It was 2005 and I was a rookie critic for The Scotsman. The festival had barely begun when I found myself settling down in one of the sweaty black boxes of C Venues to see a show called: Give Up! Start Over! (In the Darkest of Times I Look to Richard Nixon for Hope). It must have been the mischevious title that had drawn me in, but, beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. The auditorium was almost deserted. Just me, a couple of people who, it turns out, were with the show, and a man who spent most of the time asleep. An inauspicious start, perhaps, but what I saw over the next 60 minutes had such a profound impact on me that my understanding of theatre as a form was permanently shifted.
A solo show, created by a then-unknown American director, Rachel Chavkin, with her company, The TEAM, Give Up! Start Over! was a small theatrical bomb planted deep in the US psyche. Through Jessica Almasy’s performance, it detonated – scattering shards of 20th-century American pop culture everywhere. And as Almasy switched back and forth between an isolated, manic young woman and the grizzled, hangdog 37th President of the United States, the show laid the ground for everything that Chavkin and The TEAM have created ever since: theatrically vibrant, politically astute work which interrogates what America is today.
From this remarkable debut, The TEAM have gone on to be a major force in British theatre. They have not only returned to the Fringe on many occasions (graduating from C Venues to the Traverse Theatre), but they have collaborated with many of the UK’s major companies: the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), the Royal Court and the National Theatre (which hosted their hit 2011 show, Mission Drift).
Curiously, despite the enormous success they have seen both here and elsewhere around the world, they have never quite enjoyed comparable notice in their home town of New York City. Their most recent show RoosevElvis—which played at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan—was very well received, but prior to that, their work seemed to leave New York’s critics baffled. So perhaps it is not a surprise to see them returning to the Scottish capital this year with a new show: Anything That Gives Off Light. Produced as part of the Edinburgh International Festival and in collaboration with the NTS, the show is something of a departure for the company – in that its focus is not on the US, but rather, on Scotland.
Perhaps this is no surprise. Chavkin describes the relationship between The TEAM and Scotland as “pretty dreamy”. And she makes much of the close ties that the company has forged with the Scottish artists with whom they have made the show.
“Jessica Almasy and I saw Sandy Grierson perform two shows at the Fringe in 2005 and began stalking him immediately. The following year we met Brian Fergusson and Davey Anderson through Blackwatch. So we care about these artists and the country they hail from, and at the same time are fascinated because their stories are not our stories, despite a lot of overlapping DNA.”
For all of this overlap, she adds, there is also a great deal to be learnt from seeing how the two countries diverge – “not in the least the American emphasis on individualism versus solidarity (embodied in our mess of a privatised health care system), and our gun policies (probably the most painful topic in the country today). It's sometimes easier to look at things from the outside, and so bringing America and Scotland's mythologies into contact was really exciting to us.”
This compulsive need to compare and contrast the American and British experience is something I keenly recognise. Ever since reviewing their first show, I have developed a close friendship with Chavkin and the rest of the company. Indeed, when I took over as artistic director of the Gate Theatre in London in 2012, one of the first things I did was to appoint her as an associate artist. And her perspective on the theatre scene in the US has been invaluable to me as I have put so much American work at the heart of my programming – not least our recent shows at the Fringe: Grounded and The Christians. The question of identity—at both a personal and a cultural level—is something that drives both of us in our work. And she and I have ended up spending many hours discussing our respective homelands.
I have always been struck by how inseparable her professional and personal lives are and so perhaps it is not a surprise that identity plays such a central role in her theatre work. She points out that this is something that is not just true for her, but for The TEAM as a whole. Musing on how the company has developed over 10 years she says, “Many of us have spouses and some have kids now. We have a childcare fund. We're making our first non-narrative work. We yearn for each other and aren't in a room together nearly enough, because that takes money. We still scramble for funds. We don't share beds anymore, but still sometimes share bedrooms. Our calendars are a nightmare. It still feels like home when we're together.”
And as the company has grown, it’s a home that has expanded across the Atlantic – forging a vital link between radical theatre makers in America and their counterparts over here.