the space. So I settled on three personas, and they started coughing up all this language. They became physical manifestations of things that were evoked by that stripped-down warehouse. Then it really got strange, because I began treating the narrative as a liability. I thought: What happens to a computer program when it gets infected? It goes haywire. There are different levels of infection in the piece; some of it is generated by the presence of an audience, and some by the nature of the space itself. I always considered A Gathering a performance first, something living and changeable, so that’s where my private work ended and the collaborative work began.
A Gathering is in the middle of a three-month run, which is an unusually long time for an Indie Theater show. How did you manage to secure such a long run and what made you want to do that?
The long run was both a marketing tactic and an aesthetic choice. The Brooklyn Lyceum is a great, unique space, but it’s not as well known in the Indie Theatre community as, say, The Brick or Collapsible Hole. We wanted to give audiences time to discover a very cool Brooklyn venue. The schedule is actually an extension of our residency—instead of rehearsing every Thursday, now we’re performing. And it gives the company time to discover things about the piece. I think there are things you can learn in three months that you simply can’t in three weeks. Questions that seemed resolved can resurface in different ways. And with A Gathering, which is so much about individual perception, those questions are essential.
The show features a rotating cast of actors, all of whom take turns doing the show. Could you elaborate on how that system works and why you chose to do the show that way?
Melanie Armer, the director and my co-conspirator, had to make some practical decisions based on our 16-week run. There are six actors and three characters, but rather than creating an understudy system, Melanie allowed each performer to find his or her own version of a role. Which means the show can be radically different depending on which configuration you’re seeing. And we have an amazing company that’s very much up for that challenge. So we’re approaching questions of identity in two ways: Within the text (where age, gender, and other signifiers are traded), and within the constructs of the show itself.
Your theater company, The Nerve Tank, is in residency at The Brooklyn Lyceum. What does that mean exactly and how did you score the residency?
The residency means many things for us. We can play, experiment, fail, fail better. We can develop work that uses the space to its best advantage. With A Gathering, we kind of just wanted to get out of its way. I think you can fuck up a perfectly good theatre by imposing too many elements on it. Our designers really understand this; they respond to each set of givens with open eyes and open ears. And we have the freedom to move into more elaborate, multimedia kinds of projects. Kismet had a lot to do with how the residency came to pass; we were looking for a home, and the Lyceum was looking for a company to help raise its visibility. We happened to contact them at the right time!
The Nerve Tank is the development wing of its parent theater company, LIVE Theater. Could you explain further the difference between the two and elaborate on their relationship to each other?
As it relates to The Nerve Tank, “parent” is the right analogy for LIVE. We produced some wonderful shows under LIVE, and may do so again. But it was founded with a traditionally text-based agenda. I started feeling that it couldn’t keep up with the directions we wanted to go. The Nerve Tank is a rapidly-growing, insatiably curious child, and as such requires our full attention. When we say it’s the developmental wing of LIVE, we mean that we create projects in a non-hierarchical way, rather than starting with The Play and ensuring that its message is codified and delivered. I guess that sounds nebulous, but there’s a great deal of rigor involved in the process. When so many things are on the table, you begin to see what’s truly essential for an engaged experience.
You and Melanie have been collaborators for a long time now. What do you two bring to each other’s work that no one else can?
This is a tricky one. It depends on the day. We’re both quite stubborn, but we tend to find things together that we wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s a scene in A Gathering that consists of five words. And one of them is a nonsense word. I usually attend rehearsal, but I was absent the day that scene was worked. What Melanie and the cast(s) came up with was astonishing to me. She built a physical vocabulary that enlarges the moment and touches many other aspects of the piece. So, while I wasn’t in the room, my text was, and so was the foundation we’d laid. It comes back to those old tropes: Trust and perspective. Or trust in perspective.
What do you have lined up next for yourself, The Nerve Tank, and LIVE?
We’ve just determined that the next piece will be about the Bauhaus. It’s now called City on the Edge of the World, and we’re developing it with German dramaturge Lutz Kessler. It’s a dense, loaded subject that involves many different theories and personalities. The company is taking a retreat in June to do some research and formulate a working method. It’ll ultimately be a trans-national project: At the same time we’re working at the Lyceum, Lutz will rehearse with a group in Germany. The plan is to videotape our efforts and start a conversation that will become part of the performance. Next, for me, is a large glass of wine and some Celebrity Apprentice. How about you?
I’m going to hunker down with some Yankees baseball myself. But that glass of wine sounds good. Thanks.