Monthly Archives: December 2012

Universities should build better BFA Theatre programs

During a lunch chat I got on the subject of undergrad and graduate performing arts programs. I noted that I have an issue with the systematic subordination of university theatre programs’ undergraduates to its graduate students. For example, the University of Washington’s (Seattle)┬ámain-stage shows universally star and feature graduate actors while undergrads are lucky to get a supporting role of significance. The program was finally forced to support an Undergraduate Theatre Society that gave the undergrads a serious chance to perform, but with more limited resources and support.

I don’t fault a university’s emphasis on its graduates. These specialized programs intend to take students to a new, more focused level with their chosen field of study and this research/process requires greater emphasis.

(Whether a given student seeks a true higher purpose through their choice to attend grad school, rather than a merely buying themselves a few years away from facing the music with their artistic career or just buying themselves some extra credibility for the resume, is another matter. Let’s presume for now that placing a premium importance on graduate work is purely justified.)

My greater issue with undergraduate BFA theatre programs is the existence of acting tracks and emphases. Everyone wants to be a star. Never mind too many chiefs and not enough workers. In theatre the problem is that there are far, far too many actors and not nearly enough techs, directors, wrights, stage managers, generative stewards, or well rounded individuals skilled in and capable of fulfilling the many other roles a theatre needs to produce work and shows.

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Ideas I drew from yet another morning Muck at Studio Current

– Theatre was once and can be a forum to present the news of the day. Newswrights United posited themselves as this, but their process of exploring a given topic turned into too lengthy and herculean an exercise to be a reliable methodology for this purpose. It still can be done regularly if the production expectations were scaled down. A group (especially a group of improvisers or sketch comics) could do this as a fly by night weekly or monthly exercise with minimal production value if they didn’t take themselves and their material too seriously.

– So many scripted or choreographed projects face pressure in boiling their weeks/months long process into a single, short production that can and often is quickly misinterpreted or underinterpreted. This to me emphasizes the importance of making your work clear enough that the audience will see and understand as much of what you want them to see as possible the first time around. Being vague is not an affordable luxury for the artist with a real message.

– Performing artists worry a lot about the visual in their work but not the emotional tones of their work. This lends value to keeping the physical elements (blocking, choreography, scripting, etc) simple. The more complex those elements, the more difficult it becomes for the performer to allow the valuable undertones to come forth.

– Directing is most challenged when limited to certain parameters, but it strengtens through practice your ability to work with what is available.

– Directing with clarity takes significant, focused and engaged effort in that you want to make your intentions clear but you also want your performers to remain fully open, creative, expressive and generous with their work.

– Giving feedback is important, and so is giving it in manageable, digestible doses.

– Be willing as a director to accept a performer’s product that is not what you had envisioned. This is not required and you are free to sculpt what is given, but what the performer gives you may be different and there is value within many of those differences.

– Is moving into a shape of memory a two step process? Moving first into the shape of movement, then finding the sense memory that fully forms the shape of that memory?

– Movement: A form of emotional and mental brainstorming?

– Sense memory and associated movement can evoke a topic for exploration.

Ideas I drew from a morning Muck at Studio Current

– Emotion and performance: Inside-Out vs Outside-In. In theatre we have clear parallel examples of the two approaches: Clown and commedia are largely outside-in forms. Stanislavski and Meisner acting technique are all about inside-out.

– Do choreographers and dancers have a fear of narrative?

– Can abstraction exist within narrative?

– Choreographers and dancers want to be understood, yet often avoid narratives in their work… even though narratives and their context are where human understanding comes from.

– Can choreography itself be a narrative?

– What if in your work you sought the emotional reaction?

– Context creates emotion.

– What happens if you seek disorientation?

– What happens to your dance if it does have a narrative?

A huge collection of thoughts, questions and ideas I had from a Lillypad showing featuring the process of Kris Wheeler and Vanessa DeWolf

– Keeping your solo longer than is comfortable: What if you don’t get to call your own end? What if we wait and see what happens after performance is over? This is what happens in clown: The Ringmaster not only disrupts the clown but also extends the clown past the shelf life of their idea, to get past the facade work and see what really lies beneath. It’s when you run out of thread that the real work begins.

– What if a dance piece or show were itself an experiment, a true experiment beyond the scored experimentation of improv? What if the artists entered truly uncharted territory for the first time in a piece?

– Miked improvisation, a sort of self ventriloquism. Miking a performer is nothing new. Miking an improviser isn’t even all that strange. Miking an experimental performance artist can take us somewhere strange.

– What if the miked performer played in a separate space from where their voice was projected? What if performers in the other space had their voice play only in the other space?

– Clowns have a practice exercise where they sit together quietly on a bench until impulsive, subtle activity produces action. What if dancers commenced a scene by standing together in a similar, neutral fashion until compelled to move? And then only moved when influenced by impulse?

– Is it all just living noise?

– One score: Do a limitless series of improvised hyper-pieces, each 10, 30 or 60 seconds long. You can also go by counts: 8 counts, 16 counts, 32 counts. Once the time expires, you drop what you’re doing and start anew. You can either have these happen in a vacuum, independent of one other, or have each one build off the ones previous.

– For an audience to actively witness an experiment, the objective must be clear. They can witness it otherwise, but they are only witnessing an end product. The scope of the experiment is irrelevant to their experience unless it is made clear to them.

– What are you?: Seeking, giving, desiring, bringing inward, sending outward, looking to change?

– Question: Why are you here, performing in this space? What do you want?

– Question: Does what you’re doing take courage?

– Tonya Lockyer mentioned that scientists test ideas through a methodology, with a hypothesis and a process of research. Artists frequently go about their *research* the opposite way.

– To have failure, you need stakes.

– Is beauty important?

– What is the definition of honesty/authenticity?

– Fundamental, philosophical ifferences among collaborators should be received and engaged rather than rejected.

– Free association liberates.

– Every dance is an ethnic, or cultural, dance.

– Question: How much should dramaturgy shape dance?

– Poetry is showing, letting everything be in its time and place rather than narratively attaching concrete meaning to what is shown.

– Experiment: Mix narratives with poetry.

– Continuity is something dancers play with, but something thespians demand.

– Text can dictate the meaning of a dance, but a dance cannot do vice versa.

– Think about people who only value work if it leads to a performance vs people who value any research, exploration or personal development.

– Many artists, especially in theatre, don’t want to have a serious conversation about their work, one where their approach can get called into question or doubt.