When we are creating something new it is essential to recognize what we know versus what we still don’t know. Or rather what we have yet to discover. Uncover. Create. At the beginning we are standing in the middle of a dark, wide-open field of unknowns. Instead of going running away screaming into the dark night, we must turn on lanterns of knowns and little by little we start accumulating questions and new findings around them. These islands of light shine on our initial potential. How will these far away islands ever connect? We can’t know quite yet, but we hold absolute faith that they will somehow begin to migrate toward one another as our process unfolds. We can not waste precious time worrying about what it will be. We can simply invest – one flicker at a time – in how it can come to be. Then together, we are on our way.
What follows here is an accumulation of my experience in creating theatre up until this point, as seen especially through the lens of facilitating devised productions this past year with students at Bucknell University, Mississippi University for Women, and Brown University/Trinity Rep. “I stand upon the shoulders of giants,” privileged and grateful to be extending and connecting to these communities through the continual act of introducing something new…
PROPOSING SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T YET EXIST
“We don’t know where we’re going but we’re on our way there!”
~ Elaine Williams, Set & Puppet Designer at Bucknell University
From the beginning, it is imperative to get everyone onto the same page regarding what is known versus what is unknown. It is necessary to be consistently transparent about how the group distinguishes between these polarities. This way, when someone or the group starts to freak about what they don’t know, I can point to what we do know, which very quickly starts to be an incredible amount of material. We begin with this chart:
KEEPING A FINGER ON THE PULSE OF THE ENSEMBLE
“When you don’t know what to do, just listen more. Listen to everything, especially to what keeps coming up.”
~ Sally Goers Fox, Retired Voice & Movement Teacher from the University of Rochester
As a facilitator in the devised process, I am constantly learning and balancing each ensemble member’s sense of discomfort with the unknown. It is of utmost importance that I gain their trust, in order to lead them through this uncharted territory in a way that allows them to remain open, listening, and enthusiastic. At first we will all be equal creators of these characters, our story, our show. Eventually as the process goes on, I will zoom out as more of a director and the students will zoom in further expressing themselves as actors. It is important to articulate this shift as everyone will feel the difference move from a horizontal way of working to a more vertical or hierarchical way of working. Either way, I’ve learned better how not to force my ideas, but rather to listen to what is already happening and even more importantly, to admit when I don’t have the answer. Not in an emotional apologetic or declaiming way, but rather as fact. A shrug of the shoulders. An arms wide open for new ideas. A listening breath at the crossroads. Ask the ensemble for three options of what to do: “I’m not sure what to do now. I need three options of what to do next. Anybody, anybody?” And then I choose to explore one of those in order to move forward.
TEACHING WHAT IT MEANS TO SHOW UP
“The most unique aspect of our work is that the primary decision-making power rests in the hands of the artists. Ensemble theater is the antithesis of the corporate model that dominates the theatrical landscape in America today… Our work is committed to the unique event of the living stage, where the imagination of artist and audience is linked in social communion and mutual creativity.”
~ Manifesto of the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET)
Everyone that came to the audition was invited into the piece. They asked to be in it, and so they are. This work is about fully showing up, acknowledging who is in the room, who isn’t in the room, and who our audience will be: Eighteen actors. One stage manager. Three assistant stage managers/documentarians. One assistant facilitator. Five designers. The greater university community. Through the context and form of this piece, each person will be honing their own individual point of view, their own voice, and actively deciding to bring their own set of skills, wants, and experience to the table. As a starting point, we collectively, create agreements for ways of working together. Some examples: everyone is at every rehearsal, no cell phones in theater, all voices are heard, working through consensus-based decision making, music on ten minutes before the rehearsal to warm-up space, be on-time. As a facilitator, I must practice, instill, and value these throughout the process as well.
MOVING TOGETHER FIRST
“What is true in the physical world, is probably also true in the metaphysical world. As an actor, you are not a waiter. You are a creator. You don’t have to wait for the part, create it. Things that are in motion tend to stay in motion: If you are waiting, you will continue to wait. If you are acting you will continue to move.”
~ Daniel Stein, Head of Movement & Physical Theatre, Brown University/Trinity Rep
I prefer getting to know people at first by moving with them: Balance out the space with our bodies. Everyone inhale. Raise one foot. Keep the idea of the inhale going. See the possibility, anticipation, the who knows what we might make together, under your foot. Inhale it all. On the exhale, let’s take our first step into this project. Go…
“How can we turn our ‘oh shit’ moments into moments of ‘interesting…’”
~ Avner the Eccentric, Celebration Barn
Now freeze. Show me the difference between a freeze and a suspension. A suspension is an inhale. A taking in. An absorption of new information. A new idea. This could be an “oh shit” moment. Someone give me an example of an “oh shit” moment you had in the last 24-hours: I locked myself out the house. My alarm didn’t go off. Finding out that my in-laws house burned down. We all breathe when we hear these. We empathize. We want to create theatre that changes the way people breath. In our process, you might experience a lot of “oh shit” moments. Moments where you don’t know what to do. Being somewhere you had not planned to be. Interesting territory that we enjoy watching someone navigate. And boy do we learn a lot about ourselves, others, and our characters in these moments of not knowing. Not by what people do, but by how they react. In these moments we will tend to want to shut down, implode, hold our breath, and become skeptical. Instead, how can we create space, possibility, connections, see opportunities, and ask questions?
PLAYING INTO A SCRIPT
“Things happen in the process of creative play, left/right brain connections that weren’t there before, improved learning capacity in children and adults, renewals of agency, and that is just the beginning of the list. These things are, at the very least, grist for new thinking about what art is and how we can use it in our lives, and they ought to be reason enough to restructure our educational system.”
~ Jo Carson, Spider Speculations
How can we teach the next generation of theatre artists to own themselves as full well-rounded creators – with all the tools and empowerment needed for innovation at their fingertips? They must be encouraged to think from all angles: as playwright, as performer, as designer, as director, as character, as audience. And they must relearn, reconnect with their ability to play. To turn things into other things. To wonder. To be curious. To listen. To ask “what if?” and “why not?”
There are times in a devised process when we are out being hunters and gatherers of new ideas to put in our pot. I think of this divergence as an outward, opened arm kind of energy. We are ready, creating and accumulating new material. Then conversely there are times when we are bringing all of these ideas together. I think of this convergence as a funneling, creating a pathway to bring our discoveries into view: seeing patterns, collaging ideas. Sometimes this second phase feels more challenging as it begs for more decisions and letting go. Leaving some things behind. We wax and wane between these two phases in order to move forward…
(Photo: Kali Quinn)
Divergence: We start our process with physical play, vocabulary building, and mask technique. Then each actor chooses a mask. This will be their script – the only thing that will not be able to change. We then develop characters from shape to breath to movement to gesture to sound to text. Individual image boards help the design team to get a feel for direction we have started off in.
Convergence: Through character interviews along with physical improvisation and play, we observe how the characters relate to one another, start to form groups, and take on status. Each actor makes a family tree. At Bucknell the characters formed the following groups – The Forgotton, The Builders, The Jackets, and The Demons.
Divergence: By recognizing certain patterns, themes, and moments of heighten tension, we start to discover and play in the world that that these characters inhabit. In Mississippi this world was an epic fairy tale. Identifying polarities allows group to find the rules of the world and story it’s possible conventions begin to unfold. At Bucknell we explored giving vs. taking and unison vs. chaos.
Convergence: We title moments of interaction (lazzo) and start to see whether they feel like beginnings, middles, or endings. A structure begins to emerge. At Brown/Trinity we identified that our story arc would go from reality to fantasy and then into a new or second chance kind of reality. We researched other stories that had that same structure. We then “lock-in” or hinge story elements onto this structure. Things that can’t change. Things agreed upon by the whole group or tabled until the next rehearsal. At Mississippi the woman playing the Queen hurt herself and was in a wheelchair for a week. Even though she healed, we decided to lock-in the wheelchair.
And then of course, always most challenging part: How do we end our play? The story? The relationship with our audience?
DOCUMENTING NEW VOCABULARY
“Please don’t use the word ‘weird’ ever again. Let’s just recognize that this is something ‘new.’”
~ Adrian Mejia, Physical Performer & Classmate at The Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre
In creating new work, it’s easy for ideas and moments to get lost in the ether. We must title and document new vocabulary so that we can refer to it as a common point of reference. Some ideas and tools discovered within these processes:
- POPCORN – A quick idea that came from playing, observing, or marinating overnight.
- THIS REMINDS ME OF… – A way to connect what we are doing to other experiences or real life experiences, along with other moments in the play.
- VERSUS – Ways to polarize and describe our world. ie) dark vs. light, chaos, vs. order, isolation vs. community, innocence vs. guilt. We then play with these things physically in mask.
- ENCOURAGE DYNAMIC RATHER THAN DETAIL – Starting to simplify and use bigger brush strokes within our story where we focus on the dynamic or push and pull between two characters rather than a he said/she said way of thinking.
- LOCKING IN – defining what is definitely in the piece and what you don’t know about yet. Accumulate around what you know. Ask questions about what you want to know soon. A way for the facilitator to create what the next rehearsal needs to be about.
- STEPPING ONE MONTH AT A TIME – Thinking and moving in a way where every step is one month or even one year in order to move in suspended time and at a higher physical volume with one direct intention.
- THINK WITH YOUR HANDS – Showing us just what you are thinking, feeling, being effected by just by isolating your movement to your hands. Try other body parts.
- METAPHORE WASH – How could what that person just said or did be thought of as more of a symbol or metaphor that relates to another part of our story?
- SOMEBODY ELSE – Talking with someone outside of our process about what our play/process is like, what they think about it, and then bringing that conversation back to the ensemble.
“Two monks are going to cross the river when they see an old woman failing to get across. They have taken a vow not to touch women. One of the monks picks up the woman and crosses. The other, baffled, says: “How did you do that?” The response: “I picked her up and put her down. You are still carrying her with you.”
~ Robert Berky, Physical Performer & Musician
Theatre deals in the language of transformation. It’s possible that through play the same black fabric can become a baby and then turn into the hate between two sisters and then the pathway to the thrown. We begin to string together a history of meaning and association with this object that we can interpret in many ways. When we get into the habit of being able to see the possibility of something becoming something else, we start to expect it and then begin do it all the time. This process is something that we can pass along to our audience.
Throughout the process, everyone will have a different picture in their mind of our direction or what is most exciting. Their imagination will be working away. There’s an infinite amount of directions that we can go. It’s good to acknowledge that, at times, this can be a perfect explanation for frustration or confusion. At the same time this variance is optimal: many perspectives. A breeding ground for innovation… “Close your eyes and create a blank canvas. Now imagine a parkbench there. Something happened as soon as I said that. A color, a texture. Let that be your start and keep going over the waterfall. Other things may start to enter your picture little by little. Like the video camera, zoom in and out looking at various details of the image you are creating. Possibly: ‘A lady. A cane. Her pearls. A squirrel.’ Add idiosyncrasy and all sense: ‘An old, tattered lady. Wooden cane. The smell of rain. Bells in the distance. Pearls handed down from her mother.’ Continue on your own for two minutes. Finish up by clearing your canvas, putting your findings at the edges. Now try a group Parkbench image by each person adding an element one by one. Each time you hear an offering, how can you add it to your own canvas (especially when you might feel like there is no way it should fit)? Add onto someone else’s idea or add a completely new element. Either way, you are creating a group picture. Imagine the audience leaving the theatre: What are they saying about what they just witnessed? What excited them? What challenged them?
AND IT ALL COMES DOWN TO ONE SENTENCE
“My work is of the land. Your work is your body. It is your responsibility to bring the world back to us that might not be able to explore like you.”
~ Vegetable Seller, Farmer’s Market in Arcata, CA
When asked, “What is this one about?” I attempt to relate our process and product in the simplest way:
Columbus, Mississippi: It’s about how a community destroyed by deep jealousy and betrayal eventually find a way to forgive and reconcile.
Providence, Rhode Island: It’s about how a scared third-grader learns how to say: “Hello. This is who I am…”
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: It’s about how a village based only on “giving, play, and sharing” evolves once they learn about “taking, winning and losing, and having more than” for the first time.
EMPOWERING THE AUDIENCE
“When an audience comes to the theatre, they are buying a ticket to dream. Let them go on their own ride.”
~ Michele Bottini, Faculty at Accademia dell’Arte & Paolo Grassi School in Italy
A Program Note, Bucknell University: The characters, world, and story you are about to witness was developed through improvisation, physical play, and storytelling exercises. When interviewing students, faculty, and community members about their relationship to power, one of our ensemble members, Emily Mack, brought quotes from medical professionals she worked with in Nicaragua. These statements shifted our perspective and the direction of our process: “Power is the ability to be loved. The more you’re loved the more powerful you are. People that can engender love and are loved by others are powerful. If a person is loved and respected, they have more power and influence over others. Humans are connected by love. Power is the state of having and giving what you have to others.” Everything you see and hear today was created by this group of people in order to share it with you today. There is no “right way” to interpret this work. Enjoy choosing your own adventure.
GIVING AWAY THE SECOND ACT
“When we tell stories we are sharing with each other how we put things together. When we share stories we share whole parts of ourselves. Stories come charged with the spirit of the teller and have lives of their own… In story telling, listening is always more important than talking.”
~ John O’Neal, Founder of Junebug Productions
In Mississippi at the end of the performance, we announced that we would come back out to have a talk-back. When I returned with the ensemble, I expected to come back to find maybe only a few audience members sticking around (there had been heavy rains and some people had come from over two hours away), and yet there sat close to two-hundred people waiting to speak. I started by asking them to popcorn images or text that they might be remembering (especially because this particular piece had no language at all). The ensemble sat back and listened as the audience articulated moments from their adventures back to us for over a half hour: “The fabric becoming a baby, the sisters fighting, time passing… transformation, forgiveness, community reconciliation… How in the heck did you all make this?”
STICKING A STAKE INTO THE GROUND
“Stick a stake in the ground. That way, when you are falling down the mountain, you will have something to hold on to.”
~ Ronlin Forman on Point of View at The Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre
When I devise a piece of theatre with a group of people, I feel like we are changing the world. How? By operating under a different way of working that is “un-systemetizable.” Instead of saying here is your part or role and this is how you are expected to fill it, we are saying: “Who are you? What can you bring? What do you want to say?” This can be a huge paradigm shift for students and professionals (in all fields). A flip of the coin. The act of introducing something new. Instead of telling someone what to do, we are giving them permission to allow themselves to do. To create. To be. There is no audition. Anyone who wants to be in that room can be in that room. Day after day we each actively choose to show up and participate. Invest. There is no cast in a devised piece. Little by little we create an ensemble. What drives the group to become a community is each individual’s level of involvement, and how each individual articulates themselves within the process. I do not tell that community who they are or even how to talk with one another. At the first rehearsal we make a set of agreements on ways to work. We create a common language through physical play by titling our discoveries so that they can become tools with which we create. A way of communicating with one another what we want to have happen again. And how. To remember something that might have excited us. A group memory. We make observations. We witness one another. It is the responsibility as the facilitator of a devised process to cultivate ways of ensuring that everyone can be heard. An act of introducing someone to their own voice. To nurture that voice. To find various ways for everyone to be present at their best. Their essence. To acknowledge one another. And to consistently encourage a space for people to listen to each other, even and especially when there may be disagreements. To navigate these moments peacefully and productively. To discover ways to move forward without forcing an outcome. To establish group ritual by recognizing the repetition. The patterns. The tendencies. To have your finger on the pulse of the moment. To allow the work and play to teach us what wants to happen next. To always remember to start exactly where we are. To meet each another there: A breeding ground for innovation, creativity, transformation, and imagination. To invite an audience in and wholeheartedly share these discoveries and possibilities with them. This process, my friends and colleagues, reflects the kind of world I strive to live in.
To learn more about this process through photos, video, and blogs visit: www.kaliquinn.com
Kali Quinn teaches in the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Program and works as Stateside University Relations Director for Accademia dell’Arte (Italy). Kali has designed movement for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, Pearl Theatre Company and New England Center for Circus Arts, along with creating two original solo shows which continue to play throughout the US. Kali serves on the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Board. Training: University of Rochester, MFA from Dell’Arte, Grupo Galpao (Brazil). This coming year, Kali is involved with: NET Microfest Buffalo: Ensemble in Education, Ko Festival, Celebration Barn, Duke University, McDonogh School, and Full Circle Festival in Burlington, Vermont.