Fourteen years ago, when we first began to form our company, “devising” was a relatively uncharted form. There was a formula to be followed when making theatre: begin with a script, rehearse for 4-6 weeks, and then, a performance run. Already, we were going against the grain by endeavoring to make theatre where the script came last.
We were at a standstill because the show we were were workshopping - an exploration of the diaries of Christopher Columbus and his contemporary, Bartolomé de las Casas - was not fully cast.
Tired of waiting for men to show up at auditions (literally), we gave ourselves permission to create a show entirely populated by women. It felt like a radical insistence that we could create a show with an all-female team - a sentiment that has only just started to become a little less radical.
The ability to grant permission to ourselves to create our own theatre felt revelatory. Not only were we not going to wait for the men to show up, we also didn’t need to wait for a script that allowed us to thrive. We gave ourselves permission to forge complex and exciting roles for women to portray onstage. (This sentiment was neatly echoed years later in our play Mahalla, when Egyptian garment-workers, arriving at a labor strike to discover they were the only ones brave enough to show up, chant: “where are the men? Here we are, the women!”)
While our genesis may have been guided by the most basic definition of feminism - the equality of women - our creative methodology has evolved into something inherently feminist.
CENTERING WOMEN & MARGINALIZED GENDERS
The first play we created together was a resurrection of women’s voices -- immigrants and mothers -- struggling to survive economically and to connect in a world where English was not always their first language. These were women who traditionally existed outside of history. Embracing our new identity as ‘anthropologists,’ we did not accept or limit ourselves to what is traditionally considered “verified” history. We sought out women’s actual voices from a variety of sources - cookbooks, home-making guides, out-of-print memoirs, non-English newspapers. We’ve continued this practice, not only asking what is considered source material but increasingly, whose voices are missing?
Our devising process values all artists as storytellers. We’ve developed a horizontal process in which theatre practitioners of any discipline are invited to contribute to the devising process. Dramaturg becomes performer; scenic designer becomes dramaturg. Naturally, there comes a point in the process when we do step into our final role(s) within the project, usually when we are moving closer to production. However, this foundational ethos emphasizing the group over the individual leads to stronger and more efficient collaborating.
Since our earliest days of devising a show for - and around - a specific group of performers, we’ve always invited collaborators to bring their full selves and multi-faceted artistry into the rehearsal room. In some cases, this means inviting lived experience into the devising process. In others, it has sought out hidden talents (for example, founding member Sonja Sweeney playing violin in two early shows). A holistic approach means creating with care. From our earliest days, we asked ourselves what we needed during or from a rehearsal, which evolved into Session Agreements shared by participants. While the rehearsal studio can be a beautiful, sacred space, what happens outside of that room absolutely influences the process. A feminist process must take into account the realities facing women and theatre-makers of marginalized genders. Some of our equity practices have included paying small child care stipends to parent artists and offering travel stipends to collaborators who did not feel safe using public transportation.
Our plays are born out of an iterative process. The developmental timeline is elongated, with built-in pauses providing time and space for evaluation and “marination,” as we are fond of saying. It is cyclical, offering slow growth and resisting a race to the finish line. We consistently choose process over product, relishing the many opportunities it offers for artists to propose and test out ideas, offer feedback and shape the final product.
This way of making theatre is humbling and emboldening, empowering and interdependent. It is evolutionary and revolutionary. It insists on creators having agency. We have faltered along the way, made mistakes or tried to take shortcuts. But ultimately, striving towards these values of feminism in the shows we produce and how we create them, is the most fulfilling way of making theatre that I know.
Melissa Moschitto is the Founding Producing Artistic Director of The Anthropologists. She is the mother of two dramatic children and resides and works in Upper Manhattan on the ancestral land of the Lenape.