Some Guidelines for a Performance Piece

Here’s an assignment from this past summer (2007). It contains a few guiding principles for composing performances that reflect, I hope, an appreciation for a wide range of experimental group efforts. Yes, ideally, a piece emerges sui generis as a response to group work and effort over time, but I wanted to articulate a few notions to nudge students out of more familiar and comfortable boxes.

Your group has just worked through a final “show” session. Using both your experiences in that session and recalling what you remember from all other performance experiences you have had with “The Sick Rose” since we began work this summer, create as a group, in about an hour-long “recapitulation” session, a Performance Piece.

Follow these Guidelines as closely as possible:

1. The piece should be brief. Five minutes could very well be two minutes too many.

2. The piece should include performance work by everyone in your group.

3. The piece should include challenging and virtuoso-level vocal and physical work.

4. The piece should involve some complex arrangement of texts, a scoring of language shared by many performers.

5. The piece must be a dense and complex encounter with your material (use a variety of materials: the original poem, research, other text, personal utterances and interpretations, realistic and abstract improvisations, memories of earlier work, etc). It should have multiple lines running simultaneously. It should be polyphonal like a Bach fugue (simultaneous presentation of many related ideas).

6. It must include difficult emotional encounters and at least one must reflect some interpersonal truth or conflict shared by two or more of the performers.

7. It must provoke questions in the viewer and a desire to view it a number of times, each time unfolding new meanings and interpretations. It must show thoughts in action. Think of it as being more like a short provocative poem than a play, sort of like “The Sick Rose.” (Note: Blake’s poem The Sick Rose was the group’s primary text for exploration.) Your super-objective might be to get members of the audience holding their breath; take advantage of the brevity of your piece.

8. Don’t be distracted by the lures and easy pleasures of storytelling.

9. Give yourself time to view the piece a number of times in your recaptulation session so you can make additions, distill to what is most powerful, and “re-write.”

10. Do not use Vocal Sequence-style repetitions of words or images or impulses unless it is vital to the piece (the repetition, remember, is foremost a route for making discoveries). Assemble your chains of action from a wide variety of work. Build slowly and thickly.

11. Use the recapitulation strategies suggested by your instructor. Use others.

12. This is not a final exam. It’s a different way of working. Find some joy in it. Your instructor is going to be present just to witness your process. No tips or admonishments will pass through his lips.

13. Listen to those in your group whose sensibilities might be more tuned-in to this kind of performance work. Learn from each other. Inspire one another.

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