For most of the last decade, Ragged Wing Ensemble has considered itself a "nomadic" multidisciplinary theater company. It has always been based in the East Bay, but would travel from venue to venue, often performing outdoors. Beyond conventional plays, the ensemble is also known for its interactive art installations, which sometimes stand alone and other times pair with a production in order to further involve the viewers in the work.
This past June, the company finally decided to settle down (See "New Multidisciplinary Arts Space The Flight Deck Opens in Uptown," 6/3/14), opening a theater in downtown Oakland called The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway, Oakland), which also houses a number of other theater companies, such as the Lower Bottom Playaz and Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre. Artistic Director Amy Sass said that investing in a space was a massive milestone for the company. But the theater group, which is always pushing conventions and questioning assumptions with its work, immediately felt the need to interrogate the ethics and effects of its moving in by posing a number of necessary questions. What is the history of the area and the city? What is the effect of moving into this pre-existing community, and who constitutes it? What does it mean to call somewhere "home"?
To answer these questions, Ragged Wing members embarked on a collective process of contextualized place-making. For months, they went around the neighborhood interviewing old and new business owners, residents, and pedestrians. They asked people what they loved and hated about the area, where they were from and where they were going, and what home meant to them. They even engaged professional historians about the history of the city, but often found that business owners had more details on the past of their particular block. "Part of what we were trying to do was to acknowledge that we are gentrifiers," said organizer Addie Ulrey.
Finally, after a successful first season last fall, the ensemble's many members came together to share the gathered material and discuss answers to their initial questions. They decided to channel that dialogue into the theme for their upcoming season: Homing. Also inspired by the ability of some animals to navigate back to a place of origin through unfamiliar terrain, it is an act of nesting that questions the meaning of doing so.
The first performance in the season is Choosing Here: A Performance/Art Museum, an immersive installation with works by nineteen artists that use the material gleaned from the interviews as inspiration. One of the pieces, working with the notion of transient home-making, consists of a dollhouse in which each room is a public space — one is a BART station, for example. Another pair of artists hopes to highlight the ways in which home is rhetorically commodified and sold, by serving grilled cheese and soup from two different kitchen settings. Another work will require attendees to collect keys made from various odd materials, hidden around the venue. Some of the works will be static, but many will involve performative and interactive dimensions. The intention is for viewers to walk through the space and engage with the art together — unlike a traditional museum, but also unlike a play. More aptly, it will be a visual discussion that hopes to unravel the contradiction in the desire to simultaneously own and share a space.
Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Jan. 16–25, $10–$25. RaggedWing.org