Nancy Keystone is smack dab in the middle of tech for what can only be described as an epic theatrical journey. The founding Artistic Director of Critical Mass Performance Group is the writer, director, and scenic designer of the company’s new play, AMERYKA, previewing tonight and opening tomorrow night for a month-long run at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. Yet even with a schedule that is sure to look like a game of Sudoku, Keystone not only gave me her time but her undivided attention as we met over coffee to discuss Critical Mass’ impressive history and the creative process that has led them to where they are now.
Critical Mass was born in 1985 at UCLA. A directing student at the time, Keystone was inspired by the European ensemble movement and wanted to create a company interested in exploring theatre through poetic spectacle. In those first five years they developed Brecht in a basement, Behn in a locker room, and Marlowe in a jazz bar. Joseph Woodland of the Santa Barbara Independent said, of their 1987 production, “Dr. Faustus served as a reminder that good theatre can, and should, erupt anywhere.” In its nascent years, Critical Mass had already gained a reputation as being a collective without boundaries.
It was after 1990 that the ensemble began to develop what would become their signature form of presentation. Keystone and the company collaborated to devise collages of found text, movement, and music culminating in politically charged historical narratives. Over the next decade, they performed at various locations throughout the community including the Getty Villa Theatre Lab, Skirball Cultural Center, South Coast Rep and many more. Their 2005 production of APOLLO, a piece exploring America’s space program and the legacy of slavery, premiered in two parts at The Kirk Douglas Theatre. The production was named one of “Top Ten Plays of 2005” by the LA Alternative Press.
Now once again the company is taking another critical look. After APOLLO, they wanted to create an intimate exploration of history as seen through the human experience. The seed for AMERYKA was planted in 2009 when Keystone was invited to Poland for a festival celebrating her most significant influence, director Jerzy Grotowski. The year marked the twentieth anniversary of Poland’s famed 1989 semi-free election. At the time of the Grotowski symposium, Poland was plastered with posters. There was one in particular that got Keystone’s cogs cranking. It was a 1989 election poster featuring an image of Gary Cooper from the American Western “High Noon.” In it Cooper sports the Solidarity band and wields in his hand, not a gun, but a ballot. Text below him reads, “At high noon, June 4th, 1989.” This was the time and date of the election. The image opened a floodgate of questions for Keystone about the parallels between our countries, the promises of democracy, and the universal want for freedom. It was a worthy subject for the group with limitless boundaries.
The creative process of a Critical Mass piece occurs in several stages. The first is research. After Keystone’s first trip to Poland, she did extensive research on the country’s history which she then presented to the group. In the next step of the process, the ensemble spent a great deal of time unpacking text, listening to guest speakers, and taking “field trips.” This led to a workshop process where, through exercises and improvisational sessions, they transformed their research into theatrical content. Keystone then sifted through the material to find threads to solidify, specify, and then weave into a narrative. Finally, after structuring the piece with music and design elements, the company began to rear the fully-realized theatrical event that is AMERYKA.
The process is athletic. AMERYKA alone has been in progress for seven years. And now, after years of asking questions, Critical Mass is ready to turn it over to you. The play will require you to lean in. It will require you to take a critical look. And in turn, AMERYKA may leave you feeling that you have lived two lifetimes, through the perspectives of two countries, for over two centuries in just over two hours.
AMERYKA runs February 5 – March 6, 2016 at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
For more tickets and more information visit: www.criticalmassperformancegroup.com
This story was updated Friday afternoon to correct the opening night is tomorrow night, tonight’s show is a preview.