Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A History of the Project

Hominid started out as a commission from The Playwriting Center at Emory to develop a play based on the research of Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading behavioral scientists, who’s also at Emory. The commission was attached to the Evolution Revolution conference last year, so we got to attend the conference and hear a bunch of incredibly interesting scientists, including de Waal, talk about evolution as it relates to their fields.

De Waal is both in the Psychology Department and the head of the Living Links center at Yerkes, the primate research center at Emory. He studies our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, to shed light on the human ape. Ken and Adam and I read a handful of his books (he’s also a bestselling author), interviewed his team, hung out with the chimps, and filled ourselves with de Waal’s ideas. We got interested in the traits we share with other great apes: the need for hierarchy to maintain order, undeniable differences between genders, the power of coalitions, how we reconcile, celebrate and mourn. We knew what content we wanted to include, but we needed a structure, a story, a way to put it together. We workshopped ideas with a group of students and our ensemble, and came up with a number of exciting scenarios and ideas, but still no glue to hold them together. We searched and searched and tried and failed, and then we found it.

The story was staring us in the face. We went back to de Waal’s very first book, Chimpanzee Politics, and realized that the story de Waal captures there, a true story, was far better than any story we could ever invent. It has everything, and if it were made up, people would say it was too far-fetched, but real life is stranger than fiction.

We developed Hominid as part of Emory’s Brave New Works program last winter, again with a mix of students and professionals from our ensemble. I came in each day with a new set of assignments for the group, each assignment a set of parameters for the group to figure out how to stage a segment of the story. I would give them an assignment, and then I’d leave the rehearsal room and let them work without me for a while. When they were ready, I’d come back and watch what they’d done. Later we’d show these segments to Ken, who recorded them and turned them into the script. Then Ken and Adam and I would get together late at night and talk about what worked, what was still missing, where to go next. At the end of three weeks, we showed what we had so far to the public and to Frans, and got feedback. Then Ken and I continued to work on the script over the summer, and Ken introduced the idea of a grad student assistant for the scientist, and fleshed out the scientist character.

This is a slightly new way of collaborating for me. I’ve developed a number of plays with Out Of Hand, our ensemble is very good at making work together, and we’ve worked with playwrights and students many times before. But this process is a new step for us in how an ensemble can work with a playwright and a scientist to develop new work.

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