Nearly a decade ago, Anna Shneiderman and Amy Sass were teaching together at a summer theatre camp in Berkeley. Every year, they would put on a staff performance for the students and every time, Shneiderman says, “we were like ‘wait, that was actually the best work we’ve been doing all year.’” So in 2004, realizing they were artistic partners, the two decided to start a theater company. Shneiderman moved to the East Bay from Chicago, Sass’s husband Keith Davis joined the team and Ragged Wing Ensemble was born. Ten years later, the company has grown into a creative incubator, performing a series of multidisciplinary productions around a common theme every year and offering youth theater workshops and apprenticeships. And in the spring of 2014, the group will move into a permanent home in Downtown Oakland, the first indoor space in the city dedicated solely to local theater.
The ensemble has morphed since its inception, but it has stayed true to its original focus: adapting classical myths and applying them to the contemporary world. Their first show, in 2005, was an adaptation of the story of Adam and Eve called “The Serpent”, and this winter they will premiere an original play combining Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. “If you start with the mythic and then also get into contemporary stories, you have this way of connecting folks to something that feels very relevant to them, but also bigger and universal,” Shneiderman says.
The ensemble’s upcoming show, “Buried in the Body,” which premieres this weekend at Oakland’s Mountain View cemetery, is an original script written by resident playwright Anthony Clarvoe, but it explores similarly deep ideas. Every year Ragged Wing chooses a theme that will be the basis of the season’s productions. Last year it was an exploration of time; this year, the theme is ripeness. For Director Adam Sussman, this translates into “sex, death and food”, which are doled out in equal parts in “Buried in the Body”. Throughout the play, spirits and the living commingle over a picnic in the park.
An ensemble in the truest sense, Ragged Wing attracts a diverse breed of artists — puppeteers, musicians and sculptors, to name a few — and each one’s talents are mined in building the production. “The great thing about an ensemble is someone may be really good dramaturgically, while another is great with movement, and you can say ‘hey, movement person, come help me with this,” says Sussman. “You get a piece that’s incredibly rich because it’s got a multiplicity of voices.”
As part of exploring each season’s chosen theme, the company holds a mid-summer retreat, where they develop performances based on a set of “ingredients”, or prompts. “One of the leaders will say ‘your performance has to have these seven things. Go!” Shneiderman explains. “It’s straight out of your creative unconscious.”
Out of these exercises come kernels of imagery, dialogue, song or movement that make their way into the company’s productions. “We call it ‘cake’ and ‘soup’,” Shneiderman says. “Soup is the stuff that comes out and is just like ‘meh’, doesn’t really work. Cake is: ‘Oh wow, that’s a keeper.”
Since 2009, when Ragged Wing first began performing original plays, the company’s biggest obstacle has been its lack of a true home. The group still practices at Envision Academy, but only when there isn’t a scheduling conflict. In her time working in Oakland and Berkeley, Shneiderman has found that other theater companies of a similar size will often contact her asking where they can put on shows in the East Bay, then end up going to San Francisco when they fail to find a space. “We were suddenly like, ‘hmm’, if other people need this, and we do too, maybe we should just make this happen,” she says. Finally, she noticed a for-rent sign in a vacant building on Broadway and set up a meeting with the landlords, a father and son duo named Richard and Ben Weinstein. The building had been vacant for 30 years, but the new owners were open to getting it into compliance. That included the basics, like plumbing, which didn’t exist in the crumbling building.
When renovations are finished in March, the building, which has been dubbed The Flight Deck, will house a 99-seat black box theater, a lobby and gallery and a co-working space for artists. Three other theater ensembles will share the space as sub tenants. Asked about the name of the new theater, Shneiderman explained: “It’s a home for those with wings.”
“Buried in the Body” will be playing this weekend at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland on Oct. 19 at 4 pm and Oct 20 at 12 pm and 4 pm. All performances are free.
It will also be showing at Uptown Art Park on Oct. 24, 25 and 26 at 8 pm and at Live Oak Park in Berkeley on Oct. 31, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 at 8 pm.