A Week With The Fence

The Fence, this “strange animal”, as its founder Jonathan Meth calls it, is a circle of professional friends all over the world, a club, really, that operates on a recommendation basis. Its focus lies on the work of playwriting, of developing plays, working with directors and dramaturgs. In Atlanta, GA, we are a congregation of theatre practitioners, dramaturgs, and writers from France, Scandinavia, London, Germany, Belarus, from the east and west coast of the US and from the centre as well.

For five days, we find ourselves sitting in circles in varying rooms and venues, theatres, art studios, university spaces, in a mix of the same and new people as the morning workshops are open to the public and are attended by local artists connected to theatre in one way or the other. As is customary for theatre people, the fine, warm southeast American weather remains outside of the dark or even white theatre spaces, only to be enjoyed and inhaled in short coffee or longer lunch breaks. Introductory rounds repeat itself in variations every day, always leading to both a deeper understanding of the people you met the day before and a fresh image of who is there that day for the first time. A first exchange between local and international guest participants is a perfect way to engage in fruitful and informative discussion on working conditions in Atlanta. What is in the focus here, what do people deal with in their work? Asks Michael Dove, who had moved to Atlanta a year ago, the Atlantans in the room feel enticed to discuss concerns about imminent danger through investors taking over and reshaping the city, something many visitors from metropolises around the world can relate to. Housing is being built massively but not for those who need it.

Practical workshops introduce methods for development such as working with space, a writing exercise to inspire through an imaginary journey through different environments (Ana Candida Carneiro): How can key phrases and words and the imaginations around them influence our writing? Jessica Litwak regroups us with the means of sociometry, “a powerful tool for reducing conflict and improving communication because it allows the group to see itself objectively and to analyse its own dynamic” (Chris Hofmann). This technique was developed by Jacob Levy Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama. Heidi Howard, AD of the 7 Stages Theatre in Little Five Points, hosts one workshop on activism and engagement in the arts in her beautiful space, one of few engaged in international collaborations. She tells us how eating together has proven to be a marvellous way to engage your audience. Audience involvement is the focus of another group exercise around the Cinderella themes – how to work with the audience around themes of shoes (oh how culturally laden can be the wearing of shoes, the naked foot, etc.), discipline, selection, male-female (princes and princesses). Upending expectations in regards to this story, which everybody seems to know something about but that has so many variations, appears to be a very good path to follow in building a short piece. Or how about collective storytelling? Building the story with the audience: Why are you the prince, or the princess?

Edward Buffalo Bromberg (Riksteatern Stockholm) and Debbie Seymour (LAMDA, UK) talk about their approaches to their work as dramaturgs. Debbie relates Liz Lerman’s methods of applying constructive criticism through a certain moderated process of question and answer between artist and audience. The discussion almost consensually concentrates on the dramaturgs’ the role of and their place within the development of a script to full production, as interlocutors to the writers, until I bring up their role as employees in the institutions that theatres are in central Europe, dealing with programming and public relations a lot.

We learn about Atlanta as much as possible in the short time, visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights, largely focussing on the civil rights movement in the US south during the 1960s, with Dr. Martin Luther King from Atlanta as a key figure. We see a few shows at night, all disappointingly shallow after the in-depth discussions throughout the days. A good memory remain the nights at delicious tapas bars in Midtown or the Intermezzo Café with its monstrous Vienna style cake display and conversations that extend beyond the professional.

What is most striking throughout the entire duration of the event is the absolutely personal, warm and loving atmosphere among the participants, be they long-standing members such as Alain Foix or Jessica Litwak, or visitors like associates of 7 Stages or writers from Atlanta. Amelia Parenteau, as if it were nothing, interpreted for the French visitors the entire time. The local organisation is perfectly handled by Rachel Parish, Michael Dove and Lee Osorio without whom nothing would have happened. Special thanks to you! As I’m leaving early, I’m sad to be missing a reading of Jessica’s play THE NIGHT IT RAINED at one of the scratch work sessions where new work is presented and discussed. I don’t want to go – but the next conventions are already coming up. Looking forward to be there!

[all photos copyright Henning Bochert]

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