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Setting the Stage for Historical Exploration

Nancy Keystone Shares the Creative Process Behind Critical Mass Performance Group’s 'Ameryka'

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Critical Mass Performance Group's Artistic Director Nancy Keystone.

Photo by Luke Fontana.

Critical Mass Performance Group has produced a range of critically acclaimed historical and experimental epics for Los Angeles audiences for over 30 years.

Their original pieces include Apollo, a trilogy based on relations between the US space program and Nazi rocket scientists, and a movement piece inspired by the life of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, The Akhmatova Project.

Their latest, Ameryka, garnered seven Ovation Award nominations and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nomination for Best Ensemble after a wildly successful run in 2016. Ameryka—a story that travels from the American Revolution to the post-9/11 era—returns to the stage April 19–29, 2018 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Block Party.

As Critical Mass Founding Artistic Director and Executive Director Nancy Keystone explained, the process that produces these works is as sprawling as their subject matter. Unlike other theatre companies, Critical Mass Performance Group initially approaches projects like Ameryka without a script. Instead, the company expands upon an idea—usually generated by Keystone and inspired by an historical event. Then, they sift through piles and piles of research, explained Keystone, that are later translated into movement and dialogue for the stage.

It’s kind of like a seminar in group learning, she said. We do a lot of reading, listen to a lot of music, watch movies, have guest speakers, and take in as much as we can through as many different portals as we can. And then we move into a laboratory situation where we develop the work. The creative process happens organically and collaboratively, with Keystone working closely with actors in script development. [No actor] has a role when we start [developing], Keystone said. We take the research and try to tap into the physical and intuitive. I’ll devise exercises for the actors to try to find some of the information—like different emotional, psychological, or living conditions—through their bodies and imaginations.

It is only after Keystone explores the physical landscape of the piece that she puts text onto the page: Sometimes it’s text that we find from our reading or government documents or poetry, she said. A lot of it is text that I write. We work with the text in the same kind of way. I don’t bring it in in its finished form. We might work on it as a choral piece. We might break it up into a dialogue. We do a lot of editing. From there, the company invites the public to watch works-in-progress, continuing a long collaborative editing process. The end result is a kind of ensemble theatre of the type that has intrigued Keystone since her undergraduate studies at UCLA.

Keystone came up with the idea that became Ameryka after visiting Poland in 2009, where she witnessed the Solidarity trade union win the majority of legislative seats during the country’s 20th anniversary of holding democratic elections. There was an election poster all over [the country], and it had an image of Gary Cooper from the movie High Noon as the Marshal Will Kane, and instead of holding a gun, he was holding an election ballot, Keystone recalled. It was an image from an old American Western on a Polish election poster, and when I looked into it, I was really blown away by connections between Poland and the US, the influence of Western films on Polish culture and thought, and the relationship between our two countries going back to the Revolutionary War.

Keystone unpacks these political connections throughout Ameryka, with an assortment of characters and storylines intersecting through time and space. Though Ameryka largely unfolds in the shadows of the past, Keystone believes the story becomes illuminated by today’s political climate: The play explores acute issues around freedom of the press, the notion of truth versus propaganda, and around democratic institutions, and the health of democracy, she said. Issues of injustice, the legacy of slavery, and the struggle for a better democracy are always current issues.

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