Reaching Critical Mass: A Conversation With Nancy Keystone

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By Ashley Steed

For over 30 years Nancy Keystone has been the driving force behind Critical Mass Performance Group. The company is known for their devised work that embodies a multiplicity of perspectives, aesthetics, eras, ideas, and texts. This kaleidoscope approach to theatrical investigation takes years to develop; the company has spent up to seven years on a single project.

In between workshops Keystone also directs, most recently earning an Ovation Award for Best Director of a Musical for East West Players’ production of Next to Normal. In talking with Keystone, whose dark-rimmed glasses and long dark hair frames a seemingly ageless face, it’s clear that Keystone’s passion for creating her own work is the glue that has kept Critical Mass afloat for so long.

Where It All Started

It was studying theatre at UCLA that set her not only on her directorial path, but also towards doing devised and collaboratively created work. “I went to UCLA as an undergrad thinking I wanted to act, as most people do,” says Keystone. In the program she had to take a directing class and was instantly drawn to it. “My teacher kicked my ass. He was really brutal and I was inspired. I felt like I was much better at directing and was much more interested in it through the whole process. I was a bad actor,” she laughs, adding, “I wouldn’t want to work with me.”

Keystone had directed little projects for herself to act in since she was a child. So it was a logical conclusion to get back into it as a college student. “Directing felt completely holistic, it was utilizing every part of me and I was always thinking about it, how to solve the problems…Bossing people around, I loved it.”

It wasn’t until her junior year, however, that she started thinking more seriously about directing. One of the pieces that she directed for a quarterly student-produced one-act festival was written by another student (who is still her best friend to this day, and now works as a screenwriter). “I remember so clearly wanting to find interstitial music [for the one act]. I went to the music library and at this time you had tapes and records. I found these Gershwin Preludes and they were perfect… I remember it so clearly, like it was a revelation.”

She also first learned about ensemble-driven work during her studies. Her theater history class taught by Michael Hackett “was one of the best classes I ever took anywhere… We learned a lot about these European ensembles. We learned about Grotowski, Peter Brook, Mnouchkine – all these amazing practitioners and that was in my mind of what I wanted to do at an early age.”

UCLA allowed students to put up work on Friday afternoons in one of their spaces. Keystone was taking a women’s studies class and wanted to create something inspired by what she was learning. She decided to sign up for a slot and create her own show by combining found raw texts and movement.

Knowing that she wanted to create her own company to develop her own work and to build a career as a director, she pursued a MFA in Directing at Carnegie Mellon. There she studied with director and writer Mel Shapiro, whom Keystone says taught her to chase after ideas. She says for him “it really was about the artistry of it [directing].”

Keystone took this opportunity to grow in specific ways. “In grad school I was really conscious of wanting to flex and develop specific muscles. I was really determined to crack text analysis, which I felt I was pretty weak at. And I wanted to use each project to work on a different kind of problem or aesthetic or dramaturgical issue.”

Keystone’s primary goal before grad school was to have her own company and to work freelance as a director. “I also thought I’d want to be a director in the regional theater. Right out of grad school I did the Director’s Project, which is out of the Drama League in New York. They paired us up with two mentor directors to assist on two different shows. When we were in New York we were introduced to everybody and had all these meetings. Then we did a showcase, which we cast with professional actors. And they had all these theater luminaries see the shows.

“That was the time that I probably would have moved to New York, but I really felt like I wanted to make a company, to make an ensemble based on these European models. New York does not feel like the place that that can easily happen – it can’t easily happen anywhere. But it felt that California was way more open. It was cheaper, it was easier to live here.” And in terms of lugging theater stuff around, it’s certainly easier to do that in your own car and not on the subway in winter in New York.

“The people I wanted to work with were from UCLA,” she adds. Senior year she did Brecht’s Baal. “I consider that the beginning of the company, the beginning of our methodology. Those were the people that started the company.”

The Santa Barbara native spent her time between her parents’ house and Los Angeles. She’d come down to LA to rehearse with the company, and then they’d all go up to Santa Barbara for the weekend and stay at her parents’ house. “There would be ten people sprawled all over the house. We’d rehearse. My parents would have breakfast made for everybody. It was amazing!,” she reminisces.

Their first production was Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, which was done in a bar in Santa Barbara. “I kind of knew the bartender because I would go hear music there. Randy Tico, who’s since become my long time collaborator and composer/sound designer, I met him watching him play music in these various bars around town. So I approached the bar owner and asked if he’d let us do a play there. Then I asked Randy if he’d want to play live music for this Christopher Marlowe play.”

In the beginning they primarily focused on the classics such as The Rover by Aphra Behn and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. “I was really into classics and I felt like it was such a way to [dig in],” says Keystone.

Forging a Career as a Director

Jeff Lorch, Ray Ford, and Curt Bonnem in Ameryka. (Photo courtesy Critical Mass)

During this time, fellow Carnegie Mellon graduate Chris Coleman co-founded the Actor’s Express in Atlanta. “All the way through grad school he said, ‘I’m going to start a company when I get out [of grad school] in Atlanta and I’m going to hire you.’ That’s exactly what happened. He started hiring me.” Every year he would bring her back and let choose exactly what she wanted to direct. “I worked for Chris Coleman for almost ten years at his theater in Atlanta, usually one show a year.”

In 2000 Coleman became the Artistic Director of Portland Center Stage (and this year is leaving that post for Denver Center for the Performing Arts). When he moved to Portland he brought Keystone with him, inviting her to direct. His first season he had Critical Mass perform their adaptation of Antigone.  

“He’s the only reason I have any career. I am so indebted to him. He’s so supportive and generous.” He even helped Keystone apply to the Alan Schneider Director Award as well as a few other grants.

Keystone admits that the energy and drive needed to make it as a regional theater director is taxing. Every time she would have a show up she’d invite anyone she could to see it in order to help advance her career. But no one ever came. Thus she wasn’t getting many opportunities aside from Coleman. “When those [directing] opportunities weren’t coming up and I was focusing more on my [own] work, my priorities started to shift. This was a very long process, maybe 10 or 15 years of me trying to get work in regional theater. And I wasn’t working here [in Los Angeles]. So there was no momentum or name recognition. I didn’t have a real presence in Los Angeles as a freelance director.”

Focusing on Critical Mass

Critical Mass’s first devised piece, The Akhmatova Project, helped to forge a path for the company. It was lauded as one of the “10 Best” Productions for 2000 by the Los Angeles Times and nominated for 4 LA Weekly awards. That show took about two and a half years to develop. That may seem like a long time, but their process has only grown in scope over time. Apollo, which premiered at the inaugural Kirk Douglas season in 2005, took seven years, and Ameryka, which is currently being remounted at CTG’s Block Party, is going into year eight. “We don’t want to think too hard about that,” laughs Keystone. “It’s kind of ridiculous — wow, one play a decade!”

It’s difficult to maintain an ensemble for over 30 years. How does she do it? “I feel really blessed that for the most part there is a core group of people who are super devoted to the company and to the work that we are doing. It was a huge worry [at first]. The ensemble is everything. Then I met with a choreographer friend of mine and she said, ‘don’t worry about who’s at the table, worry about the food’.

“There is a devoted core,” Keystone says. “Even if every workshop phase we do, every development phase we have to recast several people, we maintain the core. For instance, with this remount [of Ameryka] we’ve basically lost one and a half people,” she lets out a boisterous laugh.

It could be intimidating for new people to jump into this process, but Keystone tries to filter people through the audition process. “We put people through the ringer when they audition because [the work] is hard. It used to totally freak me out to get a new person in.” She thought bringing in a new person would ruin their flow. Instead, “what we found is, number one, there’s great institutional memory in the people who continue and information conveyed in many different ways from those people. There’s this weird energy that envelops the new people that kind of carries them the along.” This energy gets them through the initial “what the fuck!” phase, says Keystone with another boisterous laugh. “We also learned that new people bring new ideas and skills and perspectives. I would say 90% of the time it makes things stronger.”

Brick by Brick: The Building Blocks of Ameryka

The process for Keystone always begins with research. “We’ll do all of this research and more intellectual work and then I try to figure out a way to translate that into people’s cells. Into their bodies and intuition. And then how to translate the information into authentic lived experiences on stage. I just try to think of weird exercises that would help that happen. They’re very improvisational – they’re almost always nonverbal, especially at first. And if they are verbal, it’s very limited.”

This is to prevent actors from trying to be too clever. “It’s more about trying to tap into a state or a condition and being present in that. Which I think is really hard for American actors.”

She adds, “When we start a piece, everything is super abstract. No one knows what they’re doing and [the exercises] go on forever. There’s no script, there’s no characters. We’ll have done a lot of research and talking, so I might try to tap into that.”

Keystone is also known for designing the shows she creates and directs. They all have a materiality to them. For instance, given the unifying theme throughout Ameryka, one can imagine that the ensemble spent a lot of time playing with bricks.

She laughs saying the ensemble initially asked, “We’re not going to use real bricks right? And I was like, we’re going to use real bricks.” There’s texture, and weight, and even a smell to real bricks. You can’t use fake ones — to which Keystone immediately replies, “I can’t,” with a huge eruption of laughter.

“There’s something about the materiality. When I introduce an object we spend hours just exploring the properties of the object. In a completely free way. Everyone works on their own, then we sort of work together. It was just hours of [exploring] ‘what are bricks like?’

Ameryka is about the long relationship between America and Poland. “The bricks got introduced because Poland was the first manufacturer of bricks in Europe. And everything [there] was made of brick. When you go there you still see ruins with piles of bricks.”

This made Keystone think deeper about bricks in both a practical and metaphorical way. “What are they?” she asks. “They’re a small unit. They are made of the Earth. They are soft and then they harden, but they’re actually kind of fragile. They break easily, until you put them together. Once you bind them together they become very strong. So they work on an incremental level.”

She takes a breath before adding, “That has some metaphoric potential. Then I realized Jefferson’s Monticello was made of brick. He, his slaves, made all of the bricks. He had a brick making workshop on his property.” Once she discovered this she knew she had to incorporate bricks into the piece.

It’s difficult for Keystone to distill their process into easily digestible chunks. That’s perhaps due to the most important element to Critical Mass’ process: time. “You’ve just got to be in the room for seven fucking years. I can’t explain it,” she says. “I have notebooks with all of our little exercises and the steps that we took. I’ve even had people who have observed, over a long period of time, our process and still don’t understand how we’ve made it.”

There’s a magical alchemy within the ensemble. “It’s very organic,” she affirms. “We’ll play with a brick for an hour and a half. Then take a break and laugh and goof around, then sort of work our way into something else.”

It could be easy to get lost in this methodology of never ending bricks and improvisations, but the ensemble make it a point to show every workshop they do. John Flax, who runs Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe, suggested to Keystone that they show smaller excerpts throughout the development process. “We work for three weeks and then invite people to basically see the exercises. Having an audience ups the ante,” says Keystone.

This work, she insists, takes devotion. “It’s a living thing. We love each other.”

It’s clear in talking with Keystone that her own devotion to the company and the work is vital to its longevity. When she’s not creating, she’s the one searching for grants and for opportunities to tour their work. It’s exhausting work, but Keystone is relentless and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Keystone feels lucky to be able to focus her time on doing what she loves. Does she have any advice for the next generation? “You just have to do it,” she says bluntly but with a smile.

“Number one, if this isn’t something that you absolutely have to do with every fiber of your being, go fucking do something else. There are too many people trying to do it. There’s no jobs. There are no directing jobs.” She adds, “I’ve had playwrights come to me [asking], ‘where can I have [my play] done?’ And I’m like, here’s how it works and then they get totally dejected. If you have to be in the theater, and you want to make your own work you just have to do it and don’t wait for anybody to give you an opportunity or permission.”

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Ashley Steed

Ashley Steed

Ashley is a freelance make-believer (i.e., a creative producer, director, performer and writer) and has worked extensively in London and Los Angeles. When she's not chatting to passionate theatre artists about their work, you can most likely find her at Son of Semele Ensemble. Follow her shenanigans on twitter @ashleysteed.