The way Cheryl Chamblee rocks her head and stirs her hands in rehearsal, you might think she's conducting an orchestra.
Instead, her movements follow the rhythm of her actors' words as they echo and repeat, then rise in chorus and fall back into fertile silence. Chamblee, with a smile that spreads across her entire face, is directing the play @ liberty, which she co-wrote with Tamara Kissane, her longtime collaborator in both hands theatre company.
Before a recent rehearsal, actors undertook what looks to an outsider like complex and enigmatic practices. Working on a large exercise mat in a dark womb of a basement space that more resembles a low-rent karate studio, ensemble members Beth Popelka, Byron Jennings II, Lance Waycaster, Laurie Wolf and Thaddeus Edwards run through a tight agenda of "lane work" to orient personal space, "dowel work" to get comfortable with props, "sighing out on sound" to find their character's vocal wavelength. As they pace or race across the mat, alternately responding to and ignoring one another while whispering or barking random lines, they evoke a mythical New York City sidewalk.
Chamblee and Kissane have been making original theater for 10 years, but the play now under construction is their first to be designed for a specific site—in this case the Liberty Warehouse, Durham's longest-surviving tobacco warehouse. Today, Liberty Warehouse is a hub of downtown Durham's artistic revival—the Scrap Exchange is there, and so is the Liberty Arts bronze casting facility. And, last weekend, large crowds packed the adjacent Durham Central Park for the city's Earth Day festivities.
Chamblee and Kissane's themes often concern the quest for personal happiness, and the play's promotional materials ask: "What does your life look like? Could you pick it out of a line-up?" In the play, an auctioneer named Speed Riggs, described as "a fast-talking 117-year veteran of the Liberty Warehouse in Durham," plays a role in helping other characters identify important moments of their lives.
The play is not only an original dramatic piece, it also represents the latest installment of an increasingly productive partnership between the two women and a developer that has put a big pile of chips on the future of downtown Durham. Greenfire Development, which owns Liberty Warehouse, proposed sponsoring both hands theatre company as its artist-in-residence several years ago. Hoping to spark synergy between the arts and downtown development, Greenfire provides an apartment for Chamblee (Kissane and her husband live in Raleigh) at below-market rent in Baldwin Lofts, a free rehearsal studio in the basement of the Kress building, and a free performance space in Liberty Warehouse.
@ liberty is a continuation of Chamblee and Kissane's unusual, collaborative format for creating live theater. Their experiences in high school band and drama at Duke gave birth to several innovative playwriting tools that set their work apart. They refer to the written form of the play interchangeably as a "script" or a "score." Because the language of their plays weaves in and out between monologues, dialogues and what might be called "hop-on-board-ologues," they layer the language on "score text" sheets similar to what an orchestra might use.
The gestation period for @ liberty was similar to their other plays: It began last summer with another of both hands' innovative tools—public readings called Right Now, This Minute, which are composed of a year's worth of jumbled bits and pieces of writing. Audience feedback lets them know when they've found resonant topics. Of Parent Project, a show from last year, Kissane says it "had over 100 contributors who really informed the [final] play." She goes on to say both hands "starts with everything except the story thread," and that in their many-month development process the play "goes from messy to clean [with] a lot of actor flair added."
Some of their favorite readings in the past, like one Chamblee described as a "quirky, rhythmic counting piece that didn't have a story," had a striking audience response: "It's our single worst piece." On the other hand, Kissane says, "some things we didn't like very much, the people loved."
This "sausage machine" process has left them with stacks of unused material, but it's also given them the deadlines and "overlapping feedback loops" to create a new play every year. For instance, the original readings from last summer's Right Now, This Minute haven't come into play in @ liberty. But the audience feedback kicked them into an exploration of how small experiences matter a lot in making a happy life, a quest that resolves itself in @ liberty in a formula: moments in our lives multiplied by the quality of our attention equals the quantity of happiness we find.
Chamblee, who considers herself "a recovering perfectionist," says, "This is the most challenging score to date—they haven't been given an easy task.... We sent it by e-mail and then waited."
Beth Popelka, who plays the tattoo artist, was the first cast member to reply. She admits, however, that she felt challenged by her character's fast/ slow speech pattern and asked herself: "Okay, what am I going to do with this?"
Popelka says of the unusual both hands format, "Once you get into that jazz type of riff or groove with the other characters, it's like you're hitting all these notes and you're clicking and even a week ago it was laborious and you had to be cerebral and then suddenly it becomes like play—that's thrilling."
@ liberty opens this Friday at Liberty Warehouse in downtown Durham. For information, visit www.myspace.com/bothhandstheatre.