Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Devising Theatre as Music...

Post by Quinn Bauriedel

To me, theatre is a poetic art form.  The entire premise is not particularly natural - actors pretending to be someone they are not, designers making a space that is only half-finished, audiences suspending disbelief to enter the world of the play.  This is, in many ways, what we sign on for as theatre makers.  We are in the make-believe business, representing life onstage, but somehow allowing that life to be treated: condensed, expanded, stylized, sharpened.

Pig Iron Theatre's "Welcome to Yuba City" - Directed by Quinn Bauriedel
The theatre I enjoy doesn't show me back a one-for-one copy of life; it understands that what theatre can do best - better than movies, better than TV - is to play with life, to fantasize with it, to treat life poetically.  Yet most training only asks us to take one approach to the stage.  At this moment, I am interested in pushing theatre to its extremes, shaking up the conventions that bore us or that only serve to stimulate our sense of sentimentality and nostalgia.  The best way to do this is to train an actor's sensitivity to the real potential for the theatre.  I am interested in the musicality of bodies onstage, the use of a visual and sculptural language to create meaning in the theatre, and the use of metaphor and double-images to begin to layer and add dimension to the art form.
Pig Iron's "Chekhov Lizardbrain" - Directed by Dan Rothenberg
Last summer I saw a piece in Avignon, Papperlapapp, by Christoph Marthaler, designed by Anna Viebrock.  In nearly 3 hours, they evoked the spirit, ghosts, contradictions and mysteries of the Palais des Papes, utilizing the many vocabularies of theatre.  The space itself could transform from modern day to 15th century; actors seemlessly moved from one era to another and exquisitely transformed from a character into a member of the chorus.  What delighted me most about this production was the use of music.  There was music - mostly sung by the performers, occasionally played on live piano and once or twice augmented with amplified recorded music - from start to finish.  The chorus supported the action onstage with soft singing as though, when no one is in a space, the space itself still sings.  I think that the theatre is a space like this.  We can think of the theatre space as an instrument that we must play; we do not sing in it, we make it sing.  We resonate the space, we create tension in it, we pluck its strings.  Marthaler's work began a line of inquiry for me in the specifics of the relationship between music and theatre.  I grew up playing harpsichord in an orchestra and acting in plays.  But they always remained separate pursuits.  Music had immense amounts of structure.  Theatre had a certain amount of freedom.  Classical musicians were a bit nerdy and were good listeners, actors were a bit gregarious and needy.  I had the ying and the yang.  But more recently, I have really begun to feel that the two can really unite in a single space during a single performance.  They both thrive on the work of the ensemble, they are both poetic pursuits.  They both require listening, sensitivity and the following of impulses.  Marthaler's piece helped me think about how to bring these two worlds together.

Avignon Festival's "Papperlapapp", created by Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock

Thus, when I begin work or begin a workshop, I want to train actors and theatre-makers to think a bit like musicians.  I want their bodies to have an understanding of crescendoes, chords, sustenuto, staccato, codas and denouments.  I want them to think about the rhythms of the theatre, the vibrations of the space.  These tools can then be deployed in the making of original work which might have the content of a play - the stories, themes and characters that form the backbone of theatre - mixed with the structure of music: surges, phrases, arcs, rhythmic variations, etc.  To me, there is a handshake worth exploring and this inquiry will fuel the Volcano Conservatory workshop that I will lead this week.

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