Thursday, April 25, 2013

INSIDE LOOK: Death Project 2013 Investigation: Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps

Our Literary Associate, Micharne Cloughley, recently spoke with Commander Rocky Robinson who founded the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps. This inspiring volunteer run organization saves lives every day through both their ambulance service and extensive medical training programs. You can find out more about the Bedford Stuyvesant Ambulance Corps HERE.

Check out a few excerpts from that interview below. 

Co Founder and Executive Director Rocky Robinson

No volunteers…

"A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, and there’d never been a volunteer ambulance corps in the so-call ghetto, because nobody would volunteer. So I didn’t really have anybody, believe it or not my first group of volunteer was recovered alcoholics and drug addicts, people like that, but I said you know what, that’s where the hurt is. Try to help these people. You made it and when I was really young I used to smoke pot, so I understood. So then I changed my whole focus, I went over to Bedford Avenue, and talked to some of the guys and girls there, and they said yeah we want to learn CPR, we want to learn first aid, and I said well I’m starting an ambulance corps."

No ambulance…

"I didn’t have my ambulance. So now, here’s a guy, running through a community, and he’s going to start a volunteer ambulance corps, and he don’t have an ambulance. So now you’ve got this big black guy, me, and this little Puerto Rican, his name was Joe, he was the only one that would follow me."

Daniel Bishop's documentary, Bed Stuy-Do or Die,
chronicling the incredible story of BSVAC

But real life…

"Well we were the first ghost busters. We used to put the oxygen tanks on our back, trauma kits in our hands, scanners, and we used to run, to the injury, on foot, but guess what, everybody would laugh except one person. The person that we were running to, that blood was spilling out on the gutter, and once we put on the pressure bandage, there was not a life threatening situation anymore, but if nobody knew what to do he would have bled out right there."

On saving lives…

"And I’m gonna tell you something, there’s no greater high than saving a life. When you bring somebody back from the dead! Are you kidding me? You arrive on the scene, and there’s a kid laying in the street, 5 or 6 years old, he’s not breathing, not circulating, and you get down there… you open up the airway and you breathe and you, for a couple of … And then you hear that kid say ‘I want my Mommy’, before a couple of minutes, he was dead! That is so good and I’m still a junkie but I’m a life saving junkie now."

The BSVAC team
Please donate to the Bedford Stuyvesant Ambulance Corps HERE!

Thanks Micharne and Rocky for sharing!  Check back here every Thursday for a look inside our investigation into death, dying and the afterlife in NY for a performance coming up in June. 

All photos taken from: 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

INSIDE LOOK: Death Project 2013 Investigation: Hart Island

Our Associate Artistic Director, Ian Daniel, recently interviewed an ex-inmate from Rikers Island prison about burying coffins of unknowns, infants, and adults on Hart Island in the Bronx. The interviewee chose to remain anonymous so we will call him Tim.

The potter’s field at Hart Island is the largest cemetery in the United States. Read more about it HERE
Aerial View of Hart Island
NYC's Department of Correction manages Hart Island and uses inmates from Rikers to dig the graves. The public is not allowed on Hart Island, however, family members who can prove their relatives have been buried there can set up visits. 

Wikipedia says,"The dead are buried in trenches. Babies are placed in coffins of various sizes, and are stacked five coffins high and usually twenty coffins across. Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size and are stacked three coffins high and two coffins across. The potter's field is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled 'limbs.' No individual markers are set except for the first child to die of AIDS in New York City who was buried in isolation."
Inmates in 1991 burying coffins holding babies Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Here are some excerpts from Ian’s interview with Tim: 

Ian: When were you in prison?

Tim:  In my adolescence. I was on Rikers for burglary and a stolen car. They used to use adolescents on Hart Island and I believe now they don't do that anymore, they use the adults now. We'd ferry over from there, be there all day and we'd be digging huge ditches, this was a long time ago. The caskets were plain wooden boxes, you know no names, some kinda marking on it, it wasn't that high, not very deep at all but it was long. It was a lot of caskets that went in there.

Ian:  Did you see bodies?

Tim:  Every so often you'd see one of the boxes open and you can see the body in there. I remember once a body was so gross, decomposed, just a horrible sight, scary to look at, cause then you gotta go eat lunch over there which is a little weird to do that shit over there, you know? Some of those guys would joke when we'd stick them in the hole and they'd say, “That was your father I just buried,” “This is the guy we used to get high with," crazy shit like that, and when you could see into the casket they'd say, “Oh that looks like your brother that I knew up on 125th street.”
Ian:  Who's buried there?

Tim:  Most of the time these people are found on the street or they have no money to be buried. So it’s always something like that...a lot of homeless people, people that have no identity, they have no family, or if they do, they don't want anything to do with them. If your brother dies and you don't have any money then he'd end up there.  A lot of stillborns, miscarriages, forgotten souls, that's why it's sad, it just a big lonely graveyard.

Ian:  How did seeing all of this affect you?

Tim:  When I saw all those caskets…it's funny cause my brother died but I never knew him, he died just after being born of pneumonia  and I used to always think about that especially when a baby was being buried. I was thinking about my baby brother and about my mother and father who died and that was just a little weird for me back then.  My parents said they only wanted five kids and he was the fifth but he died then a year or so later they had me so if he had lived they probably wouldn't had me. 

Infant coffins on Hart Island Photo: Stan Grossfeld  
To learn more about Hart Island we recommended that you check out The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization assisting families to relocate those who disappeared in the greater New York area HERE

The Department of Correction recently created a database of Hart Island burial records to help you determine whether someone has been interred on Hart Island, using basic information, such as name, date or location. Check that out HERE

Thanks for sharing, Ian. Check back here every Thursday for an inside look into our investigation in death, dying, and the afterlife for our upcoming performance. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Meet The R&D: Gina Rattan

This post is by R&D Group director, Gina Rattan, about a new play she produced and directed for the New York International Fringe Festival last summer. "Sweet Tooth" is about two 18 year old soon-to-be step-siblings in a quest to define true love. The play was the result of two years of work and research in collaboration with her frequent collaborator, Zach Lupetin. For more about Gina and her work, check out her website HERE, or follow her on twitter: @rattanica.

In a new work there is always a degree of trial and error. Sometimes using an investigative theater method tells you how to structure a play, even if the play is 100% fiction. This really surprised me.

When I set out to direct and develop this piece, Zach and I were wanting to investigate a question: How do we know if/when we’ve found the person we’re “supposed” to be with forever? This is a question we were both interested in exploring for personal and cultural reasons. We set out working on the play (writing, workshopping, rehearsing and eventually performing) in a traditional way (e.g. not using any particular documentary or investigative methods). 

Coming from a divorced household myself, I was intrigued by this idea. How do we know? When will we be sure? Zach had wanted to experiment with the possibility of a mathematical formula for love that lasts forever. And so were born these two characters, a teenage boy and teenage girl, who desperately wanted to understand this. Looking to their parents and themselves to define the perfect love algorithm. A guarantee.

From the beginning, the playwright wanted the characters to ask the questions themselves.  He wanted the characters to be at a point in their lives where they could address this question in a way that affected their lives, but also that the question affected their world, what they knew to be true. The two characters in the play ended up being high school students whose parents were engaged to be married. These high schoolers also had a crush on one another but were going off to college in the fall. High enough stakes for them to be faced with this question.  

Ok, so what’s the problem?

After the first draft of the piece we realized that the play could easily become an interesting, character based, discussion in an effort to answer this question, but we needed a strong structure. The actors felt similarly, “where was it building to?” “what’s the action here” “when do I get what I want”? We realized we had a lot of thoughts and ideas, but not a structured drama.

In examining how to strengthen the material two things became wholly clear, one was that we needed a structure, a build to the storytelling—an hour long discussion on the nature of love (theirs and their parents) isn’t dynamic, it amounted to an anthropological exploration and academic conversation. We were looking to make a play with a complete world, a naturalistic reality, but not to the point where we would forgo a dramatic build. Secondly, the success of the piece would rely upon how specifically we could get the two actors, the writing, and the environment to inhabit and portray teenagers.*

Gina in rehearsal with actors Sam Gedymin and Emily Kron

The playwright, actors, and myself set out to clarify our story by beginning to research online, through interviews, and people-watching. The most compelling research I conducted were the interviews. This surprised me. Not only did I get a lot of information as to what was important, cool, acceptable, to teenagers. Not only did I hear their thoughts on love, sex, marriage, true love, etc. But I learned that the more I would meet with them, or the longer I would meet with them, the type of conversation, the tempo of the conversation, and the vocabulary would change.

As we listened, interviewed, researched, and then discussed and worked on the play, it became apparent to me that the audiences' role in watching the play should feel like our experience interviewing these adolescents. I found that the research/investigation gave way to the structure of the piece. The behavior and priorities of teenagers showed me how to put the piece together, how to build and tell the story.

I generally approach work, especially that of fiction, by doing a lot of research but it is primarily visual or literary. I cannot express enough how instrumental these conversations were. And how much they contributed to the final arc of the story, the build, the brush strokes.

I felt strongly that we needed to give the audience the same connection to the characters that we felt in interviewing them. This meant structuring the conversation, the debate of the two characters onstage in a very specific way: they needed to begin the play as two unfamiliar, uncomfortable and opposing forces. They needed to approach each other as we were approached by the teenagers, with distrust, a distance, a coolness. And the further they got into the debate, the more they became invested in the outcome of the interaction, and less about seeming cool or funny or pretty or smart, or any of the other pressures teens feel in social interactions. By the end of the play the characters needed to break down those social barriers and grapple with their real fears about relationships.

Production photo by Matthew Murphy
Structurally speaking we finally were able to have a story with a distinctive dramatic build and a clear visceral coming together of two people. It is a great reminder to risk, to try new things. And. Of course. Get out in the world and talk to people.

*I should note that the choice to use non-teenagers (actors in their early 20s) was intentional. We needed actors who could portray the age convincingly, and also inhabit and make real the social pressures that teenagers face. I felt strongly that teenagers who are still experiencing these pressures are unable to explore them without inhibition. The perspective that being an adult provides was necessary for the material.

Thanks for sharing your process, Gina. For other posts from our other R&D Group artists, please click HERE.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

INSIDE LOOK: Death Project 2013 Investigation: Talking About Suicide

Our Project Dramaturg, Deepali Gupta, recently interviewed journalist Cara Anna, a former foreign correspondent in China, and a suicide attempt survivor for upcoming project about death, dying and the afterlife in NY.  Cara founded the “Talking About Suicide” blog of interviews with other outspoken suicide attempt survivors and edits the new “What Happens Now?” blog for the American Association of Suicidology for those who've had thoughts or actions of suicide. Check out the "Talking about Suicide" blog  HERE, and the "What Happens Now?" blog HERE.

See below for excerpts from Deepali's interview with Cara, where she reflects on her personal experience with suicide, and what prompted her to connect to other survivors.

Cara at airport before leaving for China
"I sent out a resignation email, I went to my apartment, gave everything to the cleaning lady, packed a backpack, and then just set off. I went to the airport and I just stood there looking at the departure board for like, what seemed like an hour, and I was like, 'I don't want to go anywhere.' I love to travel, and here I am looking at like, connections from Beijing to like, everywhere in the world, and I'm like, 'Uh, I don't want to go anywhere, I'm dead.' So, yeah, I went to the hospital, got myself sleeping pills, got anti-vomiting medication, got wine, and there was an abandoned village outside Beijing that I had hiked through, and it was cold, it was February, there was still snow on the ground, and I'm like, 'I'm gonna go there.' And so I hiked up there and in China, people are everywhere and there were two people hiking, and I'm like, 'What the fuck, can I never get a place to myself?'

I was like, 'Well you have to do it before dark. You'll lose your nerve or something, so you just have to do it, just do it.' So you just sort of lay out 1, 2, 3 at that point. I took the stuff, I drank the whole bottle of wine, apparently, which is a first, um, and lay down, it was like, 'Okay, the cold will take care of the rest.' And then, even before opening my eyes, you know how you can see light through your eyelids, that was the next thing I knew, and even before opening my eyes, I'm like, 'It's dawn. Okay. Now what do I do.'
Cara's photo of a memorial to the dead after 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province at a school that collapsed

So I said, 'Well, I'm a journalist, it seems pretty natural to me to just find other people who have been through it. Is anybody talking about it?' So I started the blog, started interviewing people, found people who were out, and just talked to them—just like, the first conversation was so sweet. It was a woman, and we were so nervous talking to each other, it was like we were breaking some sort of rule. 

Cara with her nephew
It's like, should we be talking about this? Are we gonna get in trouble? And it was just a very huge relief, finding out that, wow, she sounded really human and normal and happened to have a bad, a really bad experience. Um, and I've talked to about 40 people so far, from five different countries, and nobody has been rambling, nobody has burst into tears, nobody has had to even take time to collect themselves—nobody's raving, everybody's just like, 'Yeah, this is me, this is my life, I have dogs, I have cats, I have a grad degree, I'm a psychologist, I work on a crisis line, I'm a lawyer, I'm an artist...Hi!' What is so horribly scary about us that nobody wants to talk about it?"

Thank you Cara and Deepali for sharing. Check back every Thursday for a look inside our investigation into death, dying and the afterlife in NY. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Meet the R&D: Snehal Desai

This post is by R&D Group director, Snehal Desai, about the piece of investigative theater that he created in San Diego at the Old Globe titled "Peregrine: Balboa Park," an immersive, migratory theatrical experience staged in Balboa Park (where the Old Globe is located). For more about Snehal's project, click HERE!

Balboa Park, is a picturesque arts and cultural center with gardens, museums, restaurants, and outdoor performance venues.  It is also home to the San Diego Zoo.  The park was created in 1868 and has served as the host venue for two World’s Fairs.  The park for me also physically represents the diverse city that is San Diego.  The architecture and gardens are influenced by a myriad of cultures particularly Mexican, Japanese, and Spanish styles.  In this way, you can quickly walk from one world into another, sometimes to jarring effect.  For Peregrine, I knew I wanted to do something that was immersive in Balboa Park and something that was tied its history.  Its at this point that I paired up with playwright Lauren Yee to see if she would be interested in writing a piece that told a story and took the audience through the park.  The initial plan was that she would write and I would direct.  However, that changed when we decided to have two routes for audiences to choose from.  Lauren would provide the text for one of the paths and I would provide the text for the other.  Being more of a novice playwright then Lauren, I thought that I would create a piece based on interviews with visitors and those who worked in the park.  Lauren and I then began researching the park through articles, books, online sites, and also by speaking to people who worked in the park.  I was hoping through all this research to maybe come across an event or incident in the park that I could then interview individuals about and get their different perspectives on a la Rashomon.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at, I didn’t find one such galvanizing event that had occurred in the park in the recent past.

As the writing deadline approached, I knew that I was going to have to write my own piece but was at a loss as to what that was.  I kept conducting interviews and talking with people in the park.  However, I became less formal in my interviews with folks since I knew the interviews would not be my primary source material.  By conducting the interviews less formally, I also freed myself from becoming entirely focused on the person I was speaking with and allowed my mind to go on tangents off of things that they mentioned.  It was as I had a conversation with a busker in the park that I got the idea of a modern day Orpheus and Eurydice type love story set in the park.  I now had my story and idea and what ended up happening was that the interviews ended up providing me with details and insight that I incorporated into my piece such as the fact that there used to be a nudist colony in the park, the discovery of a unique location where a couple had their first kiss, to who had the best food in the park and why. 

In this way, Peregrine expanded my idea of what I think of when I hear the term Investigative Theater.  My mind no longer only goes to pieces created from and using verbatim text. Upon my return from San Diego, I became more interested in investigative theatrical work and the form and that is what led me to the Civilians R & D group.  The group has not only given me insight into the Civilians’ process but also allowed for me to see six brilliant playwrights utilize interviews they have conducted in a variety of very dynamic and interesting theatrical ways.  The group has also introduced me to other collaborators interested in working in this way and now with Cesar Alvarez, (whom I met through the group), and Lauren Yee, Peregrine will be arriving in Central Park in the near future.  -Snehal Desai

Thanks for sharing your process, Snehal. For other posts from our other R&D Group artists, please click HERE.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

INSIDE LOOK: Death Project 2013 Investigation: New York City Ghost Bike Project

We’re doing an exciting investigation into death, dying and the afterlife in NYC for our next project this season. Our team is interviewing tons of amazing people with various spiritual, cultural, professional, and personal perspectives. We want to share our investigative process with you, so every Thursday check here for a glimpse into the worlds we’re entering and the people we're interviewing.

Our Associate Artistic Director Ian recently interviewed Jessie Singer, founding member of the New York City Ghost Bike Project, to learn more about bicyclists killed on our streets. Check out that project HERE

Here’s a glimpse of what Jessie had to say: 

“A woman named Brandie Bailey was killed on Houston Street and we painted this bike and locked it up on the street and we all looked at each other and said “Holy crap let's never do this again.” Then the next week after that, a block away, a young man named Andrew Ross Morgan was killed on Houston Street again so we built another bike and then we couldn't stop. It became as much a burden as it was, you know, our gift in a way. I've never had anything in my life to force me to think about strangers so much. People you would never meet. To spend so much time with their deaths and therefore their lives and their families, um, which has become a big part of the project. I think it was Brandie Bailey's sister who contacted us and said “I was able to take my parents. My parents came to the city to clean out Brandie's apartment, and I told them that this bike was there. They said before that they would never go to the crash site, that they would never go anywhere near that block ever again.” And this made them feel like they could go there and they could have a moment and put down flowers and spend time with this space where their loved one had died which otherwise would've been kind of sullied. It was dirtied before and now it was a space for them maybe...maybe it was a little reclaimed.”

"Death is something that is out there, sure, but the only thing that matters is what you do when you're living and what I do when I'm living is helping these people that have to deal with death. The process of memorializing is a process of memory but it's a process for the living. This is not a stairway to heaven. It's for the people who are still here who still have work to do, good to do, hopefully, or at least bad to correct. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable. They are caused by someone doing the wrong thing, someone is driving carelessly or irresponsibly or dangerously or drunk or on their phone. That's not an accident, that's an intentional decision that killed somebody. If anything the goal in all of this talking about death is to actually talk about, like, doing better in life...creating that new culture of respecting each other so people aren't dying like this or at the very least if they are dying then people are taking the time to remember that some terrible shit happened on that street corner."

Please donate to the Ghost Bike Project HERE

And join them for their 8th Annual Memorial Ride on April 21st.