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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2013

An International MFA in Theatre Performance Making

Friday, March 8, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Mark Jackson

Although the term "devised theatre" has been in use for decades, it remains somewhat scribbled by hand in the margin of the American theatre lexicon. This is gradually changing. Major international artists and companies as diverse as Robert Lepage, Théâtre du Soleil, SITI Company, The Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, and Complicite have long been creating work that falls under the broad umbrella of "devised." Smaller, less splashy, more DIY companies, such as Mugwumpin and Search Party, are increasingly also gaining recognition and making impact.

MA artist Darren Purnell getting wrapped into costume for a performance. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

In the dance world, "devising" is simply what choreographers do. Rather than starting with a script written in isolation by a playwright, they get on their feet in a room to generate material around an idea. The theatre world being so deeply script-based, we needed a term to differentiate between what we simply call "theatre," by which we generally mean plays, and the vast range of devised alternatives, which can resemble anything from dance to performance art, live art installation or even narrative-driven events looking quite like a "play."

An underlying motivator behind the impulse to devise is the desire to lean significantly into the collaborative nature of theatre, and to get at something truthful about a given subject by means that allow for genuine surprise. Devised work seeks unexpected experiential and aesthetic possibilities. Given our turbulent social and economic climate, which pushes us with force to grope for new ways of thinking and doing, it's not surprising that a rise of interest in devised work has been making steady waves among theatre artists.

In the UK, "devised theatre" has already been laden with enough limiting connotations that an even broader term has evolved. "Theatre performance making," or just "performance making," has entered the vernacular to reflect the infinite variety of work being created. Indeed, there are many UK university theatre departments that now see performance making as an integral part of study, no more so than the University of Chichester Department of Performing Arts (UCDPA), where the entire curriculum is dedicated to making new work.

Rob Daniels, a director of Bootworks Theatre and a senior lecturer at UCDPA, emailed me in May 2011 to meet for coffee. He and his colleagues were in San Francisco on an exploratory mission to get acquainted with the Bay Area performing arts community, having sensed in it a kindred spirit. Their broad interest was to explore the potential for cultural exchange, and they were wide open to what that might mean. At the end of their stay they threw a lively party at the underground San Francisco venue, Chicken John's, as a thank you to everyone they'd met. There was free booze, good conversation and an utterly charming and unique performance of A Western, by Action Hero. The event was a gracious and creative farewell gesture. I was hooked.

Action Hero performing A Western at Chicken John's in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

Under the aegis of UCDPA, Action Hero returned to San Francisco in August 2012 to facilitate a workshop at CounterPulse, culminating in what could be described as a live art supper club jamboree, where guests perused a menu and ordered up performances that were then brought to their tables. It was around this time that I met with Ben Francombe, head of the UCDPA, to discuss a major idea born out of the previous visit: to establish an International MFA in Theatre Performance Making in San Francisco, in potential partnership with CounterPulse, Z Space, and other local arts organizations, that will commence as early as 2014 and is designed to accommodate individual artists as well as theatre companies who wish to apply as a group.

I liked Ben right away. He was straightforward, energetic, unpretentious, deeply passionate about theatre performance making, and his plans were ambitious. Considering the inherent difficulty of knowing precisely what these capricious terms, "devised" and "performance," mean from person to person, I suggested Ben fly me over to experience the University of Chichester's work firsthand. Not only did he immediately agree, he also invited my partner, actor Beth Wilmurt, to come along.

And so this past February Beth and I paid an exceptionally inspiring whirlwind visit to Chichester. We sat in on a BA class in Deconstruction, attended a festival of MA student work at the school's main venue, The Showroom, and discussed plans for a two-week Theatre Performance Making intensive to be held in San Francisco this coming June 2013. We also began to hammer out the scope of the International MFA.

Beth and I were immediately impressed by the sheer variety of work being made by students at UCDPA. Three examples: Sleeping Trees, a troupe creating a version of The Odyssey resembling a spawn of Monty Python and Steven Berkoff; Darren Purnell, a solo artist taking Queer drag performance in a dark and moving direction; and Box Tracy Theatre Dance Company (who say with the subtle air of threat, "But we're not dancing…for the moment.") who combine movement and dialogue in a gently striking piece about how two people who think they know each other really might not.

MA troupe Sleeping Trees performing Odyssey at The Showroom. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

MA artist Darren Purnell in performance at The Showroom. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

MA troupe Box Tracy Theatre Dance Company performing Tales of the Tombola at The Showroom. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

Particularly striking to us was the ease with which students and faculty challenge one another and accept challenges. In classes we attended, students and faculty alike were direct and respectful in their commentary, neither walking on eggshells nor leaning on anything like a Liz Lerman critique format. They had critical things to say, yea and nay, about one another's work and did so in a relaxed yet rigorous manner. Throughout the festival itself, students actively sought out criticism of their work from peers, faculty, even Beth and I, as well as the notable performance-making artists in attendance, including Karen Christopher of Goat Island and Gregg Whelan of Lone Twin.

Gregg Whelan of Lone Twin giving the keynote lecture at Unfinished Business, a two-day festival featuring MA student performances, seminars, and lectures. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

While training its students to make work, the UCDPA also helps them to marry their artistic ambitions with a practical professional intent. A seminar in developing their professional profile is mandatory. Established artists from outside the university actively mentor students, giving them rolling feedback on their work and helping them to make professional connections. In these and other ways, students are brought into the professional theatre and performance-making community even as they are still taking classes.

UCDPA is steadfastly committed to artist-led work, supporting and encouraging each artist and ensemble to develop their own unique methodology, and to initiate their own career opportunities. Students are expected to develop work that manifests a critical outlook, dynamic aesthetic sensibility, strong content and demonstrable skill. Though the school has respect for the significance of certain guru-centric techniques, such as Lecoq, it does not teach name-branded methods. Its mission is to support thoroughly artist driven theatre and performance making that, whatever aesthetic and substantive form it takes, seeks to press into fresh territory and not repeat the tried and debatably true.

As a result, there is a lot of healthy failure in the studios, halls and stages of UCDPA. The productivity of this failure would seem to be the program's unique success. Rather than declaring quantity and quality opposites, as is often done, quality is recognized as the result of quantity. How can one hope to forge new paths without repeatedly falling facedown in the dirt and knowing how to pick out the specks of gold there? In this way, the UCDPA provides a theatre program for the ever-shifting 21st century—forward thinking, adaptable to change, aware of the world arts market, utterly committed to art as a conduit for critical community engagement.

Partway into our visit, Julie Phelps, program director at CounterPulse, joined us. The rolling conversations between she, Beth, Ben and I were stimulating to say the least—questioning, debating, hammering out the transferability of the UCDPA ethos to San Francisco. We left Chichester invigorated by the prospect of uniting the work UCDPA supports with kindred work done by the variety of Bay Area artists interested in the provocative opportunities found at that teeming intersection of theatre, performance, dance, visual art, music and technology. Most exciting is the potential long-term contribution that UCDPA could make to the ongoing development of our community of artists and audiences who value the new, the untried, the by-nature unending search for what is true in life and art both. I look forward to what happens next.

An audience member kneeling on a makeshift hospital bed in A Coffin, a Dog
and Some Happy Socks an interactive live art installation created by MA troupe
Waterproof Theatre. Photo: Courtesy of UCDPA

The UCDPA Theatre Performance Making intensive will be held in San Francisco from June 24 to July 6, 2013, and will be led by artist and senior lecturer Louie Jenkins. The intensive is open to all artists and students. For those interested in the two-year International MFA, the intensive is an opportunity to experience the UCDPA working methods, philosophies and ethics firsthand. Go to the UCDPA website for ongoing updates about the 2013 summer intensive—including information about enrollment, fees and exact schedules—as well as the MFA.

Mark Jackson is a San Francisco based theatre-maker. Visit