art environments in the neighbourhood

May 4, 2015

East Van fence mosaic

Oh the excitement of discovering a kooky little art environment right in East Van! Keely, who is a part of the ensemble for my MFA project, discovered this house on a walk, and brought us photos of it today for our creation/devising session. I hopped on my bike after the session to go find it, and here are the photos! Nobody was outside while I was there, nor when Keely was there. But I’m so curious to know who is behind this work!

More photos are being added to our little tumblr of research and inspiration, check it, here:

http://environmentbuilders.tumblr.com/

East Van mosaic house entry

East Van mosaic house

Builders research

April 10, 2015

Builders Research - Salvation Mountain

Devising sessions have begun with the ensemble for my grad project. I’m calling it The Builders as a temporary working title (but maybe it will stick). We’ve been gathering a lot of research on individuals who build environments in their homes and gardens, and on public and private property, sometimes taking over an entire village (see Ayano Tsukimi). All our builders research is being posted on this tumblr, so if you care to follow us along, check it out. http://environmentbuilders.tumblr.com/

The Unnatural and Accidental Women

April 6, 2015

This past semester, I was the assistant director for the Winter Mainstage show at SCA, The Unnatural and Accidental Women, written by Marie Clements and directed by Steven Hill.

The Unnatural and Accidental Women was staged following a lengthy process that included a semester of devising with the students of the Playmaking class in the fall, followed by two months of delving into the politics of actually staging the play…in the Woodwards building, with a non-Aboriginal cast of students, grappling with a painful history of violence against Aboriginal women that has occurred (and continues to occur) right outside the doors of this school in the Downtown East Side.

Throughout the process, we asked a lot of questions of how we could stage the play respectfully, yet provocatively too – presenting our audiences with the stories of these missing and murdered women, asking them to consider their implication, and to become more aware of the contexts in which this violence occurs, so close to us. The performance was presented as ‘an encounter’ with Clements’ text, acknowledging that this was our attempt to grapple with the traumatic history and current situation of our city, and with the experiences of the women represented in the play. We by no means completely understand these issues, but we are in relation to them, and this was a way to share those relationships which we’ve been building since the fall.


There’s so much I could say about this process, but I’ll try to keep it brief. The experience is still percolating in my mind, and still seems to be generating dialogue amongst people I meet. I’ve never been involved in a show that has elicited so much conversation and reaction. The show and post-show discussions encouraged audiences to engage with what they were seeing, and untangle it and talk about it, whether they liked it or not.

The process got me to confront the politics of theatre, which I sometimes shy away from in my own theatre making. Digging into ideas of community, representation, empathy and power with this play unearthed the many operations at work when social issues and histories are addressed through theatre. Watching rehearsals, attempting to stage and re-stage scenes, throwing ideas at the wall and making countless drafts of the show…we were constantly considering reactions, interpretations, what we could and couldn’t do. Maybe the work felt tentative because of that, but the material weighed heavy on us, there was a responsibility attached to it, and it wasn’t just for us anyways. We were making this for the community, to acknowledge our connections, and try to build up those relationships, reaching out from the stuffy fortress that is sometimes the Woodwards building. And I think something was started…another process began through which more ideas and relations and changes will occur. Hopefully. After the show ended, in March, I read this article in the New York Times about Afghan-American artist Mariam Ghani and this quote really stuck with me:

“I don’t think works of art produce concrete change. If anything, they are thin ends of a wedge where they just create a small opening in someone’s mind where something more direct and more concrete can enter in.”

Production photos by Paula Viitanen.

Auditions for an upcoming devised theatre project!

February 26, 2015

audition screenshot

2nd year MFA student Megan Stewart is seeking theatre makers/artists of all kinds to join a small ensemble for a devised theatre project. The creation process will begin mid-March 2015 and the work will be shown September 2015.

Seeking 3-4 ENSEMBLE MEMBERS to join a 5-6 person ensemble.
Also seeking a MUSICIAN/SOUND DESIGNER to be involved in the process

The devising process will focus upon a body of research on folk art environment builders: people who construct elaborate, imaginative realms within their homes or yards, or on public and private property. These builders often create in seclusion, using found materials and junk to construct their environments over a lifetime. This research material will inform the creation of an original theatre work. The process will be highly collaborative and multi-disciplinary…enthusiastic makers are wanted!

Intrigued? Come to the group auditions on Friday, March 6th, room 4270, SFU Woodwards.
There are two audition times: 1-2:30pm and 3:30-5pm
To confirm an audition time and for more info, email: megan_stewart@sfu.ca

If you’re a musician interested in the project, email me!

Time commitment:
Rehearsals will begin mid-March, 2-3x/week and will run until early June.
Rehearsals will resume in July, 3-4x/week through until September 9.
Performance dates are September 10, 11, 12 at SFU Woodwards.

Audition Requirements:

Please come prepared with the following ready to present to the group:

1. A piece of original prepared material of your own making that is a combination of either:

a) Text and movement/action
b) Song/music and movement

Text should not be from a published play script – rather, it should be something you wrote, or from a poem, novel or another written source. If you are using music, it should be live (no recorded playback). Length: no more than 3 minutes.

2. A proposal for a fun game to play with the group.

 

Wandering through Wisconsin

September 24, 2014

First morning in Wisconsin

Took a little while, but I’ve finally posted some photos of my whirlwind Wisconsin road trip, visiting art environments all around the state. Click here to see what I found.

This research is forming the basis of my MFA Grad Project, a devised theatre production to be presented in September 2015. Stay tuned for more…

The ringing red telephone

September 3, 2014

I’ve had over a week to digest Art in the Open, and I’m about to start posting more photos on the projects page. The piece was a success. The ringing red rotary dial phone was very well received by the public (I just can’t let go of that pun!) and I had so much fun (as did Adam and a slew of other occasional ringer operators) playing with passersby; pressing the single-button remote control to make the phone ring and surprising them and watching their interactions with it…picking it up, listening, hanging up, repeat. I was impressed at how long people stayed with the piece, taking time to listen to the 4 minute track and sharing the experience with others. There were frequent lineups as people waited their turn to hear the voice on the end of the line!

The installation and performance component also intrigued audiences, though perhaps the connection between the two elements could have been strengthened. Closer phone placement to the installation may have tied these two worlds together more solidly. Phone placement ended up where it was for the sake of nighttime lighting, but it was at a slight distance from the installation. I doubt that everyone realized the connection between the two elements, though people were keen to interact with them both. The connections were not made explicit…it required some imaginative and contemplative work on the part of the viewer/listener, which was always a part of the project’s overall design.

I had excellent performers who occupied this strange little space I created amongst a few trees. They added to this sinister yet magical world by building more hanging garlands, reading from the library of encyclopedias, watching people from the trees, resting, being. I have to say, they all looked pretty killer too, wearing the shifty black bandit masks along with coveralls procured from the basement of Corney’s shoe store (a gold mine for odd costume needs).

Near the end of the night, I was approached on the plaza by Craig Mackie, who declared the piece to be his favourite of all of Art in the Open, which was an enormous compliment, and so appreciated. This photo is his. I’m thankful for it, and for the kind words.

Ears Pricked Eyes Peeled 1

 

Andrew Hoffman took the photo below of Sam performing in the installation.

 

Ears Pricked Eyes Peeled 2

I must recognize the amazing technical help I had to realize this project. It could not have happened without the tinkering and sound-engineer expertise of Adam Gallant, who built the remote/ringer system, wired the phone’s insides to play audio from an iPod, and recorded the voice of Jan Rudd, who so softly and strangely whispered into the ear of anyone curious enough to pick up the receiver.

Pat Brunet and Patrick Callbeck helped with other logistical bits of the installation, figuring out lighting and materials with me. Matthew and I spent a lovely afternoon in my backyard dip-dying garlands. And one night Jenny, Sam and Andrew’s friend Sam all helped me make garlands, while drinking gin.

Already I’m thinking of ways to build on this for an AITO in the near future.

 

Here we go Art in the Open!

August 22, 2014

It’s late and I’m getting a bit cavalier with the x-acto knife, but things are fairly prepped for Ears Pricked, Eyes Peeled at Art in the Open tomorrow.

Spent a productive day making masks, finding uniforms, dip-dying egg carton garlands and hanging them on the clothesline. Once I saw them all in a line I realized that yes, I’d probably made enough.

And in hanging them to dry, I discovered the easiest method of hanging was right in front of me: clothespins!

IMG_1075

Later on I worked out lighting with a team of Patricks. Pat Brunet and Patrick Callbeck and I jerry-rigged spotlight with a clamp light and foil, just like sketchy-biz lo-tech lighting professionals.

IMG_1074

 

Tomorrow we set up on the plaza at noon! And then it all begins at 4pm!

 

Telephone Jackpot

July 31, 2014

A red rotary dial telephone holds the main role in my upcoming Art in the Open project, Ears Pricked, Eyes Peeled.

A red rotary dial telephone is not an easy item to source…at least not locally. I anticipated hours of calling and visiting every antique store on PEI, and then resorting to eBay where models sell for $60 or more…and maybe even then resorting to using another colour. However, by wonderful happenstance, the magic of Island connections and big Island hearts, I was able to acquire a bright red rotary dial phone this weekend.

It’s a good story, so I’ll explain. Locating this phone began with a tip from a lone Bell Aliant employee at the warehouse on Belvedere avenue. Her daughter had done a Heritage Fair project on the telecom industry in PEI, and they had visited the “Telephone Museum of PEI” to do research. She found the email and website for the museum owner, Dave, and encouraged me to make an appointment, telling me excitedly about the hundreds of different old phones he had on display. It was my strongest lead yet.

I got in touch with Dave, explaining what I was looking for and also my interest in seeing his collection. A couple days later I took a Sunday drive out to Orwell Cove, to a little house off a seaside road I’d never been on before. Dave greeted me on his porch and the next thing he said to me was, “I found what you were looking for.”

Really?! It was that easy?

We walked into the little barn beside his house, marked with a hand-painted sign…

Telephone Museum of PEI sign

The entryway was filled with at least four different teletype machines, with a shelf of little Morse code telegraph machines overlooking them all.

And then, walking into the main room, this is what I see…

Telephone Museum of PEI interior
Phones of every imaginable make and model, from floor to ceiling. Switchboards, rotary phones, boxy wooden phones from the early 1900s, business phones and novelty phones. Colourful phone cords hanging along the walls, wires running everywhere, as most of the phones work! Every phone has an info card detailing its dates, model, use, provenance – all of it thoughtfully and lovingly displayed. Dave was quick to point out what he had found me: atop a table of multicoloured rotary phones was one red model, with Island Tel stamped into the centre of the dial. It was absolutely perfect, and it worked!

I was given a detailed tour of the museum. I learned all about how switchboards worked, party line tricks for nosy eavesdropping neighbours (hint: gossip loudly about fake pregnancies), the early days of payphones, and Dave’s favourite models (the explosion-proof “Russian Princess” used in mines was a highlight). He even had a few of the early cellphone models, enormous clunkers the size of my foot. Never have I been more immersed in the world of telephones.

Dave got his phone hobby started as a teenager. He grew up near a phone factory in Brockville, ON and has been collecting phones ever since. He’s got a friend in Ontario who sends him shipments of antique phones and parts. His collection is ever growing, overflowing into other rooms of the little house and creeping up the stairs.

Telephone Museum of PEI interior 2

Dave wouldn’t accept money for the red phone. He told me, “I’m just happy you’re excited about this stuff!” I told him a bit more about the project, and how we’re working on trying to make it ring and play audio…and of course, he knew exactly how to make this happen, and gave me a spare part and instructions on how to make a ring generator.

I left the PEI Phone Museum with so much more than I expected. A phone, instructions, waaay more excitement about the project, spare parts and even some antique glass resistors (they are so pretty!). Thinking about the execution of this piece had been stressful up until this moment. But having found Dave, the museum, and the main puzzle piece of the project spurred me on…I’m on the right track, and it’s gonna be just fine. What a little gem of an Island museum.

Owner Dave of the Telephone Museum of PEI

Road trip!

May 31, 2014

After a lot of time thinking and sort-of-but-not-really planning, I made the trip I’ve wanted to take for the past two years real. And I booked a ticket. To Wisconsin.

You read it right.

I’m going to this lost sock of a state to visit folk art environments – homes and properties and spaces that people turn into incredibly imaginative realms through sculptures, structures, murals, and bricolage works that they build, often out of found materials. I first got turned on to this kind of art making a couple years back, in Ashfield, when a tiny voice in my heard started reminding me, ‘You should look into Maud Lewis…remember her?’ and I did and then I fell into a whole world of this kind of art/environment making. I researched it all through my time at Double Edge, especially during my advanced internship, and eventually I thought, couldn’t this type of research fuel some MFA level work? And that was one of the reasons that pushed me into grad school.

So here I am, finally taking this trip. Most people I’ve told think I’m a bit nuts, but I’m really quite excited.

Here’s the basic itinerary:

Arrive in Milwaukee on June 9. The next day, sneak over to Mary Nohl’s house in the suburb of Fox Point, which is currently inaccessible due to disputes with the neighbours and plans for its eventual move to Sheboygan, where it will one day be open to the public as a museum.

(photo: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mary-nohl-house)

After Milwaukee, I’ll head to Sheboygan, WI to visit two places that have preserved and supported these kinds of environments over the decades: the Kohler Foundation and the John Michael Kohler Arts Centre. I’ve made some connections with the staff here, and hopefully I will get to glimpse into their storage and collections to see works by Nohl, along with Stella Waitzkin, Madeline Buol and other artists.

Nearby is the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden. I’ll visit here while in Sheboygan.

James Tellen

(Photo: http://www.jmkac.org/index.php/artist-environment-builders/james-tellen)

A couple days later, I’ll drive four hours north to Phillips, WI to see one of most expansive environments around, Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park.

Fred Smith

(Photo: http://www.jmkac.org/index.php/artist-environment-builders/fred-smith)

The next stop is the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden in Cochrane, WI.

Herman Rusch

(Photo: http://www.jmkac.org/index.php/artist-environment-builders/herman-rusch)

I’m especially excited about this next one. The Forevertron, created by Tom Every in North Freedom, WI. It’s apparently the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, according to Wikipedia. There’s a bit of a performance element to this one, as Every also created a character/persona, “Dr. Evermore”, to go with this environment. Dr. Evermore is a Victorian era scientist, inventor and visionary. The Forevertron is designed to catapult you into the heavens via magnetic lightening force. Yes please.

Tom Every(Photo: http://www.jmkac.org/index.php/artist-environment-builders/tom-every)

My last stop, before returning to Milwaukee to fly on to Montreal, will be Nick Engelbert’s Grandview.

(Photo: http://www.jmkac.org/index.php/artist-environment-builders/nick-engelbert)

Flying solo on an eccentric, roadside America road trip. Wisconsin, it will be good to meet you, see your arts and also eat your cheeses.

Performance for a Deadline

May 29, 2014

Walk to school in the rain, in improper attire.

Retrieve plinth and dolly from woodshop.

Take plinth for a walk in the rain, with help from dolly.
Think about being both ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the rain and this task.

Set up plinth and rotary dial telephone. Balance umbrella on top of head. Snap a couple photos.

Think about not thinking about the connotations of the gallery plinth.
Think about taking more gallery clichés for walks.

EPEP 2-1

One of the best creative challenges…

April 22, 2014

…is when someone recognizes your strengths as an artist and issues the challenge to work against them.

Thankful to have found at least two people here who can do that for me.

Notes from week 5

February 9, 2014

We did just over three hours of pitches this morning for Show One. Thirty eight pitches, 19 made it to the final cut. Jamie attended, as did our lighting designer, SM and ASM from the production class. Pitch day ran quite smoothly, though it was a hell of a marathon. For the most part, I was impressed and pleasantly surprised with a lot of the work. Just about everyone had one or two surprise pitches, and these pieces were quite strong. The work had presence; everyone was closely connected and committed to their material.

There were definitely flops and duds in the mix – bits and pieces that people had just pulled off the board and presented as is, without additional work or thought – but I think this had to do with it being the first pitch day, and perhaps people were not entirely clear on what constitutes a pitch and what doesn’t. The Show 1 ADs deliberated on the pitches for two hours before presenting their selections and first draft of an order. There seems to be a good mix of work. There’s a lot of text stuff, all coming from pretty varied sources, so it will be a big challenge for the ADs to bring it all together and find some cohesion. There is a loose theme that has been outlined; it is “the frailty of an individual existence” which seems appropriate. Watching the pitches, I had written almost those exact words in my notebook: the fragility of nature and humanity. The pitches are varied in terms of the number of performers in each, but the solo and the individual and the monologue are the recurring performance tropes. The show is now in the hands of B and R, while my co-AD and I do our best to also keep hold of the threads for Show 2 and 4 during the next two weeks.

And now back to Thursday and Friday, which were the days when D and I led rehearsal. We approached the group with our pitch for Show 4, but did so with the advice of Jamie, who told us to give them the idea gently, not mentioning the source material immediately but starting with the structural and thematic choices we were thinking of, connecting them to work that has already been created by the group. This was good counsel…we announced our idea and then moved right into an open discussion. The ensemble hit most of the points we had in our own visioning work, and they were really excited about our design idea to make a huge blanket fort in the Studio T (which will have no audience seating). They were anxious to have something thematic to ground it – a word, a source – and we vaguely mentioned having material, which we would bring in once it was confirmed. There is a desire within the group to give it a one-word theme. Arg, the one word theme! It is so dangerous and so vague! I really want to try and avoid it, because it generalizes the material so much, limiting its potential depths of meaning because all it needs to hit is this one word theme. We definitely need to outline the themes we want to explore, and provide everyone with the source material (which I hope to do this week) but I don’t want the show to be easily encapsulated into one word.

On Thursday, I realized that I need another strategy for getting the ensemble to a place of real togetherness. The schedule just does not allow for consistent time to be spent on training/improvisation/physical exploration in the way I’m used to it. With these two-week timelines, the emphasis really turns to building products, rather than finding products through a continuous process …or, at least not long-term process. In the next week, we’ll be allotted a few hours here and there to work the other shows, and with this kind of schedule, an hour-long session is viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity. D is of the opinion that we need to work with what we’ve got rather than bring more stuff in or find more moments through training or viewpoints work, whereas I see it differently. I think that to get the work to grow and to get the ensemble to really come together, we need this kind of work. But there just isn’t time. So, I need a new tactic, and more quick exercises/games/proposals that allow the ensemble to build connections as well as beginnings of work. The “What does the space need?’ game is one version of this. They need to be activities that are short, that you can easily enter into and exit from.

I’m planning to spend more time developing and directing group pitches from the material we have already created. I’ve started to do this with a couple moments, and the material is evolving and the ensemble is able to expand it further. I just wish there was more time to play and explore, without having to nail down every single thing into a product.

On Friday, we invited Barbara in to work on a song she had written from one of the “Defining Moment” verbatim texts, and this was a huge success. Where Thursday saw me frustrated at not having ways into work as an ensemble, on Friday I discovered that singing is at least one. The “Sleep Song” is brilliant, and Barbara created four different parts with simple harmonies and varying rhythms. None of us have prodigious musical talent but we can all sing pretty well, and this song brings our voices together in a way that is unique and fun. Everyone loved learning the song. It’s a definite piece of material for Show 4, and we will learn it as both a solo and a group number. She’s going to do another song for us from different verbatim material. Her style fits really nicely with what we’re imagining for show 4. I think that having her as a guest collaborator and an outside eye will bring the work up a notch…musically and otherwise. I’m especially enjoying the opportunity to collaborate with a fellow MFA-er in the context of this class.

This week we move into intensive rehearsals for Show 1. Thirteen days straight with no dark days until after the run of Show 1 and Show 2 pitch day. Here. we. go.

More training and improvisation – Black Box Week 3

January 30, 2014

[Written on January 26, 2014]

In week three we finally started to get somewhere with training and improvisations, and the moments and proposals we created together were much richer. Friday through Sunday were semi-intensive rehearsal days, in which D and I led the ensemble through hour-long training and improvisation sessions (an hour is long for this group). These sessions generated a lot of material, and I think the ensemble was pushed in a positive way – they had to work with exhaustion, awareness, with leading themselves, and building things as a group and in partners.

On Friday night I led a training and improvisation with the group. I brought two stage lights into the space, turned the awful overhead fluorescents off, and immediately the studio was transformed. The light was perhaps the most important component of the training; it darkened the room enough to make extraneous stuff disappear, distancing the space from the daily, it energized the group and allowed for really great shadow play. I led the group with a concrete proposal of reaching combined with isolations. We stuck with this for twenty minutes or so before branching off into clusters, and gradually moving into a full-on improv. I brought in fabrics, a few basic costume pieces, and a couple umbrellas and canes. With all these elements in the mix, the group really came alive. The session had its moments of coming together and falling apart (“cake and soup” moments, in D’s words) but energy remained high throughout. The ensemble worked together to build a world and inhabit it, they were playful and engaged and aware of what was around them. For the first time with this group, I saw images and moments that were vaguely reminiscent of work we would create at Double Edge, which was so exciting to me.

We repeated a few moments following the training, and D directed one of them. There was so much that was generated and we only had time for a couple to be revisited, but there were probably twenty pieces that got added to our post-it board of moments.

On Saturday morning, D led a Viewpoints exercise that eventually moved into an improv. The group was exhausted from Friday, so he had a real challenge to get them to a place of work. Things started slowly and without a lot of energy. However, there was a crucial point, about halfway through, when D said, “If you know exactly what you are doing, you are a leader. If you have any doubt about what you are doing, then you are following someone.” This forced people to decide – either committing to their action or working with someone elses’ – and it galvanized the ensemble. They still had to contend with being tired, but mostly they had to know what they were doing. The second half of the session saw the group really come together, identifying actions and building upon them, and moving with them. More material emerged, and following the session it was noted how important that deciding moment had been to everyone.

Then, on Sunday, with an ensemble that was reaching the point of exhausted delirium, I led a training focused on partner work. This one is taken completely from Double Edge, using Stacy and Carlos’ partner stretches and sequences, and it requires a lot of focus from the group. The focus was only partially there today. We moved through the sequences pretty well, but there was a lot of giggling and aimless wandering once we got to the part that required the group to lead themselves. I brought fabrics and a couple objects in to try and lessen this, which helped a bit. The partner work was a concrete foundation to this training, and it did attune the group to balance, support, and awareness of the whole space. There were a few standout moments from the training, and R, who was sick and watching the whole thing from the sidelines, got us to revisit some moments she had seen. She said to me afterwards, “We really should keep doing this, and building upon this.” She observed how the training began stiffly, with people finding their way through awkwardness and discomfort, but gradually had shifted as the ensemble became more comfortable and focused together.

So, while we are finally getting to this place of being able to train and build things together and delve into unknowns, we are also two weeks away from pitch night, and having to hone in on all this stuff we have made and put it into a show. At the end of Sunday’s rehearsal, D announced that this coming week will see us focusing in on each individual show, and taking less time for long improvs. Which is necessary, sure…but it can’t be abandoned completely. I will aim to get at least two or three sessions in a week.

The other thing that we started to do this week was give time for individuals to direct the group to realize an idea. This was really productive, and the work that came out of it was interesting, and had a lot of possibility to be expanded and developed. On Wednesday, ensemble members directed the group in two different movement-based proposals, and B made up a Quizoola-esque game called Confession-Truth-Lie that was fun because it had a bit of danger to it. A couple days later, R taught the group how to make a person-sized cat’s cradle, which was challenging and very cool looking…the image returned later work made by others.

On Saturday, I introduced the concept of the performed response. The ADs chose two moments that had not been revisited yet, got the performers to show them again, and then had everyone to create short, performed responses. People worked alone, in pairs, and in larger groups. There was a good range of material, and we took a moment to talk about what we liked from what we had seen. K mentioned that the pieces that left room for interpretation were the most interesting because there was freedom to project onto them as a viewer, and space for the pieces to hold multiple meanings, creating layers (in my head I was shouting “yes! yes! yes!”).

I’m realizing that this class is a 24 hour thing…I’m not only supposed to be planning, preparing and leading rehearsals, figuring out how to pull all this stuff together into some sort of show, and working on projects for the class itself, I’m also supposed to be making my own proposals to show and put the group into. Leading training with the ensemble is basically one giant proposal from which to make many smaller ones – so it’s important to not forget that. But I also need to be imagining and sketching out more ideas, beyond that. Ooof.

It’s less than two weeks until Show 1 pitch night. Time to really focus in on what we’ve made, and it’s time for me to figure out some pitches for Solo. Until now, I’ve kind of forgotten that I have to perform in this show, so I’d better have some material I can stand behind. Show 4 is beginning to weigh down on D and I, since it still has no theme or concept. We’re going to have to figure that out very soon.

Terror and reassurance, amateurs and virtuosos – Black Box Week 2

January 29, 2014

[Written January 19, 2014]

During class on Tuesday, we performed the compiled Jamie Long show and were asked the question, “Well, what the fuck was that about?” and then given the task of figuring that out by making a statement to frame the show, give it some structure, and unify it…somehow. Ensemble members A and J created our statement that night: “The chaos of ineptitude is quieted by laughter”. The statement really is a way to satisfy the fact that the show doesn’t have much of a through-line besides uncomfortably long bouts of laughter and a great deal of performed amateurism. This idea of “performed amateurism” comes up a lot. I think it first appeared as an idea from Jamie and has been reiterated by the rest of the ensemble (myself included). At the moment, it feels like a dangerous concept. It’s one that makes excuses for ineptitude, for doing things half-well, and could potentially keep us from attempting to do something impeccably, for aiming higher and pushing past the funny/amateur, into the realms of the virtuosic. The virtuosic is another Jamie concept, and it hasn’t been forgotten about, it’s just always more challenging to achieve it. The performed amateur gets away with half-decent, because it’s funny and its easy, but it could easily be nothing more than a one-trick pony.

With this guiding statement, the JL show got a bit more structured on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then we didn’t pick it up again on Thursday or Friday. It was revisited briefly over the weekend, though not changed much. Everyone seems to be tiring of this fake show.

The evening rehearsals this past week focused a lot of generating more bits and pieces, still working quite broadly and with different approaches. We tried to give people more space to just try things out, without much constraint (of time, theme, approach, etc.). This seemed to allow for more experimentation to emerge, and the pieces that came out of this unstructured time encompassed more than just written text. There were songs and sound experiments, disturbing stories, and movement pieces.

B and R, the other two Artistic Directors, led an exercise on Tuesday where we all passed around our notebooks and got everyone to write one thing they would like to see each of us make. This was a great thing to do, as it got the group thinking about everyone’s strengths and habits, and I think many of us generated our task for each person by considering opposites as well as desires. I received a list with five proposals to create and perform a piece of text, three proposals to perform a song, and one proposal to create a movement piece with sound from anywhere other than an instrument or my voice. The list makes my tendencies towards movement and the body pretty apparent, as well as a unanimous desire to see me go against it. It’s a good list to keep in my back pocket, and a reminder to take risks and play against strengths and habits. This group loves text. I’m not going to deny them that, but together the ADs need to push for really good text if it’s going to play a big role in the work. And maybe that’s about including really strong found texts, from various sources, rather than relying on texts written by the group.

D and I led an exquisite-corpse style text exercise on Thursday, in which ten pieces of paper were passed around in a circle, each person picking up the thread with only a piece of the previous sentence as context. We produced ten meandering, bricolaged texts that actually had some strange themes, refrains and imagery. These texts we used as starting points for two five-person group pieces, which we worked on over Thursday and Friday. We also took some time on Thursday to compile all the bits and pieces we had created so far onto a sheet of paper. There were maybe 30 or 40 altogether. It’s a lot, and there will be even more, and it’s overwhelming to try to isolate themes or recurring ideas at a point that still feels early (and we are worried to, to put too much of a constraint on it – a big discussion from today). We’re in this phase where we are making and experimenting and throwing things against the wall and we have yet to see what is going to pull all this material together, thematically or structurally. Last night, reading Invisible Things by David Harradine, this paragraph stood out, and made me realize that this is par for the course, terrifying and reassuring at once.

Invisible Things Quote

I led a training session on Thursday night, which focused on group movements and proposals, journeys, images that were collective, rather than solely individual. For me, the session was a valuable lesson in losing and regaining control, as the group went in all different directions the moment I turned on the music (Mozart makes everyone want to be a ballet dancer, apparently) and I let this happen…they played and moved and then I remembered that I was the only one who could snap people out of it and get them back together. So I did, and we went on to explore the space together as a group, and find some worthwhile moments and images. We revisited some of them following the training, and hopefully will come back to them. The group seems to be getting something out of this kind of work, and appear to be taking it into their other proposals. I want to spend more time drawing moments from training and really working them into actual etudes, which I will hopefully try to do this coming weekend.  I also want to do some improvisation stuff with them. We’ve only really done it once coming from a Viewpoints exercise D led early on, and I think we need to do it more, while we still have time to play.

 

Getting my director’s feet wet – Black Box Week 1

January 28, 2014

[Written on January 13, 2014]

It’s Sunday night, and the first week of Black Box has concluded. It’s been quite a week – I was thrown headfirst into the world of SFU theatre, and particularly this class, which has so much aura and legend attached to it that it practically glows. I got a taste of this at our first artistic director meeting, during which my three fellow ADs told me all about past shows they had seen – mentioning powerful imagery, durational work, Greek myths, inventive lighting, and claw foot tubs onstage. They were excited, full of nervous energy, and so was I.

Our first task to complete as artistic directors was choosing a three-headed theme. We were told by Jamie, who is leading the course, to go for general, even cliché, because it makes it easier to generate material from a theme that is familiar than something esoteric or simply “good”. We each arrived to the meeting with a list of themes, and through voting and process of elimination chose “Solo – Duet – Party/Ensemble” as our Black Box theme. It won over “Blood – Sweat – Tears” (not my choice) and “Person – Place – Thing” (my choice). I was disappointed to have mine voted off because I thought it had great potential and was wide open to interpretation (but yes, there was also an ulterior motive, as I saw it as a theme I could most easily adapt to my own research interests). Nevertheless, I think Solo – Duet – Party has a lot of potential in terms of theme, structure, creation methods and design too. The trick will be narrowing down the general into the specific.

I met the rest of the ensemble a couple hours later, during our first class. I still don’t know much about them, but they seem to range from second years to fourth/fifth years. Together, we are an ensemble of ten. Jamie led us through a variety of games and activities that afternoon. We played the grid game, a Viewpoints-esque game of commands such as Grid, Contract, Expand, Retreat, Nap, Continue and Restore, to get us moving together as an ensemble. We also played a trick memory game, in which we generated the components of an entire show, entitled Jamie Long: My Part in his Victory. This ridiculous list included elements such as real sex, swan dives into the Woodwards pool, midgets on unicycles, and dogs doing needlepoint. The trick on us was that this would be the starting point for a mock show that we would devise and perform, over the next couple classes. This show, the Jamie Long show, has been a main focus of the past week’s rehearsals and class time. Working from our long list of absurd items, we created sketchy drafts of confessions, competitions, amateur dance and song, science experiments, and awkward moments. After showing a couple drafts in the classes, we were given the task of stringing them together with consideration for dynamics, virtuosity, and structure.

The JL show has been a regular part of our evening and weekend rehearsals. As eager as I am to just dive into the material of the real show and start making work, this mock show is a necessary part of the process…a quick and dirty challenge to get us started, and give us some insight into all it takes to get something together that is half decent. The JL show probably isn’t even a quarter decent. But it’s a place to start.

Leading rehearsals with my co-AD, particularly the parts where we are doing other activities besides the JL Show, has been an eye-opening experience so far. This is my first time directing in such a way (I’ve directed kids, I’ve lightly directed lots of experiments and works in progress, but never have I directed and devised an entire show), and I’m finding a lot of enjoyment in it. As an MFA student in my second semester, I’m an outsider to this group, which has its benefits and drawbacks. It’s easier to direct people when the relationship is purely a working one, or so it seems, but it’s challenging to come to a group from a very different place and navigate the various styles of training and creation to eventually find a process of investigation and authorship that is generative as well as exciting.

I am lucky to have a co-AD (I’ll call him D) who is a senior student here and has helped me become more aware of all this, explaining and translating where necessary. And so far, we’ve worked together really well to structure our rehearsals. We meet prior to each one, preparing individual schedules and lists of games, exercises and ideas we want to share, and then we figure out how to bring them together.  We both want to guide our ensemble to a place where we can consider the themes in-depth and from multiple angles, and to find a way of working that combines movement work and improvisation with different ways of creating and using text. I want to steer them away from writing as their go-to for making work (because it is safe and comfortable) and move them into their bodies.  It’s always harder to start with yourself, and the tendency with this group is to start with pens and paper, rather than on their feet. Even so, the ensemble responded well to a Double Edge-style training session that I led on Saturday, and to a Viewpoints activity led by D on Friday. They were focused and able to lead themselves while also being part of the group. Following both activities, we had the group identify and repeat moments, in groups and alone, and some strong images emerged from that. With a bit of direction, the moments became clearer and more compelling, and I think the ensemble was able to experience this as both performers and spectators.

So my aim is to continue training and improvising and making movement-based work with the ensemble over the next few weeks. We will continue to play with text too, but ideally in ways that produce texts that are less about poetry and scene-making, more about finding something unknown. D and I have led a small amount of automatic writing work with them, so we may return to this. I’m interested in seeing what kinds of tools Jamie will provide us with this week for working with verbatim and found text. The text thing is on my mind – how to approach it differently, and how to forget about it and then bring it back in.