Temperatures in London are soaring into the nineties the day I visit rehearsals for Anything That Gives Off Light. Windows are open in the rehearsal rooms, but the electric fans are doing little more than move the stifling air from one place to another.
The actors are rehearsing a play about a Scottish road trip in conditions which feel more suited to the Amazonian jungle.
But it would take more than this to stop the TEAM, the Brooklyn-based theatre company which has been bringing ground-breaking work to the Fringe since 2005, and is now engaged in making a Scottish-American collaboration for Edinburgh International Festival. Anything That Gives Off Light is a play-with-songs about two Scots and an American on a Highland road trip. Or it “uses the Scottish Enlightenment as a lens through which to examine the contrasting and overlapping national myths of Scotland and America”. Or it could be both – it all depends on how you look at it.
But first, some background. The TEAM first appeared in Edinburgh 11 years ago, a wet-behind-the-ears young company with an interest in taking apart American history and mythology in a contemporary context (the name was originally an acronym, Theatre of the Emerging American Moment, though now they prefer simply to be known as The TEAM). They were getting small audiences for Give Up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope) and artistic director Rachel Chavkin had already headed back to the US for another job, when the show won a Fringe First, and everything changed. The following year they were back, winning a second Fringe First for Particularly in the Heartland at the Traverse.
That year, Chavkin met Davey Anderson, then assistant director on Black Watch; Brian Ferguson, the Black Watch lead, and Sandy Grierson, who was at that point acting in Vanishing Point’s Subway. A collaboration with Anderson and the fledgling NTS was mooted, and became Architecting, bringing them back to the Fringe in 2008. The TEAM’s star continued to rise in acclaim and profile – more recently they have created Mission Drift for the National Theatre in London and RoosevElvis at the Royal Court.
But there was still appetite for a further Scottish collaboration; a play which would be made with Scottish and American actors, with Anderson as associate director and NTS as co-producers, which would take the TEAM’s approach to myth-making and apply it to both countries. There was also a conversation in a pub, where Chavkin, Grierson and others ended up discussing how classic American movies might end if they were made in Scotland.
“We said if The Karate Kid was made in Scotland, it would end when Daniel breaks his leg (instead of mastering his injury and going on to win the tournament). It’s the American narrative of the underdog snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and the Scottish narrative of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. These are generalisations, of course, but there are are so many ties historically between Scotland and America, it’s funny that we have these two antithetical stories we tell about ourselves.”
All this is under the surface in the stifling London rehearsal space where Jessica Almasy, a founding member of the TEAM, plays Red, an American woman travelling in Scotland who finds herself on a road trip with two Scots (Ferguson and Grierson). It’s a journey of discovery for all three of them, a foot-tapping musical journey with new songs written by New York husband and wife folksters, The Bengsons.
Watching the nuts and bolts of the play come together in the rehearsal room is a special insight into the TEAM’s theatre-making process. The script is created collaboratively, with all the actors and directors credited as writers. Every member of the company writes their own version of each scene, and these are then compared and edited. Then there is improvisation which is recorded, transcribed and fed back into the process. There is a lot of discussion – at one point, I leave the group discussing the healthcare crisis in both countries, and return half an hour later to find the discussion still going on.
Rachel Chavkin says the process is crucial to how the TEAM works. “It’s inefficient, but now when I talk about the TEAM I celebrate how inefficient we are. I call us aggressively inefficient, because I think it’s important to resist efficiency in the artistic process. In the democratic consensus-driven writing process, I think there is space for a multiplicity of ideas, and I know that there is a kind of ambition that a group produces which can be hard for a solo artist to do.”
And then, like the iceberg which exists largely below the waterline, there is a wealth of research behind the text. In this case, there is David Hume and Adam Smith, Walter Scott and the romanticisation of Highland culture, the ideas given life by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers which find expression in the fledgling politics of the USA. But none of this must be allowed to weigh down the drama. Davey Anderson says: “First and foremost, we are interested in drama and theatricality and playful, musical, visual fun, rather than having a piece which makes big abstract arguments or looks at history in a very dry academic way. But hopefully those ideas make their way into small moments, so that each of those moments is infused with the history of the research we’ve done.
“The TEAM looks at how America’s past affects America’s present and there are myriad different ways to look at that, but if you look at America, you really have to look at the tributaries to that river. A very significant tributary is Scotland in the late 18th century, both in terms of the people who moved and the ideas that moved from one place to another. And from the other side, Scottish history and mythology is completely connected to people leaving this very small nation, going to this much bigger place.”
They also went on a road trip of their own, visiting communities in the Appalachian Mountains, Red’s homeland. It was an eye-opener, Chavkin says: “We talked with labour organisers who had been working in the coal industry there, because this is the heart of our collapsed coal industry. We talked with Marxists, and we talked with major Trump supporters, and it was really wild how those two sit alongside each other in that particular region of the country.”
In the three years since they began work on the play, there have been seismic shifts in the political landscape of both countries, with outcomes no one predicted (the Brexit vote, Donald Trump as a presidential candidate).
Anderson says: “We’re in a moment of such political uncertainty and flux and change, both in America and in Europe, it feels like it’s given the piece more urgency. I think it’s useful for each of the two countries to look in a distorting mirror and see the reflection. It’s one thing to look at one place at a time and say ‘What is the current state of our nation?’ But to try and look at two places, the friction between them helps you get a better look at it.”
l Anything That Gives Off Light is at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, 16-26 August, times vary