CHP Dialogue

Rebecca V. Nellis talks with Stacey C. Rivera

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm completely biased when it comes to Rebecca Nellis. My closest friend, when I first met Rebecca we were teenagers far too in love with our overalls and macaroni and cheese dinners. We were roommates at NYU, and while so much has changed (sadly not the macaroni and cheese dinners, but now there is broccoli and beer, thank god) what hasn't changed is Rebecca's passion for the audience. What were her unformed instincts have grown into a completely honed belief system and theater company that not only does she believe in, but a growing army of people, including myself, are happy to join. I couldn't tell you when we talked or where cause all we do is talk. I can tell you she is frighteningly smart, annoyingly informed, a trusted editor and piss-yourself funny.

How and why did you start CHP?

Well the short version is that I was sitting in a pub with a friend [Edward P. Clapp, CHP co-founder and resident playwright from 2006-2008] and after a few pints, I turned to him and said if you write a play I’ll direct it.  From there, he apparently took me seriously, got inspired after seeing a play (I think the direct quote was, “I can do that”) and started writing. When he had a chunk of a script and a storyline, he asked me to meet him for drinks (there is a theme emerging here…) handed it over and said remember what you said in the pub? Which is also how the Scratcher and St. Dymphna’s became CHPs unofficial living rooms and meeting spaces.

The slightly longer version is that throughout Edward’s and my friendship there had been an ongoing conversation about the arts as a whole and our artistic pursuits personally including a shared desire to make work on our own terms and make opportunities for ourselves.  I think that dialogue coupled with the pints and seeing mediocre work all came together in a perfect storm at the right moment in time where we were able to take some risks and use our collective professional, creative and personal experiences to do something larger than ourselves.

We then got incredibly lucky and learned that if you ask for things quite often you will get them so there is obviously a long list of people and organizations that made and continue to make the foundation for the work Collective Hole does.  Theatre is a community project, it can’t be done in a vacuum, it can’t be done alone so we built a community by building a company. 

It was also important to us that CHP develop (and realize) a mission that reflected not only a desire to make relevant contemporary work but also highlighted the role the arts play beyond the walls where it is made.  It was an opportunity to lead by example, educate CHP’s audiences and prove that if an emerging company can commit to proactively participate in the communities it is a part of, then that could be the standard for all arts institutions, no matter the size. We’ve done everything from bringing at-risk youth to see productions and participate in talk backs to donating a portion of ticket sales to help fight poverty in NYC to using green business partners wherever possible to keeping ticket prices competitive with movie prices to engaging in an ongoing discourse about how best to address the challenges facing the independent arts. 


What is your process?  What is CHP's?

I think these days it is hard for me to separate the two but my directing process is to find great actors that I trust and let them do their job while I worry about being there to catch them if they fall, sculpting the work, honoring the writer’s words, and considering the audience’s experience.

Some directors have such a specific vision that they need their actors to follow, that isn’t how I work.  Though I have certainly grown more confident and more willing to plan ahead over the years, I definitely show up without a plan because until we build the characters (and in that the foundation for the story and the trust amongst the actors as a unit) I can’t really know what is possible. That trust for the actors is so critical, that is why a hallmark of first rehearsals for a new show is to have the actors make something together that, hopefully, is tangentially related to the play.  One year they created band posters and came up with song names, another year they filmed themselves doing prescribed tasks. 

My process is question filled in the hopes that the answers start to build the truth within the imaginary setting.  I also come from an improv background so I really believe you never say ‘NO’ on stage. You might say ‘yes but’ or ‘can you take that further or deeper‘ or ‘does it suggest anything else’ but never no, so even as a director I really live that.  I want everyone to feel like they have a stake in the work and that their particular talents are respected and appreciated.  I definitely had to learn how to be in charge in rehearsal when my instinct is to be one of the gang. 

I have an interest in the idea of process, I think the performance phase of a project is also part of the process.  I don’t want my audience to come into a theatre and sit down and say “Right when the lights go down, that is when the art starts”.  In all of CHP’s plays, I’ve been able to find a way for the play to start before it starts.  There are actors on stage and sometimes action on stage as soon as the house opens.  There isn’t this extreme moment where it is time to care about the work.  When you come into the theatre we are already talking to you from sleeping actors in a bed to the selection of music.  The absolute gorgeousness of the theatre and the performing arts in general is its transience, it is that group on that day and they share something that can never be replicated again.  And, when the show is over all that is left is the memory and if you are lucky the ideas exchanged.

So for CHP’s process, we really wanted to take the collaborative nature of the theatre as far as we could go without giving up our areas of “expertise” but to enhance them and make better work because of the shared nature of it all.  The writer writes, the director directs but within that is a long and ongoing conversation starting with what kind of story do we want to tell and about what kind of people.  What is resonating with us right now?  Who are they?  What are their names?  These are all things that starting with Season 2 we decided collectively.  To allow the director’s storytelling skills and theatrical awareness into the writing process strengthened the final piece while simultaneously offering the director an amazing understanding of the script.  Honoring a script that I knew inside and out and had fought over, celebrated over and agreed on was a much different kind of investment once rehearsals began.  And, with each year that Edward participated in rehearsals his writing for the stage matured because he had a better idea of what actors could (and couldn’t) do and how to dig for the most authentic moments and words. 

Bottom line for CHP’s process: blurring the lines of job descriptions is important.  Making something brand new is important.  Having informal readings through the writing process to test drive the work and figure out what we think is important.  Setting the standards to live up to is important.  Writing intimate plays focused on people and ideas and set in a moment in time is important.

What’s happened between season 3 and 4?

Transitions.  First there was the simple come down off Season 3, which had been our most ambitious production in many ways.  Then because both Edward and I have passions away from CHP, we each had other priorities.  He was transitioning to life as a doctoral student at Harvard and I was busy in my other life as the program director for a cancer organization and preparing grad school applications including the torturous GREs!  When we both started to look at what was to become of CHP early this year, it was clear that we couldn’t go on operating as we had so after many months and discussions, I assumed the role of Artistic Director and the charge to see what the next phase of CHP’s evolution will look like and Edward has turned his focus to other things, including a new project getting a lot of buzz called 20UNDER40 (which you should check out, its an anthology of 20 essays about the future of the arts from emerging leaders under 40).  From there I had to figure out what a Season 4 would look like, what my priorities for it were and whether this intensely collaborative process could be replicated with another writer (or two).  


Tell me about the new collaborations.

Well it is exciting for CHP to see if this great experiment can become a method of working with different people and in different ways. 

Paul Sapp (playwright of CHP’s next production Magnitude of the Slope) and I met through a mutual friend about a year or so ago at a play, I had no idea he had a writing background but we had an interesting post-play chat.  Honestly, I think the best way to describe how Paul and I have gotten to know each other is that we have been “creatively courting”.  Meeting up to discuss theatre, what interests us, seeing plays, talking about each of our processes and what we might be interested in exploring together. We just continued to meet and talk and it has evolved into this idea and now we are moving expediently into the writing phase and the pre-production planning because we have run dates the first two weekends in April!

As for Brian Morvant (two time CHP actor and collaborator), it is totally different because we already have a trust, a language and a mutual respect.  So with him the appeal is to push him to do something new, to get to know him as a writer and help to bring his ideas and the voice of this character to life first on the page and then on the stage.  This project doesn’t have a strict timeline (yet).  The great freedom here is all the work we have already done together that is banked.  We can go further, push each other harder because of that investment.  Plus we have so much fun making work together it is beyond tantalizing to try something bold now.

Talk to me about making artistic choices while being responsible to the company's bottom line.

When it comes to the work CHP develops, rehearses and produces it wouldn’t be all that different regardless of what was in the bank.  I am interested in people-focused stories, based in “today” that rely on smart writing and depth of the actor’s character work.  These intimate pieces would still be that way bigger budget or not.  And, I hope if I someday have more resources to work with, this time of making quality work out of almost nothing will stand me in good stead for remembering what is important to me about live theatre. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  Being true to the words, true to the ideas and true to myself is most important.  I am exceedingly proud of CHP for never winding up in the “hole,” one of the biggest goals we set out with was to be legitimate enough to have people invest in what we were doing.  We approach fundraising just like any other nonprofit does and we hope to compel donors to give not only because they know someone in the company personally but because they believe in what we are about and what we have built.

Read More:

Dialogue with Paul

Dialogue with Brian

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