I’ll be involved in creating a theatre piece using collective creation methods, so I thought I would try and keep a log for the curious.
I fear my manner of expression will be sparse, but I will try to give useful information.
What you should know going in. We always start from scratch. Usually we begin with one simple idea which will have the power, we hope, to prompt the kids into explorations and investigations. The material of our piece grows out of what the kids bring in based on this first “lead.” This year it’s the word grace.
The other thing you should know is that we no longer have the use of conventional theatre spaces at GHP. We still have access to a cavernous acoustical nightmare called the Lab, but we have no intention of trying to produce a piece in there. We are left, then, with exploring alternative performance situations. This is not really a problem for us because its just one more thing we put into the mix, one more interesting complication.
My teaching partner, Karrie, always comes up with the theme because it should be something which feels right to her and with which she can live for six weeks. I can live with anything. The potential option shock of having to choose an initial starting place would send me running. I focus on the mechanics of creating and organizing material and on teaching the kids how to continue moving forward no matter what the theme.
Grace. Initial ambivalence. It’s a point of Christian doctrine. Can’t be the sole focus, however. You can boo-hiss me all you want. I wish to discover, as does Karrie, I think, if grace has a wider reach. It has an obvious aesthetic dimension. It has a social and political dimension. As religious doctrine, Paul pulled it from somewhere. It has a Greek aspect, a Hebrew aspect, a French flavored Catholic aspect. It has a certain secular aspect in that it has become part of our common parlance. Writers use it to evoke meanings which are perhaps historically rooted in various faith idioms but which are employed now to reach into other places. How do we as humans partake of grace? Or can we, once outside of the Christian meaning?
And if this were a “Christian piece,” we’d be introuble with the department of education. We also would run the risk of excluding the kids in our group with different outlooks. And so on…
It will be interesting to see where it goes.
Other ideas at present. Valdosta University has built a lovely pedestrian mall through the center of their campus; it is calling out for some kind of performance event. Who knows. Which evokes, for me, the stagecraft of the medieval mystery play with its use of wagons and various stations. What if we evolve some kind of Universal pageant of….grace, something which transcended particularities of faiths and languages. Who knows? We also might have an option of using a house on campus for our performance. There we would be doing something intimate and languaged and very particular. Both? Who knows? I think I’m going to stay as far away from content as possible; let the kids handle it. I have tried to read my way into the meanings of grace and the amount of reading one could do is daunting. And I don’t want to play the role of amateur grace expert for the production. I really can’t do anything until the kids are here.
By the way, it’s necessary for me to say at this stage that I’m miserable here. I want to go home. I don’t ever want to pretend to do theatre again. I can’t be social. I don’t want to squirm through that kind of awkwardness. I just want to work. And I can’t. It’s not cool to hold long preliminary discussions about what we might do, either with my partners, Karrie and Justin (our design and tech person), or with other teachers. I really do want to run screaming and not look back. It feels a little better getting to put it down somewhere.
My first goal with the kids is to get them working with The Vocal Sequence as quickly as possible, so they will be able to use it as an exploratory tool in our evening rehearsals. Karrie will be teaching Michael Chekov and a systematic way of approach group performance composition called Viewpoints. She’s using an interesting book on the method by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. How do I introduce the Vocal Sequence? I’ll try and include some of that in these entries. So now we wait. Did I mention I want to go home?
Second night of rehearsal for the group. We meet in one of our classrooms over a the University Center. Last night we began by introducing group to an exercise called “quick pass.” Actors make a circle. One goes to center and begins working with a text (currently we have no text, so we use “Hah-Yah…”) and linking it to a bodily impulse. Actors transmit the impulse from one to another and allow it to evolve or change between each transmission. After that we explained to them the structure of how rehearsals are conducted. 1.Show: a period during which actors can present anything in the midst of the circle. Anything. Others can involve themselves in ways which can provoke the watchers. 2:Reflect: we take time, alone, to remember what happened during show and record our thoughts. 3.Recapitulate: we can call up again things we have witnessed in the past and work with those moments in creative ways, attempting to fashion instances of performance. Please see the post on “The Word is the Murder of the Thing” to read what the actors are given as a prompt toward working in this manner. We ended last night with Karrie suggesting the actors look into how grace is defined in various religions and cultures. I suggested they note honestly the first thought they had when Karrie first presented the word as the starting point for our work earlier that morning .
So tonight we began again with “quick pass.” And it’s evident the actors are refining their approach. Then we moved right into show. Actors took to the center of the circle, one by one at this point, and began to share their reflections and stories with the group. It would not be prudent on my part to share details because a certain amount of intimacy and trust is being delicately maintained. The group is beginning to develop its own personal history.
Everything the actors utter informs a growing universe of meaning for the group, whether it’s something returned to later or never mentioned again. It is a way, too, for the actors to begin to inscribe themselves as particular emotional and ethical characters within the universe of meaning. As the actors worked I scribbled my own idiosyncratic account of it all in a journal. All of the actors are encouraged to do their own notating, as well. Tonight was all show since the actors are just getting comfortable with the idea, and we want to give everyone a chance to get out there and share reflections individually before attempting more complex efforts. As things move along, and as I have time to digest my notes and reflect, I hope my journal entries will become more subjective, more allegorical and imaginative. At this point, I’m trying to orient the reader of this journal as much as record my reactions to the work.
Grace as what you can’t look for. You can’t find it; it finds you. Images of holding onto a book or notebook but then having to ultimately cast it aside, and it is at the moment of setting the book aside that grace appears. Trying to tell a library reference person what you are looking for: “the meaning of grace.” Imagining the non-starting conversation which ensues. What if we performed a piece in the stacks of the library?
Grace in the small things. Grace is found in how we see others handle horror and loss. Grace and beauty.
After the “quick pass” tonight, the actors were encouraged to find a way to write down what each experienced so they might somehow get back to it if asked. Then we did a round of “I saw….” You remember something you witnessed in the “quick pass” and find a compact and metaphorical way of communicating it. “I saw Ice. I saw a soul digging for grace. I saw someone carrying 28 on his shoulders.” Etc.
Struck during “quick pass” by the power of the flash of physicalized choral expression that emerges in a terrifying instance and then just as quickly vanishes. Must find places for that.
Actor went to the library to find grace but wound up reading “plays and librettos.” Very charmingly put.
Many such charming flashes tonight. Little moments of grace for me. Actors revealing by being, and through being.
And I’m always humbled and a bit surprised by how quickly the actors can move things into a weighted emotional landscape. It’s daunting to realize the difficulty of this is small compared to where we want to go, eventually, as actors start to involve themselves with one another in more vast and murky arenas. And how to invite them to try tasting the less personal, more objective possibilities of investment. That is going to come, I think, as they begin exploring Viewpoints and Vocal Sequence.
Quick pass was undertaken tonight with a piece of text, something one of the actors said last night: “Grace is always on her toes.” As the actors work through the quick pass, we watch for striking images and moments of sound and speech crystalizing into something provocative, something we might want to get back to. I try to give some kind of notation in my journal so that if I want to call it back, it might be possible for the actor to find it again. I also like to listen for permutations in meaning: Grace is always on her. Grace is always honor. Graces always honor those (and we might then ask, Who?).
Show continued with various offerings, such as the results of a campus survey three actresses conducted in which they asked for meanings of grace; some biblical passages; painful remembrances; stories of terrifying ordeals leading to possibilities of grace; a performance of a child learning to walk and then learning to dance–alone and then with a girl at a school dance–and then resolving into infirmity and death; reflections on grace and what I would call happenstance; or an actress sharing her visions of grace found in each fellow company member. The word brings it out. That seems to me to be a fundamental thing to keep in mind. And you have to let it come, without too much dismissive judgement. The word calls it forth. As a response to the confessional atmosphere provoked by the word, I was compelled to remind the actors that it can’t stop with confession, with revealing and sharing; the next step or part of the cycle is the concealing, the idea of the performer as arch provocateur, as maker of riddles and enigmas. The cyclical process of revealing and concealing in artful measures will help our work acquire scope and depth.
We took ten minutes to reflect and then moved into our first attempt at recapitulation. Karrie took the child learning to walk and then dance and multiplied it into many such children who eventually jeteed off out of the space and were replaced by actors uttering phrases first heard in previous work; then an actress came forth and… Revealing and concealing. Some impromptu monologues were presented. Two actresses attempted to put a face on grace by utilizing a natural image. Actors were reminded that once something is offered during show, it is community property and anyone can appropriate it in any way her or she wishes.
The theatre as an instance of grace. Grace as a kind of interpretation of something witnessed. We put our own stamp on something, it evokes something in us, it confirms something particular, something unique. From the thing perceived, through the mystery of our reception, touching something that cannot be articulated, and what is revealed, what is articulated, is grace. Grace as a way of calling forth a love. In part a love in which we are the subject and object. I’m not sure about the last one. Just hearing the word lifts people.
So in terms of instances of performance, I favor those events which might evoke a kind of experience, triggering a perception of delight. And the delight points to grace. I tend to grow impatient (and jaded) with moments that are too discursive, too consciously trying to illustrate the idea of grace. In the good ole Grotowskian tradition, just the presence, the thereness, of the performer is a kind of grace.
Didn’t feel like stopping off at the Internet Cafe to write after rehearsal on Thursday night. So I’ll do so now. Just odds and ends from my notes. We are still using the show, reflect, recapitulate structure for our rehearsals, which are running about two hours, from 7 to 9 in the evenings, Sunday through Thursday. Notes first and then a general observation about where things are at this point.
These are all from offerings by our actors unless otherwise indicated. Four definitions of grace from reflection. One of our actors drew grace on a sidewalk just to trigger a response from other company members who might see it. First appearance of Hebrew favor in the OT. Karrie spoke about origns of song Amazing Grace and its slave-trading composer who apparently did not have an instantaneous moment of revelation in which the song was written and the vocation abandoned. Actress: “my grace is locked in a box.” Grace in the Koran. Actress: “all of a sudden I felt a breeze on my face.” Actors discovered a moment of synchronicity or serendipity or happenstance which pointed to grace. Mothers continuing to be linked to grace. Finding out you are going to GHP is grace. Actor reflected on the sound of the word. Thoughts were put with dance. Grace explored as “memory.” Grace in finding new friendships. Grace in a certain “time of night” when the sky is still blue. Two actresses sit with a third as she speaks of the loss of a grandmother and the three make me think of the three graces from Greek mythology. An actress’s account of finding grace in the library turned into a Dante-esque journey or something from Alice in Wonderland with a reference librarian guide, the figure of “plays and librettos,” a not so helpful trio of Graces, Rilke’s Panther, and finally a window who gets the actress’s attention and opens to reveal….. The phrase “emotional blood.” A line of opinions that resolved into a sharing of sound.
On the whole, the kids are at a point where they are doing simple illustrative tableaus. “Grace is…..” Or an image of suffering relieved and then tagged with the word. Karrie has encouraged them to seek out stories from history in which grace was acknowledged as a factor and then offer those stories to the group without comment or explanation. We also encouraged them to start bringing in more dense texts, things you could really get your teeth around. I reminded them that they can use rehearsal to question or challenge or debate, to engage in Socratic or psychoanalytic exchanges, that much of the stuff of drama lies in conflict, that just because we have a word which appears to be the last word, doesn’t mean it has to be.
They continue to work on Viewpoints and the Vocal Sequence during the day (see the post titled The Vocal Sequence for Herbert Blau’s description), and we hope they will begin to use these more open-ended and exploratory tools in their evening work. They all have been introduced to Contact Improvisation and encouraged to link it with their Vocal Sequence work as one way to give their bodies permission to fully engage in possible encounters with their peers (trying to help overcome normal adolescent reluctance and awkwardness with bodily contact).
Other thoughts. Grace might be something that dissipates divisions in discourses of belief or lack of belief. One our side faith, going out to the Divine; one the Divine’s side grace, dropping down on us. Greek Graces; and Greek notion of beauty in movement. Do you have to have belief to be touched by grace and be able to acknowledge it? Do you always need a believer’s interpretation? Can there be grace without god(s)? What about beauty? Does it need a sense of god(s) or the Divine to be identified or acknowledged? Grace and the paradox of something that can be acknowledged but not talked about. Words failing.
I have acquired a couple of copies of The Sacred Harp hymnbook from the library and have recorded some sample of the singing onto a couple of cd’s. Thought I’d introduce it to the group on Sunday night and invite them to put together some group sings within the company. I don’t know. It’s strange and compelling to me. My father’s father led singing groups in one of the important locations for this kind of singing, Sand Mountain, Alabama. I like thinking that the form and approach could have potential to be part of our performance vocabulary for our work.
Return to rehearsal last night after a two night break. When introducing students to this process, there is always a crossing over a traumatic gap; it is the point where the students begin to realize just how free they are and how responsible they are when it comes to the creative process. Karrie and I provoke this crisis by letting them know that what they have been doing is insufficient because it is too controlled by their sense of what material is supposed to look like. They have to relinquish control of meaning and just create. And we are in the process of giving them tools which will make that abandonment possible, but it takes a stubborn digging in on our part to get the issue truly on the table. It felt like a bit of the crossing over took place at this rehearsal.
And we didn’t “model” it for them. We try not to, though it is often necessary to represent a contrasting view to generate dramatic energy. It is more satisfying to point out to the group a successful instance from one of their peers and then to offer suggestions about how an impulse could be taken further should the performer choose to do so. A bit of permission-giving.
Hard to get them to let go of the idea that debate or the expression of seemingly opposing views is part of some incontrovertible path to a single absolute decision rather than an accumulation or a sedimentation, another layer of our history. An actor offers that every item last night had courage as a common factor. Grace is courage, he offered. Some were compelled to argue this, as if he was trying to establish some absolute ground and it was the wrong ground. But no, it’s part of an accumulation. Let courage into the mix as an attempt at taking a perspective.
There were two historical citings of grace in the figures of Lincoln and FDR. Weisel’s Night and a poem by e.e. cummings and a novel, Kite Runner, and a poem of grief by Morris Rosenfeld, Earth, which included the line addressed to same, you have swallowed my grace, and an actress played a haunting ostinato driven piece from Requiem for a Dream. Karrie, in search of a conceptual unifying image which might inform a structure for our work, offered a description she had found of an alley near an AIDS halfway house in a run-down bronx neighborhood. She also read an excerpt from the work of Jonathan Kozol which referenced a neighborhood. The idea of a street containing people dealing with limited and limiting horizons revealing small possibilities of grace. Students were re-assured that this was a conceptual notion added to the mix, not a decided-upon setting for our “play.”
A debate began among several actors over the nature of God’s will in relationship to human suffering. It was a fast moving and dizzying spectacle. Some actors chose to share the space as images, some static, some moving, one actress embodying a frustration with the tail-chasing nature of the debate by running in furious circles around the action, conjuring a compelling image. I played some sacred harp singing during the event, prompting one actor to step out of the heat and sarcastically suggest (he later characterized it that way) that everyone just start dancing. This further enraged many, blurring the line between what might be called “playing and reality.”
It became important in recapitulation to try and reconstruct the debate sequence, if for no other reason than to register it as an event with potential meanings for us in the future and not some meaningless explosion by actors suddenly feeling charged with a drive to “produce” or “please the teacher.” The actors were encouraged to begin trying to talk their way back through the event. It’s not easy. It’s important that the observers function as historians; often the participants cannot recall anything specific. Whether the event will come back or not as material is uncertain; we’ll just have to wait and see. Someone may try to return to it with new text or a new focus; who knows.
Reincarnation of a moment. God’s madness. Finding grace in a mirror. Taking happenstances. Just sit down. Is tragedy the word farthest from grace?
Taking up Karrie’s idea of the street and finding a “street” on campus on which to perform. Moments of collective images and events involving all players. A crowd enters the area as is confronted with such a collective image which contains shifting perspectives, music, and motion. Later we see two structures, perhaps antiphonal in nature, perhaps located in different parts of the street. At other times we see the players disperse into the specific parts of the street and small clusters of audience who happen to be situated in certain spots get to experience more intimate events which happen concurrently up and down the thoroughfare. Intermittent returns to larger structures. A sense of baroque in the collective compositions and movement, but uncostumed and lacking other adoornment; just the spectacle of players present. Grace is the resulting decor; our attempts to transform reality. We want audiences to want to come and experience it more than once.
Grace entering from somewhere else, outside traditional ritualized structures. Unexpected. What if the players make gestures to the audience (and I don’t mean gesture necessarily as a simple physical gesture, of course) to convey sense that it is their street (the audience’s) as much as it is the players’. What if small events are represented a number of times at different locations, by different players, and with different outcomes?
Today in class I got half the group through the Vocal Sequence and to a point where they know how to use it to work alone as well as in encountering their fellow players. I’m hoping they will bring it into the mix tonight.
Good rehearsal last night. The actors are starting to get more adventurous. We began with a quick pass and the actors knew that at some point one of them would stay with an impulse and begin solo work with the Vocal Sequence. The Vocal Sequence allows for things to break apart and move into a more intuitive, irrational realm where it is not quite necessary to make coherent points or act out bits of drama. The actors work more with sounds and images and fragments of text. They encounter each other in a zone of perpetual undecidability, feeling their way forward through the imupulsive need to vocalize and physicalize; the psychological states just emerge.
The moments come interpretation-free. Later we can go back and take another look, offering tentative interpretations or refinements. The most interesting bits of work, to me, are sequences which don’t occupy a comfortable place in the narrative world. Some of those began to develop, though at this point they tend to want to resolve into images of mourning or pentecostal transport. I look for a movement of thought, for a metamorphosis, for complex emotional music.
Can grace allow this group to get to those places? Which is why it’s important to keep bombarding them with questions; otherwise they could just rest on a perpetual collective sense of, “Yes, it’s all grace, it’s all good.” I tend to sink into a disconnection and position of indifference when that happens. I need to be careful about getting too complacent.
Images of possession and plague. An actress insisting in fultility I’m not sick; I’m not sick. Another actress offers What will be, will be. An account of the killing of an African teen with AIDS by an outraged uncle. An actor wonders if the manipulations of the actor can in any way lead to grace. A twirling image of the word Be. A wonderfully fluid conversation which began with faith in grace is grace itself and led to two actors sealing a bond of friendship and self-affirmation–what made it compelling was that it embodied an actual evolution of thought played out, not a display of smiling bromides. An actress offered antonyms of grace. Amazing Graces was quoted and sung. This time the encircling movement was harmonious and accomplished with hand holding. Karrie re-worked a sequence from our show period and we entitled it Night Prayers.
More conceptual thoughts. What if our street event took place on the day of a funeral? And the identity of the deceased was something of an enigma. Our group compositions become memorial in some way. Actors and audience have all “come out” for the funeral, but at the same time there is no direct indication of a funeral.
Just like we remove elements from a picture to create a new picture (see Viewpoints), I think we need to start trying to remove certain words like grace and death so as to evoke some new atmospheres. Grace, after all, cannot be arrived at directly.
I want to see an embrace as an image but not know the reason for it.
What about a rotation of images through our “street.” Several events play out along the street almost simultaneously and then rotate their positions, slightly altering in content . Each new postion produces a new variation. These occasionally interrupted by larger group images.
We took off last night to go to a jazz concert. Always hope the actors (who go) will find the improvisatory spirit and effort inspiring.
The night prior to that was the best rehearsal yet in that the actors freed themselves more to explore open situations and used some of the physical and vocal techniques they have been learning during the day.
A number of images appeared, not narrative but expressive; images which I wanted to see again, naming and filing them for perhaps future use.
Things accumulate. We are all offering readings and ideas with a variety of thoughts and themes at play. None of us really know what we are after at this point. And that is okay. Thoughts and motifs begin to emerge gradually.
For me at this point– being a confused as everybody else about our direction, which is right on schedule for this kind of work–the important thing is to look for bits of work from the actors which I try to juxtapose with other bits. Music is played, for instance, to which many of the actors begin moving quite beautifully. I think that I want to take away the music, keep the movement, and entertain the idea of the actors speaking while they move. But no idea yet what they should speak. Always looking to chip away edges which are colored with a certain adolescent sentimentality and recombine with other unexpected images to create something a bit more tangy and ambivalent.
Had a thought at one point. Someone running about and saying something like: “Where’s Grace? She’s supposed to dance.” This came out of some improvisation with the line “And she dances to the rhythm of grace.” And perhaps Grace eventually dances or perhaps she doesn’t. Karrie juxtaposed the African AIDS murder story with a thoughtful moving tableau. The fact that the images the actor’s invented did not illustrate the story but simply co-existed with it made for something very dark and moving.
I have to trust that as the actors continue to work, I will have memories of earlier efforts triggered and can find a way to start linking things up. I just have to relax, watch, and give my imagination permission to play. As does everybody else. The kids are the ones who ultimately have to see the importance of working that way.
An actor at one point began reading from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, and I thought later about how I had alluded to Dante and Virgil when I was helping assemble a possible scenario in which an actress moved through a library looking for an unnameable something (I forbade her to say grace) and encountered strange entities, eventually winding up at a view through a window. The actor who read Dante had not heard my earlier reference to it. So I though of Dante’s journey. Was the open window a way out of hell or did it open onto that darkly evil alleyway described in a passage which inspired Karrie to think about the concept of the street a few nights before? A journey out of the library and into the street, looking to find grace? What about two pilgrims? One takes the path into the library, the other ventures out into a forbidding and hopeless street. Both are surprised by grace (we hope).
How can we turn poems into encounters? And how to crystalize the encounters into larger, layered statements which resonate? How to know when an actor is onto something? How to hang on to the memory and then reassemble it, distill it? These are the questions? If I had a consistent method I could pass on to everyone, I would. Part of the struggle is we have a mix of sensibilities, everyone with their own personal sense of what is meaningful, relevent, dramatic, relatable. I put myself in the position of always trying to find a trump card, something that will take the game to a different place by getting them to expand (or re-evaluate) their sensibilities. Getting there as a group. I fight the worry of wondering whether or not to take over the cutting and pasting. It has to feel like it’s theirs, but they have to grow in their perceptions as they put it together. And I don’t always know how to prod them. I’m far too tactful; I don’t want to say: “everything you know is wrong…” But right now it is hard for me to work with their material in new and enlightening ways; as a supposedly creative person I’m a bit tied up in knots right now.
Grace slogans: Embrace the Grace (from Dale); Grace R’ Us; Grace, the final frontier; Grace is the Place
Reheasal last night produced some more extended sequences in which the actors were able to maintain a great degree of control; it only degenerated into a kindergarten play party after close to an hour of very focused work.
I made a few remarks before we began, trying to indirectly spark some refinements.
Important to make contact with the reluctant in the group; we climb the mountain together, etc. Just your being there is a contribution–any assertion of presence. Be difficult with one another. Don’t be afraid to probe and provoke. Try to transform poetry and prose into possibilities for encounter. Remember, you can be in your own vocal sequence work on the side line and then enter at will. We don’t know what we are after. The key at this point is to let things accumulate. Let’s acquire more history as a group; things will start to come back eventually.
I also told the actors to be prepared during recapitulation to call back, each of them, one memorable instant they witnessed during show. This exercise proved to be quite enjoyable. My point in asking for it was to remind them that all they have to do is ask to see something again to participate in recapitulation. And calling things back (asking the performers to do something again, to try and recall) helps make instants more distinctive, give everyone another chance to attach new meanings to them.
Karrie suggested the line the air is full of sugar and piss for our quick pass. The second actress to receive the impulse changed the line to something from her own pre-meditated agenda: song lyrics she planned to read later. However, a few moments later, after everyone resigning themselves to this change in text, an actress took an impulse and turned it into a distinct question (akin to “why are we doing this line instead of the one we began with?”). It was a wonderful instance of the group creatively taking care of its own business in the process of working material.
Interesting enough, the first sequence of improvisation after quick pass involved an attempt to weave both lines together. Since the second line had the word devil in it, the images passed giddily from pentecostal camp meetings to exorcisms to dark rites to a hip-hop concert, producing spirited and provocative variations. I’m using very dry language to try and record something that was not the least bit dry.
I try to keep a record in my notebook of everything that happens during show; not a detailed transcription–the work is to complex for that–but some kind of shorthand noting of moments and lines which resonate (for me). My hope is that I will have enough of a record to return to past moments and link to what happens later. So in this journal I am reluctant to try and narrate the specifics of what takes place in show. It would be a daunting task. And I don’t know if I would find it inspiring.
Better for me to use the journal to keep track of major conceptual moves that get explored in recapitulation. Karrie staged an opening street sequence growing out of the air is filled with sugar and piss. I was interested, pursuing this Inferno idea, in two pilgrims crossing over each other’s “home turf”; one a person from the streets seeking shelter in a library, the other moving from the security of the library to the danger of the streets; both (I hope) finding grace on their journeys. But if we find an outdoor street location, the library aspect may be too abstract to realize. And why the library? When the sentiment is asserted that you have to go to the reality of the streets to find grace, looking in dark or mundane places, I always want to counter with the desire of the library seeker, i.e. grace in history, culture, reflection, logos, art. Both street and library offer possibilities.
We also, because of some actor offerings that evening, began to think about a series of moments which might be strung through our performance–I’m calling them Grandma Variations. The seeker of grace encounters Grandma’s wisdom and guidance in both moving and comical ways.
We also saw a sequence performed by 3 actresses (plus 2 in a kind of echoing adornment) which brought to mind the 3 graces. It employs, oddly enough, text from Blake’s The Sick Rose, the text the students use during the day to practice the vocal sequence.
I have to decide if I am going to make some kind of textual contribution to our work. I do know that when I see actors conjure up compelling physical and vocal gestures, I think about what kinds of words need to be there, wanting the treatment of words, and the content, to be slightly out of joint with respect to the physical and vocal, connotative rather than denotative; I want the text and the interpretation to be as uncanny and remarkable as the physical gesture. So do I simply help corral text to distribute, keeping track of what the actors are bringing in, or do I also try to forge some kind of alchemical activity with my own textual experiments? I’ve got Finnegan’s Wake on my bookshelf this year. Is that kind of density the way to go? But I’m also reading a critical biography of Pinter. Is it about language and essence this year, about using words that reverberate, that convey like ideograms, very controlled. Either way, clearly I’m expressing the wish to get away from improvisational chatter, to tighten and refine.
Last night was a Sunday night. Had a bit of a pulling-teeth feeling. I began, out of sync with the vibe in the room to a fault as always, by introducing a concept from Pseudo-Dionysus for conceiving of and communicating about mystical experience, apophasis. Translated as “un-saying.” Trying to speak about that which can’t be spoken about through negation, paradox, and contradiction, positing an aporia and then letting a new kind of speech emerge from it. I was prompted to introduce this idea because earlier actors had offered that experiences of grace were difficult to put into words, so I offered that those trying to write about mystical experiences of unity with God might have the same problem. I suggested that apophasis could become a working strategy for us as we attempted to combine and organize materials.
I also plan to distribute some text from a 14th century mystic, Marguerite Porete, who also has, in her work The Mirror of the Simple Soul, articulated seven states of grace leading to the simple soul’s annihilation into the Divine. I guess I’m wondering if a seven state structure might work for us as we put our piece together. Quests for grace and Dantesque mystical journeys are already in the mix, so why not.
I’m also thinking about suggesting some other strategies with language which might involve punning and layering opposing meanings together by fashioning neologisms (thinking of Joycean methods, mostly), again in an effort to get language to somehow evoke what cannot be rationally articulated.
The actors began quick pass with a phrase from Pseudo-Dionysus I suggested: brilliant darkness of a hidden silence. Towards the end of show actors made some efforts to include a discussion of the war in Iraq in our work. I awkwardly tried to get them to be careful and filter their comments (and later an actress, upset by what struck her as my attempt to censor, questioned me further and I tried to clarify–I don’t know if I blew it; my mind was swirling with a great many things at that point and I was choosing words carefully in an effort not to offend anyone) to what we could realistically incorporate in the short amount of time available to us. The freedom of show encourages actors to, sometimes–and why not, bring everything into the mix which they are feeling passionately, and sometimes the stretch necessary to make the material reflect our “theme” is more than the group can realistically sustain. I was trying to be a diplomat and probably just succeeded in seeming a sell-out.
There was concern from many of the actors, and its a concern which is arriving right on schedule, over just how we are going to take what we have been doing and turn it into a piece for performance. My first response was, “Perhaps if you pose that concern to your peers, they may offer some ideas.” In other words, they are responsible for discerning possibilities; the “teachers” do not solve the problem. All that Karrie and I can do at this point is remind them of the importance of recaptitulation. We also suggested they make a list of themes and notions which they can all agree on as being “recurring.” One actress honestly confessed that she was not comfortable because there was no one just handing her a script. We remind them to focus on the task of putting together material in ways that they find powerful, interesting, amusing or compelling. At this point, it’s what they have to do. And they have to continually think about textual possibilities. They are the architects. Karrie and I will continue offering examples of how to isolate and re-configure material, but the final work needs to reflect their sensibilities. We tell them that the “arc” of the piece will reveal itself in time but not to worry too much about it now; work, rather, on fashhioning pieces of performance.
I keep realizing how I’m not willing to undertake the task in this journal of trying to document the moment by moment details of what the actors do during show and recapitulation. What kind of language should I use? How precisely descriptive should I be and when would it spill over into metaphor? I do realize I need very soon to pour back over my written journal of our rehearsals and start….gathering and distributing meaningful moments and offering them to the actors in some way, in a way which will help their own sifting and composing. I haven’t quite decided how to go about it.
The fact of the matter is, my compositional and juxtaposing ideas are few for this particular work, so far. I’m afraid I don’t know how to begin charting a personal associative progression and then sell it to the actors. So I’m waiting…I’m hoping a more adventurous sensibility will begin to emerge from them. I’m burdening myself with the possibility that it won’t. So I need to encourage them to work in a way that pleases them and my vanity be damned…
Night before last we began rehearsal by scouting for locations around campus, limiting our search to the “pedestrian mall” area. Our preferred space is one with a large circle paved with small bricks sitting between two hall entrances which face one another. There are large bushes about and small stage-like areas up against the walls of one of the halls. One of the halls is empty if we choose to take part of our performance inside. Justin mentioned the posibilities of using large pieces of cloth for both scenic elements and masking of action.
I like thinking about the audience being brought to the location and seeing the actors walking around the outer perimeter of the circle in perfect rhythm and perfectly spaced, perhaps each quietly whispering a text. At a certain point the movement of the actors would increase in speed, still in perfect rhythm and perfectly spaced. Justin spoke later at rehearsal about finding the “ring around the rosy” idea interesting; he likes it association with plague symptoms and death. A ring motif could transform into many different things. Karrie is interested in keeping the motion between scenes fluid, something always changing into something else.
We wound up in the bio-chem auditorium and held our rehearsal there. Two of our actors gave a short presentation on a speech given by Ann Bogart at a SETC conference they both attended. Their attempt was to inspire their fellow actors with a taste for the new and unexpected. We shall see. One of the presenting actors ended with a quote from Nelson Mandela referring to our need to aspire to greatness as human beings, to be extrordinary and not apologize.
Karrie was inspired to speak about the grace of forgiveness and referred to the fact that we live in a very litigious culture and to the risks of identifying with the role of victim with respect to our families and our upbringing. Actors offered their own responses. We realized how much the notion of forgiveness can be related to socio-cultural and economic factors. From my point of view, forgiveness as noblesse oblige.
The actors quoted some lyrics from songs which seemed to resonate for them and took another look at some of our already established bits, trying new elements and new variations.
The role of music came up, and Karrie and I both stressed our preference for the actors being responsible for all of the musical textures should there be any. I encouraged three actors to perform some vocal music they had been improvising the other day while waiting to start class. It’s amazing how reluctant everyone is to investigate such possibilities. We coulpled their vocalizing with an image. The actors have no avant-garde sensibilities when it comes to imagining musical possibilities. And I left all of my music at home this summer….
Tonight I will hand out some pages I put together that feature “poetry” inspired by our work, reminders of notions and images that have appeared over our history together, reminders to consult their “clearing the clearing” handout for tips about composition, a short list of reminders of how to fashion little moments of “performance art” out of previously created material, and some suggestions for generating text using surrealist “exquisite corpse” strategies and Burroughs-Gysin “cut ups” strategies on the contents of their notebooks.
We told them if they want to go to the Music Department’s Prism concert on Thursday, they can’t continue to sit on their hands in rehearsal…
Since my last entry I think we have had two rehearsals. We have also had a series of discussions in which we have stressed the importance of honesty in this kind of work. If something is not “working” or does not seem to speak to the “theme” as it has evolved within group work, members need to speak up and offer responses and critique. It is not a situation where you have to tread carefully with a concern for people’s feelings. It is not about making personal judgemnts of worth, talent, etc. We’ve begun, in recapitulation, to encourage immediate feedback after a bit of work or an idea is offered to the group, hoping to compel the kids to hone their sensibilities by responding.
There have been times where I have made an effort to assert my taste for the contrapuntal and the complex because I have noted too much concern about the audience having a theatre-like experience of our work. Actors are still regretting not having a theatre to perform in. I advocate split-focus for a number of reasons: I like a complex event which makes the audience want to re-experience it a number of times; our audience will be spread out anyway and holding a single focus will be impossible; peripheral activities can create a palpable mood; straight narrative is just not the way I like to go–something more musical or poetic is more to my taste.
I have composed one last memo (I tell myself) in which I have offered some thoughts on meanings behind our event and on a sense of style in performance, on the type of experience we want the audience to have based on our investigations into grace. After this I shut up. The only inspired content has occured in a few moments of class work and doesn’t really fit our theme. I think they have too much freedom, but explicitly guiding them at this point would be to give them my version of content. And I am frankly empty of content at this point aside from my little memo efforts. It is supposed to be the actors investigations which inspire the content. Simple as that. And it feels like Yeats’ description at this point: the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of a passionate intensity. I’m not seeing anything that even inspires me to demonstrate techniques for cutting and pasting, echo, repetition, etc. Ah well.
My family has been in town; pardon the lack of entries. Contrasting rehearsals during this time. One with a certain amount of spontaneous playfulness, often because Karrie functioned as an instigator; the other a static affair in which actors would read poems or texts they had written and found. In the second one I couldn’t help but feel that among the actors there is this desperate hope that just offering texts will do it, that it will absolve them from encountering work in the center as a journey into terra incognita. At some point later in my time here I’ll try to ruminate on how I feel I failed with my attempt to transmit the vocal sequence as an alternative method for exploration and shaping a performance.
Tonight at rehearsal I plan to require it (and Viewpoints) as a method for working in the circle. It’s an attempt at a strategy. Last night during show actors shared a good number of stories in which they attempted to narrate an encounter with grace; alternatively, one actress offered a passage of writing in which she characterized grace as our attempt to “keep the world from collapsing.” That got me to thinking about grace as not necessarily a spiritual phenomenon but a narrative structure (yes, typical postmodern perspective). I was also thinking about the use we are making so far of monologues in our work and how we have not successfully rid them of a feeling of being monologues (often from other sources) stuck into the mix without having produced a sense of “organic” necessity. These strains of thought have come together for me and I will require vocal sequence and viewpoints work so that the participating actors can later in rehearsal create first person narratives in which they attempt to describe their experiences as encounters with grace. In other words, they will turn their work into grace stories relating both what they experienced and what they witnessed, making them as immediate as possible and using their own names and the names of their fellow actors. The idea is that they will take something potentially chaotic for them and the audience and transform it through grace narrative. And I, personally, am ambivalent about the process of transformation because I am attracted to the power of events without a reflective frame, in which the event itself is somehow the thought in its fleshy turbulence (that’s the Blau in me, I think).
Actors are attempting to sequence moments with varying degrees of success. Often these attempts will lead to discussions which are essentially clashes of sensibility. The struggle for me is how to prevent the group from shooting itself in the foot creatively. Often discussions center around juxtapositions of material which strike some as “upsetting.” There are those that see the upsetting nature as a desired end, others not so much so. A sense of “resolution” at the end of sequences is also a concern; we remind them that the sequences are to flow and not necessarily represent little playlets. A line from King Lear comes to mind: I see it feelingly. As we put things together, that is the place from which we need to be viewing the result.
The rehearsal full of spontaneous playfulness was interesting to me because I have become paranoid enough to interprete the playfulness as a form of aggression; it emerged as I was reading a reflection which in part called for an unmediated presence of actors in events akin to our experience with children (one of the discoveries of our “research” into grace). I could swear that the childlike activity undertaken to drown out my reading began before I even got to the part about children. Needless to say, I had mixed feelings about being drowned out, so I don’t know how much of the perceived aggression is actually mine. The child-like and game-like energy, often involving business with a hat, both unpredictable and intense, was the closest thing I had experienced to a sense of thought in action as an aesthetic, as a way to structure the performance. If they could harness it and link it to more demanding means of expression and exploration (what we try to teach them during the day)…
Three rehearsals since my last entry. My attempt to impose some limits on show and then invite actors to structure narratives around grace or lack thereof led to a “vent session.” The actors began to come to grips with the need to, at times, control their participation in show so that more focused work can go on among fewer players, including possible gentle removal of fellow players from the circle in order to help intensify attention on other work. At the next rehearsal this discussion made a difference; it also came back to bite us because, as always, sensibility was an issue at a number of points. Three actresses began some work and another actress entered the circle and began to claim that she did not “believe” what the actresses were up to. Unfortunately, it was clear in that instant that the three actresses were into something; the other actress just was not responding to it. Needless to say, the three actresses were very angry, and other members of the group called out the critical actress, claiming they did not believe her. I mention all of this because it is part of the political and artistic life of the group; and consequently, such issues should be handled by group members, when possible, as an extension of creative expression.
That subsequent rehearsal also produced some very rich material…more soon. Today we worked at our performance site…a leap forward in the process.
I don’t have my journal with me, so I can’t relate as many details as I should about the new material that has emerged recently. I promise to give some kind of vivid account at some point. It’s difficult; I suppose it’s difficult because of the time that would be involved in describing; I think I’ve said this before.
We rehearsed at our site yesterday morning. After some attempts to have the actors move in unison about the perimeter of the circle, we began an open recapitulation session in which actors could return to any of our previous material but without introduction or comment or attempts to set the stage. Everyone had to focus on the moment playing out to remember what was about to take place and involve themselves accordingly using memory as their guide. This is an important point in the collective process. It becomes clear as the actors move through this kind of work that they are thinking and that they are using their shared vocabulary of images and moments to further their thinking. It’s how the associative structure of the final work gets built.
Afterwards we took some time to take note of what had emerged to see if we want to revisit possible sequences next time or if new text possibilities have presented themselves. This is the point where the actors finally realize, if they haven’t already, that having words to say is critical and that its important to start learning words. Ideally, this is the point at which the work really begins since the situation has finally pressed them to need to find the words. Unfortunately in our case, we are on our last week of preparation. At least I’m hoping they are feeling the “word press” as strongly as I am.
Part of our first time working on site was spent exploring where impulses might allow actors to break the bounds of our central circle and carry the action out to bushes and porticos and other little presentation areas adjacent.
The actors have been encouraged from the beginning to bring in any sort of idea which inspires them, including visual ideas. Usually, such things are mounted on the walls in our workspace in an accumulating collage of stimulation. In this case, aside from a few decorative renderings of the word “grace,” only one image has gone up on the wall: a black and white photo of dry and cracking desert ground with one small plant attempting to fight its way through the crust. We’ve been weaving this idea of reaching out of the dry ground into our work fairly consistently; it is a motif. And I’m going to tell myself that our having only one inspiring image on our wall is the right thing, as if it is in fact the only sign of life available to us, the only necessary point of reference.
Passing people would stay and watch us work yesterday while we were out on campus; we hope the kids were surprised by that. Yes, their activities hold people’s interest.
Good session of recapitulations last night in which some fairly complex sequences came together, including an enactment of a passage from Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace which allowed for a representation of a decimated urban cityscape. Also, we saw an extended kinetic sequence built out of the idea of actors moving just out of reach of a touch from fellow actors. Very compelling without trying to tells us anything (except “grace found” uttered at the end of it; not exactly to my taste, but I can live with it). The students are finally trying out move adventurous and ambiguous ideas and expressing opinions right after the fact on whether or not they work and on how to improve them if they do work.
This morning we broke them up into two working groups and instructed them to work through recapitulation sessions, sequencing material. Then we went to our performance site and let each group present their discoveries. This is valuable for many reasons, but it is particularly interesting for the actors to see other actors perform bits which usually they have performed. It sends the message that a bit is not sole property of any one particular performer or group of performers, and it encourages all of the actors to regard the bits as elements in a shared language.
You could conceivably play the piece each performance with the actors creating an order anew each time, maintaining that high-wire tension of expectation and surprise. I don’t think we will be doing that, but the exercise does help us to discover the most compelling options for sequenceing. We also try to pay attention to sequences which repeat; repetition is often telling us that something is meant to be.
After the two groups shared their sequences, we performed another open capitulation with all actors. I’m notating everything, so that we can review later. I have also compiled a list of all of our bits and will distribute them to the actors; this is helpful, but if we had more time I’d be less inclined to do it, because the struggle to remember in the act of recapitulating and performing is part of the thought at work. A list makes things easier and, if we are not careful, less authentic.
An example of how surprises can unfold in recapitulation: there is a bit which involves a gathering of young children calling for mother to come and tell them a story. This morning during recapitulation, after the children began to call for their mother, a male actor took it upon himself to walk up and tell them that since mother was busy he, father, was going to tell them the story this time. It added a touching bit of particularity to the moment. As we work through familiar material, it is the spontaneous variations, the new folds in thought, which we strive for.
I’m reading about Finnegans Wake for one of my little inspiring escapes this summer. So of course I’m wanting to employ Wakean writing processes in my suggestions to the students for how to generate material, approaching writing problems from the angle of how to express the inexpressible. So far no one has found the challenge appealling. No one found Sacred Harp appealing either. I keep trying to write my response to the question, “What about next summer?” And I keep wanting to compose it in a Joycean fashion: naifear aiguend.
I’m at the point where I look at a bit which the students have been asked to fix and decide that the only way it will be fixed is if I play director and fix it. They have been told what it needs in explicit terms, and they have acquired the tools and the experience from classwork instruction (lest some think we are not employing sound “gifted” pedagogy) to make the fixes, and they have been given the time, but they choose not to fix it because it would involve some slightly uncomfortable creative labor on their part. I am not going to play director and fix it. Why should I? To satisfy my own ego? I am not going to play director and fix anything. Me as deus ex machina? No. Karrie feels the same way.
I took it upon myself last night to try and stage a large group image in response to a certain lack in a scene. It was like pulling teeth just to get everyone to shut up long enough to put together a simple physical idea. And an actor asked my why we haven’t done more large group vocal work…Well, aside from the difficulty of getting people to shut up, I usually work when I am inspired by what I see or hear the actors doing, and that hasn’t been happening this year. I believe in the method and the approach we use, but this year…the ones who get it are in a minority. One could argue that we the teachers failed by not sufficiently modifying or changing our approach once we got a true whiff of what was in the air. But I stubbornly believe a teacher’s job is to provide a force of resistance to the students wanting to play only at the limits of their known horizons. To modify would be to give up resisting. I guess I’m saying I’m ready to be hanged for my principles. If I didn’t operate out of a sense of noble belief in the challenge I want to impose on them, I’d be out of here. Plenty of talented theatre teacher types who could come in like Dale’s beloved CommArts kid with the resonant voice and dazzle everyone.
There was not enough of an initial understanding from a strong majority of our students that grace was a starting point and not the only point, not necessarily the end point. Grace was to be a way in to something.
We have appointed a small group to begin to determine a final ordering for our bits. I am only frustrated intermittently, and more in the sense of unrealized ambition rather than out of disappointment with the student’s actual efforts. At this point the focus needs to be on hammering together what in fact we have. If they resist working in ways which make them uncomfortable, so be it. It won’t dazzle in the way I had hoped (and my “dazzle” is a different creature anyway–and I’ve floundered continually with trying to find some Archimedian point to achieve it), but it will honestly represent the nature of the effort.
I am taking quiet satisfaction in knowing that I don’t plan to play at being a theatre person any more once this is over. It’s not my nature. Naif fear aigue end.
We created a committee of five students two days ago to decide upon a sequence for our bits of material. THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA. We chose actors for this job who in one way or another had bought-in to the associative approach to composition we have been advocating; in other words, we didn’t have to worry about there being a wrongheaded sensibility gumming up the works. They have, over the last two days, structured a sequence for the piece and the other actors have cooperated with minimal grumbling. They have maintained the fluid and dream-like approach; they have upheld the belief that the piece should be propelled by feeling rather than a narrative logic of motivation, cause and effect.
We have begun to incorporate our “scenic” elements: four strips of fabric of varying length, and with each run-through actors have found more opportunities for using them as archetectural and expressive components. Now the struggle is clearly over getting the voices to project and the bodies to radiate, getting motions decisive and attentions laser-locked and intense; we are battling the “slow-motion” effect in which all of the actors, as they feel their way through the new organization of material, treat every event as a slow-motion one with ponderous actions, slow droning voices, etc. The rhythms begin to get more interesting as the actors get more comfortable with the material.
Karrie, Justin and I limit our interventions to minimal adjustments, offering suggestions only when an interesting or fresh variation is being overlooked. It is still not the intensly complex word, sound, and image saturated structure that I like to strive for, and it only has flashes of what I consider the idea of actors embodying unmediated thought. But it gives tastes of a number of things; it’s a charming buffet.
Latest “challenge.” We have lost the formal grace of the circle as our dominant scenic element. VSU has told us the stone circle we have been playing in is off limits. It is a safety issue, we are told; stones in the circle are being held in place by sand, and some of our little darlings have, apparently while sitting around bored with rehearsal, begun to dig out the sand from around some of the stones. Using stones to scratch “GHP 06” and a few names into the concrete (a defamation which can be washed away, I think) has also taken place. Apparently we are not the only guiltly ones; we have only been on the circle for the last week. But there we are. So tonight we will tell the kids to play in a space near our circle, still on the mall, and try and maintain the sense of circle on their own–as a “concentration” exercise. Once they accomplish that, we’ll drop the bomb and say, “Welcome to your new site.” While the inscribed grace of the circle is not crucial, it was the essence of our opening image. Ah, well…Gonna be gone in ten days. Counting down.
In my one Joycean gesture, I borrowed a phrasing that had emerged one night in rehearsal and made it into our title: …grace…period. Not just chosen for the obvious fun with a pun. It is significant, too, because it occured to me at a moment when things had suddenly gotten a bit less shitty, as if we were finally being granted a certain grace period.
For those who might attempt to use these scant entries to shape your own efforts at collaborative group process, one thing I would emphasize now which I have not pointed out so much so far. Find a way to teach your new performance tools (viewpoints, vocal sequence, Michael Chekov, etc., in our case) in a clearing situation where the actors can immediately apply their new performance approaches to some material and then be invited to use various recapitulation strategies. This summer it did not work to wait till night rehearsals to invite the actors to apply their knowledge; we should have gotten them caught up in those possibilities at the very same instant they were practicing their new methods. We had to model the application process in the evening, and only a minority got it. Too much time in show was spent “sharing” in largely unproductive ways. For instance, if I am going to use Blake’s The Sick Rose as the text with which the kids will be trained to work with the vocal sequence, I need to be prepared for that class to also be an arena of inquiry into the text; I need to demonstrate immediately how to isolate material that emerges during improvisation and exploration and subject it to further development, how to chase down the emerging complex thoughts being grasped at in performance. We need to create work inspired by the poem or attack a theme the text of the poem can inform. This summer the leap from day to night was only made rarely and by a few. And yes, I intended that last sentence to have the most far-reaching metaphorical implications.
What is today? The 15th? No, the 16th
We gave our second and final performance last night. Good crowds for both performances; most seemed to stay for the whole thing; many positive responses (like we will hear the negative ones…). It was moist and muggy but late enough to miss any direct sun, and we were graced by a number of refreshing breezes, especially last night.
This final week we worked on-site, fine tuning. In thinking about it now I would say the final structure was mostly musical (tip: with working with an abstract set of material, think musically). You could call it theme and variations, or a fantasia (that’s fan-ta-SEE-ah, please), or even a rondo if you see the theme of return as the actors soaring about between each bit. Talking with Justin, we decided the story (ah, can’t get away from story, can we) of Isaiah, the African boy with AIDS murdered by an outraged uncle, was perhaps the most “integrated” sequence. It had narrative, abstract viewpoints action, choral echo, use of scenic elements, a riveting culminating image (the narrating actress is covered with a cloth as she “becomes” the body of the dead boy, other actors sediment themselves on top, and then the actress reaches her hand up out of the pile) and a distinct emotional contour with a climax and a coda. But focusing too much on one sequence is to miss the sense of the whole thing and its flow, and we did succeed in maintaining a flow. I also think the piece succeeded in gently coaxing the audience to set aside familiar expectations, to accept just experiencing the unfolding.
How well did it pass what I call the ultimate GHP test? To me the ultimate GHP test (and this tells you too much about my own fears and extreme lack of self-esteem) is: could most of those in the audience, teachers and students, lay aside the natural tendency toward condescension and get caught up in the event? I don’t know; too early to tell. Probably you never really know. To a certain extent you hope that the “willing suspension of disbelief” kicks in on its own; you can only lead them to water, after all. I guess I am revealing in part my own battle with condescension toward the kids’ approach to the work. And in all honesty, if this truly was a work in progress and we had more time, I don’t know what I would want to do. Dale mentioned, “more texture,” and I would agree, but I am blank at the moment over the question of how to proceed. I would probably have to keep to what Karrie, Justin and I have all asserted from the beginning: it’s their piece. Does the observation “more texture” have any meaning for them? I would, though, want to get more varieties of text and use of language into the piece, language becoming (the KRAKKEN influence coming through) a perpetual “scenic” presence (but not to the extent of ousting those moments of “silence” our actors tell us they love).
There are moments in the piece where surprising and intense moments between actors emerge in complicated constellations, moments that were originally explored in improvisations and that we were compelled to return to (I was compelled…the kids perhaps were more disbelieving about their worth). Non-narrative moments of emotional weight where the performers let the lines blur between themselves and their “characters.” And those are the moments when I feel things are particularly successful, when I got my sensibility across. Two actors forehead to forehead in anger; three actors tearing themselves away from others’ ministering actions in a shadowy resolve; an indescribable physical exchange about pizza and macaroni and cheese in which the audience laughs without knowing why; a powerful over the shoulder look with deep private significance. Moments where the audience is compelled to attend in spite of their best efforts to condescend.
For those that did not see the performance or for those that cannot get a clear picture from this journal what was going on (I don’t blame you), I should try to offer something more, especially if there are some readers who might like to do some of their own group development. First of all, realize that the work can really take any form; a great deal depends on how much time is available for development, the age and temperament of the actors, and on other “teaching goals.” We had five weeks to realize a piece, rehearsing two hours an evening Sunday through Thursday up until the last week, and always we had to keep in our minds that the result, our “work in progress,” had to be something that accurately reflected the kids’ effort and sensibility. Trying to get tricky and make it more sophisticated than it is is always a temptation; we avoid it. The audience came upon the actors moving in a circle which soon dispersed as two actresses began trying to ask their fellow actors “Where is it? What ist it?” The actors began to wander about our public space, finally plopping down all over with a provocative gesture of tired indifference. Two actors move across the space as if it’s a dry desert; rain finally arrives, the sounds provided by other actors. Two sheets of cloth are undulated over one of the actors, creating a loud troublesome storm, and he cries out, “Pain is life.” Actors soar about the space always only three at a time…they then move through a number of sequences which vary in style and mood; there’s a search in a library, the Africa story, poetry and monologues, transformations in a playground, a toddler who learns to walk and dance, a traffic accident, fights, moments of personal conflict, a grace lesson…The strips of cloth provide constant shifting “drawings” of atmosphere. One actor plays a dijeridoo (can’t remember how to spell it); another punctuates with a djembe. The actors wore comfortable casual clothes in cool colors, each wearing a bit of grey cloth somewhere to help unify the approach. Everything was done through movement and physicality. No props (one notebook one camera for one scene). Not as much collective vocalizing as I would have liked; some street sounds, a singing of the last verse of Amazing Grace, some humming.
Spoke with one of the actors today. He told me he had had two conversations with people who were “profoundly moved” by the performance. I think there will be more of that kind of conversation between actors and acquaintances who saw it.
Remember, it doesn’t have to look like anything you already know. I tell the kids we are going for something sui generis, a performance event which may have no precedent. You decide how much the audience needs to know at every instant. The hardest part is getting the kids to relax and not over-explain as part of what they offer. They are in part creating enigmas and unsettling events. The audience will tolerate a certain amount of confusion for the sake of a more powerful payoff down the line. A dream-logic gives you a wide berth and a large canvass and a broad palette. Having said all that, if you want to go instead for a narrative event, by all means do, and it can work at a level of cool Brechtian rationalism if you wish. Just make sure you allow for encounters with the unexpected at some point in the process.
This is an entry about my approach to teaching in general, not about our piece. I just checked in on a group of my students who are studying Beckett for a theatre history project. They were planning to watch Krapp’s Last Tape. When I checked in they were fast forwarding through it because they considered it long and boring, and this group includes some of our few staunch reliables. I suggested they try viewing Play and quietly left.
Ouch. It was a shock. I had the sudden uncanny feeling that I was in fact dead and my ghost had been wandering around campus for at least the last five weeks if not longer. I have to be careful, here; sure, I’m disappointed they were not intrigued and inspired, but they brought themselves to it with little to no introduction from me (intentional). And I did not stay to try and bring them around or find a way to enhance their “appreciation.” Bad gifted pedagogy, I’m sure, but their response was very surprising. In the past, the comments about boredom were balanced with a kind of enthused fascination.
We teach (or administrate) at GHP because it feeds certain necessities in place in our identities. I am not immune. I have installed in myself the belief that I possess not only rare and uncommon knowledge but a very particular sensibility; so, consequently, I maintain the belief that I deserve GHP and GHP deserves me. I have never really looked to my relationships with colleagues here to bolster that belief; it never has. I’m pretty boring and am viewed as such, I would imagine. Theatre, after all, anyone can teach theatre, right? My vulnerability to ego bolstering came through my work with students, with my role as “eye-opener.” But this year I keep encountering my own obsolescence, or to pull from Harold Bloom, my own belatedness. Nothing I teach nor no method of my teaching employs the now ubiquitous movements of taking someone from behind and hanging on like a rodeo star. And I distinctly lack urban flav(e).
What is implied is that the situation of Krapp’s Last Tape established through its conventions and language was not even approachable. We’ll see. Yeah, I’m ready to give up on this and upcoming generations. How cynical, right? How negative! Not part of the solution so part of the problem, etc. Another sign that not coming back is the right move.
Those of you who were 2006 students and read this journal can tell that even teachers are human and go through wild mood swings from elation to dejection. For the record, the history projects this year (for which one group was enduring Beckett) were uniformly brilliant and a rewarding experience for me as a teacher.
Some young teacher who shall remain nameless tried to evaluate our production this year on a 1 to 10 scale. Okay… A work in progress; go for it. evaluation of this kind, however, is irrelevent (for those of you I’ve alarmed, he bestowed an “above average”). Remember, everyone will be eager to tell you what was “missing.” The only work involved in such criticism is the work of polishing one’s statue (and perhaps playing the GHP-entitlement card in this case). And everyone knows theatre, after all. But only those who actually did the impossible real work creating the piece are in an authentic position to talk about what might be “missing.” Remember that.
Speaking of GHP scrutiny, this journal has spelling errors, typos, and goofs which I promise to take the time to fix some day.
I need to go eat some lunch, end this thing, and have another cry. I realize I never gave a step by step description of how to teach the vocal sequence. I have something I wrote for a DOE website a while back which I will text scan and turn into a file and publish on this site.