Connecting Threads: Thoughts on Artistic Collaboration and Creation

I could feel a draft moving through Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center’s rehearsal hall that snowy January afternoon. The artistic directors from Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Forward Theater Company leaned back in their folding chairs. “Whenever you are ready,” someone said.

I took a deep breath and looked at the other actor to let him know he could start the scene, reminding myself to project, to plant my feet. Move with intention, I thought. Act on the lines, not in between them. Listen.

I had auditioned for lots of plays before—in college and graduate school, through community theater and professional work—but this was different.

After we finished up, our audience of two applauded. The actor thanked everyone and left, closing the rehearsal room door behind him while the two directors, Michael Wright and Jennifer Uphoff Gray, studied his headshot and looked at his audition form for any rehearsal conflicts.

They looked up at me, and Jennifer said, “Well, Gwen, what did you think?”

This reading was different because I wasn’t up for a part; I was reading opposite six non-Equity actors vying for a role in a play I wrote, a play that would be performed in Madison and Milwaukee almost a year later. I gave Michael and Jennifer my thoughts on the actor’s performance, his physicality, his voice. Then it was time for the next auditioner to read with me. One more voice would be added to this conversation in art.

I call this project a “conversation,” even though playwriting is (as you might imagine) a solitary process. Sitting alone at a computer, typing late into the night, the endless transcription of dialogue between characters who live and speak only in your mind—elements of an exercise in introspection. Which is somewhat ironic, since art is meant to be shared with readers, with audiences, with other artists. Ideally, that act of sharing an original work sets off a chain reaction: images, words, shapes, and sounds elicit an emotional response, inspire another person to respond, reflect, and perhaps create. Through these interactions, art moves forward in and across different media, shaped by the insights added by each individual.

This is a story of a conversation in art—a collaboration across decades and thousands of miles. It is the story of the threads that connect quilters in Alabama to photographers in Cuba, politicians in Washington DC, writers in Florida, and actors in Wisconsin. It’s the story of a play I wrote and its journey to the stage. It’s the story of A Thousand Words.

 

Meeting Walker Evans

When I read the newspaper article, I was intrigued by the story. But, I was captivated by the images.

Long-hidden prints reveal the friendship between Walker Evans and Ernest Hemingway

KEY WEST—In the spring of 1933, Ernest Hemingway had escaped the Great Depression on a borrowed boat to Cuba, where he fished, drank and gathered material for his next novel, To Have and Have Not. With him for three weeks in the bars and bistros was a young Walker Evans, who would soon become known as one of the great American photographers of the 20th century.
But for decades, the tale of their friendship and influence on each other's work remained hidden in a storage room of a Key West bar. In boxes and crates, Benjamin “Dink” Bruce discovered 46 original photographs taken by Evans in Havana in 1933. …
Bruce, the son of Hemingway associate Toby Bruce, discovered the photographs in boxes of artifacts his family recovered from a storage room at Sloppy Joe’s, a favorite Hemingway watering hole. …  Among the items—which included animal heads [sic] that Hemingway had hunted, fishing gear, and handwritten letters—Bruce took special note of the striking black-and-white photos of Cuba. …
Coralie Carlson, April 11, 2004

I remember this moment very clearly: I was eating lunch at my desk, taking a break from my job writing marketing copy, with the newspaper spread over my keyboard. I set my sandwich down and typed Evans’s name into an online search engine. The photos I found took my breath away.

Like a lot of people, I had seen these photos before, but I hadn’t associated a name with them. Along with Dorothea Lange, and other artists working with the Farm Security Administration and later the Works Progress Administration, Evans created stark, arresting images of Dust Bowl families that awakened the country to the plight of the rural poor. I clicked on one webpage after another, looking for more images and more information about Evans and his work. I learned that he was credited with pioneering a naturalistic photographic style, documenting the world around him instead of manipulating it. He was considered a master of black and white, and was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

More intriguing details emerged as I read through online biographies and art history commentaries on his work. Evans’s father had been in advertising before he abandoned the family, which may have led to the photographer’s bitter fascination with damaged billboards and corrupted marketing messages. He also loved urban scenes and manmade landscapes. Trying to catch people in unguarded moments, Evans hid a camera in his coat and took pictures of people riding the subway in New York.

Looking at the people in these frames, I was enthralled. Intrigued. Embarrassed to be staring so long at dirty faces marked with poverty, or simply caught off guard. It became clear to me that Evans saw the world in a way that no other photographer had before him. And he captured that world on film. I wanted to talk to him. To know him. Get inside his head. See things through his eyes. My conversation with Walker Evans began with one image of sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama. The photo had spoken to me. Now I had something to say in response. After finishing my lunch I announced to my coworkers that I would write a play about Walker Evans someday.

 

The Deadline
In the summer of 2007 Wisconsin Wrights announced it was looking for full-length plays from Wisconsin writers for its New Play Development Project competition. Created in Fall 2006 through a partnership between the UW–Madison Division of Continuing Studies in Theatre, the UW–Madison University Theatre/Department of Theatre and Drama, the Madison Repertory Theatre, and Edenfred/Terry Family Foundation, Wisconsin Wrights fosters the development of new works by Wisconsin playwrights. Prize awards for their New Play Development Project competition included a workshop, public reading, and a week’s stay at an artist’s retreat. It was an incredible opportunity to work with enormously talented theater professionals with one goal in mind: exploring and improving a new script. I knew I had to enter. I had three months to write … something.

With a deadline looming, I read through the notes I’d gathered on an “inspiration list” I keep in a special notebook by my bed. There was the story about a woman who’d gotten lost for 35 years in a remote province of China by simply getting on the wrong bus. There was the glimmer of a plot about P.T. Barnum’s stuffed mermaid. And there was the collection of Evans photos found in that bar in Key West, a story I loved, but couldn’t find a way into. I sighed and went for a long walk. When I got back to my computer, I started writing a scene about a writer and a photographer—an imaginary woman named Shirley Hughes and the famed artist Walker Evans—pursuing a project and trying to find a common language somewhere between prose and photography.

The struggle to balance words and pictures was a familiar one to me. At the time, I was a marketing copywriter for a large company, and I loved collaborating with the graphic designers in my department. But the verbal-to-visual ratio of our work was stunningly disproportionate. Writers were outnumbered by designers ten to one, and in the fight for real estate on catalog pages and emails, graphics always won out.  I was often asked to compose headlines of three words or less that included either the word “new” or “free.” These projects were directed by a shrewd marketing team, and after attending hundreds of creative review sessions, I began to understand their methods, the peculiar language they spoke, and the science of visual and verbal manipulation for financial gain.

Sitting in these meetings and scribbling notes about future scenes in the play, I thought about what I was learning about Walker Evans: his resentment toward 1930s advertising posters that used beautiful photography to sell a product; his reluctance to take posed pictures for the Farm Security Administration in rural Alabama to show how well government aid programs were working; his reluctance to cater to a mass-market publisher or consumer; and his insistence on satisfying his own creative vision.

As I looked for another element to pair with the Walker Evans story in my play, I thought about the disconnect between artists and marketers. This seemed to reflect the chasm often found between outsider artists and the art establishment, these unknown yet talented artists and the dealers who discover them. I thought again about the story that had initially led me to Evans, of a chance discovery of photos in the belongings of a literary legend, and how that back-story had made the art all that much more interesting.

This thought brought to mind a news program I’d seen years earlier on the quilters of Gee’s Bend. It was a piece about the stoic, disenfranchised women of Gee’s Bend who created amazing quilts, and their unexpected entrance into the world of serious art. A new thread was weaving its way through my conversation in art.

Created by a group of African American women from one of the poorest communities in Alabama, the Gee’s Bend quilts were utterly unlike anything I had seen before. Former New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in 2002 that the “eye-poppingly gorgeous” Gee’s Bend quilts were “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” “Imagine Matisse and Klee … arising not from rarefied Europe,” gushed Kimmelman, “but from the caramel soil of the rural South.”

As a quilter, I am fascinated with the unusual fabrics, and techniques employed in the Gee’s Bend quilts. While modern quilters generally follow established patterns, painstakingly recreating blocks with high quality cotton fabrics, the quilts of Gee’s Bend are asymmetrical, improvisational, made from any fabric that was available, including old clothes and blue jeans.

But there is more to the story than just beautiful quilting. Through racism, geography, and a legacy of poverty, the women of Gee’s Bend had been virtually cut off from the outside world for decades. Photos of the quilters’ homes were startling: primitive wooden shacks, many of which did not have electricity, phones, or indoor plumbing until the 1970s. The Gee’s Bend quilters managed to gain acclaim not only for their aesthetic achievements, but also for their humble beginnings.

When the frenzy around the quilts was at its peak, a TV reporter profiled the group of these deeply religious African American women. Largely uneducated and living near the poverty line, these women took a bus from Alabama to New York to see their work exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. They were met at the museum by William Arnett, the wealthy and influential art dealer who had purchased many of the pieces and introduced the quilts to the rest of the world. As I listened to the interview with Arnett, it was hard for me not to assume that he was exploiting these women in the most patronizing way, especially when I later saw the quilt designs licensed to national retailers chains like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn. I wondered who was really profiting from the quilters’ success, and what made the items so attractive to trendy, upper middle-class consumers.

I decided that two new characters in the play would have this conversation about the value of art, the stories behind the works, and the business of making art profitable. This complementary storyline would center on Sally, a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was travelling to a tiny, remote town in western Kansas, to put together an exhibition of unusual and historic folk art quilts. A cynical local woman, a graphic designer named Andrea, would be appointed by the quilters to negotiate a deal with the museum, putting the two characters immediately at odds. To tie both of the stories together, the young woman would have a connection to Walker Evans—she would claim to be a long-lost relative. I was excited at the prospect of adding these new voices to the conversation, but had yet to find a way to tie it all together. And the clock was ticking on the contest deadline.

 

The First Draft
I finished the play—a story mixing real and imaginary people and events —with two weeks to spare before the contest deadline. I consciously eschewed a Walker Evans biography by compressing timelines, rearranging events, and inventing characters to serve the dramatic arc of the play. Far from a documentary, the play was more of a “what if” story: What if Walker Evans had been sent to Kansas in the late 1930s with a nervous young writer named Shirley Hughes? What if there was a dispute about the ownership of the Evans photos found in the present, between the bar owner, a curator from a world famous museum, and a woman who claimed to be a long-lost Evans relative? What if the same museum was working with rural quilters who, unlike the quilters of Gee’s Bend, resisted being discovered?

I made dinner for a dozen of my closest friends, and invited them all over to my house to read the final script out loud. After a few more edits, I printed out the final script and sent it in.

Five months later, A Thousand Words was chosen as a finalist in the Wisconsin Wrights contest and had a staged reading at UW–Madison’s Vilas Hall. A group of actors rehearsed the play with a director for a week while I observed, usually curled up on a couch with a pen in my hand. We talked about the characters, themes that were underdeveloped, and the scenes that seemed incomplete. I did rewrites. As the audience filed out of the theater at the end of the performance, I stood near the stage still taking it all in. A young woman in a t-shirt and jeans approached me and extended her hand. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Jen Uphoff Gray. I’m a director. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your play.” And I remember thinking, Well, that’s nice, as I thanked her for coming, expecting never to see her again.

 

The Conversation Continues
Later that summer Milwaukee Chamber Theatre selected A Thousand Words for another reading, as part of the company’s Montgomery Davis Play Development Series.

I started working on more script revisions immediately. Months later, with a fully edited script in one hand and a decaf caramel macchiato in the other, I sat in an overstuffed chair at Starbucks, waiting to meet with the director for my reading.

The door opened, letting a rush of cold November air into the cozy café foyer. I looked up to see Jennifer Uphoff Gray once again extending her hand to me, a copy of the play under her arm. We talked about A Thousand Words, about the reading with Wisconsin Wrights, and about how our lives and careers had brought us to Madison. Jennifer had been directing in New York on and off-Broadway for a decade before returning to Wisconsin to give her three children a more “Midwestern” childhood, near their grandparents. We were both looking forward to becoming more engaged with the theater scene in Madison and Milwaukee with this project.

The next time we met, it was at her kitchen table. She had checked out more than a dozen books about Walker Evans from the library and seemed to have read them all. Jennifer asked more questions about the characters’ relationships with one another, about my preferences for casting, and about my goals for the second reading—what I wanted to hear, and what I was trying to fix. Jennifer also asked if I’d picked out a name for the baby yet; I was six months pregnant with my son Charlie.

When the day of the reading arrived in March 2009, Charlie had not. Forbidden by my doctor from traveling to Milwaukee, I paced—well, waddled—back and forth across my tiny living room all evening. When Jennifer finally called from the car on her way home that night, she said the performance went great and they had such a large audience, the MCT staff had to scramble to bring more chairs into the room. I went to bed ecstatic. I woke up the next day still very pregnant, and very disappointed that my conversation in art—with Jennifer, the actors, and the audience—was over.

 

Moving Forward
A couple of weeks after Charlie was born, I received a call from Jennifer. She said she wanted to drop off a baby gift and then asked me to join the advisory committee of Forward Theater Company (FTC), a new professional theater she was working to create along with a group of actors and designers dedicated to the arts in southern Wisconsin. I protested that, sleep deprived and unable to leave my newborn long enough to shower, I would be of little use to the new venture. Jennifer waved away my concern, invited me to the next meeting, and said she’d been talking to her new colleagues at FTC about someday mounting a production of A Thousand Words.

That was enough to get me to the meeting. Almost immediately afterward, I became part of the company.

FTC had three goals in its first year, 2009: present extraordinary productions of outstanding plays, find an audience, and raise money. Not an easy task, considering America was in the midst of an economic downturn. The well-respected Madison Repertory Theatre had officially closed its doors just a few weeks earlier, in part due to a dramatic drop in support from individuals, foundations, and businesses.

Arranging winning seasons would be crucial to our success, as would collaboration with other, more established arts organizations. To explore possibilities for partnerships, Jennifer had lunch with every arts professional in southern Wisconsin who would take a meeting. When she met with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT) artistic director Michael Wright to discuss partnering on a production, they both thought of A Thousand Words.

Gray later recounted, “It seemed like an ideal choice, due to the companies’ shared history with the piece, and our mutual interest in promoting new work of Wisconsin writers.”

FTC and MCT agreed to partner on productions in both the 2011–12 and the 2012–13 seasons, starting with A Thousand Words. Each company would originate a play, then move the entire production to the other city for a three-week run. This arrangement is not only financially beneficial for the companies, it gives Wisconsin actors and theater technicians the opportunity to have their work showcased in two major markets, and employs them for nearly three months instead of six weeks.

It remains to be seen how the conversation in art is affected by the change in venue; how the two different communities interact with the play, how the production changes in a new place, and how the actors’ performances evolve. Wright explains that from his perspective, “the most exciting benefit of a collaboration of this nature is the ability to ‘expand the pool.’ This can, and should, include a vast array of contributors to the project: artists, educators, donors, patrons, volunteers, as well as media support. When it comes to increasing our outreach into the community, we feel the more, the merrier. The sharing of production costs and personnel is also a real plus, especially during these difficult economic times. Producing a new play can often be a risky venture, but sharing the financial burden allows for a few more risks.”

 

Expanding the Conversation
When A Thousand Words was officially added to FTC’s third season (2011–2012), the staff began to think about ways to engage additional audiences and artists through visual art. To Jennifer, the project was “all about collaboration and being inspired to create something new.” She said that especially because “the genesis of this play is a set of photographs—evocative, compelling photos—and quilts are explicitly discussed in the play, it seems natural to involve artisans in those media.”

So that’s what we did.

For more than a year prior to the play’s debut, FTC worked to assemble several mixed media exhibits directly inspired either by the work of Walker Evans, or by the play A Thousand Words. They have been on display throughout Madison since October.

When I took a step back in Overture Center’s Gallery II to survey the photos, quilts, and fiber art pieces hung there as part of the play’s production, I was stunned to see all the ways that artists in other media had interpreted the images that had led me to write the play. I was also incredibly happy that I could begin a new conversation in art with each of them.

And so the discussion continues. The Wisconsin Historical Society will host two lectures complementing themes in the play, discussing antique and modern quilts. The production’s dramaturg [Editor’s note: This is a literary editor and researcher who works with the writer and director.] and assistant director will engage audiences in pre-show lectures an hour before each Thursday and Sunday performance. And at the conclusion of each performance, the FTC artistic staff will host a talkback to discuss reactions to the play, and answer any questions attendees might have. This will be a great opportunity to continue discussions of issues raised in the play—which is not a privilege usually afforded to a writer.

I hope that the play will encourage artists and audiences alike to think about the nature of authenticity, the process of creating art, and the power of words and images to change the world. I know the photographs of Walker Evans certainly changed mine.

 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas