summer session Physical Theatre: Presence, Play, and the Red-Nose Clown. I’ve eagerly been waiting to hear about this experience. So, I sent Jess seven questions to answer via email, with the intention of blogging this correspondence, in order to open up the conversation to a larger community of artists.
Jess: First, I want to say thank you for this opportunity! I just arrived back in NYC a few days ago and have been wanting to take the time to process the past three weeks. Your questions (which I've just read) are the perfect way for me to begin doing that.
Ellen: What prodded you to do this intensive with Pig Iron? Why Pig Iron? Why now? What were you hoping to discover?
Jess: For the first time in eleven years I had the months of June, July and August to myself. And as I don't really understand the concept of long vacations or extended downtown, I began to look at what I could do that would be exciting and productive.
Sometime in late April I was drinking wine and talking about summer plans with one of my favorite directors Ashley Kelly Tata. I asked her about her experience with Gardzienice. (Ashley did their intensive last summer and I've had an interest in Polish theater and a love of Polish poetry for years...) As our conversation went on, I quickly realized that what I really needed to do was stop running away to Europe and to explore my own country and get to know its theater and performance work.
That night (or early morning) I came home and checked my email before turning in. There in my inbox was a message from Pig Iron saying that they were extending applications for their summer session: Physical Theatre: Presence, Play, and the Red-Nose Clown. I'm big into signs and so I deiced right then that I was going to apply.
Looking deeper or beyond this "sign," the type of performance I most enjoy watching and collaborating/developing is physical/dance theater. (Some of my top favorite companies that do this are Pig Iron, the Rude Mechs, Siti Company, Pina Bauch, Ballet C de la B, Sidi Larbi.) And since my days at NYU's Performance Studies program (perhaps even before) the exploration of presence has been both a kind of obsession of mine. So I was excited by the content of the intensive.
Lastly, I recently turned 33 and I my gift to myself was to use this year to do things that scare me. I hadn't trained as a performer in fifteen years and so I thought that was the perfect way to start.
And as to what I got out of the experience I am still processing – but I think it can begin to be located in the answers below!
Ellen: Can you describe a daily day during this intensive?
Jess: Wow. That's kind of hard because we covered so much!
I guess the best way to break it down is to say that the three weeks each had a particular focus. The first was on the neutral mask. The second on the expressive mask (this goes to commedia) and the last week was clowning.
Every morning we would physically warm up to make our bodies alive and alert. And we would play games to develop a trust and a communication with the ensemble as well as a sense and spirit or jeu (play). (Jeu is a core value of Pig Iron's mission and work and I think can be felt very distinctly in their productions. If you're interested in learning more about the company I might suggest picking up TDR's article "Ta daaaa": Presenting Pig Iron Theatre Company" (Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 2010).
As the morning progressed we would move into learning specific techniques to work of that week and doing acrobatics. (These two studies alternated by day.)
The techniques that we practiced can be compared to scales for musicians or drawing straight lines or circles for artists. For instance, in the first week when we focused on being present through the neutral mask. One of the major exercises that we did was journey from sleep, through various terrains, to sunset. And when we got onto clowns we
would line up and practice gags with objects.
On the days that we did acrobatics we tumbled, began to dissect the handstand, partnered with others to find balances and holds. The work was to remind ourselves of gravity and to gaining the perspective and possibilities of life when your center is flipped.
Acrobatics also challenged us to throw ourselves off-center to find new territories of performance - or perhaps better put unimagined possibilities.
In the afternoons we would be given composition assignments or improv exercises/scenarios to present to Quinn Bauriedel (Summer Session Director, co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of Pig Iron), Sarah Sanford (member of Pig Iron since 2001 and former student of École Jacques Lecoq), Charlotte Ford (Philadelphia-based theater artist and member of the core creative ensemble for Pig Iron’s Welcome to Yuba City) and our fellow colleagues (who hailed from all over the US, Turkey and Germany).
Then, three days a week our groups would stay later to further rehearse or devise small pieces that we would bring in to the workshop the follow days. We would bring the pieces in the follow day to show and receive critiques of that work.
Ellen: How do you think this experience will aid you as a production dramaturg?
Jess: I can't wait to find out!
My passion is to work with ensembles of actors and designers as well as creating devised pieces. During the three weeks I found so many wonderful ways to play with a group of performers and I'm excited to bring that play into future projects.
With my own company, One Year Lease , I know that the
physical work and the games that Pig Iron shared will deepen our ensembles ability to communicate with each other - both bodily and verbally. And I'm excited to present our actors with opportunities to be thrown off-balance and see what they will find together.
With all future projects (including those outside of OYL) I hope to carry a belief or a focus that Quinn reminded me of: performance isn't primarily for the performer, it's for the audience. What this means to me is that my job as a dramaturg is to give, to be generous. The simplest and most complex way I can do that is to help create the space,
the permission, the inspiration for my fellow theater practitioners play with each other.
With that foundation I hope to help create a sense of play extends beyond rehearsal to performance so that with each production an intimate relationship between the performance and the audience can develop.
Ellen: In the past, you have performed as an actor and a dancer. I know that this Spring you took a Viewpoints class at Columbia, but I wonder how different this intensive was. Did you frame yourself as a dramaturg, as a performer, or both? Or more?
Jess: The only way for me to participate and to learn about presence, play and the red nose was through performance so I was performing. I was a performer. But if you look at my skills in performance I think it's right to say I was a performer-dramaturg ;)
I'm excited by that.
I think to be good at our craft it helps to have and to explore multiple talents and skills. When I'm in a room working with an ensemble I can offer different sets of tools some of which come from understanding/embodying different performance styles. Others come
from years of study/scholarship like knowing a lot about Greek theater or post-dramatic structure.
Ellen: How are your handstands?
Jess: Dude, handstands are difficult! I got it once by locking my arms and getting my core and legs over my center - that was June 21st 2011 a day I will always remember and one day hope to repeat! But I need some major core strengthening to master it!
Ellen: Do you feel you have a better understanding of Pig Iron as a company after this intensive? I know that you are very interested in their work and mission.
Jess: Anytime one can get insight into how a company trains together its work becomes richer. And so I'm very excited to see their future work and see how my three weeks with them influences my experience as an audience member.
Ellen: Knowing you interests in walking, and you flaneur tendancies, I have to ask, do you now have a clown walk?!
Jess: I have a clown personality: Josephine. She gets nervous and might have to pee at any moment. We haven't spent enough time together yet for me to really know her walk. But I'm excited to do so!
Ellen: Merci mille fois to Jess for generously answering these questions!
Such exciting answers, definitely food for thought. Check out more on Pig Iron & One Year Lease & bon weekend!