Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

Seeing Weird Theatre with Intro Students: Analysis of an Assignment

March 20, 2014

My scholarship is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does “weird” theatre makes meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms? When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible? Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work inaccessible, hard to understand, or pretentious. But I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who and what I could play and do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space/Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness. I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking:

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

. . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects. Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it. In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work. Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

Teaching theatre with technology

January 15, 2014

This semester marked the first time I used blogs in the classroom.  I taught the Play Analysis course at Hunter, a required course for theatre majors, and asked students to respond to the many plays we read on WordPress sites they had set up.

The course blog is here. You can see the individual students’ blog in the blog roll on the right side of the page.

 

The Complexities of Creative Projects

September 1, 2013

Honing my teaching philosophy statement last year, I measured the lofty ideals I express there against my actual teaching practice. I assert that “theatre classes provide an opportunity for an insistent merging of theory and practice, and for a blending of the creative and the critical,” and I write that “I always ask students to engage artistically as well as intellectually with the course material.” It is true that, over the past few years, I developed a scaffolded writing assignment with my theatre history students called the “dramaturgical notebook,” a semester-long, multi-part project that asks students to imagine a contemporary production of a play, and requires a number of different modes of analysis, types of research, and styles of writing. But the assignment is, in essence, a series of papers. If I really believe that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” then why do I hesitate to ask students in my advanced theatre courses to do creative projects (but feel fine about it in my intro classes)? When I do assign creative projects, why do I fail to give them the same weight as critical analyses?

My ambivalence stems in part from the long-standing divide that exists in many college theatre departments between the “practical” and the “academic” classes.[1] Creative projects are often reserved for acting and directing classes, while the “real” critical work is done in the theatre history or the dramatic literature courses. My first semester teaching at CUNY, I was advised against assigning a creative group project in a theatre history course. I was told that the students in the course should focus on writing rather than performance, and that creative projects of that sort were for the intro classes. Afraid of making waves, I abandoned the idea and hewed to the syllabi used in previous years, teaching the same plays, using the same textbooks, and giving similar assignments.

I am now in my fourth year there, and, armed with experience and a record of good observations and student evaluations, I felt comfortable taking some calculated pedagogical risks. Assigned to teach an upper-level writing intensive required course for theatre majors, I set up a number challenges for myself this semester: to put the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) strategies I studied last year into practice, to use technology to improve student writing, and to merge theatre theory and performance practice in a real way in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable group of students—smart, engaged, and hardworking—who were up for helping me to accomplish this.

Meeting the first of my two challenges, I had students set up and maintain their own WordPress blogs, posting responses to prompts (hyperlink to the class blog at: www.playanalysis2013.wordpress.com) that I provided for each of the plays we studied during the semester. The blog posts were practice for the semester’s major writing assignment: a 2,000 – 2,500 word critical analysis of a play, chosen from a list of five. I used the blog prompts to encourage both critical and creative thought. For example, to prime students for the creative project, I asked them to describe and justify a set design for Chekhov’s The Seagull, to write about how they would direct the bear scene in The Winter’s Tale, and to analyze a character from The Glass Menagerie as if they were cast in a production of the play. For the creative project then, I asked students to respond creatively to the play they were analyzing in their critical essays and to present this response to the class. I suggested that they might, for instance, create and present a set, lighting, projection, or costume design, perform a monologue or scene, describe a directorial vision, or compose and perform music for their play. An “A” project, I told them, will demonstrate a clear connection between the critical analysis and the creative project, provide a compelling creative interpretation of the play, and be well-planned and rehearsed. The critical analysis and the creative project would count as the same percentage of their final grade.

During the three days of presentations, there were some truly stand out projects, but watching my students read monologues, show drawings, and present video clips and audio tracks, I had moments of doubt: Were these projects really worth the same weight as the paper? Would my colleagues deem them silly, the results of an inappropriate assignment for an upper-level class? Did the students learn anything from them or were they a waste of valuable class time?

But when I asked my students how they felt about the experience of doing the projects, they unanimously expressed that they were valuable. One student pointed out that she has difficulty with the linear thought and argumentation required in papers; she found it liberating to be able to express her ideas creatively instead. I realized that my feelings of doubt were rooted in a lingering bias about what constitutes academic rigor. I thought about one of my mentors and a model of exemplary teaching, Omi Osun Olomo, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting during my Master’s program at the University of Texas. She writes in a piece about her performance “Sista Docta,” (hyperlink: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SJlR34S8L8)

Performance is a form of embodied knowledge and theorizing that challenges the academy’s print bias. While intellectual rigor has long been measured in terms of linguistic acuity and print productivity that reinforces the dominant culture’s deep meanings, performance is suspect because of its ephemeral, emotional, and physical nature.[2]

And later,

Performance is theory. It need not be written about in order for its theory to be present.”[3]

Her words remind me that creative engagement is deceptively demanding, inherently theoretical, and always instructive.

Of course, there were some very thoughtful projects and some less thoughtful—just as there would be with any assignment, creative or critical. But the fact is that each and every creative project demonstrated a level of engagement with the play text that rivals that presented in the papers. A student, whose paper compared Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to classical Greek tragedy, wrote an eloquent and illuminating monologue for one of the play’s main characters in the style of Sophocles and presented it to the class. One student did a projection design of an imagined production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, creating a series of abstract paintings that express the title character’s confinement in her class and gender roles. An aspiring makeup artist presented detailed face charts for all the characters in Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud. She presented three different designs that moved from realistic to very distorted and expressionist. (Her paper discusses the expressionist techniques used in the play.) An actor/director filmed a trailer for Buried Child, carefully selecting the moments from the play that best show his paper’s argument that the characters are haunted by their past. The students who performed monologues in essence performed close readings of passages from their plays, embodying for the class the evidence that supports their theses, rather than writing about it. Those who designed costumes engaged deeply with the play’s characters—analyzing them in terms of both their literal and symbolic functions within the play—but the work manifested itself in images rather than text.

I remain committed to giving creative projects and critical analyses equal weight in my theatre classes, but I see now that still have a way to go to overcome my own prejudices, before I can assert that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” and really mean it. I realize in retrospect that, despite my best efforts, I still privileged the critical analysis over the creative project. I conceived of the creative projects as coming out of the students’ papers when, in fact, it might be useful to imagine it the other way around; perhaps a creative response to a particular play could lead to a strong thesis about its content or form. In the future I will adjust the assignment, asking students to start generating ideas for the project earlier in the semester, to work on them alongside their papers, rather than as an afterthought. As I grade my students’ final papers this week, I will be thinking about what the experience of assessing the creative projects might have to teach me about assessing critical writing. Through the process of developing and implementing the creative project, I learned that, while students have an easy time moving between critical and creative analysis, bridging the gap between my pedagogical theories and practice is not always so easy.

[1] See Shannon Jackson’s book Professing Performance for a history of Theatre Studies in the academy. (hyperlink: http://ebooks.cambridge.org/ebook.jsf?bid=CBO9780511554247)

[2] Joni L. Jones. “’Sista Docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy.” TDR, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 51-67. 53. (hyperlink: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1146624?uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21103134108331)

[3] Ibid., 55.