Through the Uncertainty, Agnes Borinsky and the Working Group for a New Spirit Are Taking Inventory of Our Lives
To kick off an unprecedented theater season, the Bushwick Starr is hosting an unconventional theater project: playwright Agnes Borinsky’s Working Group for a New Spirit. The Working Group is a free initiative that Borinsky describes as “a series of gatherings for clarity and direction in our messy moment of distance and collapse.” As I experienced firsthand this spring, the group, which meets on Monday evenings through December 7, is a generous space to make and rekindle friendships while asking unabashedly spiritual questions about our places in the world.
Borinsky, best known for her play Of Government, which played Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks in 2017, first convened the Working Group for eight days in April, coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Inspired by Ariana Reines’s Rilking, which gathered dozens of participants around the lunar cycle to study poetry, the Working Group for a New Spirit was an early pandemic experiment in community building over Zoom.
With the aid of guided meditations, creative writing, and group discussions, the collective brought together regulars of the New York downtown theater scene to process an uncertain time by studying an eclectic mixture of texts. The syllabus ranged from ancient Jewish sources to bell hooks’s All About Love (2000), Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment” (2003), and Nina Simone’s “22nd Century” (1971). Under Borinsky’s facilitation, it progressed through a cycle, considering the themes of Turning, Breaking, Loving, Making, Grieving, Shifting, Nothing, and, finally, (Re)turning.
The second iteration of the Working Group took a different approach, completing an in-depth read of the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Bible over eight sessions in May. On one day, to accompany the day’s text, participants were each tasked with bringing in a devotional object and held an impromptu show and tell, filled with childhood stuffed animals, original poems, and good luck charms. On another day, people read aloud the biblical love poem while, concurrently, participants typed out memories of romantic trysts in the Zoom chat. These weren’t exactly stuffy college lectures.
Borinsky, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Baltimore and lived for many years in New York City, is a polymath of a teacher who draws on a wide range of traditions to ground her form-bending art. “I feel like I spent a lot of my school life and even my artistic life waiting for permission to do things,” she said. “Queer communities and communities of anarchists and punk artists have been very special in making me realize how much we can create together and on our own.”
Two projects solidified for Borinsky how meaningful it was to create art that stretched outside the bounds of conventional theater. In 2012, she joined a cast of 55 people in an unlicensed punk production of Les Misérables directed by Donna Oblongata, which rehearsed under a circus tent outdoors before touring the East Coast for a week. Then, in 2016, Borinsky created Weird Classrooms as an Artist-in-Residence at University Settlement. During her residency, she taught weekly dance classes; however, she had some trepidation as the time approached to present some of what she had been making over the year.
A conversation with Alison Fleminger, the Director of the Performance Project at University Settlement, transformed the trajectory of the project. Borinsky remembers telling Fleminger that “it doesn't feel right to make a play now, because that's not what we've been doing.” In response, Fleminger said, “Okay, don't make a play. Do a thing that reflects what you've been doing.”
Fleminger’s permission opened up whole new possibilities for Weird Classrooms. Instead of a straightforward play, Borinsky worked with a team of 21 collaborators to craft a participatory show that included workshops on subjects as varied as baking bread and “noticing the outdoors from inside,” as part of an effort to create, well, a weird classroom.
After coming up with the idea for the Working Group for a New Spirit (formerly known as the Utopia Knitting Circle), Borinsky quickly found a home for the project at the Bushwick Starr. “Something that we're continually trying to emphasize with all of our work is that we are a resource in our community. That's how we like to think of the theater,” said Noel Allain, the Artistic Director of the Bushwick Starr. “The spirit of what Agnes does is very much coming from that place.”
In the thick of an election, the moment feels ripe for a return. “While the country is still falling apart and burning and people are still being killed, we all also have to go back to our jobs and lives. Normalcy is piling up again,” Borinsky said. Now, she worries about losing the collective focus gained in the early months of the pandemic. “How can we hold on to what we've learned?”
“Social movements are a kind of labor that needs to be reproduced. You need to have care. You need to have joy. You need to have love and support,” she added. “I think that the work of the Working Group is to anchor us in that ancestral channel of energy to get us thinking about these questions of love, these questions of the spirit that are going to sustain us.”
Round three of the Working Group is centered around the concept of “Inventory”: of taking stock of where we are. Borinsky aims to apply the lens of permaculture—a self-sufficient, sustainable model for farming—to this work: “In permaculture, inventory is the first thing you do when you're considering how to design a system. You make a list of what you have, in the hopes that you'll notice new connections. Possibilities open up when you look at the familiar differently.” (After moving to Los Angeles, Borinsky studied permaculture design at the Los Angeles Permaculture Academy.)
She hopes participants from past groups will return, and that fresh faces will join, too. Borinsky recognizes that, in the spring, the group was predominantly white, and is looking for ways to be more thoughtful about the racial diversity of the group and how to create a more welcoming invitation to people who were uninterested in the first go-around.
Unlike the first iterations of the group, Borinsky isn’t leading these sessions alone. She’s recruited four artists from a variety of disciplines to help steer the content: Katherine Agyemaa Agard, Eyad Houssami, Emily Johnson, and Rebeca Medina. Borinsky kicks off each 90-minute session by introducing a short text for 30 minutes before turning over the reins to the artist of the week. Each guest artist facilitates two sessions, bringing their unique spin on the concept of inventory to the group.
The Monday night meetings kicked off on October 19. “I feel aware that Election Day is going to fall in the middle of our Working Group this time around. And that feels like it's going to be a time of anxiety and frantic activity, and, hopefully, relief, maybe terror that follows,” Borinsky said. “But it feels like the group is about knowing what the foundation of our dreams and desires is so we can be patient, methodical, and grounded in our response to what's going on in the world.”
In preparation for the Working Group’s return, Borinsky rewatched recordings of the past sessions. The videos reminded her of what she valued most about the group. “I just felt so many open hearts. And that feels like the overwhelming thing to me—that's the drug that I can't let go of or that I want to come back to. Who knew that we could all share with each other so beautifully?”