co-creation

On the Kindness of Strangers

Earlier this year, we spent an afternoon in Derby at the excellent Departure Lounge festival, talking with artists and producers about co-creation in international contexts. As part of that event, we invited Theatre Replacement’s Maiko Yamamoto to talk about their work. Theatre Replacement’s Town Choir was recently part of our recent strategic touring project. This is Maiko’s contribution.


On the Kindness of Strangers

A reflection on co-creation in international contexts by Maiko Yamamoto of Theatre Replacement.

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Hi, my name is Maiko Yamamoto, and I am an experimental theatre maker from Vancouver, Canada.

Since we started making work in 2003, Theatre Replacement’s practice of creating new, experimental and intercultural work has revolved around a core practice of collaboration. Our work is about a genuine attempt to coexist — with each other, with the people we work with, and with the world. We believe that the convergences and collisions of artistic practice as well as the differing histories and perspectives that collaborators bring to a process make for the deepest work. As artists who are facilitating this alchemy, we are hoping for the bravest rooms where people can operate at their fullest and their best.

 Important to this spirit of collaboration, we often rely on the kindness of strangers to make our work. In the past, strangers have given us the core found materials with which we’ve built shows like BIOBOXES: Artifacting Human Experience in 2007, The Greatest Cities in the World in 2010, and Dress me up in your love (2011).

We didn’t know these people, and they had no idea who we were or what we were up to, but somehow they generously gave over to us. Through interviewing them, stealing their words and their clothes, collecting some of their smallest, most precious objects and photographs, we made work with all of them.

More recently, we’ve started making work with strangers where they are not just the subjects or subject matter, but the performers as well. Perhaps this was a gesture of pay back, for all the strangers’ kindnesses we have received over the years. Or perhaps it was a way of going further into a collaborative/co-creation practice that wants to keep expanding.

Town Criers is a piece we first started working on in 2015.

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We were interested in the flip of taking this epic act of vocal declaration (town crying) and pairing it with mundane, everyday experiences and ideas. In order to make it, we worked with pairings of writers and criers, and then installed them into a public site that built further narrative meaning with the writer/crier relationship. The writers would be in a space by themselves, usually in their homes or somewhere familiar to them, and would follow a writing structure that we would give them before each performance. The criers would be waiting in a public site, usually raised up on some kind of platform or architecture, in costume, with a large bell. They would be holding iPads, and this is how the everyday observations would be delivered to them in the moment, after which they would ring their bells and declare them out loud for all to hear.

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Town Criers was the first piece we’ve built that specifically explored this kind of local engagement; meaning the contributions of the local artists and individuals would change the content of the work and ideally make it more narratively satisfying to the audience. And with the integration of this idea came yet another stranger whose kindness we needed to rely on: that of the presenting festival or venue. Making the work with and for the place we are strangers to — and until the week of the performance not physically in — means that we need a bridger – a local producer to work with us and essentially be us on the ground prior to our arrival. We have been very lucky to hook up with some incredible producers in this regard, and they have each brought their own perspectives and histories to the projects. On a tiny little island in Iceland for example, one such producer even included her grandmother, uncle, mother, father and her little brother in the project.

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This is where Town Criers finds itself — when the show acts as a container for a community to be reflected back onto itself, and ultimately, when we are revealed to be the strangers, looking to understand a place (the world) a little better.

Based on the same essential writing structure, Town Choir is the musical iteration of Town Criers, but instead of texts being sent to a single crier, they are sent to a choir.

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In the same way that Town Criers reveals a specific place through the everyday ideas and thoughts it puts forward, Town Choir elevates the mundane through a more naturally performative show, integrating local writers, full SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) choirs and multi-media in a public space. Here the number of strangers is amplified (literally and figuratively). Again, the local producer is key to making connections with the configuration of writers, and with the choir, and then to find the perfect public venue in which the full story will come together. These choices may seem quite practical, but in fact, they are fundamental to what kind of narrative gets revealed. In Vancouver, we worked with the Vancouver Youth Choir, a 60-person choir made up of 14-23 year olds. The 4 writers were established singer/songwriters from across Canada, all in their mid-careers, and the juxtaposition of their everyday experiences sung out by teenagers made for a profound performance. Add the layer of the site — the public library — a place that people look to for stories, histories and knowledge, and the resonance builds.

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In Dublin, we worked with 2 choirs, an adult vocal ensemble and a children’s choir, and we performed the piece in the iconic Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. The writers were two young adult novelists from Ireland, whose books were likely being read by the young singers who were singing their everyday thoughts, and likely being sold in the book section of the department store downstairs. The everyday nature of the mall resonated with the content of the piece, and invited an interesting element of incidental audience — the regular shoppers who happened upon this choral intervention. That’s a lot of stranger power, coming together to create these shows. And that’s the power of work like this: when they’re working, the achievement is shared.

So, to answer the question that Matthew posed in his email:

What does co-creation mean to you and what do you see as the challenges in co-created work? 

To answer the first part, it means everything to me. It is the means by which my artistic practice exists and continues. It has allowed me to take an artistic idea and to experience it grow and change through the many collaborators (and strangers) I have had the privilege of working with. It allows me to feel part of a global conversation — or rather a really local conversation — in a global context. It has surprised me and scared me, and it has given me the most profound experiences I’ve had as a theatre maker.

There are many challenges, and each project has its own set, but one of the biggest challenges that comes with working with strangers is that you never know how it’s going to go inside the process; if you will get along, or if everyone will have a good time. It’s a bit like throwing a dinner party. What I’ve learned is how to be clearer; how to develop materials that best facilitate the shared experience so that we can all move towards a common goal. Because I am the keeper of the artwork, I’ve got to make sure  it’s maintained, but I’ve also got to facilitate how the invited strangers can feel less strange inside the room and the work. Or that their strangeness is most welcome, and a key part.

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Our latest work also has an integral local engagement component. MINE is a piece that is performed completely through the video game Minecraft. It invites 5 youth gamer/performers between the ages of 10-14 to build and perform the show with us, which they learn over the course of 4 rehearsals. These strangers are sometimes cagey and opinionated, and they come with parents.

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What seems like it might be a recipe for disaster (video games + kids + attention) has actually been one of the most meaningful experiences working with strangers that I have ever had. Because after we’re all done, we’re not strangers anymore. The kids stay connected; they Facetime and play together online on the weekends. The parents stay in touch; they email and they share stuff that their kids are working on that might be related to the show. We can stay connected, and the collaboration lives on in a way.  

I’d like to end by sharing a video that the makers of Minecraft, Mojang, made about MINE while we were on tour in Cambridge. I really like this video, because they spent some nice time talking to the kids we worked with there, and for me it’ll always be a little memento of our time with them.

But before you play it, I also want to say that I’m very grateful for the kind strangers out there. For the folks like Matthew that create these opportunities for collaborators to come together and for the process that unfolds, and the work that results.