Welcome to the future.
Regina Taylor is celebrating her 20th year as an associate artist at Chicago's Goodman Theater. Her fantastically innovative stop. reset. just closed its run at the Goodman. The production is enlivened by its interactive approach to technology, its extension into an "expanded universe" of community and artist-based collaborations (and you could live Tweet from the balcony), and its integration of these thematics into the substance of the text.
stop. reset. is centered on the character of Alexander Ames VI, an African American book publisher whose business has fallen on hard times. Ames already conducted a round of merger-related layoffs that have left the distinguished company in a precarious position. Recently, the pressure from downward sales have caused his parent company to ask for a sustainable business plan that might turn the company into an unrecognizable shell of its former self.
Driven, but headstrong, Ames is trying to figure out how to save his business--and himself--from extinction. The play opens on the day he needs to downsize again. He's interviewing each member of his lean staff to determine who is obsolete, to find out who simply cannot adapt. His workers are all over 40, excepting the enigmatic J.
J is 19, the janitor, semi-literate and technologically brilliant. Ames and J. discuss the future, of books, memories, and the implications of colossal technological changes: not only how we will adapt to new technology, but also how technology is impacting our notions of racial, sexual, and gender identity.
Here is my conversation with Taylor, who is also a 2011 honorary degree recipient from Lake Forest College, where she and I first met, and a 2014 presenter at the Lake Forest Literary Festival:
Davis: What is being "stopped" and what is being "reset"?
Regina: In the play, the character of J. has the ability to stop and reset his memories. He can go back in time, walk back through and pick up things that might be useful to him in the future.
I like the notion of "time traveling." I can go back in memory to being in the room with my grandmother when I was seven. Remembering her being in the kitchen...cooking breakfast, brewing Folgers coffee, and talking to me. At the time--her words fell on deaf ears--now I remember every breath and murmur.
I recall certain things that I had forgotten. Rummaging through my memory I pick up those pearls of wisdom that, in my youth, were wasted. Looking back, I see the value of her words and how they can, from this present moment, move me forward.
Davis: The play explores the future of publishing through the lens of publishing's deep history. Has the age of independent African American publishing changed? Is there a future for a figure like Ames, mission-drive and skeptical of publishing industry consolidations that might compromise the integrity of his work?
Regina: The publishing industry is changing, across the board, and African Americans have a long history of being adept at adapting.
There is a history of survival stories, in Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Aesop's Fables come from African stories: Anansi stories of fragile beings who will not be victims, who use their intelligence to outwit physically stronger adversaries
Davis: To me, the most-compelling theme of the play is its Afrofuturism. Can you tell me how this came to be a strand in this story?
Regina (here, she copies):
Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.
Regina: In looking at this story of how Alexander Ames VI, an African American publisher of books, fights against extinction in order for his legacy to continue into the future, I was propelled into the realm of Afrofuturism.
Davis: Ames is looking to return to something "real," even within the technological matrix? What about you? How connected are you to your devices? I recently took what is looking to be a permanent Facebook break, and it has come with an unexpected measure of serenity to me.
Regina: I'm not pressed by technology. I use it and there are times when I don't.
Davis: Let's talk about using it. This production uses projection to great effect--on the stage floor that becomes a screen, behind Ames' library shelves that become a screen, on the monitors around the stage sides that show historical and production-related images.
Regina: The projections in the play give us a window into the history and memories that are stuck in J's head. This history keeps playing, like a loop in J's skull.
Davis: I'm taken with the notion of the expanded universe for stop. reset. at www.stopreset.org, which includes collaborations with students, artists and innovators, community members. (You were kind enough to invite me to contribute in the middle group). This seems, on one level, a good way of growing the audience, but can you talk about how the idea for these collaborations emerged? Have you done this before?
Regina: The idea of the collaborations comes from wanting to extend the language of theater to other mediums. I like cross-pollinating my pieces with various artists. It also comes from my deep commitment to Chicago. I believe that theater brings communities together. I like finding ways to connect with everyday Chicagoans, as well as professional and students artist. I especially love giving young people a platform for their voices to be heard.
I have a long history of collaborations.
The last time I did Crowns at the Goodman, I worked with Young Chicago Authors on the role of 17-year-old Yolanda. Working with young women who were near the character's age, these young authors created spoken word speech for Yolanda that was interwoven through the play. It was great to invite these artists to perform at the theater before the show and to then have them see their work in the show.
With Magnolia, my adaptation of Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, I had students create films on their cellphones on the theme of change in Chicago.
The work for stop.reset. can be seen on the stopreset.org site. And we're still adding to the site from the overwhelming response.
Further, it was important to have both live and archived work. The interviews, dinners, and symposia with real Chicagoans talking about how they've dealt with the themes of the play--become a merging of the fictional with the real. It was also important to host events and work with those in underserved communities.
Davis: The piece I did, "Modern Business Machines" (as part of The Muttering Sickness collective) is pure collage, and I was pleased with how open you were to that aesthetic. Do you believe there can ever be too much cut-and-paste?
Regina: I love collage--sampling from memory/history. Piecing together the old in creating something new.
Davis: Speaking of the future, is the future of theater interactive in these ways? Does stop. reset.'s staging gesture toward a "theater of the future"?
Regina: Technology permeates our everyday lives. Theater isn't spared.
At the same time, I think the simplicity of a live actor on stage sharing her story with a community is always thrilling. There's room for both of these, separately and together. With stop.reset. I wanted to combine technology and use it in total support of the individuals on stage. Our humanity with its strengths and frailties is what's lifted.
The storytelling is the thing.
Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the appropriation novel [SIC] and, with The Muttering Sickness, Jeb Bush doing "Uptown Funk."