Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Ameryka" Helps Artist Discover History

Keystone and Ameryka

Nancy Keystone rarely gives her Polish heritage much consideration.

"[My great-grandparents] came to the U.S. from Poland at the turn of the last century,” she relates, “But there are no family members there now, that I know of.”

But being in Poland helped her feel connected to her roots. “I got a vibe while I was there. There was a sense of familiarity.” Through the development of Ameryka, she is finding an appreciation for her own heritage.

Keystone wears many hats: director/playwright/choreographer/designer/filmmaker. She conceives productions as a whole, often designing her own sets. She founded Critical Mass Performance Group, the ensemble of actors and designers, with which she collaborates to create productions. She also has been a director or designer at numerous companies across the nation, including Portland Center Stage, Mark Taper Forum, Actor's Express, Theatre @ Boston Court, Georgia Shakespeare Festival and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. She serves as resident director for The Continuum in Los Angeles.

Keystone earned an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon, and a BA in theatre arts from UCLA. In developing Ameryka, she is finding an appreciation for her own Polish heritage.

Nancy Keystone had a life-changing moment. It came during a trip to Poland nearly four years ago and led to a theatrical, soul-searching journey through history.

Keystone, an award-wining multi-disciplinary artist, is the founder and artistic director of Critical Mass Performance Group. In December, the group presents Keystone’s work-in-progress, Ameryka as part of the Studio SCR season.

The concept of Ameryka began in 2009 with an unintentional trip Keystone took to the Grotowski Festival in Poland.

“It was a total fluke that I went out there,” she says. Joanna Klass, founder of Arden2, an Orange County arts organization, was director of the festival and conference in Poland and brought approximately 70 Americans. “I fell in love with Poland,” she relates. “The theatre was amazing, eye-opening and revelatory.”

The festival took place during the 20th anniversary of the Solidarity election and what caught her eye was a Solidarity election poster that featured Gary Cooper in the 1952 western film High Noon. The poster read, “Solidarity. At High Noon, June 4, 1989.”

At High Noon
June 4, 1989
The poster—featuring the iconic American cowboy image—sparked Keystone’s curiosity and led her down a research path that revealed numerous connections between America and Poland over the course of history; links that Keystone found were at times surprising and at times unsettling.

In developing Ameryka, Keystone says she and the ensemble uncovered what she calls “unknown truths.”

“The stories we are taught in school are so mythical, and it’s a struggle to really learn what’s going on,” she says. “Ameryka is a critique of what America says it’s doing and what it actually is doing."

One such American story not included in school lesson plans concerns President Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Polish General Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Kosciuszko's challenge to Jefferson regarding American slavery.

"Jefferson was an amazing and brilliant human being—but just think of how much more he could have been. In what ways could our country be different if he'd had the courage of his convictions and succeeded in abolishing slavery at the beginning?”

On the other hand, Poland saw the United States as a sort of role model.

“For a long time after World War II, during the Cold War, Eastern Europe looked at the U.S. as a model for democracy. Not really a utopia, but something to strive for."

Keystone’s Ameryka includes a focus on the 1980s, particularly the United States' substantial support toward the formation of the Polish Solidarity trade union.

“The Solidarity movement helped create an independent trade union but when that was crushed, the movement went underground for eight years, and the U.S. was key in helping keep it alive. President Ronald Reagan is a real hero to the Polish people.”

“The history in Ameryka is really interesting,” she says. “The centuries-old connections we're discovering with different people and events in the U.S. and Poland are very surprising.”

The smaller stories that unfold in Ameryka are meant to explore a deeper personal connection. “Critical Mass Performance Group is trying to get underneath the stories and find the intimate human story that is involved. That’s the key. That’s what we’re working toward, to make it human. Explore the surprises.”

Ameryka kicks off the 2012-2013 Studio SCR season on Dec. 6-9. Get your tickets now!

Critical Mass performing Ameryka.
About Critical Mass Performance Group

Critical Mass Performance Group (CMPG) is committed to long-term collaborative development of new works, reinterpretations and adaptations of classic texts, and the use of alternative performance spaces. CMPG melds the physical, intuitive and intellectual angles into works that are politically charged, historically aware and theatrically inventive. Its most recent production, Apollo, won a Garland Award for Best Play and a Drammy Award for scenic design. The production was part of the U.S. exhibition at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial. CMPG’s The Akhmatova Project was named one of the Ten Best Productions in 2000 by Los Angeles Times, and received four L.A. Weekly nominations.

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