Messenger Theatre Company is dedicated to the place where mythical meets modern. We create original collaborative works featuring physical theatre, masks, puppetry, music and visual arts. We explore old stories through contemporary lenses and create new stories with classical structures. In every form, we pursue magic, wit and beauty.
History and Context
Founded in 2001 by Emily Davis, Agathe David-Weill and Shannon Harvey (friends from Sarah Lawrence College,) Messenger Theatre Company was created in order to create vivid and vital theatre with a focus on clear storytelling and evocative images.
Based in New York City, Messenger Theatre Company has performed at St Ann’s Warehouse, 59E59 Theaters, Basil Twist’s Puppet Parlor at HERE, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, New Ohio Theatre, BRIC Studio’s Sink or Swim Series, THAW! and more. The company has brought shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, FringeNYC, Winnipeg International Fringe Festival, Toronto International Fringe Festival, Chicago Fringe Festival, Fringe Wilmington, Prelude Festival and the Play Outside Festival. The company co-produced Homeland (by Christopher Cartmill) at the Lied Center in Nebraska, as well as solo shows by Courtney Cunningham, which toured the US and Canada.
Influences on our work include: Neil Gaiman, Mary Zimmerman, Julie Taymor, Kneehigh Theatre, Improbable Theatre, Complicité, Cheek by Jowl, Propeller, Ariane Mnouchkine, Told by an Idiot, the Surrealist movement and Trestle Theatre.
We create Theatre of the Imagination. We use visual and physical theatre techniques to stimulate the audience’s imagination, to engage their spirit of play. We combine the classical with the contemporary by making the contemporary more classical and the classical more contemporary. We distill things down to their archetypal essence. We’re interested in mythical stories, stories with size and breadth, but told as simply as possible.
Beliefs, Core Values and Philosophy
We have always made work with a woman-centered sensibility. In our re-workings of myth, we very often turn patriarchal tales of victimhood into empowering stories of and for women. We employ mostly women as designers, writers, directors and stage managers. We flip the normal casting ratios on their heads. The sort of show that would usually feature ten men and two women, in our hands will cast ten women and two men. We do this without making a big fuss. We just quietly make women-centered theatre as if it were normal, which it should be but decidedly isn’t.
Much of the American theatre around us is loud, brash and sexist. The numbers speak to a culture where women are undervalued, where only a handful ever find success. From the numbers of women on stage, to the numbers of women creating the work, the ratios continue to be ridiculously skewed to privilege the male point of view over the female. We aim to skew things the other way, with an eye toward balance. We create work which privileges women’s perspectives before men’s and which offers more opportunities for women. We work with classical stories, myths and structures because those stories are founding cultural pillars and continue to influence how we do things today. Rather than eliminating these old structures, we re-frame them, empowering women through the old archetypes.
The current climate of theatre making is one that encourages compliance and conformity. Those who want to make a theatrical career are often afraid to be honest about their experience. Women have to submerge their feminism. People of color have to accept racist roles so they can work. It is a climate of fear and top down compliance.
We’re not interested in obedient, compliant artists. We want artists who think for themselves, who bring all of themselves to the table. The theatre on most American stages is self-indulgent, privileged and dull. There is no play in these plays. We want a culture of play – a way to enjoy theatre again – for those involved to have pleasure in making the work and those watching to have pleasure in watching it. So much of contemporary theatre reinforces the status quo, we seek to re-create it with more introspection, kindness and attention. Our motto has become “But use all gently.” (Hamlet III.ii)
We seek the magic of stories, the intelligence of stories, the creativity of stories. Comparative mythology and classical theatre are our plot of earth but we sow seeds of experimental forms in choreography, in mask-work and puppetry. While working on Shakespeare we are more likely to use a Meredith Monk exercise than John Barton text analysis. We experiment and use experimental techniques to push our work in new directions. We care about story and use all of the explorations to bring a narrative to life. Everything happens for a reason in our work.
Humor is also a terribly important element in everything we do. Even stories that end tragically have a lightness of touch. Laughter, magic, imagination, visual stimulation, size, curiosity.
Sometimes people have used the work “exploratory” for our work because we are greatly concerned with ideas. Sometimes we can be like a theatrical, narrative, episode of RadioLab. Even if we’re not tackling a big idea like money or the Heart, we’re still always thinking about the bigger picture of what we’re making. The bigger picture is usually the mythic picture to us.
The Working Values
We have always worked best in an atmosphere of kindness and support. We encourage one another’s excellence, not through pushing on weakness but encouraging one another’s strengths. Our leadership involves holding the space and creating openings for everyone involved to contribute to the work to the best of their ability. We have been inspired by the Strengths Movement that has been finding its way through the business world. This movement has its roots in positive psychology. Its central premise is that people will be more productive when the focus is on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. This inspires us to lean into our own strengths and to lean into the strengths of others as well.
Similarly, the Feldenkrais Method has become a major influence on how we do things now. It hasn’t really changed our fundamental impulse to do things in a kind, open, exploratory way but it has changed our confidence level about doing thins that way. It has given us new vocabulary for talking about our process. Now, we can say we do things slowly, with attention, that we strive to do things in an easy, pleasurable way, that we seek the soft, the kind and when we run into obstacles we find a new path around them, rather than injure ourselves running into them.
As the years go by, it becomes clear that even if no one ever made theatre with kindness, softness and pleasure before, that we needed to do it that way, even if we were the first. We don’t push people; We give them space to create themselves. We aim for ease and pleasure in everything – and this doesn’t mean we don’t aim for excellence, as there is nothing more pleasurable than making something great.
We’re also an example of Introverted Leadership, as defined by Susan Cain in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Like most introverted leaders, we work best with proactive participants. We seek out collaborators who think and act for themselves.
We want to spark our audience’s imagination. We hope to inspire a sense of play and wonder. We want to make them think while we’re making them feel. We want the theatrical form to be more theatrical, more magical, more full of wonder and introspection.
We want to create theatre that makes people feel like more things are possible, that they could do more with less. We want to make work that makes adults feel like children and makes children feel more mature.
We want plays to feel like play.
Every thing has a beginning. Myths are particularly rich in origin stories.
You can read two narratives about our origins here. They’re very different. And both true. But from very different angles.