On creative group performance development

A number of posts and links on this website are devoted to helping teach methods for performance groups interested in creating original work. I am trying to reach all manner of groups and performers with all types of experience from high school actors wanting to try something a little different for one-act competition to independent artists searching for new methods. What follows is an introduction to the Vocal Sequence Tutorial page, through which you can access other group development materials on this website.
During some past summers I helped teach Theatre for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program (GHP). We had thirty high-school age kids all to ourselves for five to six weeks and a number of lofty goals: to turn them into a performance group, to introduce them to some collective creation processes, and to inspire them to develop an original performance piece. My contribution to this program was based on what I learned as a graduate directing student at Catholic University from 1987 to 1990 working with Jackson Phippin. And that learning experience was shaped by the work of Herbert Blau and the experimental performance group KRAKEN. Jackson had been a member of KRAKEN, and, when I began working with him (a number of years after the end of KRAKEN), I was already a disciple of Blau through my reading.
I am not writing about KRAKEN, however. Blau has done that himself in numerous books, speeches, and papers. I am merely attempting to make a record of a few things I learned from Jackson which I think are valuable for performers attempting creative group effort. My own attempts to transmit these things through my work at GHP have always left me somewhat frustrated (in spite of the work of very talented students). The circumstances under which I taught at GHP were different from those under which I was taught, and those circumstances were already on the other side of the world from what was going on in KRAKEN. And while I was not foolish enough to think I was trying to re-create KRAKEN at GHP (I didn’t try to maintain any kind of rigorous theoretical agenda for one thing), I was trying to re-capture something of the sense of group possibility I experienced working with Jackson. That kind of group growth and creative engagement wasn’t happening at GHP in the ways I desired. Trying to do too much with too many who were too young? Too easy an excuse, I think. Was it me and certain insurmountable gaps in my knowledge? In part, yes. But I also keep coming back to the importance of time and the way in which the students get introduced to the material. This leads me to think specifically of the Vocal Sequence, a series of exercises developed by KRAKEN and one of the things transmitted to me by Jackson Phippin.
One of my students this past summer asked me if I would ever consider teaching the Vocal Sequence in a workshop at “Thespian Conference.” He went on to tell me that someone had conducted such a workshop previously. He added that the teacher of this workshop had done little more than introduce the elements. In a one or two-hour workshop how could you do more? And what could be seriously gained? After all, it’s just a list of possibilities for vocalizing combined with some Michael Chekov-inspired imaginative structures. It reads on the page like a series of stunts, and the list is out there for any who might want to read it and then make the attempt. To “teach” the Vocal Sequence as an independent thing is really just to facilitate such an attempt. An hour with a roomful of ambitious, eager-to-please and eager-to-entertain students is plenty of time to get something to happen, but it won’t have the same scope as what I am usually after.
Teaching and time. I’m trying to find a diminishing orbit into my point. The Vocal Sequence played a particular role in the life and evolution of KRAKEN. As one of Jackson’s students I was led into work with the Vocal Sequence as a member of a group, and the methods Jackson used to introduce us to the Sequence were also serving to engender a certain psychological disposition among all of us as performing group members. The Vocal Sequence became for us a way to make a particular kind of creative and existential investment in the mystery in our midst. To undertake the Vocal Sequence was to take an investigative risk and raise the stakes in your relationships with fellow group members. Needless to say, such evolution and learning took time. And there was from the beginning an intrinsic link between learning and the birth of material; we were the stuff from which material sprang as much as from any texts or ideas at play in our work.
In my teaching at GHP I never set this kind of deep evolution into motion in a way which might unleash full creative potential and exchange in the students. Lack of time, of course, is always a factor, but I also think I never did enough in transmitting the Vocal Sequence to link the learning of the Sequence to the immediate possible creation of material. The time spent applying the Vocal Sequence to our group creation always existed separately from the time spent learning the elements. In my own way I was falling prey to the “workshop” mentality of teaching the Sequence. Everything which was bubbling up as the students learned the Sequence should have immediately been woven into a creative group process and an expanding working vocabulary.
Practically speaking, the text you pick to teach the Vocal Sequence needs to be one of the texts you would pick for your performance piece. All learning needs to be situated in the world you want to explore creatively. Otherwise, you waste opportunities for group enrichment and process work.
I have attempted to put together a series of steps for learning the Vocal Sequence suitable for acting students from high-school age on to adults, and I am trying to create an experience for students that is as close as possible to my experience learning from Jackson Phippin, something more ideal in structure than my past GHP efforts. The goal, ideally, is to acquire the Vocal Sequence as a vital element in creative group work, to grow with the Sequence as the group grows. Those of you interested in undertaking this kind of work need to keep that in mind. And keep in mind, also, that I have limited myself in these steps, as in other materials on this site, to providing frameworks only. I try to avoid fabricating examples of content or of dynamic group relationship. Such precious particularity and treacherous depth is waiting to reveal itself to whomever tries this kind of work. Such illustrating is also very difficult and I haven’t figured out a way to do it. Blau’s Take Up the Bodies is still the best source of “illustrations.”
You can find the Vocal Sequence Tutorial here.

You’re invited to offer comments at the Group Performance Potlatch.

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