Degenerate Art Ensemble’s upcoming performance at On the Boards is a sort of homecoming for this performance group. From December 3 to 6, audiences will get another look at an updated version of their original creation, Predator Songstress, which DAE has been developing over the past several years.
Initially begun as a project in which co-director Haruko Nishimura explored “misfit women” who sought to have a great effect on their worlds and, as a result, met great resistance, this project has now come to focus on a specific kind of anti-heroine: the Dictator.
It is against this Dictator that the main character of “Predator Songstress” must struggle. “The protagonist in our modern fairy tale is a girl raised under the rule of a totalitarian state in which the sharing of personal stories is forbidden,” Kohl said. “She ignores the rules and travels around the land collecting people’s stories and turning them into songs.”
This girl’s adventures have a ripple effect. “People share stories about how they were able to create transformations and find personal power in their lives,” Kohl said of the story’s plot. “The government considers this a threat to their rule and captures her and sends her to a women’s penal colony to have her voice removed. She then joins a rebellion and goes on a quest to regain her voice.”
According to co-director Joshua Kohl, DAE has taken a collaborative approach to the development of this work. “The past couple of years have not just been about making music, choreography, and video, but also about hands on research,” Kohl said. “We have been exploring the idea of ‘voice’—how people struggle to find, lose, and regain it. And to learn more about it we have been inviting members of the community into our studio for interviews and performance experiments.”
These interviews and experiments have been a key element of DAE’s artistic process. “When we began interviewing people we had a much broader field of questions, but the one area of questioning that seemed to link everyone that we spoke to was this question of how we find our voice,” Kohl said. “It is also a very central question to our quest as artists.”
DAE plans to continue integrating this audience input into its work. “Not only have we spent our careers until now trying to find our artistic voices, but we have also been searching for ways in which the voice of our audience can be expressed,” Kohl said. “We have spent a good deal of time finding ways of including the singing and sound making voices of our audience part of our performances—conducting the audience as if it was an orchestra.”
But Kohl asserts that DAE’s goal is not direction of the audience but, instead, integration. “This is an extension of our desire to bring the audience inside of the work, to do away with the feeling that we are separate,” he said. “And this work, where we are actually interviewing the audience, turning their words into songs, is an extension of that desire.”
This integration has the potential for long-term collaboration. “In the larger sense Degenerate Art Ensemble’s artistic team is like an extended family,” Kohl said. “There are some people who work on every project, some who have come in and out over the past fifteen years and then some that are fresh new collaborators. But depending on the project we will pull together just the right team for the job.”
This time, that team not only includes long-time DAE members and a range of interviewees, but also Seattle’s decades-old presenting organization On the Boards. “We have an extremely long history with On The Boards,” Kohl said.
That partnership began with a significant change in perspective. “Before coming into OTB’s orbit, we were basically a performance art big band playing in rock clubs,” Kohl said. “And way back in our creative history we applied to participate in their NW New Works program, back when OTB was in the Central District at Washington Hall.”
That move was career-changing for DAE. “Getting into NWNW was a totally different thing for us,” Kohl said. “And suddenly to have all of the theatrical lighting and staging possibilities opened a Pandora’s box that we are still pulling great wonders out of nearly twenty years later.”
DAE is happy to be demonstrating these past two decades of growth back at their first theatrical home. “Their mentorship and training in every aspect of being a stage artist has had an irreplaceable impact on us.”
‘Predator Songstress’ runs from December 3 to 6, at On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street. For more information, visit www.ontheboards.org/performances/predator-songstress.