For the first week of the Physical Theatre Intensive, students worked with guest faculty Leigh Fondakowski in a course called The Devising Grid.
Leigh Fondakowski is a playwright, screenwriter, author, and director. She was the head writer of The Laramie Project, co-writer of Laramie: Ten Years Later, and an Emmy Nominated co-screenwriter for the film adaptation of Laramie with HBO Films. Her other original plays include, I Think I Like Girls, The People’s Temple, SPILL, and Casa Cushman. Her plays have been produced under her direction at American Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory Theater, Encore Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, The Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Perseverance Theater, Swine Palace, TimeLine Theater, and Z Space Studio. Awards include The Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area, The People’s Temple, Bay Area Critics Circle nomination for Best Production, I Think I Like Girls, and a Jeff Nomination for Best Chicago Production, SPILL. Leigh is a recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and was a Distinguished Visiting Chair at the University of Minnesota in 2010. She is the author of the non-fiction book, Stories from Jonestown, and is currently adapting the book to film. She teaches and lectures around the country, including New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and is on faculty in the MFA in Contemporary Performance program at Naropa University. This year, Leigh is the recipient of a Drama League Fellowship and is an Orchard Project fellow in their pilot theater development program, OP/Greenhouse.
We sat down with Leigh to hear about the work she is doing with our students, and her experience at the ADA.
What is something that has surprised you about working with the students, thus far?
LEIGH: I’m quite surprised by how open they are. They really walked into this experience, sort of, open to the experience. A lot of times when you’re meeting new people and they’re meeting each other it takes a while to warm them up and get them to feel comfortable with each other, and this group in particular is like an immediate ensemble. Really open and in the exercises they’re just all in. So they’re becoming friends you can see, like at lunch, they’re becoming friends, but in the studio they’re becoming an ensemble. They’re supporting each other artistically in ways that you would think they had known each other for a long long time. Today the work just went to such a deep level, and I think that’s because they’re really committed to going to such a deep level, they’re not here to mess around. Their energy says “We want to work, we want to learn, whatever you tell us to do we’re gonna do it because we want to do good work.” So that has surprised me because a lot of times with young people, it just takes more to get them there.
Students have been talking about how they never noticed moments in their daily life before, and now they can’t stop, can you speak specifically about the moment work you’re doing with them?
LEIGH: So moment work is a technique for writing performance and how you do the technique is you focus in on individual theatrical elements. So you make moments using lights, sound, costumes, and you make these individual units of theatrical time. Another way of thinking of it is we’re painting in a certain theatrical color. So today we were working mostly outdoors, and we were painting in nature, which around here at the villa is pretty easy to do. Their assignment was to go around the lower garden and to find beautiful things in the architecture that made an impression on them. So they went around doing that, and then they shared all of those special little places, and then they made moments inside of those spaces. They did some work with Dory where she worked with their bodies in a sort of body mind practice. Then they wrote in their journals, and they went back and layered the material into the moments, it was an exquisite kind of journey that they went on, but all started from just noticing things, which I think they’re already getting. As they showed each other the spaces, they were like “oh my god I hadn’t even seen that” and me too I was thinking I’d walked through that one door so many times but I saw something different about it today because they pointed it out. This work is a way of opening your eyes to beauty, which is nice in a world where there’s a lot of struggle and strife. To have an awareness of beauty and to walk through the world noticing beauty. That’s always available to us if we tune into it or if we notice it. It’s inspiring to me that they’re getting that.
In the past, has the moment work you’ve done been site-specific? Is it always site-specific?
LEIGH: It isn’t always, but whenever there’s an opportunity for it to be, I always do site-specific. If I’m in any kind of lab where there’s an outdoor space or any kind of architectural space. Because things can happen in the studio certainly and the theatre has a lot of beauty, but once you go out especially in a place like this, there’s so much symmetry and light and natural beauty that for me it’s like begging for a performance to happen. It’s crying out “perform over here!”
You are co-teaching this intensive with our head of voice faculty, Dory Sibley, have you co-taught in this way before? How has this helped or changed the way you work?
LEIGH: No, I haven’t. This is a brand new experiment. Usually moment work is just taught by itself. We are trying to do moment work and body mind somatic practice together, so that you’re actually creating content from your voice, heart, body, and trying to tap into the unconscious mind that’s available to you in those meditative practices. We are doing the external work of moment work, but also tapping into that internal source. That is a brand new experiment, and we did the very first try of it today and it was kind of amazing. They were actually making moments from their chakras, so they were informed by the chakra work to do moments, and they just had so much more depth. They had an emotional depth to them that it would usually take many passes to find, and they were instantly there. It’s pretty amazing. I was really impressed, this experiment so far is really working.
Do you think in the future, when you do moment work, you will involve these body mind practices?
LEIGH: Oh definitely. I gotta get in there. See-feel. So we’re discovering it. The students know that this is an experiment and they’re just so willing to go for it. There were tears shed today and journaling and it’s really intense, they’re going there. I’m impressed, and they’ll make something. So over the course of the next ten days they’re going to take these moments and they’ll make something, and I have a hunch what it is, but it’s too soon to know exactly, but I have a hunch that it will be some kind of immersive experience that the audience views with a map. The audience will get a map and they’ll be able to go and see what they want and have their own experience. It will be defined by chakras. It’s gonna be complicated but it’s gonna be cool. It may completely fall flat but we’re gonna shoot for the fences, as they say.
What will you being working on in the fall? How does the work you are doing here relate with that? Contrast? Prepare you?
LEIGH: Interestingly enough, I have been adapting moment work to a writing process. A friend of mine is writing a book, it’s a very big concept book about the history of kundalini yoga in America and healing arts practices, and her own personal history. It’s like a marriage of these things and it’s a really big book, it seems like it could be ten books. I told her “you need moment work” and she was like “what’s moment work” and I was like “you’ll see”, and so I’m adapting this to a writing process and giving her writing exercises where she’s not trying to write a book anymore. She’s writing moments. We are using the chakra vocabulary also, so I feel like this time here is going to completely influence how I do this writing process with her. I’m just really interested in what I can do further with my work. I use it as a devising practice in my theatre work, and I’ll be doing that in August with my latest play, but I’m so curious about what else can happen with it. As I collaborate with other types of artists, I’m learning how can it both influence and be influenced by other practices, including film, which I think looking ahead thinking about filmmaking as a collection of moments is a really interesting idea.