I am listening to Joanna Newsom’s latest recording, Ys, while I write this….It makes me very happy.
So, if you have stumbled onto this: Every summer the GHP Theatre program embarks upon a company-created production (if it gets that far). Also, as I teach the Vocal Sequence this year, I am going to try and do so in the context of group creation. This journal, consequently, will be where I give an account of work in two areas. I write it only to give some kind of idea to those interested in collective creation of how we go about it with our GHP students. My introduction to KRAKEN’s Vocal Sequence was in the context of group creation, and so far I haven’t incorporated it into our work as effectively as I might. And since the idea for our company piece this year may not make use of Vocal Sequence exploration, I’m going to try and fit it in in a different way.
Our company work is going to revolve around the development and performance of comic routines, using an immersion in the performance history of popular entertainment as a place to start (with a touch of theory, too, but just a smidge).
I use William Blake’s poem The Sick Rose as the text for learning the Vocal Sequence. This year it will also be the starting place for making a piece (or a number of pieces).
Comic routines. We’re thinking seriously about a traveling stage this year.
A computer in my room is great. I can listen to Kate Bush at a banshee level and do an entry. (Yes, I still listen to that stuff on occasion.)
We are trying to get the kids researching in the history of comic performance. I want them to find samples of performance material as well as other kinds of info. The hope is that they will begin to feed such material and understanding into the rehearsal process. Initially, we’ll try framing their searching as a scavenger hunt in which they get points for performing material, finding artifacts, uncovering primary sources and finding out how they differ from secondary sources (which get points, also, just not as many).
They’ve also received a copy of Blake’s poem, The Sick Rose. No one here has seen, yet, what it really is like to use Vocal Sequence work to create a piece that is totally off the radar. I would love to lead the kids through that a bit this year. My hope is that we can open up a rich world of investigation through just the poem, but if the students are led to other bits of Blake, other texts, material on the role of the rose in esoteric mysticism, no problem. I would really like to encourage them to make moments of tightly organized abrasion. Instances of performance poetry. We’ll see. I guess I need to prompt them through example, but I don’t want to make the pieces myself.
Last night we had our first evening rehearsal. After an explanation from us about how our “show, reflect, recapitulate” approach works, students began to present material they had found using their scavenger hunt leads. Students presented material on a variety of topics from Plautus, American Vaudeville, Bob Hope, Sophie Tucker, Medieval Farce, on to Yiddish Theatre, European Cabaret, and Charlie Chaplin. We anticipate students will bring in material on tape, dvd, and cd, and we have the ability to play things in the rehearsal space. We challenged them to keep trying to find their way to primary source materials, accounts of acts and performances and bits of script in particular. The actors seemed receptive to the idea of creating “routines about routines.” Karrie highlighted the traveling life of the artists who worked in popular entertainment, from medieval jongleurs to vaudeville performers.
Actors continue to share information from the leads they have pursued. Basically the leads cover the evolution of comedy with an emphasis (in my mind) on the comic routine in popular entertainment (downplaying the dramatic literature of comedy, for instance), winding up mainly with strains from American Vaudeville and the English Music Hall. We are starting to view some things, as well, from Charlie Chaplin to Monty Python. An actor recommended the other night that it would be useful to start making lists of what’s funny. We continue to emphasize the usefulness of primary source material. Actors have begun to bring in routines and excerpts from other bits of entertainment which they have acted out for the group. Karrie is imagining it will be possible for the actors to do vocal sequence and viewpoints work as a part of our process. We’ll see. It certainly would be interesting but I don’t know if the actors will be able to find their way to that kind of open and, at times, abstract exploration with the material they’ve been exploring. We’ll see. I’ve also talked to Karrie about the possibilities of not seeing just routines but glimpses of the lives of the “performers” who do the routines. What if the actors create performing personas for this contemporary vaudeville? In other words, it’s not simply the actors who perform but characters they create doing the performing.
As for the vocal sequence and the Blake poem. The actors have done their preliminary preparations (see the tutorial elsewhere on the site) and will begin learning the sequence with the text next week. I’ve got to figure out when will be the ripest time to turn their learning process into a creative group process. We’ll see…
The actors are starting to propose and compose original material. Right now the suggestion to observe their own lives and use those observations as a basis for creating routines has led most of them to creating comic material about “life at GHP.” There are ways in which this may be unfortunate. They are not aware of how many comic skits about “life at GHP” they will see this summer at other events. There is a risk that they, too, will just create a bunch of summercamp skits in which the laughter is generated primarily through group recognition of shared experiences. We’re going to have to remind them that their work needs to reflect the research they have done and, if anything, acquire a certain knowing sophistication, even their forays into slapstick.
I’m still keeping on the back burner the idea that the actors create personas for themselves, that they are entertainers in some kind of contemporary traveling vaudeville.
I think, too, it may be time to challenge them in terms of how they create and combine elements. During the day they are learning “experimental” techniques. How might what they are learning during the day be applied to the night work? Without it necessarily becoming “high art” or too conceptual. The desire to create popular amusement can be maintained and respected, but perhaps we can experiment with ways to generate the laughter. What about those moments where we laugh and don’t really know why we are laughing?
On Monday I incorporated some group development work into a quick pass exploration of the Sick Rose and I think it was very rewarding. The actors took “ideas” they had generated during a quick pass session and were instructed to call some of them back into the midst of the group. Then they were asked to “arrange” some of the ideas into new sequences and combinations. And finally we maintained a majority of watchers while a few performers worked with other variations on ideas. Sounds dry, but it wasn’t. Intense and visceral at this point, working primarily with some basic ideas evoked by words like “sick” and “dark” and the idea of “found out.” I told the actors that they are beginning to weave a web of memories and associations which will continue to get more complex as they work. Hard to describe. Moments made to be witnessed and experienced.
Actors continue to develop routines, some around life at GHP, some based in more general situations. A Monty Python sketch enacted a couple of nights ago has had a good influence on some of the material
We have mixed feelings about the GHP material and told the students to be careful not to produce “skits” (see above). The work must reflect the study they have done, must be created with a certain level of learned craft.
I challenged the students to use the more experimental techniques they are learning in class in some new ways with the evening material, to see if they might stumble upon some new kinds of routines, perhaps with new sources for laughter. I can’t see ahead to what it might be like, but some adventurous kid might meet the challenge. Soon after that, one actor applied some Viewpoints-influenced body work to a scene about being in room restriction and created some wonderfully amusing moments. It was suggested that he might be dressed as a clown as he performs the scene.
It was while meditating on the clown and on GHP and on room restriction that I came up with a framework which might hold everything we have done so far. A kid is led to room restriction by his RA. The kid attempts some outlandish lie to excuse whatever behavior led to the rule infraction, but the RA’s not buying. Once the kid is alone in the room, the Impresario appears and tells the kid he or she likes his story, that it showed a certain spunk, a spark of imagination. The impresario goes on to tell the kid that his or her company is looking for fresh material. The performers are tired of doing their old routines and are looking for a way to make a new start. The impresario tells the kid he should join their group and start telling the performers about his life and GHP and elsewhere, and the performers will use the material to create new routines. He can choose to stay and think seriously about his actions or go into show-biz and hit the road.
The kid thinks his life is a disaster and his stories are all dark and horrible accounts of misery and defeat and embarrassment. The performers, of course, find them to be a rich source of comedy. Using this frame, we can meet “vaudeville” style performers, we can see some of the old routines they are ready to retire, we get to hear the student’s stories and see some of them enacted, then we can see the performers take the material and create new comic routines which we, of course, also see. Karrie suggested that when the kid leaves to go with the troupe, the Impresario arranges for one of the clowns from the company to take the kid’s place. Then, throughout the performance, we can cut back to the room and watch the clown do something appropriately ridiculous, including a scene in which the RA checks on the kid, sees the clown, a stare, a beat, a take, a scratching of the head, the RA then withdraws, etc.
So I’ll propose this frame to the group on Sunday.
In the Sick Rose work, the actors are still getting familiar with the Vocal Sequence elements. I’ve gotten them to loosen up physically with one another by getting them to try some Contact Improvisation. Then I invite them to link their Vocal Sequence work with the Contact Improvisation. Once they try it and stumble upon some of the potential for those kinds of encounters, I encourage them to explore other possibilities and not hold to the Contact Improvisation frame, necessarily, but let the sound and the encounter and the text shape the physical. They are seeing that the undefined and abstract is just as interesting as making up little stories and playing them out.
I proposed my frame idea to the actors on Saturday morning. By rehearsal on Sunday evening one actor had an alternative idea, which is as it should be. We also had a design idea proposed. It looks as though we are going to wind up performing in the Lab Theatre rather than try to find a location around campus, and we will probably perform twice on each of our two evenings to accommodate more audiences. This got Justin to thinking about our mode of presentation and to wonder if we needed a frame to which we would have to make some of our material adhere in order to use it. We have some stuff rooted in GHP and some not. Justin suggested we just let material be what it is, and that in turn got me to thinking about the design approach and performance style as frame enough. The actor’s design approach would involve a series of rolling curtain moving about the perimeter of the space and the audience in the middle. I can easily see these curtains zipping around the walls and the performers zipping as well, often moving in opposite direction to the curtains, creating a deliberate zany energy. And we just do the bits. So it will be interesting to see if other actors pursue the frame idea or if we go ahead and make a case for no frame and, instead, for fun theatricality in the execution.
I still would like to see more routines rooted in some comic traditions. But we are getting more adventurous things like some very evocative and accomplished pantomime routines, a routine utilizing rhythmic sounds and actions in the spirit of Spike Jones, more work rooted in creating humorous characters responding to situations. We have to let the actors keep inventing at this point.
In the work on The Sick Rose, the actors are starting to use Vocal Sequence work to have encounters with one another, and I’m itching to take more time to call back the most interesting moments, but at this point it’s more important to give everyone an opportunity to have a taste. I issued a subtle caution without naming names: often if an encounter turns into a strong force pushing down on a more vulnerable force, it is the less secure actor who takes the strong position as a way to protect him or herself. The more adept actor will be vulnerable and allow the situation to have an impact or create a change. It’s most interesting when the actors are able to avoid what I would call, after a phenomenological psychologist whose name I can’t recall right now, “the upright posture.” Not necessarily a literal description of their physical stance, but more a way to characterize imposing limits by having your presence stay some sort of walking and talking, recognizably human, agent, rather than move into a more enigmatic, at times more abstract, performing presence.
At some point I want to talk about the importance of developing a relationship to both the text and the group and the need to start thinking about an agenda, about what you, as a particular performer, want to do in your group exploration, and about who you are in the group, about your place in its unfolding history.
It’s very much in the actors’ hands at this point. I was overjoyed to hear that a routine is developing inspired by the peanut stand routine in Duck Soup. I personally crave more work fueled by some of the more classic sources. There’s still so much there to mine and use if you take the time. I want to see some routines built around stupid word play and misunderstandings. We hope that the actors will see the skits offered in various student work for other departments and realize they should be aspiring to something else. The skits offered around campus are wonderful and funny and the doing of them furthers education, but we are interested in the art of the comic routine, that’s our particular immersion; it’s the particular discipline this summer our actors, as performing arts students, must assume. So we wait for new creations.
Discussions have begun about how the “show” will be presented. I encourage them to see every decision, even decisions about programs and pre-show announcements, as creative decisions, nothing left to chance. We control the audience’s experience from the moment they walk in (sort of). It’s waiting time. I have a strong desire to show them all of Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight just to inspire them. We’ll see.
Actors are in the process of undertaking their first solo performances of the Vocal Sequence using the text of The Sick Rose. It’s interesting to see the actors who are attempting to use the Sequence and to differentiate those performers from the ones that encounter the exercise as a kind of nemesis or punishment, one that is able to read them more than they are in fact reading the poem. As they beat their fists against it, or against me through it, their peers get a view of their underlying fears and ambivalence. I hope the viewers find it educational. I will need to speak to all of the performers after they have made their first attempts about the ways they can move forward. Sometimes it is simply in the challenge of the quickening the “pulse” of their impulses. Others can try harder to truly act from within the sound rather than imposing their sound work through more traditional expressions of character. In many, however, my suggestions for development aside, you can see the quick as lightening play of performed thought; it happens right in front of you. The students watching need to join in the play of the unfolding poetic conceptions; right now, when asked to give images in response, many still resort to “like” style descriptions, working with resemblance: “looked like a crazy lady,” etc. As opposed to something like: “I saw a road,” or “the end of innocence,” etc, which tries to touch an imaginative world.
Rehearsals are out of whack. The rhythm is off. These, then, are the dark days, so I’ll busy myself with personal observations. Years past, the show phase of our rehearsal period was conducted somewhat ritualistically, beginning with some work with what we call the “quick pass,” a group impulse exercise in which actors use bits of text that have been making appearances in earlier rehearsals and that have emerged from actor research, etc. At the end of a session of quick pass, the actors would simply enter the circle and begin to work, usually by presenting found material or engaging in spontaneous improvisations, some in a realistic situational mode, others more abstract, rooted in moods, or musical ideas or in impulse gestures. We haven’t conducted show in the same way this year. I think the emphasis on first researching into the history and structure of comic routines and then on trying to compose our own, has been a more studious and rational process, one in which we could not readily find a place for our more improvisatory explorations. As a result, individual pockets of activity are certainly present all the time within our group, but we’ve sacrificed the “group” dimension of our project, the sharing of the more elusive creative and collective processes.
In response to our frustration, I will probably try to institute quick pass work and some improvisatory exploration at our next rehearsal. They may balk and it may be a disaster, but….
And I must incriminate no one but myself. I convinced myself this year that there wouldn’t really be a place for the usual mode of working, so I didn’t institute it. I couldn’t find a way to make the sale on such an approach given our stated goals and our stated object of exploration: “history of comedy.” I told myself not to push making things “experimental” this year, feeling it wasn’t in the cards. Now I don’t know.
So I was killing time in the library before minors with a bound collection of the journal ArtForum, letting myself be overwhelmed by the varieties of visual experience art finds ways to create and express. There it was, the old nagging need to find a way toward my own exploration of sensibilities as diverse and shocking within a performance mode. But I don’t even let myself come close. I don’t know how to bring the kids along with me. It sucks. I’m obsessed with being seen as a maker of sublime things. I’m not finding a way toward making those things or toward guiding students to it. And why should they want to go in such strange non-show biz directions, especially when I am not finding a way to get them to journey there through my own work or sensibility (yes, the sensibility is there, I tell myself, but it’s not backed up with any tangible impact from a thing-itself experience with a show of work–I try, rather, to get them to see the opportunity for divergence and exploration within their own work).
So I didn’t institute the old form of show at last night’s rehearsal. Decided it wasn’t in the cards. The kids are still bringing in material and building upon various ideas. At one point I invited them as a group to take stock of “what they had, what they didn’t have, and what they needed.” I told them it was up to them as a group how to keep track of such discussions and reach decisions. Justin wants them to make some somewhat specific design decisions at the next rehearsal, to maybe discard some of the ideas that are currently circulating and focus on a particular one or two. What we have are a series of routines or sketches, some about life at GHP, some more generally observed bits inspired by classic comic work they have seen, some songs. We are going to incorporate a simple musical group into the performance, one, two or three instruments. We are still trying to come to grips with the interest some students have in making the presences from entertainment history a part of the work (through the conscious appropriation of Vaudeville touches and personalities, through the figure of Chaplin, etc) and the efforts to make contemporary routines, some GHP and some not. How to make a meaningful merger? What are we trying to do, really?
As to The Sick Rose: I worked with a group of performers today on how you can encounter other performers while working in the Vocal Sequence. I also tried to invite them to “recapitulate” the work that is done and explore the various dramatic or theatrical possibilities. They must remember what they see and call it back; then they can work with the recalled material in any way they choose, inviting the original performers to explore an idea or transferring the original ideas to other performers and other situations. I keep trying to push them toward appreciating the enigmatic, the poetic, the more mysterious and fleeting moments that transpire between performers. I encourage them to see these expressions as potential thoughts or images that might evolve or develop or to which we can attach any sort of text. I tell them they are working toward something that is not yet known; that all we can do as a group is start to have the experiences and then see what we make of them over time. The group today, I think, experienced a subtle clash of levels of interest and maturity. Not everybody gets what’s potentially possible in such a murky and possibly explosive performance situation. It’s frustrating. We persevere. We grow. I encouraged them to write down personal responses to the poem and questions they might have; they also are to find out something about Blake and try and unpack, through a little literary research, a metaphor or image in the poem (rose, for instance) ; additionally, I asked them to bring in some bit of text from any source that the poem made them want to introduce into the work. I try to model a kind of responsive thinking as I watch them work, telling them that they, too, can offer such observations. It’s hard stuff, no doubt. Especially since I am as much a seeker and confused witness as they are. I throw out what strikes me and then try to open the floor for them to do the same.
The deadline for submitting new material has come and gone, so the next week will be devoted to the actors working on their existing routines, narrowing down the material for the actual production, and finding an interesting way to organize the presentation (order of material, etc). I’m not sure how the organizing will happen this year; probably through a company meeting at which we stare at the charts listing our material. And things will change, of course, once we start running sequences. There’s still quite a bit of practical stuff to do: collecting props, building scenic elements for the space, deciding about costume pieces and lobby installations, making arrangements for live music, etc. We begin every rehearsal with a production meeting, and this upcoming week we will devote some class time to rehearsals and such.
I’ve introduced half the students to “breakout/breakdown” using The Sick Rose. That group has also had its show session from which they had a recapitulation session to move them toward making a short performance piece. Yes, the freedom they have in the “show” session is quite unbelievable to them. They keep looking over at me like I’m the parent who will sooner or later break up the session because they are–clearly–misbehaving. I remind them of the suggestions I gave them at the beginning and privately enjoy their stupid floundering, which could have been avoided if they had actually listened to me for the last four weeks and kept the materials I gave them. Perhaps even though I speak of opportunities rather than limits, they stubbornly interpret differently. Who knows? I’m afraid it triggers a bit of grumpiness in me. They act like I’m trying to take away their precious playground toys. It wasn’t a bad show session, actually, and included some more serious emotional material which may, of course, have been a secret-weapon style stunt on the part of the actress, but may also have been a genuine addressing of a particular emotional terrain inspired by the poem, including a take on the loss of innocence. I issued a list of guidelines for making their piece, and I will publish it here later. Basically I made a list of do’s and don’ts to get them to as KRAKEN-style performance as possible and away from a more familiar kind of “scene-making.”
We gave the task of coming up with an order for our routines to a small group of enterprising students (like last year) and the job was completed with no fuss. We ran the order, made some adjustments, and then had a notes session in which all company members were invited to give notes. This is an essential part of the process. I emphasize this as an essential aspect because I believe you need to experience the very things which the more faint of heart would as soon avoid. The kids need to hear the good ideas with the bad so they can start to soberly distinguish between the two. The kids pretty quickly start to understand what it means to listen, really listen, to one another. We want a collision of taste and viewpoint among the members. It’s only in sensitively hashing those things out that they learn anything. In fact, often if I don’t hear an opposing view voiced on a matter, I will voice it. I want decisions, all decisions, to be creatively challenging and difficult.
If I feel a void in imaginative engagement, I jump in with ideas. If you are feeling fertile, you need to be fertile and chime in. Those that care, do. Those that care more about their own position within the game also chime in, but the kids get to learn the difference between artists trying to serve the piece and kids just wanting to say their piece. I, for one, felt quite energized after the session because I had all my energy focused on the work and was left with a feeling of boundless reserves left over. It felt great to play with ideas and make suggestions. It is a very reflective process, or should be, for us as a group; it is, as reflective as it is, part of the essence of the creative group process–a playful thinking through of what we have.
I was amazed to realize I haven’t made an entry in almost a week. Consider this a little coda. Our final week was a fairly conventional final production week in most respects, though some students incorporated an “omniscient voice” into the production, inspired by Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight, which added some fun and irony with its quasi-academic discourse, and the weaving of that element was an additional part of our final preparations which kept interest up (for me, at least). We ran, we fixed things, boosted laughs (we hope), we organized transitions, decorated the lobby, finished up work on our playing space. We gave three performances to “packed houses.” As in most comedy, you don’t always get the laughs where you want them. And the great truths of comic playing still hold true: moments in the production were lukewarm when performers did not make strong energizing choices in attack, when they fumbled on articulation or timing and did not assert control through distinct vocal and physical presence. Fortunately these moments were few.
We’ve been working on the production during class time, so the thread of the Vocal Sequence work has been laid aside for over a week. What to re-gather and pursue, is the question. One half of the class has not had an opportunity to work with breakout or to do a show session and then develop an experimental piece. Then I have to figure out how to fit in work on “conventional” scenes using the Sequence. Plus we have the final week’s history project. Too much to fit in.