Strange Fusions

MAR 31, 2016


Once described as “Gertrude Stein meets MTV,” the TEAM (last seen at A.R.T.’s 2010 Emerging America Festival with Particularly in the Heartland) crashes American mythologies into modern stories in order to illuminate the experience of living in America today.

As a devised theater troupe, the group ranges beyond traditional methods of playwriting. Led by Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Three Pianos), the ensemble writes collaboratively on a central topic. Developed over months—and often years—of rehearsal, their works merge improvisation, primary sources, personal anecdotes, dance, and music into performances as far-reaching and eclectic as America itself.

Past work has included a rowdy audit of American capitalism spanning from the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam through modern Las Vegas (Mission Drift), as well as a multimedia exorcism of the myths haunting responses to disaster and reconstruction, from the Civil War through Hurricane Katrina (Architecting).

In May, the TEAM arrives at OBERON with RoosevElvis, the story of a shy meat-processing plant worker torn between competing models of American masculinity—represented, in person, by the ghosts of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley.

Here, the RoosevElvis creators (writer/director Rachel Chavkin, writer/associate director Jake Margolin, and writers/performers Kristen Sieh and Libby King) interview themselves about their process of making new plays, their fascinations with Elvis and Theodore Roosevelt, and the Badlands-to-Graceland road-trip on which RoosevElvis was born. 

Our work tends to begin with a number of separate impulses, and then there’s a moment where two ideas that had seemed separate suddenly fuse together. Can you remember a moment of connection you made during the process?

JAKE: I love this question, because by the time we finish writing our plays, I generally feel like, “of course all of these things go together—in fact, I can’t believe someone else hasn’t already written this!” When they don’t intersect is when something that was perfect on its own gets cut. I can think of so many wonderful scenes that spun off onto the cutting room floor precisely because they never fused together with the rest of the piece.

LIBBY: At the initial workshops of RoosevElvis, Ann and Elvis were not in dialogue as they are now. There was Ann, who was a hardcore Elvis fan, and then there was Elvis. And Elvis lived in a very dreamy, almost purgatorial plane of existence. It wasn’t until later that we discovered they could coexist.

This discovery happened (I think) when we were doing some longer-form improvisations establishing the routine of Ann’s after-work winddown. She would drink some beer and smoke some pot and turn on Rebel Without a Cause and get undressed and eat a sandwich and eventually open her laptop to do the online dating thing. And I think it was in the improvisations that I discovered I could use Elvis to give Ann the courage to ask a girl out on a date. And so he began talking to her. And this was a huge breakthrough for me, and Ann, and I think the play.

Libby, can you talk about your early interest in Elvis impersonators? This seemed to outweigh your initial interest in the man himself, and steered you to the character zygote that became Ann.

LIBBY: We were in Las Vegas for four weeks working on Mission Drift, and I really fell in love with Vegas. I think it’s fair to say that during those four weeks I encountered Elvis daily. Before this, I had never thought long and hard about Elvis. I had never had an Elvis phase. I had a Grateful Dead phase, a Dylan phase, a Madonna phase, a Michael Jackson phase… And in Vegas I was encountering Elvis daily—sometimes multiple times daily— running into Elvis impersonators, going to see Elvis impersonators, mugs staring at you in gas stations. And then I began watching Elvis’s live performances in Vegas. But the impersonators really stuck with me—the DEDICATION—and I knew that I couldn’t just make myself an Elvis fan. I needed to create a character who was completely and utterly a devotee. I needed to create a character who really needed him, and then I could start to work. And that’s how Ann was born.

We’ve used video in a number of our plays, but from the earliest point in the inception of RoosevElvis there was a proposal to make film central to the piece. This led to filming with An- drew Schneider in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Memphis. But I’m wondering if you feel that this filming influenced our writing and development process outside of the actually filmed portions of the play as well?

LIBBY: I was influenced by the huge role film played in Elvis’ life. One of the facts that I learned early in my research was that when Elvis was in high school, he worked as an usher at Loew’s State Theatre in Memphis. I was very struck by this image of young Elvis, about to completely blow up, standing quietly in the dark watching movies.

I don’t think there would be “Elvis” without “James.” Elvis was obsessed with James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause. He memorized all of Dean’s lines. He really, really wanted to be a serious film actor, and he admired people like Peter Sellers. In the end, I think Elvis was deeply humiliated by his film career. I remember us all very early on watching Elvis in Love Me Tender. He really didn’t want to sing in the movie—he thought musicals were cheesy—but ultimately he succumbed, and so I found the movie very sad. Because he was already losing his own pursuits and succumbing to the people who knew what would make money.

RACHEL: I often start work with a few godfather pieces in my brain. For this piece, I was thinking a lot about Radiohole’s Whatever, Heaven Allows, which is an homage/deconstruction/ assassination of Douglas Sirk’s films. It was brutally messy and hilarious and queer. On the other end of the spectrum, I was thinking about Kelly Reichardt’s films, especially Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, which are these nearly nonverbal, intimate and super gentle character portraits.Film is a visual and character-driven medium—I think moreso than theater, which tends to be more dialogue-based. So thinking about film from early on gave me the permission to be quiet, and to let the work be quiet.

KRISTEN: It’s hard for me to say if that cinematic goal influenced the writing, or if Elvis’ relationship to being onscreen just leant itself to that kind of self-mythologizing and self-observation. I think the video element allowed for a kind of epic scope that wouldn’t have been there otherwise: a sense of great distances and enormity that’s really important to each of these icons.

Why Thelma & Louise?

JAKE: In our writing process, I find it really useful to use cultural or aesthetic touchstones to let everyone else know what on earth I’m picturing. I’m finally learning that after we all spend an hour or so writing in response to the same prompt, we are each in our own brain-space and nobody has any idea what’s in my head. So, as I remember it (and I can’t find the original scene, so this could totally be incorrect), I was trying to describe the vibe of a scene in which Teddy and Elvis hit the road and wrote something along the lines of “they are Thelma & Louise.” And it stuck. Whereas in the moment I was just referring to the sense of abandon and danger and tension and the Southwest landscape, you, Rachel, responded to the part where Thelma & Louise was a total landmark event in having two women starring in a buddy/adventure movie. And I absolutely love Thelma & Louise and jumped at the opportunity to spend the rest of the development process thinking about it.

What were your favorite moments from the process of developing RoosevElvis?

KRISTEN: I really enjoyed the initial couple weeks where we didn’t know what the play was going to be or how we were going to stitch these two guys together. Rehearsal went really slowly in a way I don’t remember a TEAM process going before. I liked sitting with Libby and free associating back-and-forth facts about the lives of these men who we didn’t yet know as well as we would eventually. There were also some wonderful road-trip moments…

LIBBY: The entire road trip…driving through the Badlands in an RV, seeing a herd of buffalo. I remember we were told by the park attendant that our chances of seeing buffalo were slim that day. Then, after driving for some time, we happened upon this single buffalo hanging out in a field totally solo all except for this tiny bird perched on its back—and then we headed up over a hill and there was this entire herd…the grass was so green and the sky was so blue and talk about cinematic—and I include our RV in the image because it was so out of place but also so right for what we were doing…filming our little low low-budget movie was one of the best times I’ve ever had not just with the TEAM but ever. OH! And seeing Graceland—arriving there, having never been—and carrying Ann’s story of this pilgrimage. It was deeply moving.

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.