artist convo: Melissa Moschitto
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
The Coven-19 ensemble had the privilege of participating in a devising workshop with Melissa Moschitto of The Anthropologists in Fall of 2020. The following is a transcript of a conversation that I had with Melissa in January of 2021.
Bio: Melissa Moschitto (she/her/hers) is a director, writer and producer, and the Founding Artistic Director of The Anthropologists. Favorite directing projects outside of The Anthropologists include A Barn Play by Lizzie Donahue (UP Theater Company), Daddy’s Black & Jewish by performance artist Lian Amaris (Nuyorican Poets Cafe), Walkabout or Reverse Continental Drift Syndrome (The Flea). International: Directing Apprentice, Compania Atalaya (dir. Ricardo Iniesta), Medea, La Extranjera (2004). Melissa holds a B.A. in Theater from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has studied with the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, SITI Company, and at the La Mama Umbria International Director’s Symposium She has led devising workshops for Hofstra University, the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Ice Factory/New Ohio, Day One, Educational Alliance/New York Restoration Project and the Berkshire Fringe. Melissa is also a mom to two dramatic little children. She resides and works in Upper Manhattan on unceded Lenape land.
Melissa: I'm very intrigued at like what the experience of coven was like if you didn't do the midnight show. I did the midnight one and I felt like there was just something so... magical sounds like a little trite, but it did feel magical. Everybody else in my apartment was asleep, and I sat there all by myself in the dark with a candle. And it was also the anticipation of staying up late. I have not been interested in seeing Zoom theater, and I've not been interested in making Zoom theater, but I think like the heightened circumstances of watching the show or participating in the experience -- because I wouldn't call it a show, I don't know what words you've developed for it -- but doing it at midnight felt like a little subversive. I can't imagine doing it in in any form of light.
Maegan: You came for the most magical night for sure. I think the other performances felt a little lighter, a little sillier. And there was also the magic of hitting our stride at that point in the process. For part two, we're thinking of doing the opposite, with a showing at sunrise.
Melissa: I think there's something very powerful about making it a challenge for the audience.
Maegan: Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about the significance of sacred space and having a sort of magical entry point to engage with the piece. Having to stay up late and prepare materials meant that only the people who really wanted to be there showed up, and that gave us the energy we needed. We were nervous about funky energy from people who have negative associations with witchcraft, so adding all of those steps really helped.
Melissa: I remember taking a class at UMass about the history of witchcraft, in my sophomore year I think. I don't know why I took it, but it definitely wasn't what I expected. I'm thinking about people not understanding what you were doing, because there's obviously this very specific yet shallow cultural interpretation of witches and witchcraft. When I took the class I was surprised that it was actually about women being persecuted throughout history, and about feminism.
Maegan: I'd love to learn more about you before asking about your devising process. Where did your interest in this kind of theatre-making came from and how did it develop?
Melissa: I did my BA at UMass in theater with a minor in English literature. It was a very traditional program then. I came in as an actor, and I didn't shift until I went to New Mexico State University for a year through the domestic exchange program. While I was there I got the inclination to direct, I think in part because I was tired of just being told my blocking. It was very unsatisfying. So my first entry into directing and producing was staging The Vagina Monologues at New Mexico State University, which was a pretty subversive, radical thing given that we were on the edge of the Bible Belt and I was the new exchange student. At that time, I don't think you could have categorized me as a subversive or radical individual, but somehow I decided that we had to do The Vagina Monologues there. So that was my first experience helming a project.
The other really formative experience was working for New World Theatre, which sadly is gone now, but it was remarkable. Roberta Uno created something really special and unique, to use very trite words. It exposed me and however many others to so many generative artists. That was my first taste of social justice through theater. I was involved with Project 2050, which worked with high school students. It was named for the year that sociologists predicted that white people would no longer be the majority. Every year had a different theme. I remember being so blown away by these young people creating these really powerful performances and I suppose, although I don't know that they ever used the word devised, that that's the kind of work we were doing. Over the summer there was a one-week program where the students stayed in the dorms at Amherst College. The theme that year was Multi-Lingual-Schisms, and it was all about immigration, being bilingual. There was a big law that had been passed in California that prohibited teachers from speaking to their students in their native languages. All the students took two different master classes throughout the week with different artists. They would bring in an expert to talk about legislation or history and so on. So it was this really potent example of what was happening in in the world in real time, backed up by expertise, which turned into a funnel for performance.
So that was one formative experience. Also, because UMass has a language requirement and I was horrible at foreign languages, I had the option of either struggling through and getting a D plus in my classes, or going to Spain for a semester, which I was very fortunate to be able to do. That was definitely another turning point, getting exposed to European theater. I wasn't in the theatre program, but I was I was seeking out theatre while I was there. I love Federico García Lorca, and I was in Granada, which is where he's from. I went to see a production of El Publico by a company called Compania Atalaya, and I was just blown away. My Spanish was not great, and it was Lorca, so it was super dense and poetic, so I really had no idea what the play was about -- but it was just so visually stunning, and it was so physicalized and visceral that I had to like go back and see it again. After I graduated UMass, I was at Trinity Rep for almost a year as an intern, but I left early because I had written to Atalaya and asking to work for them. I don't even know what possessed me to do that. You know when you're 23 years old and you’re like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do now? What am I gonna do with my life?" I thought, "I want to go to Spain." So I went there under a tourist visa, and I literally had three months with them. It was the end of their process. They were premiering their version of Medea, which was taken from all different texts, a bunch of sources. They were premiering it at a classical theatre festival in Merida, Spain.
That was a huge eye opener. I know that you're interested in like power dynamics, and that experience was the classic founding artistic director having the final say over everything that was put on stage. However, what was super fascinating to me about it was their process. I wish I could go back in time and make myself take better notes! Anyway, they had a practice where the actors would put forth a proposal for a character or a scene -- I watched so many videos of these proposals because they was already completed by the time I was there -- where they assembled costumes and lighting and had a piece of text, and they would create a theatrical moment. Essentially, the artistic director, Ricardo Iniesta would say, "I like this costume piece, and I like what you did with this text," and he would cherry pick things and fuse them back together to his liking. By the time the show was performed it didn't change at all. I don't know if that's just a super European thing, but it was technically very precise, which came out of the tradition of Meyerhold and Biomechanics, and Jerzy Grotowski. The actors didn't even talk to each other; the performance style was all out to the audience. And it was just like so radical and exciting to me, having come from the background that I did.
So that and my internship New World Theatre were my two big turning points in my theater-making journey. Project 2050 led students through a process to create work based in research, and Atalaya was in the vein of physical theatre.
Then I came to New York and I was like, "I want to do everything. I'm going to take every gig possible." And there were a lot of bad gigs, and a lot of bad shows, and I got really tired of seeing casting calls for female roles that were like, bartender, or the girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend. It was super depressing. And most of the work that I was encountering wasn't connected to the world at large.
So eventually I did a workshop of three short plays by Lorca, that were translated by Caridad Svitch. I think I was the first person to stage it in the U.S. It was in some ways successful and in some ways a failure. They're his impossible plays, they're not meant to be staged necessarily, so it was super exciting. I didn't know anything about how to build an ensemble, and that that was where the failure part came in. But that experience did spark what became the foundation for The Anthropologists, which was regular training together in physical theatre techniques. This mostly came out of the Viewpoints tradition, because trained with SITI company shortly after I came to New York. I was also later influenced by Liz Lerman. But finding my way into devised theater was a bit accidental. Devised wasn't a word that was used all that much at the time, and not many people were doing that kind of work.
The initial project that launched the company came when we were trying to do a play about Christopher Columbus based on his actual diaries and the diaries of his contemporaries, to try to break the image of who we thought he was (this was back in 2007, so before the more common discourse now). And we had a really hard time like casting men in this show. We kept having to audition people and they would flake out on us, and then finally, I was like, okay this is ridiculous. I was sitting there with seven women and thought, we're going to make a show for us. We're no longer going to look for men to create our work. So we created a show called Give Us Bread. It was about immigrant women in the Lower East Side in 1917 who protested against rising food prices. Today, if you google “1917 food riots,” you can find things on the Internet. But back then it was a treasure hunt, getting articles from The Yiddish Forward and translating them into English, finding little anecdotes in old New York Times articles, private memoirs that several people had written -- all to piece together a narrative that didn't exist in history books because it was about women. It was immigrant women whose stories we didn't keep.
So it was that experience of finally being able to build an ensemble, after all the stumbling blocks I had encountered before then; it was really feeling like I was contributing to collecting a history that had been lost, feeling empowered as a theater maker, as a director and writer. And the actors felt empowered creating characters from that research. We did work around our own immigrant stories of how we came to the United States, so there was a definite personal aspect to the creative process. That premiered 2009, and it set the standard for me for what our work was.
Maegan: That's really interesting, the idea of establishing an ensemble and creating the work that makes sense for the ensemble rather than the other way around.
Melissa: Very infrequently have we auditioned for roles in a show. I loathe auditions and we've almost always done a workshop type of audition. That was really the intention behind the jam sessions (described on their website a “a physical theatre and devising training session; a space and time for artists to work on their craft, build skills, experiment with new techniques, and recharge artistic batteries. Jam Sessions are all about experimentation. They are designed as a laboratory for actors, directors, designers - these training sessions are here for everyone's benefit.”). They’re about inviting people in to train and then realizing that we're simpatico -- you like working this way, you understand how we're working, so do you want to do a show? So the work is always built from the people who are in the room. And certainly over the past five years we've become even more attuned to who is in the room. Who do I need to get into the room? Who's not in the room and why are they not here?
Maegan: I'd love to know why that makes sense as a process to you, rather than auditioning around a pre-conceived concept, which is pretty common in a lot of devising spaces.
Melissa: I'm going to have a super disjointed answer to this. For me, a lot came out of having experienced the work of Compania Atalaya as an audience member and then going to work with them for three months. They were touring El Publico and asked if I would join them in this other city. It had been two years since I had last seen it, and it was exactly the way I remembered it, because they're very technical about their performances. Some of those actors had been with the company many, many years. And I had a very romanticized view of that. I encountered that again in August 2019, when I went to Odin Teatret in Denmark for 10 days to train with Eugenia Barba. (I'm so glad that I did that, because who knows when they'll be able to do that training again.) That's another company where artists have dedicated their lives to working with one director. We can talk about the political differences that allow for a government to support the arts in a way that is needed for those artists to work there full-time, without jobs outside the company. In terms of Odin, each artist is almost like a company unto themselves. They have their academic pursuits and their methodologies, and they train people themselves. Anyway, I had this very romanticized view of an ensemble and of being able to work with a group of artists really deeply over a long period of time. And I find that very satisfying as an artist, especially when I look at Jean Goto, who's one of our founding members. I got to work with her for almost 10 years, and I would like to think that the roles that she got to continue developing in our work were not roles that she would have found somewhere else. I got to see her acting career and her artistry get deeper over the years and learn new things about her as a performer. That's part of it, the desire to have that deep relationship and trust so we can both be taking risks.
When we did Artemisia's Intent, which we created in 2017 into early 2018 and then premiered in February 2018, the only way that happened was because the five of us that were working together had all done various projects together. We'd known each other for several years and we entered the room with a certain level of trust. That show would not exist if I just was like, "I want to do a show with Artemisia and dealing with sexual assault and women's representation in art, and I'm gonna audition someone." I can't even imagine anyone else doing the show. I feel very personal about things, very attached. That show wouldn't have existed without that set of five people who trusted each other very deeply and could deal with and explore traumatic themes in a rehearsal room together and come away with a piece of art that we all feel very proud of.
And our projects develop over an extended period of time. So we may do four weeks right now, then we pause for all the logistical things, and then we regroup for the next workshop two months from now. It's an elongated process, but that allows for fermentation, and taking a risk with the storytelling. Hopefully, that risk pays off with an audience. It doesn't always, but I find that even if it isn't embraced by the critics, for whatever that's worth, was the process satisfying to us as artists? You mentioned earlier that there was so much research for the coven that didn't go into the show, and that the show became something other than you what you thought it was going to be. I feel like that's happened with the majority of our shows. We think it's going to be one thing and it actually turns out to be something entirely different. That's partly the nature of devising, but also, my artistic sensibilities and my worldview has definitely been challenged multiple times in most of the shows that we've done. So it's also super exciting for my growth as a person.
Maegan: I've been thinking about process so much lately. I mean, I certainly believe in work that that challenges audiences, and I've worked as a dramaturg for plenty of productions with activist-oriented content, but I'm at the point where if the process isn't also socially just, then it doesn't hold meaning to me. It sounds like there's an element of caretaking that's really central to your work, that the people matter and the process is going to revolve around that.
Melissa: I think that it’s deepened in the past couple of years. We have not always been successful, especially whenever we reach the inflection point of production and performance, where suddenly I as lead producer and director am up against the clock, and we hit the hard, immovable reality of having to make it work. That is definitely not where I shine. And I think about many moments where the process got cut off or, in the pressures of getting the show to performance, we've had uncomfortable moments. We've had moments where the actors didn't feel valued, where I had to make decisions that I didn't want to make, especially when it's time sensitive. Those moments suck, and I can't be collaborative with everybody in the production process as much as I want.
I will say that one dream of mine that has come true a couple of times is when we've had designers in the devising process. This happened especially with Artemisia’s Intent, because Irina Kuraeva, who did costumes and scenic elements, was there for all of the devising with us. You can feel that influence. You can see how the actors interact with the design elements differently.
Anyway, I don't want to pretend that there haven't been moments where couldn't care for the performers as much as was needed. And that's a huge question that we've been like grappling with recently, that the whole industry's been grappling with. When we go back to production mode, what is it going to look like? I'm doing an internal assessment, mostly from the perspective of anti-racism. And I think the next part of this journey will be going deeper into disability justice, which is like a really tricky thing when you've framed yourself as a physical theatre company. At the end of December, we hosted two conversations with current and past collaborators who've been through production. It was important to open it up for performers to talk from their perspective. How can we prevent harm, specifically preventing harm to BIPOC artists? And that can only help everybody.
Specifically we’re thinking about what happens when we get into when we transition from rehearsal to performance, from devising to generating to interpretation? That's a tricky line to to navigate, especially given that every process is a little bit different depending on the work, and this is over many years of not even having the language of “generating content” versus “interpreting content.” That's a line that we didn't always draw. I also have a terrible habit of not using a script until really late in the process.
One of the next conversations that will hopefully happen in February is continuing the internal assessment and anti-racism with a focus on designers and production.
Maegan: What's ideal collaboration like for you?
Melissa: Definitely a lot of generosity. Generosity of ideas, and also a kind of boldness that comes with that. Like, I'm gonna throw out an idea and my collaborators, even if they think it's a horrible idea, are going to be generous enough to try it out. And then I can see that it's not actually the right idea. I love when that happens. When the field talks about risk-taking, having to take bigger risks -- what the hell does that mean? For me, risk is when another one of my collaborators and I take risks on each other's ideas to actually test them out. I don't know who planted this idea — probably Anne Bogart and SITI company — the idea of having to see it so that you can name it. There's something about risking time and energy to show somebody else their idea, live and like in real time. It's so fulfilling as an artist. I keep coming back to this quote from Emergent Strategy...
Melissa: "Everything is data." Everything is important. I've been thinking about that in devising, because there's always going to be material that you generate that doesn't make it into the show, but it helped you get to the next thing. Or maybe you're going to go back to it later, or it's the seed for the next idea.
Maegan: Or at the very least it's not in the back of your head anymore.
Melissa: Right, right. You're not going to finish the rehearsal process and think, damn it, this isn't working because nobody took that idea that we didn't test out! So yeah, a successful process is generosity.
And it's pushing, so you that don't get lazy as an artist in terms of ideas and aesthetic, so that you don't stop growing. Every time we do a show we create it differently, not just the process, but the aesthetic as well. We're not a well-made-play company, that's never been true, but we're certainly evolving.
And I need to know that we're going to have fun, that I can laugh a lot, even when we're working on tough stuff. We've been talking a lot lately in our current ensemble about finding more joy. I'm trying to move towards joy naturally in my aesthetic. How can I engender that as an artist?
Maegan: Definitely. When I proposed COVEN-19, I thought we'd end up doing something about grief or communing with the dead, because it took place on Samhain. But as an ensemble, we realized that that's not what we needed. We needed rest and joy. We certainly covered some tough stuff, but it's interesting that that's not what we landed on.
Actually, can you talk a little more about tough stuff? How do you stay vulnerable and trusting with each other while staying safe and establishing boundaries? And as a follow-up question, how do you approach care-taking with your audience?
Melissa: I have a clear answer for the second question. One of the frustrations that we've had recently is around those times when we can't do more caretaking for our audience. I'm thinking about Artemisia's Intent. In some ways, we were asking a lot of our audience, especially for women who had experienced sexual assault. We dealt with it very sensitively: there wasn’t graphic staging in it, although there was some graphic language in the sense of biological terms being used in context of a trial testimony. The show was made for festivals, where we had 10 minutes to get the hell out of the theater after a performance. It felt sad s when we weren't able to care for an audience in their experience of entering and leaving a space. We put as many resources as we could in the program and gave content warnings. I think if we had had limitless resources, we would have had someone in the space, a therapist or someone to speak to afterwards.
We do think about the audience a lot, especially because our motto is "Where Art Meets Action." We're always thinking about way to activate the audience after the show. I think we're naturally getting more nuanced in how we are caring for and preparing an audience. We once did a trio plays about climate change and whether humans have the capacity to change. We gave a survey at the beginning of the show. Initially it was one or two of us with a clipboard asking people questions, but on maybe the second night of the run, we managed to get answers from everybody. We asked questions about people's eating habits, like whether they eat meat or if they think it's okay to eat animals. It was delivered in a professional way, but it was a bit aggressive. (These questions were later used in a scene in the third play of the evening.) The night that we got every single audience member's response, it was the quietest audience we'd ever had. And we thought, okay, maybe this isn't the way we activate our audience!
In terms of caretaking with the ensemble, one important thing we do is we have our safe word, potato. We've used that probably since Give Us Bread, when there were definitely moments of communication difficulties, even when it wasn't sensitive material. There were scenarios where it was me and an actor butting heads, and we needed a translator essentially, because we didn't get what each other was saying. Potato comes in if there's a moment of tension in the rehearsal room. Maybe an actor needs a break, or someone needs to mediate a conversation.
I hope I've gotten better about making time as precious as possible, leaving space for the unexpected to happen and trying to not be rigid, so if we take a left turn, because somebody needs something, it's not going to mean we're stopping the work. I remember one Jam Session, we were working on like weight bearing exercises, just lifting people and trying to figure out how to move people across the space. And one participant had a really hard time with that exercise. It brought up a lot of emotions, and it hurt for this person to be held and be lifted. I didn't anticipate that. But once they articulated it, we immediately decided to do something else. There was no need for us to continue. There was no need for us to say, “why don't you sit down and watch and we'll continue with it.” Especially not in a training session, that would have been horrible.
We also promote taking care of your own body. That's always part of the beginning of a Jam Session. From a physical point of view, we're trying new things and discovering our limits, but obviously we don't want people being injured. Articulating expectations has helped. We haven't necessarily used the words self-care, but there is an aspect of it. And when you have an ensemble and you're working together for a long time, there are times where I'm not catching things because I've got my laser focus on one thing, so we've tried to cultivate a practice of checking in on each other.
Maegan: Can you talk a little about power in your process, your relationship with the rest of your collaborators?
Melissa: I'm thinking about a 10-minute play festival I did with a company before The Anthropologists was born. I ended up writing this kind of off-the-wall play about the history of the potato, and I was pulling from all these found texts. And I brought together a whole bunch of people, a really big cast, which I love, and I so rarely get to do. And we devised within the script that I'd written, that already existed. That was probably my first or second time really devising with other people. I came up with this list of words that are related to potato and we worked off of that together. In some ways I was trying to serve as the audience for the actors. As much as we try and cultivate our outside eye to understand like what we're doing as performers, as makers, I am literally the outside eye. Lately we've been talking a lot about legibility.
It's definitely tricky in the sense that the role of the director has been so ingrained in our education, and any time you try and subvert that, what does that mean? I know I've had misperceptions in the past, where I thought I was giving a lot of power away, but I wasn't actually giving as much away as I thought. I have always wanted to have an atmosphere where especially performers, but also designers and whoever's in the devising process, everyone has agency as storytellers to try out ideas. We've tried to lean into being horizontal, especially in the first phases of devising where people don't have to be doing a single thing or filling a specific role. We've been talking a lot more about cultural agency in in the rehearsal room and when a collaborator gets to draw the line about content that's being used. When we were making No Man's Land in 2016, we didn't use the words “cultural agency” in that process, but we definitely had tricky moments of someone expressing discomfort with how we're telling the story. That was a play that turned into a play about how you tell a story with white privilege and implicit bias baked into us. So that was something where the process ended up being embedded into the performance.
I definitely have places for feedback, whether it's a survey at the end of a process or a debriefing process, to allow people space to reflect. I still believe at the end of the day that ultimately, you do need a director that's going to shepherd the process. I've had to own my place as director at a certain point in the process to get us from creation to fruition. And everyone needs the space to be focused on their specific craft and the thing that they actually need to do to make the show happen.
Maegan: It was so interesting in the coven process, where we didn't have well-defined roles, which is something we're going to definitely work on in the spring, there was still an instinct to defer to somebody as a decision-maker. There's still a need for that, so that everyone can focus on what they want to focus on. I'm trying to figure out how to hold power in the ways that are useful and in the ways that make people feel safe. But when it comes to artistic decisions, that's something we all do together.
Melissa: Yeah, finding where you can hold power that protects the project.
Maegan: Right. If me taking on a task empowers other people to do their own work, then that's something I'm happy to hold on to
Melissa: And I think we're trying to get better at having conversations like that, even as an ensemble, in which we can be more explicit about decision-making and where decision making lives. We started talking about this in December from an actor's point of view, on how to keep people safe during a performance. Things like building better check-ins during performance.
One important element is naming that: articulating what the process has been and where it needs to be better, and having conversations about how exactly we're working before we get into the rehearsal room again.
Maegan: There's a lot of power in articulating and naming things. That's something I'm definitely learning from the undergrads I collaborate with and teach. They're so good about naming power, finding ways to establish trust, articulating our needs. It's given me permission to do that kind of naming as well.
Melissa: For sure. My kids, who are in first and third grade, are doing a big unit on identity and diversity. This week we're talking about people with different abilities. This is first and third grade. And I'm like, wow, these are things that I didn't learn until I was in my 20s. I'm really glad about that, that it's like, wow, so much of that is going to be embedded into like your way of being, and that will serve others so well.
Maegan: It was so cool to create a space with undergrads, without constrains of a traditional process. The way that they wanted to create space just kind of happened. So we organically centered caretaking, ground rules, empathy. I'm just so hopeful to see that younger generations are instinctively prioritizing those kinds of ideals. To be fair, we put out a casting call for witch-curious artists, so most of the people who showed up for auditions are interested in this kind of care-taking work to begin with. But that's great. We organically ended up with this coven of queer, activist, loving witches.
Melissa: That's so important, to know who you're calling into the space.
Maegan: I'd love for you to share something with the undergrad coven members, maybe something you wish you'd known many moons ago.
Melissa: If you'd asked me in the before times I would have just said to like just see as much theatre as you can. And I guess that's still true, but I know that it's challenging right now.
Something that I'm like trying to teach myself in this phase of my life and career is how to find joy in being creative, in a way that is not attached to a project that I'm working on. If you've chosen to make your career in theatre, then it becomes easy to fall into the trap of only doing creative work that serves whatever project you “need” to be working on. I look at my kids who sing all the time. I've got one who's just trying to figure out how to play the piano, and another who's constantly writing songs. They're not burdened by the expectation of final production, although they have staged some shows over the summer outside. It’s having a private or personal artistic, creative practice that makes them happy. It serves nothing but to make them happy. So I'm trying to find a creative practice every day that makes me happy, that has that doesn't have anything to do with the show that I'm working on.