Alumni Spotlight: Ashley Tata '12

October 19, 2017

Alumna Ashley Tata ‘12 is having a big year. She is associate director of Michael Counts' production of Bang on a Can's Road Trip created to commemorate their 30 year anniversary (coming to BAM on October 27th and 28th) and Persona, coming to LA Opera in November. She's also directing Anathema: The Turing Opera at Brooklyn's National Sawdust and Soldier Songs on 2018 at the Fargo-Moorhead Opera in North Dakota. 


Ashley is a freelance director of new opera and multi-media performance and she's also the Creative Director of Immersive Escape Productions where she devises environmental and immersive experiences. We interviewed Ashley to find out more about the work she's doing, her process and experience.


You graduated from the program in 2012, can you tell us a little bit about these last 5 years?


It totally doesn’t seem like five years. But I just revisited a farm in Maine where I made a site-specific, immersive adaptation of the Cherry Orchard the year I graduated and the people who live in the town also reminded me that it has, in fact, been 5 years. It’s all kind of gone like this: assisting on projects while directing my own projects while scrambling for other work to fill the income gap. That’s 5 years. The project that really launched me on my post-CU directing trajectory was assisting Robert Woodruff on the premiere of Dog Days, an opera by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek produced by Beth Morrison Projects. I learned a lot from that process: how to work with librettists and composers, designers, opera performers and to always, always be asking genuine questions that disrupt assumptions. I continue to take any opportunity to be in a room with Robert and he’s become a really solid mentor.  


That piece led to more BMP work. Beth has a knack for bringing really interesting directors in to work on the new operas she produces. This led to assisting most of the directors that I wanted to learn from: Daniel Fish, Jay Scheib, Michael Counts, etc. Each of those gigs led to multiple other jobs, sometimes as assistant or associate other times as director. I’ve worked on at least one BMP show every year since then and have been pretty lucky to move from one project to another.


As far as the directing habit goes, what has changed since 2012 is that I don’t assist as much anymore. I do work as associate with a few directors who I really love to be in the room with on projects where I have a solid artistic seat at the table. I also direct my own projects even when I’m working as an assistant or associate. This mitigates any fear of being a career assistant. But the reality is given the option to be in the room as an assistant or not be in the room at all, I’d take being in the room.


In between directing gigs I stay in the room by working as an electrician and stagehand. I did have a couple arts admin jobs and a bit of teaching but tech work has more consistently provided me with the flexibility to piece an income together.


I’m super grateful and lucky that Tom and Joe let me come back to work at the CU shop and I’ve worked at a number of other venues like HERE and St Ann’s Warehouse. I got to work on some pretty great shows this way — I was a follow-spot op on Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music. It’s pretty good to get paid to work on a show that you’d gladly buy a ticket to anyway.


This last year I stopped doing tech work to work full time as an associate director with Michael Counts on his projects. They range from contemporary opera and music events to immersive experiences to — one of the major projects I’ve created with him — immersive escape rooms. That’s been a pretty interesting trip — to learn how to make puzzles and to integrate video game design and theory with multi-media immersive experiences to make a kind of new form of performance. And it’s been quite a learning experience to go from the not-for-profit world to a very much for-profit model. The whole scene is bonkers — I mean, I designed an experience for St. Vincent last week. As far as day jobs go it’s pretty stellar.


I think the only part of process that I have is knowing that I need to be creating theatre in one way or another. Otherwise I become very unhappy.

Your work is mostly new opera and multi-media performance, why it was interesting for you to explore those genres/forms?  


I got into new opera because its form suports the criteria for why I got into theatre in the first place. I grew up playing classical music and thought I would become a classical violinist. And then I got into jazz, playing trumpet and studying jazz theory and performance. But making performance was something I did since I was really little without being expected to do so. When I stopped playing the violin and decided to focus more on theatre, I rationalized it by saying the violin is the violin but in theatre you can bring in the violin. That became my pursuit in making theater.


What’s funny to me about working with multi-media is that before Columbia I had rejected video and projections and even sound amplification in my work. Even though the first big piece I made when I was in high school was a black and white silent stage version of Murnau’s Nosferatu. That had video design all the way through — where we made our own silent film and digitally aged it to place our actors into Murnau’s expressionist landscape. But after that — I’m not even sure what triggered it — I rejected all of it. Ha! I had all sorts of rationalizations for why video had no place in live performance: it will always exist in a temporal space out of step with the moment of live performance (counter: live-feed video integration as in Persona); it will be two-dimensional while performance exists in four-dimensions and you can never seal that rupture (counter: 3D video as in Blank Out). But then I started to see the work of Jay Scheib, and watching Michel van der Aa’s work on YouTube and Robert’s Notes From Underground and while at Columbia I started to integrate video, projections, amplification, electronic sound into the work I was making. And I integrated new music into the work asking composers to make musicals out of pieces that weren’t necessarily musicals.


This integration of media also seems to go hand-in-hand with working in unique spaces outside of the confines of proscenium or even traditional blackbox theaters somehow. It all can be redefined, broken and put back together. At the time I thought I wanted to defy and reject the movement towards virtual and screened-in realities. But now, while I firmly believe in a collective experience of live performance, I embrace the fact that media is also a part of our lived experience. It’s all created by humans anyway. Until it stops being so. I’m interested in that as well.

Is there any particular project that you’re most excited about?


I'm pretty excited about Anathema — renamed Turing. It's the project I'm working on right now that most completely integrates in form and storytelling my interests in multi-media and new opera. It came to me from the video engineer on the tour of Dog Days, Eamonn Farrell who wrote this libretto a number of years ago and has been developing the work with the Greek composer William Antoniou. It poses the question: are humans the creators of technology or does technology create humans? This question grounds the conceptual and aesthetic choices we're making. It’s totally fascinating to watch and really mind-trippy to make. We were only able to do a short workshop of it a couple weeks ago but the energy we built up was pretty thrilling. It's a great company of young opera-makers — including the producer, Mariel O’Connell and the music director, David Bloom — who are willing to jump into uncharted territory and make something that isn't fully defined. That's pretty exciting.


I'm also pretty excited about starting to develop a new work with a composer where we’ll re-compose and adapt a baroque opera. This is an idea I've been pitching since I was at Columbia and I just happened to say it out loud in front of the right person last week so it looks like I could be talking that into existence.


And I'm also excited about making a film of a project I did with JoAnne Akalaitis in January. It's called Cut Piece for Pants Suit. It's a performance piece that we created and co-directed in response to the election. There it is: the elephant in the room. The piece is a riff on Yoko Ono's Cut Piece. Some footage from the process was recently screened at a talk at NYU that JoAnne gave about dangerous theatre and the reaction was quite powerful. There’s a lot of footage there so I think we’re going to put it together into a full-length film.


In late fall/early winter my calendar lightens up and JoAnne and I have been talking about creating a kind of forum for dramaturgy of protest performance — looking at movements and work from the 60s and earlier as a kind of historical template from which to create work that integrates today's media and speaks to our current climate. I find a lot of political work leverages heavily on nostalgia and isn't helpful in our time or predicament. Throw out the old tools and be radically present. But learn from the old tools as they’re discarded — what purpose did that one serve? I heard on the radio "history doesn't repeat itself, it mirrors." Our mirrors are the cameras in our phones.


So, anyway. A bunch of us are putting together an event for the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State — which is an historical milestone that few people recognize. I’m excited about — maybe not making political work — but making work during this moment. When the election happened there was this impulse to leave, go into a hole, disappear and wait till the dust settles. Or to go 100 percent into politics, or rethink everything and become a doctor or civil rights lawyer. And for anyone who has done any or all of that: good on you. But through this kind of shock-fueled depression or numbness I find myself needing to create rather than destroy. To lift up the possibility of humanity and remind us of our potential. And to be rigorously honest and present with everything that’s going on. Which is impossible. But making is a way to stay awake. And by being awake there’s a chance.


Any advice for future directors and theatre-makers at Columbia?


I don't know if it's the best advice — and it's not the right advice for everyone — but it was a running joke in my class that I always took on any project that came my way. When I say that I'm lucky to have not stopped working since graduating, it's not really a special formula. It's just that I don't say no to work. And that kept me working for four years. In the last year I have started saying no to projects as I learn more about what I genuinely have time to make. And am clearer about what I still want to learn and what I don’t need to experience again. But I think it took me four years to get there. Likewise I worked on a lot of projects for very little money until I started resenting that and doing the calculations in my head of how much I was making hourly. I had coffee with Robert during this time and he said simply, "Then you can't take on those projects anymore." I didn't graduate with that in mind so I worked a lot more. But now if I start to feel sick of hearing myself complain about a situation I figure I should change it.


I also recommend finding directors you want to learn from and letting them know what you want to learn from them. Even if you don't get to work with them articulating what you want to learn will clarify who you want to be. And will keep you open to your own evolution as an artist.


And find designers, performers and collaborators who you can be rigorously honest with — find them in school or poach ALL the associate and assistant designers on all the projects you work on. I love working with the team I consistently work with. We’ve travelled the world together and have been through a lot of trying situations. They are opinionated dramaturgs and artists who see the world and opportunities in productions in ways I can’t. Find people you can trust, have arguments with, and who make you a better artist.


Boom. Five Years.