This conversation between Savannah Reich and myself actually begins in 2010. This conversation begins because of something that happened in a room behind a record store called Static Age in Asheville, North Carolina. It was a one act play titled Fanciness VS. The Void. And I was lucky enough to see it.
The story was set on a boat on the Ocean, a boat forever adrift with its little cast of characters. The whole scene was completely vast and that is what I remember even though I know it actually happened in a darkened room behind a vinyl record store, it felt completely vast.
In December of 2015 I have the fortune to witness Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In Junior High School . Savannah Reich, Lauren Anderson, and Jon Mac Cole, brought this storytelling adventure through a cold city of St. Louis and we remain grateful.
The show happened in Pete McAvity’s dinning room and it is a permanent memory for me, maybe for all of us who were there. Ten to fifteen people arrive to share an evening of story telling and story making. It was a night of genuine experience. The show holds something of value and what that is exactly is what I feel curious to explore.
I can tell you a few of the things we did: we read from mini-scripts, heard the sad tale of
two sardines who broke up right next to each other in the can. We mourned the loss of a man’s dreams and listened to the woes his enemies gave him. We sang Bohemian Rhapsody and it wasn’t really ironic. We thought about where we belonged in the world and we ate food.
We became a community of witnesses to this event. We invested our trust and something special happened. We were entertained. We laughed. We sang. We vented. We socialized, we were fed. There was a sense of something being completed. I know I won’t forget it. I learned something and I can’t exactly explain it, but I know I’ll think of it again and again.
With years of experience in making collaborative projects and terrific theater happen already behind her, Savannah Reich earned her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015.
I love the words Savannah uses to talk about the over-lapping subjects of making art and ritual, of writing scripts and finding stories, of taking the steps to make these gems happen in real time. This conversation is pure fuel.
ENJOY . . .
Michelle Embree: When did you start making things? How old were you and what were you doing? What got your attention first?
Savannah Reich: I know that I wrote a play when I was in second grade. I recently found some pieces of it in a box at my parents house, and a lot of it is in purple marker in my dad’s handwriting, so I definitely had some help. It was about orphans at an orphanage that is secretly run by witches who are turning orphans into chickens and eating them. I think I had seen the movie The Witches based on the Roald Dahl book. Similar idea. I don’t actually remember this but apparently the second grade class performed the play.
I wrote plays in high school, and in college, and then when I dropped out of college and was running around and going to punk shows, I wrote plays about that. I remember having periods of being like “I’m not going to do this any more because it is too hard/ too uncool/ too whatever” but those periods only lasted like six months and then I would go back to it.
Michelle: Tell me what you like about it best, why do you think you keep going back to theater?
Savannah: I have thought about this a lot recently because I’ve been doing some screenwriting, and I’m shocked by how different of a form it is.
Film and television is this totally different world from theater. Something I’ve been saying about it is that film feels story based to me. Like the basic unit of it is story, and the form of delivering the story is very important, but the basic relationship is that the film is telling the audience a story. And we love that, we need that.
Theater feels like something else to me. It contains story, but story isn’t the most important part of what it is. It’s more like ritual. It’s fulfilling the weird, specific human need to be together in a room in a group, watching this ritual that stands for our experience.
I don’t know why humans need that. I feel like I need it more than most. I need to do it all the time. If there was a religion where everyone in the congregation got to take a turn making up the service and leading everyone else through it, I think that would be a really good religion.
Michelle: I get the ritual and I get needing it. Bearing witness to one another. Just writing those few words feels emotional. I relate to the sense that I need it more than most– I relate to those words. We sit in the dark with one another’s heartbeats and something happens. I would love that church! So, let’s talk about Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In Junior High— how did you approach the writing, where did you start?
Savannah: Yeah! ‘Toby Johnson’ was written with those ideas really directly in mind, of course. It was inspired by a couple of things- 1, a play I love by Young Jean Lee called Church, and 2, a play by the Medium Company in Philly called Nobody’s Home. Morgan Andrews and Mason Rosenthal made this play where they went into different people’s bedrooms, and when they came to Pittsburgh they did the play in my bedroom.
There were about twelve to fifteen people there, and they all sat on the floor in my bedroom, and Mason sat on my bed and did this very strange, intimate, sad play. And I was so excited by that quality of “bearing witness” to each other- I love that phrase!- and that they could make something that was very funny and odd while having that kind of gentleness.
Church has the form of a church service, but the content is all jumbled. Partly nonsense and partly horrifying and funny and, although I haven’t seen it, I think it would be partly inspiring anyways. It seems like it would re-create the experience of going to church, how going to church feels to her.
So I started writing ‘Toby Johnson’ to re-create what a Passover Seder feels like to me. That includes feeling like Judaism is important to me, but also sort of foreign. I personally feel like Passover is all about the idea of being in a group, of belonging to a group, in this case, The Jews. And the Jews are only one of many groups that I belong to but also have mixed feelings of alienation / loyalty / resentment about.
Michelle: Right! You start ‘Toby Johnson’ by asking us to think about our groups. It is so effective, too. The whole piece is effective. When you did the show in St. Louis, I had never met half the people there and the other half went far back in my life but afterward, after we sang a Queen song together, after we made all these intentional acts of solidarity, I felt real love for the people I shared it with. I continue to feel it.
It is so exciting to hear you talk about these very interesting plays and the intimacy– that word– I was struck by the fact that sharing the actions we shared at ‘Toby Johhnson’ transcended any opinions or experiences that any of us may have had, the ideas we might hold are less important than the shared experience. What were some of your experiences with the show that stand out to you?
Savannah: I actually think about the St. Louis show a lot! There was that guy that told that very long, intimate story about his evolving politics right after dinner. I don’t want to share it because it isn’t my story, but it was so amazing, and I was thinking that I literally do not know this person’s name, but it feels very natural for us all to be sitting around and hearing about this personal / emotional experience he had, because we had committed to each other as a group.
We did the show a lot of times, I don’t remember the exact number- around twenty? So there were a lot of different groups and they all had different feelings to them. Some groups, you could tell they were not wanting to have this experience right now. Which is fine! The play asked a lot of people. There was one group where they were all really close friends, and two of the couples in the friend group had just broken up, and some people were going to have to move away, and everyone was feeling kind of raw and traumatized. So that group told me afterwards that the show was a little too appropriate to the situation. We all got really drunk that night.
In Asheville we all sang Christmas carols together after the show. In Detroit we did a show on Thanksgiving for six people. In Philly we had someone who only spoke French, and sometimes people would translate for her, and sometimes she would just sit and watch what was happening and smile even though she didn’t know the words. After that show a whole bunch of people crowded around her and started talking in French, and there ended up being a whole group conversation of people who had taken French in high school. We had a dance party after that night too. There were so many things that happened after that show that felt so funny and intimate, like we had known the people for a very long time, and I think it was because we had just done this thing together.
Michelle: When you wrote ‘Toby Johnson’, or when you write in general, how does the script work go? Do you incorporate what the players/actors you work with are putting forward? How do you work as a group?
Savannah: Usually I like to come into rehearsal with a draft that feels like I have pushed it as far as I can on my own, but of course that doesn’t always happen. It always changes a lot in rehearsal.
For ‘Toby Johnson’ I worked really collaboratively with Jon Mac Cole and Lauren Anderson. I brought the piece in a sort of half baked state to Jon, and then we started doing workshop nights with invited test audiences at the Bedlam Studio space last summer.
After Lauren came on board, she was there at every workshop too, and we ended up re-writing the show a bunch because she is such an amazing performer that we wanted to give her more to do. So we would try it out, talk about it, and then I would go off and revise and try some new stuff and bring it back again. It was the only way I could figure out to write this show, since it is so participatory and game-based. We had to play the games and do the things with audience members to figure out how it was going to work.
I have worked with Jon for a really long time, and I definitely was writing with him in mind. He’s one of my favorite performers on the planet, this is our fifth tour together and it is easy to bounce ideas off each other. Much of my aesthetic comes from stuff Jon was doing at Bedlam, from the work so many amazing artists were doing at Bedlam Theater when I first started working with them.
‘Toby Johnson’ is an Eternal Cult production, which is a name we are using to refer to any collaborations between Jon, me, Carly Wicks and Christopher Allen. Jon also is a wizard at coming up with lists of funny names.
We had a lot of friends and collaborators who came to the’ Toby Johnson’ workshops and
participated as test audiences, then told us what worked for them and what felt weird or uncomfortable in the wrong way. That was so helpful. Most shows I wouldn’t be comfortable crowd-sourcing like that, but for this show it felt really right.
Michelle: The performance is so special and that work with your co-players and audience is very much felt in the experience. What is next? What are you focused on now or what feels like it is brewing? I love these house shows and the feel they bring, the difference in culture making that comes from this type of traveling and performing. Do you have more ideas for working in that way?
Savannah: I do want to work that way again at some point, but I’m not sure when. My friend Samantha Johns once talked about going back and forth from directed scripted work and devising as “rotating the crops”, and I kind of feel like I need to rotate my crops. I love to create work with my friends and self-produce it (both because of the control it gives me and because it is really, really fun), but I also want to sometimes have work where I am just the writer and I have more of a traditional playwright’s role in the rehearsal room. So I am working on a piece like that right now- a “play-play” as they say.
We are also booking a Midwest mini-tour for Toby Johnson Was My Best Friend In High School at some point this summer. We’re going to do another week in Chicago and another week in Minneapolis. We’re really excited to get to do the show again.
Michelle: And you are venturing into screenwriting. I’ll be excited to see what you do with both.
What is something you would like to say to artists working right now to make work that fulfills the needs we have for creation– that is to say, artists working outside the restrictions of ‘art’for pay’– what do you need to hear? How can we validate one another at this moment in cultural history?
Savannah: I am struggling with this idea a lot right now. I am having conversations about
it with so many different friends and artists, and none of us can explain it to each other or fix it for each other, and it’s so hard.
I just graduated with my MFA in playwriting, so I feel this new pressure to be “succeeding” in a different way than I was before I went to school. I am working full time for a decorative painting company right now. We do high end kitchen cabinets. And I feel like maybe there is something else that I am supposed to be doing, something more impressive, something that will make people think I am a “real artist”.
But we’re all just trying to make it work. I see people posting inspirational stuff on Facebook like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, but I honestly think that it’s more like Calvin-ball.
I feel like I could talk a lot about this but it’s all so fraught. And I am really conscious of the fact that other artists that I respect have made different choices than I have, and we all feel really defensive about our choices and I don’t want to seem like I am saying that I think any one way is the right way. I have dear friends right now that are in LA working to get into screenwriting. And they can make a good living from that. And I know wonderful people who have decided to divorce their art practice from their money making completely. And I haven’t figured any of that out for myself yet.
Michelle: What you do is food. There is a wonderful bit from Barry Lopez in the voice of the Badger. Badger says something along these lines: “sometimes people need a story more than food to stay alive. We put these memories into one another, it is how we care for ourselves.”
This is what creation has always been, from stories, to rituals, to beautiful objects, we feed one another as spirits and as creators.
Thank you for what you are doing. In all the ways you choose to put creativity into the world. Thank you for coming through St. Louis and giving us all this moment of grace and story and connection, a moment of commitment to our own humanity.
It matters. Thank you for taking time to talk with me and I truly look forward to what you will do in the future and how you will inspire people to create and be better to themselves and each other. You do that, whether it is your intention or not. Thanks again.
Savannah: Thank you Michelle. That is the answer to “what do you need to hear”. And what we all need to say to each other more often I think.