DURHAM — At a time when many people are focused on what they don't have, Tamara Kissane and Cheryl Chamblee have a different outlook. They see abundance.
It's a refreshing take and yet a bit surprising considering the two women are artists, the visionaries behind both hands theatre. In the best of times, it's pretty impossible to make a living doing independent theater. In times like these, well, you depend on a loyal audience, other theater companies and businesses that understand the value that the arts bring to a community. You also keep your day jobs.
All of that comes into play with Chamblee and Kissane's new production, "The Abundance Project," which runs through June 12 in Durham.
I have not seen the play or even a rehearsal, so this is not a starred theater review. But as this newspaper's business editor, I interview people about money, talk about money and think about money probably way too much, so I was struck by the idea of "The Abundance Project" and what it has the potential to do: Start conversations. I was also struck by how both hands theatre survives and even thrives in this economic climate. More on that later.
Chamblee and Kissane describe "The Abundance Project" as a series of monologues and scenes that explore what we have, what we don't have, how our background influences our feelings about money and how those feelings affect our relationships with other people and our community.
The script is like a score with actors almost talking on top of one another. And they are the kinds of words that should start those conversations -- either with yourself or between you and your friends and family -- about your feelings about wealth, both material and otherwise.
"There is the idea of abundance as money, having enough cash," says Chamblee. "[But] there are other ideas of abundance." Like family, friends, knowledge. Kissane calls it "non-material abundance" or "the emotional fullness in your life."
"The Abundance Project," which Kissane describes as "a stew," grew out of a reading the two women did two years ago. One of those pieces, a monologue by a character who thinks money is harder to talk about than sex, generated a strong reaction from the audience. Kissane and Chamblee decided it could be a bigger piece.
The two writers pulled together a community of other writers and, for two hours each week for more than a year, met to write, read and discuss abundance.
In the course of their writing, their timeless topic became timely. The economy imploded. Financial institutions went under, jobs were lost, and wealth disappeared.
The community writers, a group pulled from various socioeconomic levels Chamblee says, didn't ignore what was going on around them. They couldn't. But Kissane points out the show isn't just about the economy: "It's not about sacrifice."
"We've learned that our shows can creep into our personal lives," picks up Chamblee. "So we were careful to talk about abundance rather than the 'Oh crap, we don't have any money project.' "
A prompt to writers
So the writers were given prompts, such as: Think of someone you know who has more money than you, or less. How does your knowledge of their financial situation change what you say or how you act when you're together?
Chamblee says one of the writers who made more money than her friends wrote: "People don't let me treat, I want to treat, I should treat."
It soon became obvious that our relationship with money is complicated. It also became apparent that many people inherit their ideas about wealth from family and that those ideas shape their relationships as adults, Kissane says.
And, of course, most of the time, we don't even realize that what we know about another's economic situation affects how we treat them, adds Chamblee. Her, for instance: If I know I have more money than Tamara, and I'm showing off some new shoes, I tell her I bought them on sale. But it's an unconscious mental check.
Once the writers were finished, Chamblee and Kissane went through the stack of papers "this high" Chamblee says, holding her hands about two feet apart, and started working on a script.
You start by pulling out themes, constructing through lines," Chamblee says. "We might take an idea, a sentence, a paragraph or an entire monologue. ... The writers are very trusting."
As are the actors who started training for the piece in September and who have, for the past two months, dedicated five days a week to rehearsals. The three actors each play seven or eight roles. Chamblee and Kissane consider that kind of artistic support another kind of wealth.
They also talk about the Durham arts community as an abundance of riches from which they have benefited since they began collaborating 12 years ago.
The two Duke grads put on their first show in Durham in 1997. They then went their separate ways -- Kissane to Ohio, Chamblee to Chicago -- but continued their collaboration.
In 2002, Chamblee moved back to Durham. She works part time as a fundraiser for the Triangle Land Conservancy. Her day job. Kissane moved to Raleigh three years ago. She is now married and has a 10-month-old daughter, and also works part time at the Duke Divinity School in leadership education. Her day jobs.
Few artists are able to support themselves without those days jobs, which brings me to back to how both hands thrives. As a theater company, it has the support of other local arts groups, including Manbites Dog, which loans space and props.
It also has corporate patrons. Greenfire Development, which has renovated various properties in downtown Durham, has given both hands free rehearsal space for seven of its productions, including "The Abundance Project." Scientific Properties, which owns the renovated Golden Belt tobacco warehouse on Main Street, has deeply discounted the space where "The Abundance Project" will be staged.
"The people who are behind these businesses have that community abundance," Chamblee says. "Space is the most expensive thing that a theater company has to find ... but they have valued the abundance to the community that we bring."
So much so that for three years, Chamblee was living as the artist-in-residence at one of Greenfire's downtown lofts. (She moved out of the loft about six weeks ago when she moved in with her boyfriend, a musician. Between the two of them, there was too much equipment for a loft.)
Golden Belt also partners with area groups for artists in residency projects and has a curator of artistic collaboration.
Greenfire's managing partner, Michael Lemanski, is a member of the Durham Arts Council, but Chamblee is quick to point out that it isn't just one person at the company that has made this corporate-artistic partnership work. "It's the whole company," she says. "They come to our shows. They bend over backwards to help.
"They live here, and they want to have an exciting and vital downtown."
Any company that has a vested interest in an area should want the same thing; it makes economic sense. When a city's cultural community thrives, the city thrives. People need the arts -- music, dance, theater, galleries -- for diversion and for conversation starters.