TEAM return to Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2011 with Mission Drift
Ambitious new work takes in 400 years of American history
This article is from 2011.
The multi-award winning TEAM return to the Fringe with an ambitious new work that takes in 400 years of American history. Yasmin Sulaiman meets the company that considers Edinburgh its second home
Since their 2005 Fringe debut, New York City’s cutting-edge-but-chaotic theatre company the TEAM has attracted critical praise, sold-out runs and won three Fringe Firsts – not bad for a group of NYU graduates that initially came together to perform just two Edinburgh shows but are still going six years later. ‘I honestly have no idea whether we would still exist as a company if it wasn’t for that first year in Edinburgh,’ says founding artistic director Rachel Chavkin, speaking to me before a 12-hour tech-rehearsal in Boston. ‘Because things went so well and people were asking what’s next, it suddenly dawned on us that we were just beginning to create what would become a body of work.’
Their first under-the-radar Edinburgh plays, A Thousand Natural Shocks and award-winner Give Up! Start Over! (In the Darkest of Times I Look to Richard Nixon for Hope), were followed by 2006’s Particularly in the Heartland and 2008’s Architecting at the Traverse. Both were award-recipients that, as their name (which stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) suggests, dealt with major issues plaguing the United States’ social and political landscape. In 2011, they’ll add to this corpus with Mission Drift, which was originally meant to premiere at the Traverse last year but was delayed due to funding issues. This seems apt, given that its subject matter is the unique nature of American capitalism and it will be performed during one of the worst periods of recession in living memory. However, the work wasn’t conceived as a response to the current economic situation and instead takes a much broader view of American fiscal history.
‘There are two interweaving stories,’ Chavkin says. ‘One takes place in the present moment and is quite realistic, and one is a sort of mythic story that runs through 400 years of American history. “Mission drift” is a financial term but this play is about the marriage between the idea of the frontier and capitalism and the mission to grow uncontrollably that early Americans had on really a geographic level, in terms of the speed at which the country was occupied and the American Indian population decimated. But then that marriage between the frontier and capitalism has persisted despite the disappearance of a geographical frontier. For us, that’s really the core of the “mission drift” – what happens to American capitalism when the frontier goes away.’
Set in Las Vegas, a frontier town in the 19th century and one of the epicentres of the recent US housing crash, the TEAM spent a month in the city last year on an intensive research project, interviewing several people from the financial community. But rather than collate these interviews into a piece of verbatim theatre, they’re utilising their characteristically innovative performance style to produce an alternative take on the economic crisis that’s distinct from the mounds of articles, TV and radio material they encountered in the research process. Simultaneously, the company have also tried to move away from the messiness that has been such a large feature of their previous shows.
Chavkin explains: ‘I definitely think that people who know our work well are going to look at Mission Drift and think that this feels different, certainly compared to Architecting. It is not as chaotic as our previous work so I think it’ll probably have a wider appeal than some of our more far-out stuff. But I think we’re always trying to construct something that is incredibly dense but consistently satisfying if you’re paying attention.’
Perhaps the biggest change audiences will see is that Mission Drift is a musical, and comes complete with a cast album that will be available to buy during the August run. However, in true TEAM style, it’s a non-traditional take on the genre and the songs – composed by New York-based singer-songwriter Heather Christian – occur outside of the story. Christian, who describes herself as ‘an odd singer’, performed in Architecting during its stint in New York and has used the power of her character in this new work to influence her songwriting as well.
‘In the show, I play Miss Atomic Bomb,’ she says, ‘who’s based on a real-life figure that disappeared in the 1950s. We made her quite ominous and I decided that this character, who sort of functions as a narrator, should possess the play not just with this story and this narration but also with the music. I wanted the songs to feel like a series of incantations. Hymns and dirges are incantory but so is really sexy blues music, which I chose to make the audience and the characters want to plummet themselves into this emotional and colourful space.’
This strong blues emphasis is at odds with one of Christian’s proclaimed inspirations for Mission Drift’s music: Neil Young’s sparse soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 western Dead Man. However, it’s Young’s immersive, audience-conscious approach to this score rather than his musical style that’s been most influential.
Christian explains: ‘I did write this music with the specific purpose of entertaining an audience. I am very audience conscious and, not to be too judgemental, but many experimental theatre productions can be quite pretentious when music is added to them. I’ve tried to strip out this pretension from my music and make something that is emotionally evocative and quite joyful, so I hope that that comes through.’
But for Chavkin, there’s also an inherent dejection in the play as a whole. ‘Mission Drift is quite a sad show,’ she says. ‘In the show we ask, if you’ve been a certain way for 400 years, how do you change your behaviour? For one of the main characters, it ends in suicide. When we’ve talked about this and Architecting in the past, the word “requiem” has come up so maybe it’s a new phase for us.’
After two-and-a-half years in development, Mission Drift will premiere in Lisbon in July with many new faces and without some original company members. It will have only nine Edinburgh performances before moving on to the Salzburg Festival. ‘I’m always excited to show theatre in Europe,’ Christian says, ‘much more than in America. The audiences are much better – more thinking and active.’ For Chavkin, the tour will be more bittersweet. ‘Honestly, I think we’re all quite heartbroken that we can’t stay for the whole Festival,’ she admits. ‘Edinburgh really does feel like home to me. Over the years, its has become a very treasured place in our hearts and we’re all really excited to return.’
Mission Drift, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 0131 228 1404, 7–14 Aug (not 4 & 5, 8), times vary, £17–£19 (£12–£13). Previews 3 Aug, 7pm, 6 Aug, 2pm, £12 (£6).