by Colin Holter
I was recently asked how many productions I’ve had the chance to work on with Theatre B. When I counted them out on my fingers, the answer — six, including The Oil Project! — came as a bit of a surprise to me because it feels like six distinct jobs rather than six instances of the same job. Making art with Theatre B is always a richly collaborative process, but the shape of my contribution to that process is never quite the same twice: in some cases I’ve been a capital-C Composer, in others a traditional theatre-style sound designer, and in still others a hybrid sound artist with recourse to a sprawling collection of tools and resources.
In The Oil Project, my job is to invite sounds both beautiful and terrible from a custom-built microtonal electric guitar while wearing a gaudily bedazzled suit that might even have been a bit much for the likes of Rex Allen and Porter Waggoner, a suit whose loudness is exceeded only by the loudness of the guitar. This isn’t the kind of work my training in the field of contemporary concert music led me to anticipate, but it’s the task that turned out to be waiting for me at the end of The Oil Project’s development process — a long, occasionally meandering, not always well-marked but always compelling road that our nine company members have navigated together.
When our ensemble began the devising process by researching the Bakken boom and its attendant social, cultural, economic, political, geological, and (with an eye toward costuming) sartorial issues, I collected relevant sound materials. W; when we moved on to generating snippets of performance, trombonist Cole Bartels and I improvised a body of music based on the sounds of trains, drills, pumpjacks, truck radios, Western Meadowlarks, the wind, etc., etc. During the development phase of our process, we shaped this music around the movement and text that had come to define the world of the show, the better to amplify the stories that the rest of the company had been inventing. The ultimate result is nearly an hour of music that no other creative process could have produced — an extended piece that shows the traces of aesthetic decisions made not only by me and Cole but also by Brad, Chelsea, Pam, Matthews Dryburgh and Collie, Jay, and Mia — and which itself makes a strong argument for devising as a collaborative, original practice.
In Red, my first production with Theatre B, the character of Mark Rothko advises his protégé to “make something new;” that’s a tall order for a single artist, let alone a multidisciplinary company of artists with a breadth of perspectives, agendas, and skills. However, we’ve made it just about to the terminus of that road I mentioned earlier, and what we’ve found there is something new. Also, a killer suit.