What does it mean to be devoted to a cause? Given the chance, would you sacrifice yourself for an unflinching belief?
These are just several of the questions that New York-based theater company The Assembly is attempting to answer in “HOME/SICK,” a production focusing on the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group of the late 1960s. The show makes its New England premiere at the CFA Theater this Thursday night.
Yet this premiere is hardly a first-time visit to Wesleyan for the company: the four artistic directors and co-founders of the group are Stephen Aubrey ’06, Jess Chayes ’07, Edward Bauer ’08, and Nick Benacerraf ’08. Indeed, the Assembly has its roots firmly grounded in Wesleyan theater.
Initially called the American Story Project, the company’s first performance was a work directed by Chayes and co-written by Chayes and Aubrey, “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford,” chronicling the 1944 Hartford Circus fire, which was brought to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006.
Having brought a different production to the Festival with Wesleyan the prior year, collaborated with Benacerraf and Bauer on Second Stage and Theater Department productions, and met Bauer in a creative writing class, Chayes worked with her co-artistic directors to bring “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford” to the Festival as the product of their own company.
Indeed, “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford,” which was nominated for the prestigious Fringe First Award and was Chayes’ senior theater thesis the following year, was incredibly formative for the then-young group.
“We learned a lot of important lessons about group creations, and the basic aesthetic influences of our company were born and put together then,” Chayes said.
Still, The Assembly did not ultimately come together until 2008, as the core of the group, specifically the four co-artistic directors, became more and more solidified.
The four artistic directors of the company essentially amount to the group’s pillars, each representing a different part of the theatrical process: Chayes a director, Aubrey a dramaturge and playwright, Bauer an actor, and Benacerraf a scenic designer.
“We’ve got the four of us, the four big schools, coming together, doing our own work, and doing it alongside and in collaboration with each other,” Aubrey said.
Indeed, the company takes a unique, consensus-based approach to writing and creation, providing a great deal of input for all members of the company and production at all stages of the process.
“The Assembly is a somewhat special organization, in that it runs incredibly holistically, and everyone contributes to all of the compontents, artistically and administratively,” said Producer Ariela Rotenberg ’10, who joined the company in 2010 as it was beginning to workshop “HOME/SICK.”
What’s more, “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford” set the tone for types of subject matter that the group incorporates into many of their productions, finding inspiration in historical research.
“[The Assembly] is all very ensemble based, there’s a lot of research that goes into it, and a lot of it is still informed by periods of history like [“We Can’t Reach You, Hartford”] that we find fascinating, that we feel there hasn’t been that much exploration in before,” Bauer said.
This historical, cross-disciplinary exploration can be seen in some of the other productions that the company has staged before “HOME/SICK,” including 2007’s “Daguerrotype,” which focuses on Civil War-era photographer Matthew Brady; 2008’s “What I Took In My Hand,” which centers around Charles Lindbergh; and 2009’s “Clementine and the Cyber Ducks,” which connects the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century to the development of the Web.
This places “HOME/SICK,” at first glance, squarely within the wheelhouse of The Assembly’s creation process. The material can be traced back to 2007, when Aubrey found “Sing a Battle Song,” a collection of manifestos from the movement. Though he brought the idea to the group after having watched the 2003 documentary “The Weather Underground,” the idea was ultimately put on hold, in part due to a similarly-themed production staged around the same time.
“There was a piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music about the Weather Underground, a big dance piece, that was on the front page of the Arts section the day after I told everyone about my idea,” Aubrey said. “We decided that it was not the right time, we weren’t sure what we were going to do about it, and we didn’t have a clear plan, so we put it on the back burner.”
The idea only came to fruition again when Associate Artist Ben Beckley joined the company along with Associate Artist Emily Perkins, following the 2010 performances of Chekov’s “The Three Sisters.” Beckley brought up the Weather Underground, and the project developed from there.
“HOME/SICK” also shares the general rehearsal model of the group’s work, with month-long intensive workshops helping to enrich each aspect of the production.
“We actively engage in each other’s work: we each take turns leading exercises, where I’ll lead an exercise in design and everyone will participate, and Steve will lead an exercise in playwriting and I’ll participate,” Benacerraf said.
“HOME/SICK” is, in many ways, the company’s most collaborative work to date, due to the increased involvement of the entire company in creating the characters and structure of the play.
“The idea that other people could go home and write a scene had not been introduced until ‘HOME/SICK,’” Benacerraf said.
And this process was responsible for changes that have been made to the play over time. “HOME/SICK,” which first premiered in 2011 at the now-defunct Collapsable Hole Theater in Brooklyn, then moved to the Living Theater in Manhattan in 2012, where it ran for two consecutive runs in July and November. Between each of these performances, the first and second especially, changes were made as members of the company and collaborators grew more comfortable with their characters and roles on the set.
“A lot of key scenes and personal monologues that are in the show, I think we really sharpened [between the first and second run],” Chayes said. “And then we just made little tweaks between that run and the run we did November in the Living Theater. And we’re continuing to make little tweaks for Wesleyan.”
The production’s unique subject matter also makes it a more politically charged piece than the previous work of the company. This was, in part, inspired by disillusionment that many members of the company felt toward the American political system.
“In the last 10 years we’ve seen so much of what felt like just obvious rank injustice and manipulation from our government, in a way that made it seem like change was really never possible, and was never going to happen,” Bauer said. “Which, I think, is exactly how the [Weather Underground] felt in the late ’60s when they looked at Vietnam.”
This feeling grew in the following years, as members began to grow disillusioned with the then-newly-inaugurated President Obama.
“Some people had been really involved in Obama’s campaign in 2008, and all of us were very enthusiastic about him being elected, but I think we all had this collective realization that this whole generation of young people had helped to get this person elected,” Chayes said. “And then [they] became disillusioned when a lot of Washington ‘business as usual’ didn’t change at all.”
“HOME/SICK,” then, is an opportunity to explore modern issues of activism through the lens of history.
“We were sort of interested in what had happened to activism in our generation, and expressing this disappointment and powerlessness that we were feeling,” Chayes said.
The generational divide also forced the company and its collaborators to examine their own thoughts on activism. Fittingly, the work opened just before Occupy Wall Street began in 2011.
“[‘HOME/SICK’] was a process of political becoming, I think,” Benacerraf said. “We became stronger political agents through creating this piece, and our theater company became much more overtly political, and our current work about class and inequality would not have been possible without that transition.”
If there is anything that the company took away from the Weather Underground, it was not the way in which it conducted itself, as the Weather Underground was a violent group, but rather the activist passion behind its actions.
“If you see the show, you will realize that all of us are extremely ambivalent about the issue of violence,” Bauer said. “But there is something undeniably powerful about the fact that they believed that by coming together they could really change the way that this country worked for the better. They believed they could do it, and you just don’t see it anymore.”
Since the show’s opening, the group has been in contact with several former members of the Weather Underground, including leaders Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Mark Rudd, the latter of whom will be part of a Q&A session with the company following Thursday’s performance.
To a certain extent, the subject matter and staging of “HOME/SICK,” following the Weather Underground’s leadership across a decade while remaining in a single room, perhaps loosely link these characters to their creators.
“Because so much of the actors’ real personalities are in the characters they’re playing, that they wrote…the dynamics and difficulties between the writers became the dynamics and difficulties between the characters,” Benacerraf said.
It is this immersive, collaborative process that ultimately reveals just how much The Assembly has taken from Wesleyan.
“I think the best lesson that the experience at Wesleyan taught us is that we can and should be self directed,” Bauer said. “There’s so much opportunity through Second Stage to create your own and produce your own work and we really took that lesson to heart.”
Even outside of theater, it is the emphasis that the University places on a liberal arts education that has helped to enrich the company’s work.
“We draw from lots of different areas of study,” Aubrey said. “We’re very research-based because we have a fundamental understanding of lots of different areas of knowledge. We’re not just people who know about theater.”
In the days leading up to the performances, the company will be returning the favor to the university, leading three workshops to help students develop their own ideas.
“It really is in some ways very much like a process that we would use to start a play, but in an abridged three-day version, but also a version that makes sure to hit on all of our favorite exercises…we’re really trying to show people what gets us inspired,” Chayes said.
At the end of the day, no matter the subject, “HOME/SICK” truly is a chance for the members of company to return to their roots.
“I don’t think the art that we make would be the same with a different core group, so I think that [Wesleyan] inextricably linked this community,” Rotenberg said.
“HOME/SICK” will perform this Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. in the CFA Theater. Tickets are available for $6 for Wesleyan students at the Usdan Box Office.