Apparently, actors need no longer wait until dawn for the reviews to come in. Twenty minutes after the opening of Mission Drift, a new musical developed by New York theater collective the TEAM, at August’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Guardian theater critic Lyn Gardner tweeted her verdict, calling the show “a gorgeous, gaudy parable of capitalism in the desert.” The company exhaled, basking in the last stages of a tortuous journey that stretched back to 2008.
“Three and a half years of work for that one tweet,” said TEAM artistic director Rachel Chavkin last week.
In her review Ms. Gardner elaborated, writing that after two “chaotic and undisciplined” productions, the TEAM had finally fulfilled “all their much-hyped promise.” After glowing notices from other British critics, Mission Drift won the festival’s international prize. But winning abroad is one thing. For this extravaganza about the death throes of American capitalism, Off Broadway success has always been the goal. On Sunday, as part of PS122’s COIL festival, Mission Drift finally came home.
It was never supposed to take this long. While wrapping up its last play, Architecting, in 2008, the TEAM began speculating about an unnamed “American Capitalism Project.” When the economy imploded, it suddenly became timely. Unfortunately, the recession that inspired the play also hamstrung it. Over the next two years, sponsors pulled out, residencies fell through and five company members quit the project, as the planned opening date stretched further and further into the distance.
“This process has been the most painful of the TEAM’s life,” said Ms. Chavkin. “It’s expensive and it’s nervous, because it’s been three years since we last performed in New York. The longer you’ve been out of New York, the more weight and pressure there is on your return.”
With an inspired flurry of ninja casting in 2009, Ms. Chavkin saved the project from total collapse. She arranged a one-month stay in Las Vegas, where the company toured various sites—an unfinished subdivision, a colossal pig farm and the Atomic Testing Museum—in search of inspiration. When a lack of funding forced the TEAM to cancel its planned 2010 appearance in Edinburgh, she arranged a workshop at New York’s Ice Factory and a residency on Governors Island. When scheduling conflicts made a 2011 premiere at PS122 impossible, she debuted the show in Lisbon instead.
“Rachel was disappointed by the obstacles,” said documentarian Paulette Douglas, who has followed the TEAM since 2009, “but I’ve rarely met anybody that optimistic.”
More than the recession, the company was dogged by absolute devotion to its collaborative process. A devised work, Mission Drift has no single playwright. Instead, it evolved over time, through improvisations and group writing sessions. Over the years, characters, story lines and songs were created and discarded, and a final script was painstakingly assembled from what stuck. Over 60 unused musical numbers, and enough material for 20 full-length plays, were left in the scrap heap.
“At times it’s like hacking off limbs,” said actor Libby King, who called the process a “nightmarish give-and-take.”
The TEAM finally settled on the story of Joris and Catalina, a pair of real-life Dutch settlers. In the TEAM’s telling, the teenagers do not age after they leave New Amsterdam for the frontier. Instead, the play spans centuries, as the Dutch teens become capitalist gods whose empire finally crumbles in the Las Vegas desert. For Ms. Chavkin, the story is a way of shattering the American myth of endless Westward expansionism, which she finds both “deeply satisfying” and “deeply sad.”
As a setting for the capitalist apocalypse, one could not do better than Vegas: the nation’s fastest growing city at the turn of the millennium, reduced to foreclosed-upon ashes just eight years later.
Danielle Kelly is the director of Las Vegas’s Neon Museum, an open-air exhibition of discarded neon marquees that she described as “like a Roman ruin, but with signs.” After giving the TEAM a tour during the Las Vegas residency, she and Ms. Chavkin became friends.
“It was so great that they chose Las Vegas to investigate these ideas,” said Ms. Kelly. “And they did so in a way that was respectful of the city. Vegas is us, whether you like it or not.”
With afternoons spent in rehearsal space on loan from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas served as Mission Drift’s crucible. After mornings touring the city, Ms. Chavkin and her actors hammered out the play’s characters and story, in a process that more than one of them described as “grueling.” For founding member Brian Hastert, who plays Joris, this method is electrifying when everything is up in the air, but “alienating” when it comes time to throw out ideas.
“Suddenly you feel like you’re working on a different play,” he said. “You can put your head down and abandon any sense of ego, or you can be belligerently stubborn about what you think is exciting. This can be done with or without malice. We’ve all tried it both ways.”
The TEAM smoothed out the story until finally, Mr. Hastert said, it had something it had never had before: “a linear story that progresses through time and space like an arrow, as opposed to a spastic laser pointer that a cat is chasing around.” The chaos and lack of discipline that Lyn Gardner saw in the past plays Architecting and Particularly in the Heartland were gone.
Mr. Hastert called Mission Drift the TEAM’s “most polished show,” and credited this new maturity to an improved “accuracy of our bullshit detectors.”
It could also be that musical theater is a natural fit for the TEAM’s madcap energy. This is its first musical, and the first for composer Heather Christian, who is just now able to “look people in the face and say, ‘I’m a composer,’ without smirking.” A singer/songwriter from Mississippi, her father was a blues musician and her mother a classical pianist. Looking for a sound that was both “emotionally potent and shake-your-booty fun,” Ms. Christian settled on gospel. Joris and Catalina don’t sing their dialogue, said Mr. Hastert. Instead, “the earth itself opens up and the sound comes out.” No matter how spastic the plot, the score keeps Mission Drift grounded.
“I live and breathe the TEAM,” said Ms. Chavkin. “At the darkest moments in this process, I would listen to Heather’s music and think about the characters and elements of American history that we were toying with, and I had this feeling that there is something special and new that we are making with this work.”
Once the play’s New York run ends on Feb. 4, the TEAM plans to take it to London, for a high-profile engagement in 2013. In the meantime, Ms. Chavkin has four new projects on the burner. Although he plans to take time off to pursue better-paid work, Mr. Hastert will never quit the company.
“The fact that the process took two years longer than I expected it to was wrenching at times,” he said. “We sacrificed and said no to things because of a schedule that ended up crumbling. But the whole time it felt like, ‘This is important, I just need to be here for this.’ I feel now that we’ve arrived here that we’ve made the right choice.”