It’s been two weeks since the last of our crew touched down in Great Falls, Montana. Nestled between the dramatic mountains to the west and the meditative rolling prairie to the east, Great Falls is the perfect home base for our Montana adventure.
The Ursuline Center, with its massive brick turrets rising over the manicured lawns and boxy houses of Great Falls, might seem an unlikely place for a bicycle touring theatre troupe to take up residence. But the inside of the old Catholic school house is full of memorable characters, creaky wood, homey couches in calico and plaid prints, and maybe even a ghost. You can feel the weight of history in every floral print nook, and it feels like some long lost memory. The only problem is that if you leave your notebook up in your bedroom, you have to race up and down four flights of steps, while everyone waits for you in the rehearsal space.
For the first few days, all we did was envision how we wanted the project to look and feel. We scribbled in our notebooks, marked up butcher paper and scrutinized our answers. It was important to observe when we were all on the same page and and when there were discrepancies so we could establish a set of agreements, or a framework, on how to cook, create, communicate, ride, document and live with one another.
At the end our first weekend together, we all hunkered down with a stash of art supplies and made our “life maps.” A life map is a visual depiction of one’s life up until the present. There’s no correct way to do it, and it was revealing in and of itself just to see how people approached the task.
Finally, with our framework hashed out, we began our scheduled days:
At breakfast we do a daily check-in about the current condition of our bodies, minds and spirits, and then it’s off to the rehearsal space for workshops. Jackie leads the first hour with Viewpoints – a technique she learned while training with CITI Company of New York. We are learning a common language with which to compose for the stage, develop a soft-focus awareness of the space and people around us and learn to respond kinesthetically to each other’s actions. Next, Sam leads us through a form of training developed by his professor, Michael Lugering, called “The Expressive Actor.” Through it, we develop a deeper awareness of tendencies in the body and voice, so we can play with and manipulate them. For our final morning workshop, Jaren, our resident composer, has been training our voices and ears to recognize the finer nuances of sound. He has been meticulously creating harmonies for all of our voices so they blend beautifully together.
After a quick lunch, it’s back to the rehearsal space for a production workshop with Sarah, our costume and prop genius. Here we explore the physical aspects of the play – what innovative ways can you use a tent? A sleeping pad? A spare tube? Discovering ways we can manipulate our gear helps us think about how we can creatively use it in the play. Then we move on to devising, led by me – Dara. The process of honing in on the plot and story of the play is kind of like reading a Ouiji board. From brainstorms to scene generation, to improvs, we have to keep moving to new exercises to keep digging deeper and circling in. In truth, five weeks isn’t much time to write a brand new play, so we have to keep rigorously pursuing the story. So far we’ve settled on a premise, created some really dynamic characters, and have a slew of images and ideas we’d like to see if we can incorporate, but we haven’t quite figured out where the play is going or what it needs us to communicate just yet.
After dinner, for the first week, evenings were spent sharing our life maps. While we had only allotted a half hour per person, the truth is, it takes a long time to share your life story! That first week we were all up too late, exhausted but affectionate, building intimacy and trust with one another.
This past weekend, we did our first overnight trip to the Lewis and Clark National Forest, just forty miles south of Great Falls. For some of us, this was our first time riding our bikes fully loaded, testing our camping gear, and getting a taste of bike touring. And because it wouldn’t be a bike tour without plenty of shenanigans, naturally we had our fair share – brisk headwinds, hauling our bikes up steep mountain passes on chunky gravel paths, a busted stem on a bicycle. Those of us from the 2015 tour quickly remembered how patience gets shortened when the body is tested.
But this time around, we are prepared for it.
This whole past year we have been reimagining Agile Rascal – we decided to focus on a single state, decided to create collaboratively in the state prior to the tour, gathered our crew of amazingly talented people and made a route that was still rigorous but allowed more space for rest and recuperation. We updated our website, replaced stolen bicycles, found people to support us financially, and dreamed of what it would be like when we all arrived in this place. Now that we’re here, it’s so relieving to say that all the work and foresight is paying off.
But we aren’t out of the woods yet. As we pin down our play, we’re ramping up our schedule, adding evening rehearsals and stretching our workday from nine o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night.
Again, that lack of sleep, the physical exertion, the battle over creative differences, will all take their toll. But I’m hopeful that the foundation of camaraderie and trust that we have built and continue to build will carry us through these challenging next few weeks, onto our bikes and out into the landscapes of Montana, still on good terms and still excited to share this thing we are making together.