Reflections on Grace and Gratitude

by Sharon Bridgforth

I think my name might be Roux.
As in/the one that gets stirred.
The base of the gumbo.

It all started in 1993 when Chris Cowden (Women & Their Work) took a video of my theatre company’s show to an NPN Annual Meeting… but I guess that’s a whole nutha story/yeah. So I’ll fast forward to 2008 and the NPN Annual Meeting in Seattle.

Deep listening. Simultaneity, polyrhythm, virtuosity, improvisation, innovation.
Focus on process. Curiosity. Expansion. Being present. Collaboration. Spirit.
My twenty years of community organizing, facilitating, presenting theatre nationally inform the metaphysics of this Work/this Jazz. Long-term ongoing connections with artists, scholars, scientists, healers, community leaders, presenters align.
My body is central. Dang. This is a big mountain to heft forward.

After hearing Erica Mott speak about the Education and Community Programs at Links Hall (NPN Partner in Chicago), I knew that I had found a place that I could call home. After inappropriately bursting out with, “I must work with you guys,” and a wee bit of stalking, even though Erica must have thought I was crazy, she encouraged me to stay in touch. I was living in New York at the time, but I did stay in touch. Once I found out that I would be the Fall 2009 Mellon Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, I contacted Erica and we started planning. We met. We talked. We visioned. Links received NPN Community Fund support that allowed me to facilitate a mentoring intensive with local artists. By this time Roell Schmidt came on as director of Links Hall.

This is an acoustic piece.
One singer.
One Actor.
A Choir of people speaking bits of text in as many languages as possible.
Light Walkers: bodies creating patterns/circles, straight lines, diagonals
that weave the ritual. Migrations.
The entire room is the performance space.
The audience is part of the Orchestra.
The Orchestra responds to my signals.
I no longer need musicians.
I still want a big ole holy Gong.

In 2010 I moved to Chicago to serve as the 2001-2012 Visiting Multicultural Faculty Member at the Theatre School at DePaul University. Dean John Culbert approved funding for me to curate The Theatre Jazz Institute in partnership with Links Hall. We bought in guest artists, we had public performances and workshops, and I facilitated an intensive ongoing mentorship process with 14 emerging artists.

16 Orchestra members-one actor-myself-the audience.
Me and the audience.
Multiple choirs-one actor-a dance company-myself and the audience in a huge chapel.
A community center activity room.
A class room.
An auditorium/with part of the audience installed on the stage.
Each experiment different. Each community different. So much to learn.
#14 happens Feb. 24.

At some point Roell pulled me aside and said that she could see how my work impacted and helped so many artists. “What do you want to do?” Roell asked me, encouraging me to think about my own work. What a profound question. What a gift!

Like a jazz musician reaching for new sounds through repeated experiences of the same tune. I want to saturate myself in my texts. Working texts in different ways. Varying the cast size. In different kinds of spaces. Conducting the audience and the performers through an improvisational process. With the text as the structure. I want to explore living arrangements of blues as jazz. To activate Black American rural Southern traditions as the base for bringing people from different ethnicities, religions, generations, genders, sexual identities, places of origin, class backgrounds, abilities, and aesthetics/together. As performers. As collaborators. As audience witness-participants.
A collective experiment with time. A process in which democracy, civic dialogue, and spirituality become verbs through an embodied art practice.

Roell smiled, and said. Yes! Let’s make that happen. And boyyee did she! With Links as the lead Creation Fund Presenter, Roell gathered/and continues to gather/warrior-Visionaries in support of this work.

Links Hall/The Theater Offensive/Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator/Pillsbury House Theatre/Living Arts Tulsa/Chicago Boston Miami Minneapolis Tulsa/New Dramatists/Southside Community Arts Center/Columbia College/The Theatre School at DePaul/Stanford/Harvard/Black Studies Suite UT Austin/Yale/Brown/Northwestern/University of Chicago/University of Michigan/Chicago History Museum//planes, trains, buses, cabs, walking walking walking, CTA, MTA, MBTA/in the car with Rosie/Roell/Abe/Steve/Faye/Noel…NPN

Rosie (Diaspora Vibe) and I stayed in touch, pledging to work together since we met at the 2008 Annual Meeting; The Theater Offensive has been a home for me since 1996, when my theatre company (The root wy’mn Theatre Company) performed at TTO Out On The Edge Festival; I have worked with Pillsbury House Theatre pretty much every year since 2002; Roell said, I have someone that I think you are going to love working with, an organization that is a great fit for River See – Living Arts of Tulsa (she was so right). Together we are rolling on the River BayBay! Thanks to the Creation Fund and the Forth Fund, I am visiting each presenting community at least three times/working towards our NPN Residency productions, and the eventual 2014 premiere at Links Hall. Along the way, organizations, scholars, activists, students and artists are joining up locally, and sometimes traveling to catch the River in other cities.

In 2004 I worked with Helga Davis/who worked with Lawrence “Butch” Morris-who developed CONDUCTION. Butch Transitioned recently.
Helga is a principle in Einstein on the Beach.
I Love Robert Wilson’s work.
I am obsessed with the idea of Conducting.
Butch says all there is to say here/God Bless his Soul:

One of the reasons that an improvisational process works for River See, and that the show is tourable, is that one actor travels with me to play the role of SEE. SEE tells the story. Handles the body of text. I am therefore free to experiment with creating a moving soundscape made of bits of text distributed to locally cast Orchestras. Actors that so far have played SEE are: Sonja Parks, Florinda Bryant, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Daniel Alexander Jones and Djola Branner.

Can I get a Witness!
Thanks to National Performance Network Forth Funding
The answer is YES!

In developing River See I realized that I need a friend/a longtime collaborator in the room to help me make connections between my artistic foundation, the new form I am working in, and the new thing that I am doing that I can’t yet name. I know that it is critical that I dive into all that I am Inspired by and Am…to create my own cosmology for making this work. For fully realizing the text, the orchestration of the piece and how I talk about the project. So I gathered my Witnesses. They will be in the room/sometimes as performers. Sometimes as a collective. Sometimes individually. Always/bringing their brilliance and Light/in helping me Lift River See.

Robbie McCauley
Virginia Grise
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones
Nia Witherspoon

Emily Morse, New Dramatists Director of Artistic Development, is Dramaturge for River See. While corresponding in preparation for our upcoming 3/1/13 Links Hall, River See experiment at Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, Emily asked me, Does the dramaturgy encompass what’s on the page and what happens in the room? Or maybe the question is, how do you see them separately but co-existently? Like, can you look at a Coltrane score independently of how he performs?

Sometimes I feel Full. I just have to lay down.

Pillsbury House Theatre received MAP Funding in support of River See. We are doing a workshop production April 13-21, 2013. I’ve had some wonderful meetings with MAP Fund Consultant David Sheingold, during which I came to realize that River See is a Performance/Novel. I need the full complete version of all the stories to exist. The Performance Text will be excerpted from the Performance/Novel. I will change out which stories are performed based on who is in the room, and what the community we are in feels like. My goal is to have both the Performance/Novel and the Performance Text published as a book that includes a curriculum, as well as notes from some of the scholars, presenters, activists, artists involved. Meanwhile…I have the Blessing of fierce support as I work through the Journey. What do I call this? How do I develop physical language to communicate with the Orchestra? Am I a Conductor? A Conjurer? A Trickster?

All roads have come together.
We are connecting our tribes.
Falling in Love.
Our River is Flowing.
Wanna join up?


Sharon Bridgforth, "River See" (photo by Vanessa Vargas)

Sharon Bridgforth, “River See” (photo by Vanessa Vargas)

The Creation Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Forth Fund is made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Andrew Mellon Foundation

February 2013

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