Saturday, September 8, 2018

One Place, One Event

Each week we're split into groups, given a general prompt, and then we spend time each day as an ensemble creating a piece of theatre that corresponds to the prompt. The first week was 'Creation of the world' and this last week was 'One place, One event'. In my first group we began by each creating our own 'world' to play in and we played as a group until we found several ideas that resonated. Then we expanded those ideas through play until we found an arc with a beginning, middle, and end. It was such a new experience for me, basically performing improv until an idea forms instead of forming an idea and then trying to create it. But like all new things, it got better with practice.

You can ignore parts of this post that will get into details that won't matter to anyone but me. Remember this blog is also my actor journal for me to remember and describe lessons, so I'm sure some of this won't be interesting for the average reader.

Now on week two it was exciting going in with the prompt and knowing that I could confidently create something. Week one we worked with no voices or props. It was about creating pictures with your body and using sound with no words. My group formed shapes along the walls in the room while I knelt in the middle. They slowly peeled themselves off the wall and began to walk in a rhythmic circle around me, beginning a syncopated pounding heartbeat with their hands until they were running. They stopped as one, put their hands into the middle of the circle onto my back and began to breathe with my movements. I went up and down until I was 'born' from the middle of the circle with a gasp. On my gasp the breath was taken from each ensemble member until they all fell down. I revived them with my breath again, and we began to make relationships. We mimicked movements and mirrored each other. Then one member makes the first sound. We then discovered how to copy the sound. Then we discovered touch and then play. The touch became violent until one ensemble member was shoved to the ground by me. We discovered violence. This member was then encircled again as I had been in the beginning, but when they broke out of the breathing circle and stole the breath from us we weren't able to be revived. The last moment was the sound of loss. 

Writing this in detail it sounds very artsy, but in action we created life, relationship, sound, touch, and then cycled to death.  It felt very powerful to use body without words and I really enjoyed the experience because the story line was very specific. There were other creations that were made of vignettes, and somehow each creation piece at some point included all bodies standing in a circle and then falling down (just like ours). So strange! On creation day the faculty all sits in and then critiques. The general feedback on week one was to simplify, be specific, and follow the prompt. We learned how easy it is to get carried away. My group had positive feedback and we were really proud of the piece, but the consensus was that we created 'the world' in the first 1/3 of our piece, and the rest was a continuation. That's a good example of how we could have simplified the piece. They also commented how each group had mostly depicted a human experience and that we had forgotten other elements.

So for week two my group took the general feedback to heart. We wanted to play with nature this time. In movement and improv classes this week we practiced this exercise of creating a place. My cohort created a park and we spent several class periods being characters in a park and learned to expand the room so it felt like there weren't walls, control voices so they felt the way they would outside, and focused on not stealing focus.  We wanted to incorporate these lessons into our creation project so we picked the ocean as our place, and the event was the rising of the tide on a beach. It took a few days to solidify the best way to create waves with our bodies (and I have the bruises to prove it), but we finally picked four of us to stagger in a pattern on the floor with our bodies lying down straight like a log. We wanted to play with perspective so we began as if the audience was looking at the ocean horizon. We rocked slowly and made soft ocean noises. Then the rocking turned into rolling forward towards the audience with the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. At this point one of our ensemble entered as a child to build a sandcastle. Our rolling waves became bigger until we brought them to shore. Two of us became sea foam using our arms to replicate the tide dragging sand backwards, while two in the back became the crest of waves. We attempted to crescendo the sound as we got closer to shore, and built the tension towards the object of ruining the child's sandcastle until it had been completely swallowed by the ocean and the child ran off.

The other ensembles created a tree that was cut down, a cave where someone found gold, and the world before a volcanic eruption. Their feedback was that the place wasn't specific enough, and that the even took too long to happen or that there were multiple events and it was unclear. Overall the faculty seemed really intrigued by our piece, and said that the place was very clear. However, they as an audience had an expectation that there was danger to the child and that the event would in fact be more ominous. Professor Q said there are two types of theatre. One is when the actors know more than the audience and the audience has to figure out the story and catch up to the actors. The other is when the audience knows something the actors don't and the actor has to figure it out. If we were to do this piece again they wanted an exploration of what it feels like for the audience to know more about something than the actor. They wanted the beautiful moment of when our child would discover the danger they were in the same way the audience felt they were in danger. I found that so interesting! And something that hadn't occurred to me. We were attempting to simplify our event, so I hadn't considered something so big as drowning a child. But they said that our place was so big that the event ruined our crescendo. It was a let down. We needed to match the beginning with the end. It definitely made me want to explore the piece further. But I'm also excited to not roll around on my bruises anymore.

In other news this week we saw our first fringe show at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. It was called The Accountant and I'm sure I'll write more about it later. It had some spectacular special effects and a stunning sound design.

In movement analysis this week we worked on Lecoq's Seven Levels of Tension.  This is one of numerous acting techniques and something that was fun to add to my repertoire.   My graduate school faculty studied (for the most part) at The Lecoq School of Physical Theatre in Paris, so we'll be using a lot of these methods throughout my time here.
Levels:
1. Tired, lethargy, exhaustion
2. California, Cowboy, laid back
3. Efficiency, Neutral
4. Alert
5. Suspense
6. Passion
7. Hypertension, Tragic

We embodied each of these in class over the week, sometimes creating stories as an ensemble or in small groups. I'm excited to play with these more.

Our music theory class this week (our longest class at three hours) was a lot of work! We worked on scales, which I'm grateful I already know, finger placement on piano, rhythm, and solfeggio. We'll be performing the C scale and our own written melodies next class.

In voice class we're working on diaphragmatic breathing exercises and using sound on breath. I'm also finishing up reading Artaud's The Theatre and Its Double for seminar this Monday. I'm excited for this seminar class especially because we'll really be focusing on the history of physical theatre and the companies that have done and currently do it.

I've got a busy weekend ahead of me. Another fringe show to see, and several assignments to complete!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Flying Leap

My class is apparently the largest class since my MFA program was created. There are 19 of us total, and every single class we have to reintroduce ourselves to our new professors. It's amusing to watch them attempt to remember our names, but I admit that I can't wait until we don't have to play name games or stand in a circle and introduce ourselves anymore. We're in such a routine with it now as a cohort because we've done it so much. I believe we have one more instructor we haven't met. Thank goodness!

So I titled today's post based on an exercise we did in improv yesterday. 18 of us stood in two diagonal lines two feet apart and held our arms out in a zipper fashion so everyone was forming a cradle. Then one person ran from across the room and took a flying leap into our arms and attempted to jump far enough that they could reach the arms of those cradling on the far end. I was terrified because our arms were just held out on our own strength, not reinforced in anyway by the people across from or beside us. When it was my turn to stand in the front and catch it was really difficult to catch people because there was so much weight and momentum! And it was terrifying. But not as terrifying as leaping. I took a turn and the first time I went I shot like a bullet straight at the arms instead of lifting myself higher into the air. Professor Q gave me another shot. One of the things I've been enjoying most is when I take a turn in any class it gets analyzed and then usually there's direct feedback and the opportunity to try again. The next time I jumped too soon, but definitely made it all the way into the arms. I was given a third try and this time managed to springboard at the right moment and flew into my cohorts' arms. It was exhilarating! Writing this I can still feel the adrenaline. I was proud of myself for volunteering even though I wasn't sure I'd do it well. The fear of failure is something I told myself I wouldn't allow into my training for the next 2.5 years.

I received some really great advice my first time meeting some of the upperclassmen. I was told that since my class is so large I should take every opportunity available to have a turn in class. They said that there wouldn't always be enough time to have everyone take a turn, and it's up to me to make the most of my investment and really put myself out there. The lessons aren't repeated so if you don't take your turn, you miss an opportunity to practice instead of watch. They said even if I felt guilty to always be the volunteer to never give up my chance to participate.

I really took that advice to heart and I've volunteered in every class so far. It's true, there hasn't been enough time for everyone to have the chance to participate. It's felt really great to get up and play instead of being a bystander! And even when I wasn't sure I wanted a turn, I made sure I took one.

In addition to improv, I took my first acrobatics class. This semester we're focusing on handstands. That might sound simple to some of you but I've never been able to do one without a wall. I'm really excited to build up the strength to be able to do a handstand. We played a lot of awesome movement games and activities really awakening to our space and bodies. We also formed ensembles and did an exercise where one person in the middle of a circle was straight as a pencil and allowed the group to tip and push and pull their body in every direction, giving complete control of their balance and weight up. It was a good core strengthener and trust builder. I can tell I'm going to love this class and can't wait to focus on my physicality! I know I've allowed myself to get our of shape and there's so much I want to accomplish in this class that I can't wait to get to the fitness level to do it. I'm feeling very motivated!

I had my first class of Jeu (which means Play) yesterday as well. This is a class where we just...play. We didn't use words. We just walked in and started doing whatever we felt like until we were all playing one game, which yesterday just consisted of a lot of people dying. Eventually I think it will become a more guided class with prompts, but it was great to let go for an hour.

I also had my first voice lesson and I can tell I'm going to learn a lot this semester. It will be great to be taking private voice at the same time that I have a music theory class. On Wednesdays we have music theory for three hours. We'll be learning piano, music progression, ear training, intervals, composition, and a bunch of other things I can't remember. I'm really excited to get back into the music side of performance in a way that doesn't necessarily include musical theatre. I know I'll be getting training in that as well, but just having the opportunity to work on composing, sight reading, and ear training is going to be so useful in the future.

I see graduate school as the place that will help me fill in all the gaps I've discovered in my professional training. So far my MFA is proving to do just that. I'm so excited to focus on these holes and have the time and guidance to fill them. I'll be learning new skills every day, letting go of old habits, and strengthening myself in mind and body.

Today in Improv with Professor M we did an exercise where someone had to volunteer to stand in front of the class with us as the audience and just do nothing. Breathe, be present, be aware, make eye contact but do nothing. For some reason this was something I excelled at today. When trying to puzzle out why I felt ease when performing this task compared to some of my cohort I realized that it was because I feel very strongly that I belong. I feel comfortable and excited and ready. I mean, there was the part where I had to act like a giant ogre before I settled into breathing with depth and a neutral mask, but that was only to be expected, right?

I can definitely say I'm sore from these last few days. I have blisters and bruises and muscles that feel like jelly. Luckily my Movement Analysis class with Professor S was a great class to stretch and settle into the sore places. Today we focused on walking as different characters. How long does it take for your arms to move? Are they out of sync with your legs? What part of your body do you lead with? Professor S notices so many intricacies and loves to point them out and create characters of her own out of them. I can tell every lesson in that class is going to be very enlightening.

My creation piece from this week is coming together nicely and I'm learning a lot from the process. We were given the prompt 'Create the world'. We split ourselves into three groups on Monday and on Friday we'll perform our devised pieces in ensemble. Instead of talking about the prompt my group got on their feet and we each took a turn creating a space and leading the group in play to 'create a world'. Then we played further with the most coherent ideas that struck our fancies, and now we're almost finished composing. It's interesting to be at the point where in a normal show you'd worry about specificity. In devising it's more allowable to say that the chaos and messiness is almost the point and that the specificity could potentially take away meaning. I'm interested to explore this concept throughout the program. I'm sure different ensembles will think of this differently, and when we're studying different subjects in our classes I think our thought process will change as well. Watching a non-narrative show this week definitely affected our outlook.

Tomorrow I will play some more! For now, I'm off to bed for a night of rest and strength rebuilding.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Graduate School Beginning

I'm going back to my roots! Years ago I started this blog to follow my journey through undergrad and catalog my professional career.  Today begins my journey into graduate school. This has been a long time coming. I remember writing a list of my top ten graduate programs in my freshmen year of my BFA and I posted it on the wall beside my bed. I'm very goal oriented. Needless to say, I'm attending a program that would never have been on that list because I didn't know anything like it existed. But we'll get to that.

First let's catch up to now. When I moved from Seattle to Austin I suspected I'd have many experiences to write about, but as it turns out Austin doesn't actually pay their actors a living wage. I suppose I shouldn't blame the city itself, but the funding of the institutions there definitely has a long way to go.

I completed two separate tours with the National Theatre for Children in Minneapolis and I worked in the box office of the fantastic Zach Theatre in Austin itself, but honestly I wasn't enjoying my time. The only regional work to be had through unified auditions was children's theatre and summer stock, and the shows in Austin couldn't pay enough to justify the cost of living and commute time. In the end I decided to take another stab at the URTA auditions. Unlike my first foray when I went to Chicago, this January I chose to audition in New York.

I had some strategy this time, now that I knew how to play the game. In Chicago you had the advantage of being one stop closer to the end of the schools' audition process. You could possibly be more easily remembered. However, I thought this time around it would be more advantageous to be the first in line. In the end, it definitely worked to my advantage! The schools were invigorated because it was the exciting beginning of the process. They seemed to listen more in the auditions (which resulted in more callbacks than my first time), and the callbacks had more energy and enthusiasm. I had 23 callbacks this year, and out of all the schools I strongly considered several classic theatre MFAs. I'd always thought that I'd want to attend graduate school only if it was free because there are so many amazing programs right now that are paying students to go. But throughout the callback process and the auditions at schools I couldn't help but feel like these programs were continuations of my BFA.

I've always felt like my BFA was the best education I could have received. I judged this on the fact that I was personally and professionally fulfilled after receiving it. I've worked so much, and my resume is so broad. When thinking about taking myself out of the job market for 2 to 3 years, I began to believe it was a waste to receive the same kind of degree. I could justify it if my original degree wasn't getting me work, or even if I felt like I was losing the technique in the echo chamber of professional acting. I know some people attend graduate school purely because they want more time to focus on themselves again without the pressure of the outside world and really get into the nitty gritty of method acting.

None of these scenarios fit me. Instead I knew that I was unhappy with the growth of my career. Regional theatres had offered me several exciting roles, but without more connections I didn't feel like I would continue to get enough work at that level. Children's theatre and touring shows were becoming tiresome because I felt like I was taking those jobs just to continue to get a paycheck as a working actor. I wanted to feel more in control of my career. I wanted the skills to create work, build a company, and the opportunity to find an ensemble to flesh out the brave new world I was imagining. I wanted to learn about funding opportunities and how to build my own tour. I wanted to network with people that were creating work not just acting in someone else's show. These are things I'd dreamed of doing, and yet I felt like I hadn't met the right people to show me the way. Seven years out of school with a great professional resume and I hadn't learned how to be more than extremely hire-able. It was time for me to take a leap of faith and choose a program that fit the niche I was trying to carve out for myself.

I struggled at first with my decision because I was leaning towards a program that was extremely unique -- Devised Performance. I craved that quality in my work and my career and I knew what I wanted, but I had voices of reason that reminded me to look at all the angles before making such a life changing decision. Based on my reputation there were those who I looked to for advice that weren't sure this program would be the right fit.

It's day one of my Graduate School Career, and I'm positive I made the right choice. There isn't another program out there that could come close to inspiring me the way I've been inspired today or push me the way I know I'll be pushed. I'm going to be challenged and stretched, I'm going to fail and fall, and in two and a half years I'm going to come out the other side with opportunities I'd never imagined for myself because I'd never known where to look. I'm so grateful I found my fit, and that I'm relearning what it feels like to feel inspired. It's been a very long time since I've felt this way, and it's going to be a crazy few years in Philadelphia!

Day One:
Today I had Movement Analysis, Improv, Creation, and Theatre History Seminar.  Basically I spent the day stretching, rolling, falling, and catching. I played dead, led the blind, was the blind, fought the monster, became the monster, played at recess, and birthed a planet. I felt what it was to be silent and still, and found my forward motion. I also squatted too much. I'm sure I'll feel it tomorrow.

Aside from all the amazing fun movement work and creation I experienced today, my Theatre History Seminar jumped right into subsidized theatre funding in Europe and the models that we haven't managed to recreate in America. This is what I'm so very excited about. I can't wait to delve into what's working in other cultures and societies and learn how to mimic it in a way that can successfully fund a company here. I have so many questions, and even though the class was two hours there wasn't nearly enough time to answer them. I'm so ready to have the class every week! Our Theatre History is more about studying other groups and players who have a hand in creating work similar to what my program is about. So we'll learn about how others have successfully done what we're attempting, and see the different forms that can take. Today we watched Inferno by Romeo Castellucci. It was a performance done at the Festival d'Avignon which is a huge deal. It had a $4 million budget. I think I'll be digesting the performance for a while because I've never seen anything like it. Castellucci specializes in non-linear or non-narrative forms of theatre. Which means that when you watch the ensemble work on stage it leaves you with impressions. It's about images and feelings and doesn't necessarily follow the arc of a character or story. There were many vignettes and so much going on: live animals, small children in boxes, death and destruction. And no speaking. An hour and a half of silence vocally, but so many sound effects. I'm excited to see more examples of other work in the future.

Tomorrow I begin my private voice lessons. And acrobatics. Did I mention how stoked I am for acrobatics? I'm exhausted in the happiest way! Here's to a great first week!