by MK Lawson and Jessica Bashline
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
(Re)Generation was developed with a faculty fellowship from University of Miami
Jessica Bashline and MK Lawson, the creators of (Re)Generation interview one another to document and archive the process of the piece as well as offer a model for those interested in engaging with an outdoor urban Tour-style performance outside of the traditional tourism environment.
(Re)Generation follows two women and links their lives to the place they inhabit and the ghosts that surround them. One, a single mother living in contemporary NYC; and the other Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President. The First Act follows a playwright, Jessica, as she goes through her morning, walking through the park and trying to find a place to concentrate on preparing to pitch her play to a theatre company. While Jessica doesn’t speak out loud the audience listens to her inner monologue on their own headphones as they follow her through the park. Act One ends with a scene between Jessica and Victoria Woodhull sitting on a park bench having a conversation through time and space. The Second Act brings us back, physically, to where Act One begins—this time we follow Victoria Woodhull through the 30 minutes leading up to her scene on the bench with Jessica. And now the headphones come off. Act 2 happens in real-time with three actors speaking on the streets of New York City. The audience winds up on the same park bench, watching the same scene that ended Act One. The play is an exploration of time and space, reality and illusion, and the very real search for kindred spirits in a world that has become increasingly isolated. (Re)Generation was developed and performed in Washington Square Park in NYC in August of 2021.
MK: Hi- here we are, back on Zoom…
JESS: I know, I hate it!
MK: I figure we can start with me asking you a few questions since the piece originated with you, and then we will move forward from there. Sound good?
JESS: Sounds good.
MK: Ok- tell me where this piece began?
JESS: (Re)Generation started as an amalgam of scripts I had been working on for a few years, originally imagined as traditional theatrical pieces. The first script started six or seven years ago as a monologue: a divorced single mother trying to write a lecture on place as a character in literature; specifically, New York City. Over the years I created scenes for this character that took place throughout her daily life, a convention that I played with a lot in the writing of that work initially was that the audience never saw the people our lead interacted with, her family and friends were always offstage, or just around the corner. The only real people she interacted with were the people she briefly encountered in the city. I was exploring isolation and loneliness in a city of millions. The piece never worked—and I put it away for years. A few years later, I became fascinated with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president in 1872. I began to write about her, because her story is amazing, and played with the idea of intertwining the two stories—as they both seemed to revolve around New York City as a place of reinvention. But I could never find the right story to tell. So—into the dropbox of script pieces these stories went…Until COVID. I went back through my dropbox of script pieces and came across the writing I had about this single, divorced mom trying to figure out her life and career while feeling isolated and alone in a place so full of people; and Victoria Woodhull. I knew I wanted to play with a COVID-safe way of making this piece that allowed humans to connect in real life. I landed on promenade theatre, allowing audiences to follow actors through the city streets. And then I called you!
MK: Yes you did.
JESS: And I think I said—we are going to make theatre that doesn’t live on Zoom—
JESS: And we were obsessed with trying to figure out how to create COVID-safe live performance that wasn’t just theatre outside, that allowed for the way the theatre was made and performed to be a part of the journey of the piece.
MK: I loved the idea you had for creating two very different acts of the play. If I remember right- you came to me right away with the fact that you wanted Act 1 to exist in the character of Jess’ mind—it was her inner voice—and so the audience would be listening to her through their headphones.
JESS: And then Act 2 would be more traditionally theatrical, with actors speaking out loud to a communal audience.
MK: Yeah– that was exciting to me as a way of exploring isolation in two different ways.
JESS: And in the park!
MK: So the first act is about Jess, walking through a contemporary Washington Square Park, and the second about Victoria Woodhull, and takes place in 1872.
JESS: And I really couldn’t conceive of the form this would take until I called you. And the beauty of the fellowship money I received from the University of Miami was that it was for research, about discovering something new. There was no pressure to have 700 people show up at a performance. Which was such a gift.
MK: Right it was. We really did get to say, okay, Well, what might this look like? I remember thinking about how formless it was at the time. How part of the intrigue was we don’t have to know what this is. We could just have seeds of ideas. Especially coming out of the pandemic. I can remember you asking a lot in our first call– What is the experience we want people to have? Rather than, what is the play we want to do?
JESS: Yup- it felt really freeing to ask that question. And that is the question I am focused on a lot now.
MK: The next thing I was gonna ask is about the historical piece: Victoria Woodhull. Because the idea that you had that really captured my attention was this idea that we could be somehow listening to someone’s inside voice. We could get inside of someone, isolated from the world, by their own thoughts in this sense. And that kind of personal experience was really interesting. But then there was this historical piece. Can you talk a little bit about how the historical piece came in, and the importance of that.
JESS: So the original piece was very heavily influenced by New York as a city. It started actually with this 4-page monologue about New York City and the architecture, and how the architecture told stories and spoke to her. And I, as a New Yorker, have always felt incredibly drawn to this idea that people come to my home, the place where I was born, where my family was born. People come to this place and create these huge lives for themselves here. But with that, we also have so many small, regular lives that live here. But you rarely hear about them.
MK: Oh, yes, the juxtaposition.
JESS: Yes- the juxtaposition of those 2 things: of this woman who is just trying to live her life and have a conversation with a human being, and Victoria, who lived an outlandish, amazing life, that she could only have lived in New York. She had to move to New York in order to become this thing that she became.
MK: I was just thinking about all the different conversations we had about how this play was going to work. Once we made the decision of the basic ways we were going to hear Acts 1 and 2.
JESS: It is so fun to go back on a process that I feel so far away from, and also for me, was a process that dated back even longer than that, years before you were involved. My favorite was bringing you a whole bunch of stuff that I’d written that was kind of incoherent and trying to find form. What if we follow her into a coffee shop? And what if things happen? And we plant people? And there are actors everywhere, and every interaction is staged?
MK: Those were grandiose days.
JESS: At one point we talked about her leaving her apartment, and we were going to have conversations coming from the building, but in all kinds of languages; all the conversations that might have ever existed on that one piece of land before, which is really interesting to me. Built in was always this idea of, what is this history?
MK: And how is someone distilling it in her mind? Right? And how do we connect with each other across time? I feel like that’s when time started to become a question in the process. And then there was a moment where we realized that Acts One and Two would happen in a parallel timeline. We would follow the contemporary actor through Act One. And then essentially, the audience would see that Act Two would be that same time Loop.
JESS: That was the one thing that we kept from all that early writing. The scene between Victoria Woodhull and Jess is almost verbatim from an earlier draft.
MK: Yes. That scene of the two of them, meeting across time and space, I think, became the thing we held on to, and it was like, how do we get there?
JESS: I have a question for you. Talking about your dramaturgical and directorial process. Once we figured out the structure: the first act would be me walking through the park with an audience following me with headphones in; people listening to my inner thoughts versus the second act which was a more theatrical structure, what challenges did that present for you? Dramaturgically and Directorially, bringing audiences into those experiences?
MK: I feel like from very early on the biggest challenge in Act One was almost logistical. Because what we had was sort of nothing but permission to try something that we weren’t sure how to do. How do we record this thing? How do we even rehearse this thing? How do we take scripted text and let it become thoughts that we can hear? And in a public park that was being used by the public? No permits or rentals.
Essentially all of the variables that you can control in a theatre. We had none of those at our disposal, aside from being able to design a track that people could listen to. I think some of my favorite memories were scouting locations. I’d never thought about location scouting for the theatre, and that became a thing we got to do. We got to think about what serves our story, what serves this format that we’re creating as we go. And I remember walking around and thinking not only what is functional, but getting to dream a little bit. How might these characters move through this space, and could they have really been here?
How might we be able to invite whatever is going to naturally occur in the creative process without knowing what even that was going to be. Like traffic? I’m having a memory of how to pull traffic into the scene with Victoria Woodhull, and thinking…
What is traffic to them? It can’t exist, but also as actors, they have to pay attention to the fact that they need to be heard over New York City traffic. I feel like we accommodated a bit of that in choosing location. Ultimately.
JESS: People have asked me, if you had to categorize what this is. Would you call it a tour? Would you call it a promenade theatre? And I just don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that—but maybe MK does.
MK: You know. I remember thinking about a conversation we had asking: what could this be? In other places, and with other historical figures. But a theatrical tour doesn’t feel like it quite covers it. Because we were after something very different about human experience. Yes- you were going to cover some ground and learn something. But we wanted it to do the thing that theatre does. Connecting people to a place or another person, or even to an idea. If we lost the construct of time, what does it feel like for me to try to connect back in time?
We were also constantly thinking about the theatricality. Thinking about what we could do in the next incarnation-
Jess: With more money! And time!
MK: Yes. And more members of the team.
JESS: Is there a better word then? Promenade Theater maybe?
MK: Maybe promenade– But in terms of promenade I think, I’m gonna arrive somewhere and a thing is gonna happen then I’ll arrive in a new place. (Re)Generation felt more fluid.
JESS: What was so interesting to me was when we made the decision, and I I don’t even know when we made the decision, whether I did, or you did, or whatever. But at some point we said- Well, clearly the scene with Victoria and Jess will happen twice.
The same scene must happen twice, right? At the end of Act One, and then it has to have it again at the end. What we started talking about was this sort of circular nature? Each of them was trapped in this circle. And so I think I agree with you- promenade feels like it starts in one place and ends somewhere else. So maybe we made something new—a theatrical Dosey-doe!
MK: I also think it’s important to say that we were also talking a lot about patriarchy and hierarchical structures in theatre making. And something about this circular structure also felt right for the way we worked together.
JESS: Making this piece without a typical theatrical hierarchy.
MK: Yeah. Can we just collaborate in a way that is egalitarian? Best idea in the room, or the best idea in the park wins.
JESS: I will say, like as the person who brought in the initial idea, and did most of the writing. I felt so supported by the kind of lack of structure of our structure. We know each other well. So it just felt natural.
JESS: Maybe it’s because I came in with so little you know. I just remember you asking me about a million and a half questions. So what happens here? What happens here like? Why, Why, why, why, Why, why? And what if we do this? And what if we do that? And what if we did this? In the best dramaturgical sense.
But then I felt like once we got a thing that was up on its feet– we didn’t have traditional actor/director/writer structure. There was so much give and take, because there I was- an actor in Act 1. If you can call it acting, walking around Washington Square Park trying to find a park bench to sit on while a group of people with headphones trailed me. And we would have to video my walks- so we could try to time them out to possible recordings of the script. Which meant we got to go back to the tape together, so we could really talk through everything that was happening.
MK: Washington Square Park- no permits. I mean, what sort of ballsiness it took to even attempt such a thing.
JESS: Had we known quite how difficult it would be to make it work- I don’t know if I would have. But I’m glad we did.
MK: I don’t know if you remember. But we did pick up audience numbers along the way- in rehearsals and performance. I want to say how much that means to me, reflecting on this, looking back on it. In talking about a play, the seed of which was about isolation, the fact that we picked up audience makes me remember that our first question was- what do we want people to experience? How do we get people experiencing other humans again? In NYC we are so isolated, I’ve got my headphones on, thinking about a million other things or ways I feel inadequate. Or things I didn’t get done, or groceries I need, or this song that won’t get out of my head, and I could so easily miss everything going on around me.
And to think that what we were after was sort of manifested in the very idea that people were awake enough to go, hey- Something’s happening here that I’m not expecting and I’m going to hop on the party.
JESS: People got the link, put on their headphones and caught up with me. My favorite person who joined us was a lovely man, who was unhoused. He was sitting in our “performance” area, and stayed with us from the dress rehearsal. After the rehearsal he heard us talking about performance and he asked- Do you mind if I stay here and watch? And I was like, first of all, it’s the park, you can do whatever you want. But also absolutely! And he wound up watching the whole thing. But he didn’t have headphones, he was just watching people watch me! Which was fascinating! I will never forget that at the end of the piece, he said, Thank you so much, I see the musicians all the time, but I don’t get to go to the theatre very often.
MK: That’s great. Because again we think of the back to this hierarchy -how restrictive and how much theatre is inaccessible at times. How do we dismantle that a little bit?
This feels like a good place to ask something like what do you feel like you learned, and if you could just do the next incarnation this summer, what would you do differently?
JESS: Well, I’m still really interested in isolation and the idea that place has memory. These are consistent themes for me. I would love to look at this piece again. I’d love to look at it now, not from a place of fear. (Re) Generation was created from a place of fear that we would never get back inside a theatre again. And I wonder about looking at it now, coming from a place of generosity from a place of opening that space-
MK: because it deserves to be opened.
JESS: Yes. What about you?
MK: It makes me think of that Ann Bogart essay. Talking about that distinction between making something from a survival mode versus a gift-giving mode. It feels like you articulated that exactly.
JESS: So, I think we can wrap this up by saying, what did you learn making theatre in Covid?
MK: I have learned that we have become a species that isolates by nature, which is terrible because we are not a species that isolates by nature. We may have made it through an epidemic of COVID, but we’re still suffering from an epidemic of loneliness in a very real way.
JESS: And the live performing arts, music, dance, theatre these are some of the last bastions of community storytelling and tradition that are non-religious. And I think you can look at the rise of religion right now as just people desperately needing connections.
Why can’t we get a rise in the performing arts in the same way?
MK: Right, and being able to have communion with history. I think it’s something again that this piece, if you wanted to call it a theatrical historical tour, you know, whatever name you give it, there’s something about the communion with a historical figure that is an incredibly empowering experience. It’s something you can’t take away from someone, that experience.
JESS: You know what?
JESS: Let’s do it again– another city, another park, another historical figure.
MK: I’m game when you are.
Jessica Bashline is an Assistant Professor of Theater at the University of Miami, where she teaches acting and theater creation. She was the Artistic Director and co-founder of Strange Sun Theater , a theater company in New York City. Jessica is an award-winning playwright, director and actor currently touring her solo piece, Ann and Me: or the Big Bad Abortion Play. She has a BFA in Acting from Boston University and an MFA from Goddard College. www.jessicabashline.com
MK Lawson has been teaching, developing and directing theatre professionally for the past 15 years. She has directed and/or choreographed award-winning productions for Atlantic Theatre Company, Florida Repertory Theatre, and WPPAC among others. She has also developed pieces for the NY International Fringe Festival and the NY Children’s Theatre Festival. An interdisciplinary performing artist at heart, MK is currently the head of Musical Theatre for the Hotchkiss School in Northwest Connecticut. www.mklawson.com