On the stage of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, a technical rehearsal is underway. It’s the third tech that the cast of Anything That Gives Off Light has executed, but has been markedly different from the others. “There’s been a lot of radical, quick-and-dirty reconfiguring,” Jessica Almasy says. “It’s the smallest space we’ve played in.”
In spite of that complication, and in spite of the heaviness of the material being rehearsed (“We basically did the darker chunk of the show today,” Almasy says), there is an easiness to the temperaments of the artists currently occupying Joe’s Pub not common to most technical rehearsals. Some part of that can be attributed to the fact that everyone is given a chance for input; everyone has a voice. That’s just how the TEAM works.
Anything That Gives Off Light, described as a “surrealist road trip story,” is finally making its stateside debut after its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2016. The show, which follows the whiskey-fueled journey of two Scottish men and an American woman coming to grips with their identities both national and personal, is a co-production between the TEAM, the National Theatre of Scotland, and the Edinburgh International Festival. The spirit of collaboration goes far deeper than that, however; it’s that spirit which defines the TEAM as a company.
“There were four or five of us at the outset,” says Almasy, a co-founding member of the TEAM. “When we formed, it was this idea of everyone in the room being a writer, which was really radical to us. We frame the idea of writing in a really broad sense. Sometimes that’s writing on paper, and sometimes that's an hour-long improvisation session where we can just exist together in a soundscape and in physical experiences before any text is even generated. We experience something in the room together, and then transcribe it, and that becomes a script.”
The company, led by Artistic Director and Tony nominee Rachel Chavkin, creates their work through a unique process of devising in which every member of the cast and creative team contributes to the writing. They strive for a “horizontal creative structure” — everyone has equal voice in both the crafting of their characters and the writing of the piece.
Past productions have included: A Thousand Natural Shocks, a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Particularly in the Heartland, an exploration of the mythic underside of the American Midwest; Mission Drift, a Vegas-tinged musical examination of American capitalism, written with composer Heather Christian; and Primer for a Failed Superpower, which compiles new arrangements of iconic protest songs to create a multigenerational community concert that questions what it means to be American.
For Almasy, finally bringing the show to New York isn’t the only homecoming she has had during the years it has taken to develop the piece. Before beginning to work on Anything That Gives Off Light, she hadn’t performed with the TEAM for ten years, opting instead to work behind the scenes while focusing on earning her graduate degree in playwriting.
“When I came back five years ago to work on this project and devise this role for myself, the big difference was that I was no longer creating a fictional narrative,” Almasy says. “It was like a hybrid experience of making a documentary or memoir of my own life and my own experiences in the world, and then merging that with the rigorous research we do about people who are completely different from us. And, as my life unfolded over those five years, I was able to actually write that into the play. So it’s not just the story of our research and our philosophizing about America—for me, it’s also my story.”
For Reuben Joseph, the change was even more drastic—Joseph is from Scotland, and Anything That Gives Off Light marks his first collaboration with the TEAM. After having read the TEAM’s work as a student, he met with Chavkin to discuss the project and found deep resonance within the themes of the piece. “The questions about national identity—that’s something I’ve asked myself a lot, being mixed race,” Joseph says. “I was the only mixed-race person in my town, growing up. Coupled with that level of Scottish-ness—to have an English mum and a Scottish dad—I was growing up with a mixed bag of just wanting to belong to one group, and to have the ability to switch between the two.”
Joseph plays Brian, a man who has recently left friends and family in Scotland to move to London. While the original TEAM company members were playing from their personal experiences, Joseph is one of several actors stepping into the piece to inhabit the shoes of its writers.
“[Associate Director] Davey Anderson said to me, ‘It’s going to be interesting having people in the room who wouldn’t normally consider themselves writers.’ I’m still finding my voice in that room. But when you’re asked to think of something in the writing—that opens up these other avenues to translate into a performance. It’s totally liberating.”
Almasy is still adjusting to how different the rehearsal process is this time around. Not only is she the only original TEAM member who has gone on to perform in the new touring version of Anything That Gives Off Light—it’s also the first TEAM show in which she has been directed by someone other than Chavkin. As Associate Director Davey Anderson guides the cast through tech at the Public, Chavkin is shepherding her own project, the upcoming Broadway bow of Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, through technical rehearsals uptown at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
“It really feels like the culmination of the project to have Davey Anderson from the National Theatre of Scotland share leadership with her, because that’s the nature of the collaboration that we initiated,” Almasy says. “I feel like it’s woken me up. When you collaborate with a group of people for a long time, getting flushed with fresh, new blood and new energy disrupts the typical. It’s pressing the refresh button for me and making me ask, how do I take responsibility for every aspect of my performance? How do I collaborate with them, but also take real responsibility for what I’m making?”
The collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland was born when the TEAM took one of their previous productions, Particularly in the Heartland, to Edinburgh in 2006. NTS was in the midst of their acclaimed play Black Watch; the two companies connected over a “shared set of rigorous aesthetics and performance values.”
The devising process by which the TEAM makes work leads to a familial closeness between its members (“Some of us are even married to each other now,” Almasy laughs), and maintaining that artistic and personal intimacy was an emotional focus during their partnership with NTS.
The TEAM also collaborated with Shaun and Abigail Bengson, who wrote the show’s stomping folk-punk score. The Bengsons have since earned acclaim for their autobiographical concert musicals Hundred Days, which premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, and The Lucky Ones, which premiered at Ars Nova in early 2018. “There’s a mythic-ness to their music,” Almasy says. “It really resonates with how the TEAM tells a story.”
Anything That Gives Off Light’s 2016 premiere came at an interesting time on the stage of global politics, particularly for Scotland and the United States: just before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but just after the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union in a move now referred to as “Brexit." Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to stay, but was overruled when England and Wales voted to leave.
“The only people I know who voted to leave were older English people living in Scotland,” Joseph explains. “So there’s this feeling that Scottish nationalistic pride can only be synonymous with a left leaning view. In this day and age, in the age of Trump and this resurgence of the conservative way of thinking, you have to ask: Which side has the ownership of nationalism? I’d say it seems like a heavier split over here in America than in Scotland. You don’t meet many conservative people who would also identify themselves with Scottish nationalistic pride.”
Almasy remembers the way in which the 2016 presidential election would go on to influence the development of Anything That Gives Off Light into its present form. In early 2016, the TEAM had traveled to Appalachia to visit local communities and gather research for the piece. “It was before the election that we learned that this huge claim to Scottish history was mostly located in Appalachia—places like West Virginia, parts of Kentucky and Tennessee," Almasy recalls. "And then those were the people who voted for the current president.”
After the election, members of the TEAM traveled back to Appalachia for a week for a teaching artist residency at a high school in Bradshaw, West Virgina. It also happened to be the same week that President Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Paris Accords.
“My character, Red, comes from a coal family,” Almasy says, “and we were there in coal country with kids who had soot on their boots. Some of them were still working after school. These are people who feel literally and figuratively isolated from their own country. They’ve watched generations of men in their families start to fade away and disintegrate without work, without purpose.”
It was during this trip that the TEAM began to realize the added poignancy Anything That Gives Off Light had taken on, in light of the changed political climate. “It was a huge turning point, and we’ve arrived in this very deep place where it’s like the transaction is completed. The geometry is completed. We went to Appalachia. We learned. We went to Scotland. We learned. We brought the piece back to the people of Appalachia on tour a week ago. They uploaded us with what’s almost like a message in a bottle for New York — ‘Cool, you’re wrestling with the political conservatism of our region. And we’re aware of these people who have voted against their own interests. But there’s also a huge legacy of progressivism on the left in these communities. There are people who are thriving and making art—who are alive.’”
As Anything That Gives Off Light prepares to open at Joe’s Pub March 16, Almasy and Joseph hope that New York audiences will leave the show examining their own prejudices. “From an outsider’s perspective,” Joseph says, “after spending time in New York and Appalachia, it seems there’s an assumption about the kind of people that come from underrepresented parts of America. I hope this play will make people question the assumptions they make about people.”
“I’m really interested in the idea of reconciliation through a real and earnest examination of our own fallibility,” Almasy says. “I would love for people to leave the play, to leave the post-show discussions and parties, and feel really fucking intrigued about going down there for themselves. I think curiosity is what’s going to heal us in the aftermath of the past few years— a real curiosity about these other parts of America. How do we cultivate a genuine respect for people who love this country as much as we do, but perhaps define the country they love in a radically different way? It’s complicated because there are lives that are increasingly in danger. But as we get narrow-minded with ideological differences and hate, there’s also a lot of potential for real inquiry.”
“I would love for New Yorkers to know that the people in Appalachia would love to meet them,” she adds. “There was a real sense when we left of people looking me in the eye and saying, ‘I look forward to seeing you again. Please come back. We want you to come back.’ There was a real openness that I think media and politics and extremist groups don’t make visible for us. But there’s a real heartbreak down there. There’s real pain. People are making decisions in really compromised situations, but they’re not as fueled by vehemence or ideological opposition as our cosmopolitan outlets make us think they are. There’s a genuine heart and a genuine desire for communion with us. It’s a vibrant culture and a welcoming culture, for all of its complications.”
Anything That Gives Off Light runs from March 14 through March 30 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. For tickets and more information, visit PublicTheater.org.