Signals from the Mountain

An interactive installation that digs into the failure and uncertainty of a small group of people who were absent from the 2014 Burnaby Mountain protests against Kinder Morgan. Set within the Pandora Park Field House, the installation presents a selection of fragmented, fictionalized stories of boreholes and incorrect coordinates told through songs, objects and ephemera.

Borehole 1

Borehole (Corbin Murdoch)
13 minute loop played inside two tanks containing soil samples

We acknowledge that this work is located in Vancouver, on the traditional and unceded indigenous land belonging to the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh).

We further acknowledge that we weren’t there.

That Sound 1

That Sound, Part 2 (Barbara Adler).
Three loops ranging from 1-13 minutes, played through rotary dial telephones

In Fall of 2014, protestors occupied the Burnaby Mountain conservation lands, in an attempt to block Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion through the area.

Signals from the Mountain is our response, rooted in our absence from the protests.

When we started this project, we wanted to re-imagine the stories of the protest. We knew that the battle for Burnaby Mountain had moments of victory and of failure. The National Energy Board hearings were underway, and there was a sense – based on the N.E.B.’s track record – that the project would ultimately be granted that stage of approval.

The future seemed sure.

Alder Trees

Seven Red Alder Trees (Lucia Misch with Ten Thousand Wolves).
13 minute loop played inside traffic cone

We wondered if we could artistically tip the scales to create more ‘wins’ for the protestors.

We turned to fiction.

We thought that if we could sow some fantastic confusion around the events on Burnaby Mountain, we might create a feeling that a positive outcome was still possible.

We had learned that an early win on the protestors’ side came because Kinder Morgan had submitted incorrect coordinates for the site of their geotechnical studies.

This image resonated with us.

In Kinder Morgan’s failure, we imagined a mountain that resisted measurement and a history that refused to be settled.

Load to Carry

Load to Carry (Barbara Adler, James Meger & Ten Thousand Wolves). 5 minute loop played via headphones, traffic cone, iPod

Stolen Trail Markers

Narrator intro/outro to David Newberry’s Untitled Song
13 minute loop broadcast on FM radio

Installation by Megan Stewart and Ben Wylie

Exhibition text (excerpt above) by Barbara Adler

Audio produced by Barbara Adler, James Meger & Ten Thousand Wolves, with additional sounds & tape loops by Ben Wylie, field sounds by Paul Paroczai

Photos by Lukas Englehardt


Coyote Morse Code, audio fragment from 13 minute loop


This project was produced with funding from the Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants program.

Thank you to: Dance Troupe Practice, Tim Mahoney, Corbin Murdoch, Lucia Misch, David Newberry, Shannon Scott, James Meger, Gavin Youngash, Julie Hammond, Lukas Englehardt, Paul Paroczai, Layla Marcelle Mrozowski, CJSF, City of Vancouver Fieldhouse Residency Program




The Builders Opens This Week!

Less than a week away from the opening of The Builders! The past month has brought many exciting changes and improvements to the show. We switched our venue from a standard black box theatre into the visual arts studio in the basement of Woodwards; a rougher, rawer space that gave us the ability to work and transform the space in an expansive, long-term way. Once we were given the go-ahead that we could perform in the Vis Arts Studio, the creative process changed dramatically. With basically a blank canvas in front of us, the final month of rehearsals became a game. The rules were simple – you had to claim your space by altering or transforming it with your materials, you could claim as much space as you wanted through these alterations, and you could work at any time and could expand in any direction, and the person who claimed the most space would win a substantial prize (the winner has yet to be named – I’ll wait until after the run). And since those new rules were laid out, the Visual Arts Studio has been completely transformed…

The Builders - Robert

The Builders - Rhinestone Cowboy

The Builders - Holy Jewel Home

Along with this shift of turning the process into a game, the structure of the piece also got a major re-draft. The builders as a collective group were killed (though their scenes did make an appearance during our Vines Festival performance) in favour of returning the focus to the individual ensemble members and their respective creative endeavours that they had been developing since the beginning of this process. More attention was given to each person’s efforts of transforming their territory, allowing these various processes to take up more space within the performance. Yet, I did not want to lose the narratives that each ensemble member had crafted alongside their spatial transformations. These narrative moments were worked into a continuous structure of building, so that amid this work, the audience receives brief revelations into the builders’ worlds – their dreams, desires, and personal mythologies.

The Builders - Robert & Eveleen

The Builders - Rules of the Game
In our new space, the audience is able to move around and experience the environments as they are worked on by the four builders, observing them from different vantage points, both up close and at a distance.

The Builders has also gotten some great press in the past few days! This morning we were featured on North by Northwest, in a 15-minute interview with Robert and I. You can listen to it on the podcast from Sunday, Sept 5 (we’re at the 27 minute mark).

A preview piece was posted last week in the SFU Vancouver blog, a killer preview by Dillon Ramsey is now live on VANDOCUMENT, and we were featured in the Sun and Vancouver Magazine today.

Want to buy tickets for the show? (You probably should, cause our audience capacity is small and the shows are on the verge of selling out.) Click here:

The Builders

The Builders | Megan Stewart -banner

Step into an environment constructed by seven unlikely architects – theatre artists, dancers, and a musician. The space buzzes with energy as the builders work tirelessly to create the realms of their dreams. In a chaotic merging of theatre and installation, The Builders investigates transformation, territory and the practice of making ourselves at home in the world.

Taking inspiration from the worldwide phenomenon of art environments built by outsider artists, The Builders explores the compulsions behind transforming spaces, materials and the self. The performance immerses the audience into an unfamiliar territory inhabited by the builders, each one engaged in a relentless effort to transform their immediate surroundings. As they work, they reveal their stories and their processes, illuminating the ways in which occupied spaces become reflections of individual identities, mythologies and desires.

Constructed almost entirely out of found materials, the environment of The Builders features 500 feet of netting, three bolts of cast-off fabric, 35 milk crates, along with heaps of ivy, plastic recycling, mylar and scrap metal. Although the materials of the builders are familiar, the spaces they build defy convention and expectation. A gardener tends to a heap of plastic garbage, turning bottlecap seeds into translucent flowers and spindly trees. A lonesome mechanic becomes a bedazzled cowboy in a rhinestone realm that glitters and shines, while another builder aspires to live in the trees, alongside a giant woman woven from branches. All this and more comes to life within the performance, which also features music by David Cowling (of the band Leave) and additional set design by Amanda Larder.

Conceived and directed by Megan Stewart. Devised over a five-month process in collaboration with the ensemble: Robert Azevedo, Gordon Havelaar, Eveleen Kozak and Keely O’Brien

“The oddball protagonists of The Builders shrug off the senseless oppressions and conventions of the society that surrounds them, and set themselves to the sublime task of cobbling together their own unusual havens – or perhaps, heavens. …they reveal the infinite little ways in which a space can be explored, adored, claimed, conceded, and endlessly changed by anyone who identifies with it, and calls it a home.”
Dillon Ramsey, VANDOCUMENT

Photos by Paula Viitanen and Ash Tanasiychuk.


The Builders (long cut) from Megan Stewart on Vimeo.


Read more about the process on the blog, or check out some of our image-inspiration here.

An update from The Builders

Update from the Builders - Eveleen installation 1
So I’m sitting in the Toronto airport, awaiting a connection back to Charlottetown. Magic hour has just ended and I had a seat at the bar to watch its final moments. It was a good time to land at the terminal, everything glowing amber and sending sunbeams of assurance that summertime has arrived here too.

We ended our 30th devising session for The Builders last night, concluding part one of our creation process. We’re taking a one-month break, and I’m confident in the place where we’ve arrived. We have a slew of material and a few different dramaturgical arcs that are starting to materialize. Members of the production team are now appearing at the sessions, including set designer Amanda Larder, musician David Cowling, and Dan O’Shea, who is our dramaturg. It’s exciting having these people in the room and witnessing their contributions to the process. Having live music accompany our improvisations and group compositions has really helped to fill in the sound world of this piece, adding an additional layer to all the elements at play within the work. Just last night, David started to learn Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”, in connection to research Keely is doing on Loy Allen Bowlin, the ‘Original Rhinestone Cowboy’, an outsider artist from Mississippi. Hearing those lyrics drift down the hallway as he practiced and we worked on solo etudes was thrilling.

There have been some great developments with regard to the installation/spatial intervention projects that I assigned everyone to do somewhere in the Woodwards building or in the neighbourhood. We started quite small and local, with Robert doing a mini intervention with string and pushpins on a 4th floor bulletin board, and me hanging pinecones from the interior of a Woodwards architectural crawlspace on the 4th floor.

Update from The Builders - pinecones(my pinecones)

Update from The Builders - pushpin installation(above is Robert’s installation, a few weeks after being installed)

A few weeks later, Eveleen blew us all out of the water with a banner she installed at 4am underneath some scaffolding around the construction site beside Woodwards.

A week after its installation, I’m amazed to report that the banner is mostly still intact. These photos below are from this Monday. The photo at the top of this post is from the day of installation.

Update from The Builders - Eveleen installation 2(Full quote: “The measure of a civilization is not how tall its buildings of concrete are but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow humans”)

Update from The Builders - Eveleen installation 3
And then, on Sunday, Keely presented her installation, a bathroom stall shrine on the fourth floor, dedicated to the Rhinestone Cowboy, complete with an LED candle.

Update from The Builders - rhinestone cowboy shrine

Update from The Builders - Rhinestone cowboy shrine 2
And I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the wonderful serendipity that resulted in Amanda and I finding the exact set design material we had been hunting for, coming to us via a treasure chest in Ladner, BC. On Monday of last week, I’d mentioned that I’m interested in working with netting as a material with which to create an immersive set design in Studio T. Neither of us had much idea of where to acquire such a material, but I left her to the task. By Thursday, she had found a craigslist free ad listing a trunk full of green garden netting. The next morning we were driving to Ladner in her station wagon, nervous and full of anticipation. We arrived at the home of a fellow named Russ, who was getting rid of the netting and the chest. Apparently it was given to him years ago, and he didn’t even want it, and it collected dust in his garage until he decided to get rid of it. The ad had been up for six weeks! We loaded the beautiful tin and wood chest into the trunk of the car, marveling at the score we’d landed. Later, Amanda unraveled it at the Douglas College scene shop where she works, and discovered that there was 500 feet in length of the stuff, and it was about 17 feet in width! We had found a significant amount of the exact thing we needed, for free! So far, my plan to use mostly recycled and found materials to create this set is working. The amazing circumstances that led to us finding exactly what we wanted reminded me so much of last year’s hunt for a red rotary dial phone, which led me to Dave Hunter and the PEI Telephone Museum. I love when this kind of thing happens.

Update from The Builders - netting treasure chest

So by now, I’m on the plane to Charlottetown, where I’ll spend three and a half weeks writing draft one of my defense statement, playing the fun game of writing the show, going to the beach (fingers crossed for warm weather), and starting the planning phase for The River Clyde Pageant, my next theatre project which comes to life next summer. More on that later.

Builders research

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.

The Unnatural and Accidental Women

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.


Retreat Robert

Retreat was an ensemble-created devised performance, directed by Megan Stewart & Daniel O’Shea

Created and performed by the 2014 Black Box Ensemble: Robert Azevedo, Bev Cheung, Brandi Elliot, Andrew Ferguson, Jessica Hood, Katie Gartlan-Close, Rachelle Miguel, Keely O’Brien, Daniel O’Shea and Megan Stewart

Studio T, SFU Woodwards, April 3-4, 2014

Transmissions from Orbit

Transmissions from Orbit 1

Transmissions from Orbit is a devised theatre piece created by the Black Box ensemble, under the artistic direction of myself and co-AD Dan O’Shea. The production premiered in March 2014 at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver. Moving between outer space and earth, the show pulls at the threads of human existence, examining our relationships and the messages we send into the ether, propelled by our desire to reduce distances and find connection.

Working with the ensemble, I developed and re-mounted the production in May 2014, as part of Neither Here Nor There, a festival of art and performance by students of SFU’s MFA program.

The first 8 photos in the slideshow are from the May remount, photographed by Curtis Grahauer. The 7 photos after that are from the original production in March, photographed by Ash Tanasiychuk, Vandocument.

Original production performed by the 2014 Black Box Ensemble: Robert Azevedo, Bev Cheung, Brandi Elliot, Andrew Ferguson, Jessica Hood, Katie Gartlan-Close, Rachelle Miguel, Keely O’Brien, Daniel O’Shea

May Remount Performers: Robert Azevedo, Bev Cheung, Jessica Hood, Katie Gartlan-Close, Rachelle Miguel, Keely O’Brien, Daniel O’Shea

Notes from week 5

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

[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

[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

[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.


the next few months

This semester, I am participating in an undergraduate class in the SFU theatre department called Black Box. I am a co-artistic director, with an ensemble of ten, including myself. From January until April we are devising, structuring, creating and performing four original shows. FOUR. In four months. I’m co-directing two of these shows, and performing in two. The schedule of rehearsals and performances is mental, but I already I am learning a lot…about directing, collaboration, ensemble work, and so much more. As I find my way through this crazy process, I’ll be blogging about the experience each week. Here goes!