Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble (NMA) and the Greenway Arts Alliance will join creative energies to produce PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY at Greenway Court Theatre, beginning March 3 10, 2017. NMA's multi-hat-wearing Co-Artistic Director Jones (Welsh) Talmadge took time out from his company responsibilities and his PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY rehearsals to enlighten Better-Lemons readers with NMA philosophies of entertainment.
Thank you, Jones, for agreeing to this chat with Better-Lemons and myself.
What initially drew you to John Milton's poem Paradise Lost over ten years ago?
I was initially inspired by the visual imagery that the original poem evoked. Through Milton's eloquent descriptions, I could see the battle in Heaven and the torture of Hell, the beautiful movement of the serpent, and the anguish of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden. I think I envisioned this show because of the possibility of seeing a celestial battle in the air, and knowing that we live in a day and age where this is possible on stage, as well as creating the actual imagery through realistic digital rendering, both of which we have accomplished!
What have been some of the major tweaks you've made through the years to arrive at its current state as PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY?
First, I saw from the original text how imbalanced the roles of Adam and Eve were in the story. I thought this was perhaps typical of the time it was written in the 17th century, only to learn later that Milton was actually considered a Proto-Feminist just to give Eve a voice at all in his version of the story. The most striking example of this imbalance in the text is that Eve almost never interacts with the celestial characters. It is always Adam that communes with the spirits and discusses the “important” matters with Raphael, Gabriel, or God Himself. Meanwhile, Eve is either sleeping, serving, or away.
We live in quite a different time now, where gender roles are transforming and rebalancing in some unexpected and inevitable ways. I don't think we can rely on the traditional roles that masculine and feminine have been assigned in the past, but a rebalancing is happening, starting with the roles of masculine and feminine inside each person, which then diffuses into the culture. Men are now expected to be more emotionally sensitive and know how to run a household. Women need to have a career and also be strong leaders. The potential of a well-rounded human emerging is very exciting to me.
So, the twist I've added into PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY is to show that this version of humanity is actually what God intended, where we are going is how we began. In our version of the tale, Adam and Eve start out perfectly balanced and equal, although different and unique, it is only the eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that separates them from each other and from God, and allows them to judge which is better and worse, which is not at all the love and acceptance that I know God to be.
Second, the idea to adapt the poem into a workable script was fast-tracked by the fantastic and opportune relationship with the Greenway Arts Alliance, as well as the enthusiastic prodding of my artistic co-directors Aaron Hendry and Laura Covelli. Also Founding Director John Farmanesh-Bocca was quite generous and helpful to work with me one-on-one to find the core of the story and trim it down so that it could fit within two hours.
After many, many sessions of working with the text, we finally came to an understanding that the best way to present the words of Milton on stage, was to use NO words at all. The story I wanted to tell could certainly be done without speaking, and led me to focus all my energy as director into creating the dance, acrobatics, aerial, and martial arts, which were the parts that really excited me anyway. So, the twist here is the translation of ten thousand lines of verse into an all-movement story.
With your adaptation of Paradise Lost and an ensemble of performers as your base, can you describe how the creative elements came together? (The choreography, the aerial rigging, the digital animation and the video installation)
The base of Not Man Apart's ensemble is an important one, because at heart, we are an artist collective. A group of colleagues that like to work together, so we work our tails off to make inventive physical theater. My vision for PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY, just so happened to include collaborations with many other kinds of artists: lighting, costumes, set designers, rigging, choreography. We even have custom designed and beautifully constructed weapons for each angel. All of these collaborators have been colleagues of mine, and have just jumped right into the process willing to work for free, or at least for significantly less than what they're used to, just because they believe in me and the vision too. I am incredibly grateful and blown away by everyone's contributions. What really moved this project to the front of the wagon for Not Man Apart was the relationship that I was able to form with J-Walt Adamczyk, who has worked as a professional animator for Disney and has won Academy Awards for his original designs. With his talents and immediate passion for the project, I truly saw that the rest of the elements would fall into place around the dramatic and gorgeous 3-D worlds that he is able to create and interact with the performers in real time. I'm excited to show everyone what we have done.
Do you have to be aware of each element's limitations to attempt to go beyond them?
I think it's more that you have to be aware of each element's “potential” to experiment with how they interact with each other. If I focused on limitation all the time, nothing would be created. We call upon the choreographers and performers alike to invent movement based on text, or a feeling, or even images, and when we add in an element like a rope swing, or a rock wall; we have to play even more to discover what can be done and how it fits into the storytelling.
What was your initial vision for Not Man Apart – Physical Theatre Ensemble when you became its founding managing director?
Meeting John Farmanesh-Bocca in 2007 and working with him on PERICLES REDUX, it became instantly clear that we had the same concept for creating performance work: combining all different genres of movement, music, drama, dance, to fill the senses for a visceral experience that the audience could ride like a wave. He is a brilliant director, and it was an easy choice for us to combine the non-profit business model that I had developed with the powerful artistic brand that he had developed. We continue this legacy and aesthetic with PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY and every NMA show. The other part of the vision that I stand for, is for our art to make a real and lasting impact, not just for those who attend the shows and engage in the material with us as audience. We always try to take classics and make them culturally relevant to today's issues. We also involve outside organizations and social action groups for talk-back sessions and opportunities for audiences to get involved outside of the performance.
Our Outreach programs have become increasingly extensive, with many in-school arts and physical programs at the elementary level, and also our university workshops and college curriculum for physical theater at Pepperdine, Cal State LA, and many others. The last production of AJAX IN IRAQ centered on veteran affairs throughout time, and we had partnerships with organizations such as New Directions in the VA and the Los Angeles Warriors Chorus. Now, PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY has found several partners for gender equality and female empowerment that we are working actively with - teaching arts empowerment workshops with MOSTE (Motivating Our Students Through Experience), a young women's mentorship program in South LA. Also, we teach a weekly theater and self-defense program at Thomas Riley High School in Watts, which serves solely pregnant teenagers and single mothers trying to finish their diploma. We are proud of the impact and the art we create simultaneously.
What new responsibilities and challenges did you acquire now as NMA's Co-Artistic Director (with Laura Covelli and Aaron Hendry)?
Having three Co-Artistic Directors is a unique model, but having a clear and established company vision to stand by has made it easy to coordinate and make artistic decisions together. The added responsibility of being an artistic leader for our company members and directing a full-length show are not as challenging as I thought. I think Laura and Aaron and I balance the responsibilities so well. For the most part, my job has gotten easier. I used to run all aspects of the non-profit, but now Laura steps in to help with finances and budget. Aaron sets up a lot of community relationships, programs, and logistics. I'm a big proponent of co-leadership and I think we are going to see more of it in the arts community as a model for performing arts organizations.
What type of training did you undertake to begin your performing career?
My training is very diverse, which I highly recommend to any performer these days. I started with sports and gymnastics when I was a kid, which made me fearless. In high school and college I focused on theater and choir, which made me sensitive and present and gave me a powerful voice. Throughout college and then two years into my New York era, I focused on dance and contact improvisation, which made me flexible and lithe. And then finally into my adulthood, I continued my training with everything in Los Angeles, and added Capoeira and advanced tumbling and tricking. I feel very prepared for any role that comes my way, and I do all my own stunts. You'll see in PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY that I dance in the air hanging from my arms. I fight with a giant spear and spin a 10-foot long chain around my body. I sing, I yell, I cry, I partner, I manipulate bodies and puppets. This kind of diversity in performance is what Not Man Apart demands from all our company members, and what you will certainly see in this next production.
You toured five seasons with Diavolo and then became its Associate Artistic Director and the Diavolo Institute Director. What lessons did you learn from your Diavolo stint that you're applying to NMA?
I think the biggest lesson I got from Diavolo is how to stand in my artistry in the face of adversity. Diavolo is a crucible of growth and development that I am very grateful for. Many aspects of my artistry were forged in this company and under the direction of Jacques Heim, one of my greatest mentors. The creations of Diavolo take on an intensity that is unmatched, and demand the highest level of focus, fitness, skill, innovation, creativity, and after operating in this state for five years straight, it becomes second nature. I take this work ethic with me wherever I go now. The administration I did with Diavolo as Associate Artistic Director and Institute Director were very prolific times for me. I created programs and performances with Diavolo, set pieces at universities, elementary schools, and community organizations, operating almost independently from the touring company. I created many new part-time jobs for a second company that we worked with in Los Angeles. I am very proud of the legacy of the Diavolo Institute that I left behind with Jacques and the company. My programs raised over half million dollars for Diavolo and are still operating and growing today. I have turned my focus to building a strong educational outreach and Los Angeles-based arts program with Not Man Apart that is both sustainable and impactful.
What aspects of a possible piece do you look for to turn into a NMA production?
When we have creative meetings with the Not Man Apart Artistic Co-Directors, we consider projects from criteria straight from our mission. Does the piece bridge literature with current events? Can it be done in a visceral interpretation? Does it follow an epic style or timeline? Mostly we consider projects that the three of us are interested in creating, because likely one of us will direct it, and on occasion we will hire a guest director, or consider original scripts. But they still must stand up with and support the litmus test of the NMA mission.
You wear many hats in PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY - adapter, director, choreographer, set designer, performer. Does one particular hat give you the most joy?
Right now, the joy is directing. To set a vision in motion and to gather the team that can accomplish it. The shaping and crafting of moments in the rehearsal room with a talented cast is an almost indescribably high, a sense of community and belonging housed inside of a creative presence that moves and shifts before your very eyes. I am often surprised at what we come up with in rehearsal. Even though I was so clear about my vision for this show when we first set out, it has evolved for the better in many ways that I could not have anticipated, just by having great minds in the room and a collaborative environment for everyone to shine.
Are you able to enjoy another company's dance performance as a 'civilian' audience member or do you get analytical about its choreography or other technical aspects?
Ha, ha, no! I'm actually able to pull my brain into a place of enjoyment and appreciation for what another artist is doing. I actually love to lose myself in the performance and go on a ride that the director or choreographer is guiding. Notice when and why I get “pulled out” and jump right back in, because it is usually something about me gets disconnected, and I can learn from that. However, if somebody asks me for notes on their piece, I can flip the switch and analyze every detail.
I have seen hyphens or quotation marks used in the spelling of people's name, but yours is the first I've seen with parentheses. Would you explain your use of parentheses in your written name?
That's actually a story I love to tell, because it is so appropriately within the themes of PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY. I've been Jones Welsh most of my artistic career, and a name that people have grown to recognize in the dance and theater community of Los Angeles and on our NMA mailing list. I got married last July and took my wife's last name (Anne-Marie Talmadge). Now that I am Jones Talmadge, I still wanted people to know that it was ME directing PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY, not some other Jones, so I threw the (Welsh) in there as a transition until people get used to the Talmadge. Taking my wife's last name is just one example of how my art and my life are connected. PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY embodies the divine feminine and masculine alike, and I want my life to be a part of the cultural rebalancing that is happening right now. The social tradition of last name change at marriage is a perfect and simple example of unexamined beliefs, and how we can get closer to Eden, where we no longer have to point at each other's gender differences, but we can celebrate a shared humanity.
What audience reactions are you striving for with PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY?
PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY is shaping up to be quite a ride. Each moment calls to the audience for something different: beauty, pain, empathy, disgust, awe, amazement. Really, I just want people to run wild in their imaginations with us and enjoy the show. Translating Milton into movement has been quite a challenge and a joy, we hope the audience can connect to the stories in Heaven and on Earth, and be carried away by the stunning visual imagery and movement.
What was the biggest surprise reaction you've received in past NMA shows you've choreographed or performed in?
We typically do a lot of partner and group lifts, and send people flying in the air. We rehearse these moments a lot, so that they are safe and dynamic. I think if you can get an audience to fear for our lives on stage, in a consistently secure movement sequence, then we are on the right track to keeping them engaged in the action of the play. I remember getting comments like “How are you still alive right now?” - that spells a job well-done.
What would you like your audience to leave with after your PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY curtain call?
For me the message of PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY is simple and straight forward. We are just delivering it in a powerful visual package with a lot of action, but I hope that people walk away empowered. They are going to witness the beginning of time and spiritual interactions and also the first human choices that have led us to our current social and political climate. I want people to notice that we are not stuck with what we got. That our everyday choices can lead us closer to building a Heaven on Earth, if we are conscious and intentional, because it can be so easy to choose building a Hell, simply by how you treat your family when you get up in the morning, how you greet a stranger on the street, how you honor yourself. It's up to us, and I want every audience member to walk away committed to creating Eden again.
Thank you again, Jones, for this interview. I look forward to experiencing your creative flag fly!
For ticket availability through April 2, 2017 and further info on PARADISE LOST: RECLAIMING DESTINY; visit www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/paradiselost