Mike Durkin, an innovative Philadelphia director who has opened many doors, starts out this interview by giving a brutally honest self-assessment on the ongoing fluctuating weight issues in our society, especially when seen from a socio-economic perspective, and how those struggles led him to devise and direct Animal Farm to Table, based on the famous allegorical and dystopian novella by George Orwell, published in London at the end of World War II.
This year, the Renegade Company presents its 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival production at a North Philadelphia farm. Known for its non-traditional settings and audience involvement, Renegade’s previous Fringe shows included Bathtub Moby-Dick (inside a South Philadelphia row home), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a mute play at the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia), and most recently, Damned Dirty Apes! (a theatrical walking tour around FDR Park).
Henrik: What is your own relationship to food compared to other aspects of your life?
Mike: I’ve had a complicated relationship with food. I grew up eating large portions of plain and bland foods, especially meat, potatoes, pasta, and processed foods. In college I was much larger. I would just eat microwaveable meals and freezer foods. A lot of it centered around the emotional connection with food.
However, a couple of years after college, I lost a lot of weight by exercising and basically depriving myself of food—eating only small snacks for breakfast or dinner and one meal a day. As a result, my weight would fluctuate between being ideal and something less than ideal.
About four years ago, I had a scare when I thought I had a heart attack and went to the emergency room—turns out it was just awful indigestion. This was the moment I knew I needed to change. I started to incorporate vegetables into my diet. Today, I still struggle, but the process of eating healthier and more organic food is a part of my lifestyle. It’s a slow process, but it’s my process.
What sparked the idea for a play that centers around food?
Food is the most important part of our lives. From 2010 to 2013, I worked an after school program at the Nicetown-Tioga branch of the Free Library in North Philadelphia. On my commute, I saw that mainly working class kids were eating only cheap, processed, sugary or salty snacks—apparently the only foods available to them. That experience triggered my interest in food access, the daily choices we make, and how food can unite us—or separate us.
You chose the Urban Creators Farm as the setting for your production. Tell us more about them and your creative connection with that space.
The Urban Creators is a grass-roots organization that inspires revitalization efforts in inner-city neighborhoods to transform neglected landscapes into dynamic safe-spaces, which foster connectivity, self-sufficiency, and innovation.
They are change-makers, story-tellers, urban farmers, dot-connectors, and movement-builders. Urban Creators engages diverse networks and cultivates the knowledge, skills, and local resources necessary to take the health of our communities into our own hands. After we talked with them about their food perspectives, they helped us to connect with other organizations and people in the neighborhood.
Tell us about Orwell’s interest in food and the significance of food culture in his novel Animal Farm, and how you may be presenting a whole new interpretation of his famous and often hotly debated work.
Equality, access, exploitation, and life at the farm are important for Orwell. Everyone is responsible for the needs of the farm. The chickens give up their eggs, the cows give up their milk. The pigs eventually determine who has the right to those food items—mostly giving out scraps and letting the richer pigs devour the most items. With our new show, Animal Farm to Table, we examine food access from a wider socio-economic perspective: who dictates the distribution and how can we avoid the misuse of food and get rid of the power of the “middle man” in food distribution?
Could you give some examples of how you link Orwell to your play and activate the audience?
We are looking at policies instituted by the City of Philadelphia, clearing of land by private developers, and food quality at big market food chains. Through this strong and satirical take on these issues we hope to find a way to achieve a better food life. Ultimately, we are presenting some of the problems in the city—of which there are many more. Through our conversations with audience members we hope to brainstorm solutions and generate action steps during the meal. The action steps can be small, like eating fruit for lunch instead of a sandwich. Or the could be larger, like writing a letter to Harrisburg, or the city of Philadelphia, urging those in charge to address important food issues.
What makes this dinner experience different from other dinner theatre experiences in the Philadelphia area?
The audience is very much a part of the production. Throughout the show, they will be walking around the farm with the performers, collecting ingredients, making the meal together, and generating a unique experience—different in each performance. There will be some music, some performance, and lots of conversations brought up by the meal and moderated by the performers.
If your Fringe visitors become gatherers and food preparers under Renegade guidance, what should we wear? And would the show take place if it rains?
I would wear closed-toe shoes, stuff to move in or you aren’t going to care if it gets dirty. If it rains, we will be canceling the show and announcing a make-up date.
Give your holistic approach to theater, you and your team often spend time discussing the deeper reasons for your shows, in this case, food—its production, distribution, consumption, and its impact on individuals and society. How have the actors and members of the artistic team responded?
Many of the conversations we’ve had with the ensemble geared around personal food choices and awareness to where our food comes from. We’ve shared experiences, and I feel we will be more conscious with our food purchase choices.
Going by your work as a theater director, you have gone all out to build communities—first with your actors (in this case: Lesley Berkowitz-Zak, Lisa Fischel, Ife Foy, Doug Greene, Shamus Hunter McCarty, and Kevin Rodden) and the artistic team (music: Adam Vidiksis, dramaturgy: Erin Washburn, and Alix Rosenfeld, costumes: Jamie Grace-Duff, scenic design: Sara Outing, production management: Lauren Tracy, and farm stage management: Eleanor Safer), then with your audiences, and then with the wider theater-going public through interviews and reviews.
How do you hope to achieve community building in this play based on Orwell’s Animal Farm?
Over the last six months, I have been working with different churches, neighborhood organizations, and community leaders learning about different food perspectives in the North Philadelphia community. I hope to have members of different communities come together during the show to continue the conversations on food and its impact throughout Renegade’s time in this neighborhood—and well after.
Which organizations have shown an interest in working with the Renegade Company?
I’ve had conversations with members of Tree House Books, Circle of Hope Church, Farm to City Farmer’s Market, and the Painted Bride Arts Center. These discussions started with food access and purchase choices and led to conversations about our role within the community.
How did such cooperation empower your production?
Through these conversations, I brought subject matter and anecdotes to rehearsal and we created improvisations and scenes around them. Some of these scenes were left on the rehearsal floor, [while] some of them found their way into the production. In the future, before creating community events and to fully understand the location we are presenting in, we hope to spend more time within the various neighborhoods by conducting oral histories.
What do you think these organizations might hope to get out of collaborations with theaters?
With our production we are interested in the relationship between food and theater and what the role food plays in our lives. We talked with partnering groups in food policy and community empowerment how theatre can be about these issues and practices.
The goal with these partnerships is for organizations to share experiences and perspectives and find intersections. For our partnering organizations, this is an opportunity to expand their audience base as well as finding intersections between their craft, specialty, and mission with theatrical performances.
Intriguing. You cooperated with a food specialist on your production of Animal Farm to Table.
We’ve worked with Brion Shreffler [a Philadelphia-based food and music writer, who runs a food blog, Food Junkets]. I gave him similar prompts I’ve given to the performers about formulating a story, and shared with him a connection with food and the environment. Through this process and our collaboration, he was able to experiment with ingredients found specifically at the farm and helped us in crafting a meal.
Creating theater can be very expensive, but adding food to it could become a big burden for any small theater company. How are you handling the financial aspect of this play?
We have received funding—from the Charlotte Cushman Foundation, Puffin Foundation, and Wyncote Foundation—which covers about three-quarters of the production budget. Ticket sales will be going towards Urban Creators for generously allowing us to use their produce and farm.
What do you think Orwell would say about your transforming his biting Animal Farm and creating a truly nurturing experience—not only for one’s palate and stomach, but also for allowing us to become aware of America being dominated by Orwellian pigs in control of food production and its distribution?
This is a novel that can be applied to many different situations and environments. It could be what’s happening in American politics, in the drug trade, etc. We are addressing the idea of a food revolution and hope to achieve a food utopia, which feels in line with Orwell’s dystopia.
I don’t want to give away too much on the plot of the show, but there is a rebellion that Orwell was leaning toward. Our rebellion in Animal Farm to Table is in response to injustices of local developers that leader Leon (Orwell’s Napoleon) has addressed. There are even moments that feature a counter rebellion (something invented by us and not by Orwell) against some of the new initiatives on the farm.
What other Renegade productions are you planning or thinking about?
Animal Farm to Table is the last of our Great Outdoors cycle. Our upcoming series is titled Bodies of Water. Over the next two years we will be creating three productions and a couple of pop-up events in rivers, piers, pools, watering holes, and fountains. We’ll share more information soon.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Think about the food you eat. Where does it come from? Why did you purchase it? Are there better options?
How would you answer that question? Similarly, how has your intensive work on the impact of food on one’s physical and mental health influenced your food choices and those of the cast members and the artistic team?
I will list and journal my weekly food purchases, asking myself, “Why did I choose those items?” Also, I’ll be asking the grocers where they purchased the items from. I am already avoiding big market chain grocery stores—and I’m curbing my intake of meat.
Congratulations, Michael. I greatly value your renegade spirit that has enriched theater in Philadelphia through your many innovative productions.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Animal Farm to Table plays from September 8-18, 2016 at The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at Urban Creator’s Farm – 11th and Dauphin Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 413 1318, or purchase them here.