Blank Space: Ragged Wing Ensemble Explores the Meaning of “Home” in Its New Oakland Studio

It's not hard to understand why Ragged Wing Ensemble chose “Homing” as its 2015 season theme. After almost 10 years of nomadism, the company opened its own space, the Flight Deck, last June in a former warehouse two blocks from the 12th Street Oakland BART that had sat empty for 30 years. The multiuse facility features a 99-seat theater, rehearsal space, a gallery, and a co-working space, which Ragged Wing shares with other local arts organizations such as Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre and Virago Theatre Company. The Flight Deck is a welcome addition to a neighborhood, and in fact a whole city, bereft of small and midsize theater spaces.

For its four most recent seasons, Ragged Wing has structured its year of shows around a single theme. “It's a bouncing-off point,” says artistic director Amy Sass. “To watch how that theme is handled by many different artists in many different mediums, and then to see through that process the collective investigation of that theme, is so much larger than what happens with just one show.”

Company core artist Addie Ulrey felt very strongly that this season's theme should be the verb “homing” instead of the noun “home.” “The word 'homing,' is about not just the place but the journey toward and the creation of,” she says.

Ragged Wing begins its seasons with an intense period of research followed by two weeks of creative development, where artists do exercises with gathered material; these riffs later coalesce into discrete pieces of different sizes and media. Part of the research for the Homing season was to simply be good neighbors in the company's new 'hood, especially as it might well be perceived as a gentrifier. A big goal of this process was to “get to know our literal, longitudinal axis point,” says Sass. “That became an issue of, 'How do we function in this neighborhood? What is the neighborhood like? What has been here before, and who is here now? What are we contributing, and what space are we taking up?'”

To explore those issues, the company canvassed an approximately two-block radius around the Flight Deck, surveying business owners, residents, and passersby, with three questions: Where are you coming from, and where are you going? What do you love about this place, and what do you hate about it? What does “home” mean to you?

The company's latest piece, Choosing Here: A Performance/Art Museum, draws on those answers, at times incorporating locals' responses verbatim, at other times connecting to the three central questions more obliquely. The space is set up as part treasure hunt, part gallery, and part museum of curiosities. Visitors wander around the Flight Deck at their own pace, experiencing 12 different installations that 18 artists have created which blend film, performance, and visual art, and invite a range of participatory modes. “In some of them you're going to be crawling through a thing. In some of them you're going to be looking at a thing. In some of them you're going to be eating a thing,” says Ulrey.

One installation is Lisa Drostova's Thirteen Keys, which is inspired by the artist's many experiences having her house broken into and getting mugged. Her piece, which draws on research into the symbolic and historical significance of keys, asks audiences to help her find each of her 13 missing keys, many of which don't really look like the metal objects you'd expect to find at the end of a key ring. In the installation, Drostova hopes to raise questions about what we protect and why.

Nick Louie, struck by local demographic maps he's studied, is asking audiences to engage in a completely different way. He's creating multiple maps, some realistic that ask, Where are you from?, others more abstract that ask, What do you aspire to? Audiences will not just mark where they are on each map but also trace with a string their route from map to map, creating a profusion of paths which, Louie hopes, will gather and diverge in surprising ways.

One of the most pleasantly surprising paths, of course, is Ragged Wing's own: from rover to resident, neighbor, and host.

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