The Home Stretch: a Fall 2017 ADA Newsletter
The Fall 2017 undergrads have completed two thirds of their semester abroad. After an adventure-filled fall break everyone is back and ready to work. Every studio, practice room, and rehearsal space at the villa is in use, as these eager artists begin to prepare for their end-of- semester presentations. Read below to hear about the work they’ve been doing.
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Collaborative Creation and Ensemble Devising
To maintain an ideal student-instructor ratio, students in the Physical Theatre Program are divided into two groups. Students take class with their group over the course of the semester. This semester, for the first time, instead of presenting separate final projects for each of their classes (Movement, Voice and Ensemble Performance and Commedia dell’Arte), the Physical Theatre students will draw inspiration, and incorporate elements, from all three classes, fusing them into one original, devised piece that will be presented at the end of the semester. Each group of students will present their own, unique piece that they created under the mentorship of faculty in the Physical Theatre Program.
We spoke with Nhandan Chirco, Director of the Physical Theatre Program and Movement Faculty, about this new vision for the format of final presentations in the Physical Theatre Program.
In terms of their group collective devising work what is the task they are presented with?
NHANDAN: In the movement course students are devising proposals for collective improvisations, to be performed as an ensemble. They are actually creating two different collective performance-structures; one based on site specific fragments and the other based on individual choreographies they’ve developed by translating poetry into movement. They start at an individual level and then work to combine the pieces they’ve made as a collective.
What is the goal in having the students devise and collaborate in a large group?
NHANDAN: In this program we are constantly focusing on providing conditions for students to activate as artists and authors, and to empower each of them creatively.
What do you think is the most challenging for them in this group project?
NHANDAN: In an earlier phase each student has created personal materials, and now they are confronted with the challenge of turning it in a work that involves the entire ensemble, giving new meaning and unexpected development to the original fragments. This requires creativity, a collaborative attitude, openness, and organizational skills. It’s a real challenge. It is a complex process that the two groups are confronting with great maturity, playfulness and amazing results!
To get a student perspective on the projects, we sat down with Physical Theatre students Sabrina Sonner (University of Southern California) and Ryan Connelly (Muhlenberg College).
Have you collaborated in a group this large before? What has surprised you?
RYAN: I’ve never worked this way in a group with this many people! It surprised me how well we get along. I feel like we sync up with each other very well and the things we create are really cool. When we get together it’s kind of easy. Things just happen naturally, so I’m glad for that!
SABRINA: I haven’t work with such a big group all at once before. I’ve been in classes with large groups, but usually that group has been broken down into smaller collaborations. It’s really interesting to see how different people work, and what everyone can bring from their own previous experiences. I’ve been trying to notice where the differences and different ideas are and where the similarities are.
What has been the most challenging about collaborating in a large group?
RYAN: Everyone has an ego sometimes, so it’s difficult trying to let each other have time to talk or let each other start a piece or start with an idea. I think letting everyone have a chance to be involved or listened to is hard when the group is so large. Personalities sometimes don’t match up.
SABRINA: In this situation there’s not really a set leader. It’s difficult to figure out how to get work done and how to get everyone’s thoughts and ideas together in a unified way. It’s tricky to figure out how to execute everyone’s ideas. With so many people it’s just not possible that everyone has a full say in each idea. It’s also been challenging to figure out in the moment who’s leading when and who’s following when, and the constant shift of those roles.
What advice would you give to someone working with this many collaborators for the first time?
RYAN: Go into it without any preconceived notions about the people you’re working with because people always surprise you. Even if maybe you don’t work well as as friends, you might work well as collaborators. Have an open mind and don’t hinder yourself with negative thoughts before it starts.
SABRINA: Really listen to everyone in your group. Get to know them both within class and outside of class. What are your commonalities outside of theatre? Know them as a person and an artist, it will help you to respect who they are. You can never listen too much.
What has this experience taught you about yourself?
RYAN: It’s taught me that I can devise theatre, that I’m capable of coming up with ideas, and that I’ve learned to work well with others. It’s also taught me to be more confident, that I have ideas and those ideas are valid and useful. My ability to be open to more people has grown. I really appreciate everyone in my group of collaborators, and I think this experience has strengthened us as a group.
SABRINA: It’s given me more of a sense of how i fit into a group and what roles I can take in a group setting. I have different views and experiences than everyone in the group and that gives me my own unique role. It’s helped me contextualize the work I’ve been doing here. It’s given me more of a sense of where I am in the way I want to work as an artist. There are a lot of different ways artists like to work and through seeing the ways other people do I’ve found what works for me.
Another first for this semester was the Experimental Lab. Instructors Sam McGehee and Saso Vollmaier joined with Physical Theatre Program Director, Nhandan Chirco, to collaborate as instructors, mentors and facilitators for this week of classes in late October. Lulu Fairclough-Stewart (Skidmore College) spoke with us about her experience in the Experimental Lab.
What was your favorite part about the experimental lab?
It truly was very much experimental. No two classes that we took were alike. The process was fluid and ever-changing. The students were really the ones running it although there was a teacher guiding it because our teachers would mold the exercises to what they were getting from us. The class was a very personal experience and couldn’t be replicated.
What is one thing you want to take home with you from this lab?
Inhibition. Specifically with the music work that we did with Saso. Letting the music make my body move without my mind intervening. We worked a lot with games, and within that had a lot of fun with playing while working. This comes with inhibition and letting go of judgement and expectation. Playing requires that abandon and I’m glad we were able to experience that.
What new insight have you gained about creation from the lab?
I’ve always thought in a very western way, and have always purposefully tried to follow the structures and rules that I’ve been taught. But there’s so much more out there than western art and ways of working let’s you see. I’ve always previously worked to be aesthetically pleasing whether it be audibly or visually, and this lab has taught me that there’s so much depth in juxtaposition and dissonance. When things clash it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
How did you feel about having three teachers in the room at once?
I very much enjoyed the teachers being part of the class. There’s usually such a hierarchy between student and teacher that was eliminated because they were students as well. Because the teacher was alongside us I felt respected as a student because they were also a student. We learned more than we would have with one teacher because they all had different points of view. They were all coming from different specific perspectives that fed into one varied learning experience. We were constantly exploring voice, movement, and improvisation instead of just one of the three. Each teacher had a different approaches that led us to expression.
We spent a few moments with instructors Sam McGehee and Saso Vollmaier to hear what they had to say about the inaugural Experimental Lab.
What was the inspiration for the Experimental Lab? What were the initial conversations like and who was involved?
SASO: Nhandan and Scott, they have a good “nose” for doing things like this, finding a ways how to bring different people together and let them find a way to collaborate, explore and exchange. In our case, we are looking for the same things, but through different channels (music, movement, choreography), this was the exciting part of this Experimental Lab.
SAM: The initial topic as far as I remember was the relationship between sound/music and movement, with improvisation as the connecting factor. The facilitators were to be Tommaz Gromm (free improviser/bass) Sašo Vollmeier (piano and voice worker) myself and Nandhan.
Going into the first manifestation of the Lab, what were your expectations and those of your co-instructors? Once you entered into the space with the students, did these expectations shift?
SAM: Well, I had worked with Sašo before and was somewhat familiar with his work and I had also had a chance to improvise with Nandhan before so I was particularly looking forward to working with Tomaz whom I had head play but had never played with…, unfortunately he couldn’t make it.
Of course in improvisation one must excercize the notion of non-expectation even though one always comes to the table with his own palette of ‘tricks’. I didn’t have any set goals in mind in terms of outcome but I was surprised by the avenues we ended up taking, thanks to the personalities of the groups and the ability of the facilitators to be open with each other and ‘give up’ pre-notions in order to find an organic path together. Also, Nandhan did a wonderful job of quietly destabilizing the rigidity that comes from ‘teaching something you’ve already taught’; this opened up the listening of the facilitators.
SASO: I didn’t expect anything, beside leaving my curiosity open to myself and to the others. Our title, “Experimental”, opened a new perception to me. If something didn’t work, we tried to find something else. When we found something interesting, we would follow and develop the potential, it could happen with the individual person or the group. I personally would try to keep the space open, or at least remember what we/they did at certain situation, this is where I put my “teacher’s hat” on…So many things happened and if somebody wouldn’t go through analytically, it wouldn’t stay long, since I like repetition in the theatre and music, I think it is important to work on this connection between the mind and the body as well.
What would you say was successful about the Experimental Lab this semester? What was challenging? Do you plan to offer the lab again in future semesters?
SASO: I found the whole setting with the teachers like Nhandan and Sam, who are very open for doing things like this (and you need to be a little crazy too) and I would love to encourage other teachers as well, to have a week like this-per year! Personally, I would love to repeat it.
SAM: I would love to continue this type of exploration, I think it is particularly healthy for an institute of learning to externalize it’s own openness for learning. It’s also nice for the ‘students’ to see that their ‘teachers’ can be just as lost in a process of searching as they are, often more so. In fact I think the most successful moments were the most collaborative moments when we tried to create a human synthesizer in the space, combing different elements from the previous days…. Thanks to the intensity of the work we were able to keep ‘digging’ and I think we found some interesting principles to be furthered in the future.
As far as you can tell, how did the students respond to the work and training in the lab?
SAM: It’s incredible how much they absorbed in such little time and they responded very enthusiastically and with great energy, proposing and playing with the tools we gave them. They didn’t hesitate to be free in their experimentation showing great generosity.
SASO: The students responded very well, maybe we should ask them about this experience. Sam and Nhandan will probably write more about their experiences, I’ll write from mine. Since we brought the analogue synthesizer in the space, the things became even more “experimental”. We tried to re-create a human synthesizer, following the same parameters as the analogue one does, including the space and movement, I think this was one of the exciting parts for our students.
How do you hope this experience informs the other work students are doing this semester as well as the work they continue to do beyond their time at the Accademia?
SASO: I think each student should have a possibility for a class like this, I could imagine doing the same thing with the music students, improvising on their instruments, or the dancers, having an open space like this opens the imagination and helps to develop the intuition. I would at the end bring all the students together and see how they can communicate and create through their own languages.
SAM: I think the next step for them as they continue their journey will to be finish digesting the tools they’ve acquired and be able to make them their own, to step back a little and LISTEN to themselves, the others and to the “space” in order to play tastefully (according to their own style) with all the colors and possibilities they now have. I hope they find time to contemplate the meaning of ‘experimental’, to contemplate a deeper meaning of the word ‘freedom’ and come to develop an awareness such as to transform ‘improvisation’ into ‘composition at lightspeed!!! … or course I will be trying to do the same.
Music Students on an Art Tour
Earlier in the semester, students in the Music Program embarked on a three-day tour to Italian cities: Assisi, Siena and Orvieto, where they viewed art, architecture and churches to better understand the relationship with visual art and music. Music students, Madison Allen (Furman University) and Laura Lynn Brickle (Furman University), shared their thoughts about the experience:
What were you most looking forward to on the tour?
LAURA LYNN: Being able to see actual art that we’ve talked about in class. Being at the Uffizi was amazing. Seeing all of the Leonardo Da Vinci works in person was breathtaking. These are pieces that always get talked about, and that you see replicas of, but to see them in person it’s whole other thing.
MADISON: I was looking forward to seeing other smaller cities similar to Arezzo, and seeing the differences between small Tuscan cities. I thought there would be a lot more similarities, but they were all very distinct.
Which city was your favorite and why?
LAURA LYNN: Assisi was my favorite city because of the both of the beautiful churches we went to. Both the Chiesa di Santa Chiara and Basilica di San Francesco were awesome. It was so cool to see the lasting impact the saints lives had on the churches and on the community. There are people that make pilgrimages to come and see these places!
MADISON: Assisi by far. It was so pretty. Our teacher told us the city would have a pink glow to it because of the marble they use and it was so true. They are known for their truffle sauce and I had probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. We saw three churches that day and the last one we saw was so big I thought it was a fortress, but it was a church. The saint it was dedicated to was supposed to be really humble, so I thought it was funny they built this huge thing in his name.
What surprised you on the tour?
LAURA LYNN: The duomo in Siena. It was beautiful. We got to go in when the floor was uncovered. Usually it’s not uncovered, so that was really special. We went into a room that had really old musical manuscripts, which we had talked about in our classes, and to see them there in front of us was amazing. I almost wanted to rip out a page and take it with us!
MADISON: All the towns we went to were so completely different. They all had their own atmosphere and uniqueness. I was somehow under the impression they would all be the same as each other. But in each one I felt like I was in a completely different world.
Over the course of the semester, the students in the Music Program participate in a few sessions of the course, Movement for Musicians. Under the instruction of Dory Sibley, Voice Faculty in the Physical Theatre Program, she incorporates various elements from her training and experience with classical voice, opera theatre, Roy Hart, Fitzmaurice, physical theatre and the Vocal Body to give music students new approaches to their work. We asked Music students Laura Lynn Brickle and Madison Allen to reflect on the course. Below are excerpts from the conversations.
What were your expectations going into this course? How have they been defied?
LAURA LYNN: I had taken some drama classes that had elements of movement, so I was really looking forward to it. As a singer, we think about the way we walk and things, but I was excited to see how my breathing would be affected. Dory is awesome! She meets us at our level to so she doesn’t push us too far, but she does challenge us. She encourages us to get out of our comfort zones.
MADISON: I thought movement would be similar to yoga and maybe alexander technique, and it definitely has elements of both of those. I always end up leaving the class being aware of parts of my body that I thought I was aware of already, but I have a whole new understanding of them. I’m also aware of places that I hold tension that I didn’t know I held tension before. The class has really helped me with my playing and getting into my body. I have tendonitis in my wrist and so it’s been good for me to really be in touch with how I’m feeling and not ignore what my body is telling me.
What has surprised you about taking this course?
LAURA LYNN: Almost every class, we all have some kind of release. If it’s body work with a partner on the ground, or even standing up and walking around you can see that everyone who’s gone through the exercise has a change in their body or the way they’re holding themselves. It’s also cool to see the dynamic of our group bond in the class. At the beginning our group was skeptical and now we’re all excited to go this class!
MADISON: The day that we worked with Dory and our instruments surprised me. One thing she pointed out to me was, when she told me to go unpack my instrument, my shoulders and my body tensed up just by looking at my instrument. I didn’t know I was doing that. It’s a mental thing. The tension in my body starts before I even pick up or look at my instrument, that was crazy. I kept doing it too! I couldn’t get out if it. I was thinking about it before I rehearsed and my shoulders went up.
What do you want to bring home to your normal practice from this course?
LAURA LYNN: Definitely just being more grounded, being aware of my breathing, and utilizing my entire body and not just the tiny little square that we think our lungs exist in. I work on it in my lessons too, we work on squats and I feel my thighs more when I sing. The more we are aware of different areas we can breathe into the bigger the support is.
MADISON: That sense of awareness that I have in my body. It think it’s important to take time each day to check in physically and mentally. I do yoga at home and when I get back I want to make that a consistent part of my life because it’s really important.
Looking Ahead to the Finish Line
As we move into the final third of our semester we asked Fall 2017 Physical Theatre student Bear Spiegel (Marymount Manhattan College), One Year Physical Theatre Program student Dara Potts (Coastal Carolina University), and Music student Jack Wagner (Furman University) what they hope the rest of the semester has in store for them.
What goals have you set for the second half of the semester?
DARA: I’m trying to work on a mentality of ensemble focus that I’m developing in class with my ensemble. I want to work on keeping this energy and focus while I’m here and I’m thinking about how I can use that in all aspects of my creativity in the future.
BEAR: To be present 100 percent of the time, and to go into every activity with all of the energy that I can.
JACK: Finishing strong. The end of a semester is always hectic, but with that I also want to remember where I am. I don’t want to get sucked into the end of semester grind where I become a hermit. I also want to invest in the relationships that I’ve already made. Especially when it comes to my relationships with the theatre kids that I don’t go to school with, and making the most of that time.
What are you looking forward to most for the rest of the semester?
BEAR: I’m excited to continue devising new pieces with my group and growing together as a connected ensemble. Travel-wise I know of four cat cafes in Italy, so I’m excited to go to at least one cat cafe while I’m here. My parents are coming at the end of the semester and we’re going to travel together. But mostly I’m just happy to be here and growing as an ensemble with everyone because that’s going to be the part that sucks to let go of when I leave.
JACK: It’s exciting to be working towards a showcase that we have at the end of November. This is the chance for us to show solo work and more of our passion than in the first showcase. I chose these pieces before I came here, so to see those months of planning come to fruition is really exciting. November to January is my favorite time of the year, so it’s exciting to be in a new environment for this season!
What is something you’ve learned so far that you plan to carry with you through the next half of the semester?
BEAR: I’ve learned a lot about the power of listening and setting your ego aside. A small selfless action can change the entire energy of the room and make everything so much easier and equal for everyone. When we’ve been working on group pieces if everyone is throwing in ideas it’s never going to work, but if we have the consciousness to set back our egos and step back and listen, we can actually focus on what’s going to work rather than who gave what idea.
JACK: Being aware and open to fluctuations in life. Finding the hidden joys and treasures that come with those ebbs and flows. You can expect a day or week to go one way and then something turns it on it’s head, and it ends up being completely different than what you thought it would be. I’ve also learned to approach new situations or artistic possibilities as much as possible. The cabaret piece I’m working on is different from anything I’ve ever done. It’s unstructured which is the opposite of a typical classical musicians’s brain. Being so used to narrow focused classical music it’s been an interesting relationship to discover, working with abstract ideas.
As a full year student, what differences do you expect to find in your next semester?
DARA: The structure will be different course wise because it will be different units at a time rather than one thing. I’m excited to experience learning in a difference way. I’ve never had such particular focus on one subject and I’m excited to see how it effects my learning process. I’m also excited for the priviledge to be in such a small class with three other people. And to see how that ensemble will grow. Smallest class ever.
What will you be glad to return to in the spring semester?
DARA: I’m excited to come back to the Mensa because the food is really good and I’ve been really enjoying everyone being in one space. Eating and talking in one space. Also even thought the villa can get overwhelming I think it’s a very fun and unique thing to eat, sleep, and breathe with the same people all the time. I’m excited to meet new friends! But it will be weird and an adjustment to be here with a new group, who will be here for the first time. I think it’ll be fun. I’m curious to see how having dancers here changes things, as opposed to having the musicians.
MFA in Physical Theatre
In case you missed our most recent MFA in Physical Theatre newsletter, Cohort IV has completed the practical portion of their training and have moved on to the final chapter of the program: theses. Meanwhile, Cohort V is hard at work, inching towards the midpoint of Year 2 of their program.
We checked in with the members of Cohort IV, asking them to reflect on the past 2+ years and gaze ahead to what lies ahead. These interviews will be published as a series over the next few weeks. Click here to see the first group’s interviews and check back next week to see what group 2 has to say.