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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2013

Meet Your Inner Maker: The SF/Chichester International MFA in Performance Making

Tuesday, August 13, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Robert Avila

The University of Chichester's recent two-week summer intensive in performance making culminated on July 6 at Z Below in a well-attended free public showing of work in progress by its nearly 20 participants; it also brought closer to reality a proposed international MFA in performance making to be based in San Francisco.

Tales from the Tombola (2013) by Box Tracy Theatre Dance Company (University of Chichester Graduate Company). Photo: Courtesy of University of Chichester

A serious and long-term exchange between Chichester and the Bay Area around the creation of devised performer-driven and ensemble work is an idea more than two years in the making. It took off in earnest last year with a workshop/residency at CounterPulse led by UK performance duo Action Hero. Both CounterPulse and Z Space have signed on as institutional partners in the UK/US venture, along with Bay Area playwright-director-teacher Mark Jackson, who played a key role in this summer's intensive, as explained in his recent article for Theatre Bay Area.

After the surprisingly well-conceived and well-executed works on display before a receptive capacity crowd at the July 6 showcase—ensemble-driven ideas thrown up in a matter of days by four groups of artists from the intensive—the question of the value and feasibility of such an artistic exchange seemed all but answered. Not only was the international exchange itself a vivifying proposition, but the wide cross-section of local artists suggested that what might have been the greater cultural gap—between the often mutually oblivious theatre and dance/performance scenes—could be meaningfully bridged.

Part of the reason for this is the kind of program Chichester represents, and the shrewdness (or luck) by which it has partnered with an appropriate set of organizations and individuals here.

Chichester's performing arts department offers a BA and MA in performance making, better known this side of the Atlantic as devised theatre and somewhat overlapping with performance art. More specifically, it offers a radical pedagogy geared, especially at the graduate level, to facilitating the artist's discovery of his or her own unique practice. At the core of its teaching mission is the empowerment of the artist as maker—all work is artist-led, and the artist dictates the process. This approach requires an unusual degree of back-and-forth between students and their teachers, who are less "instructors" than interlocutors and guides, artists in their own right offering their own tools for generating and honing ideas, and asking a lot of questions as the student begins developing her own.

All this was visible in the summer intensive on the day I visited the proceedings at Z Space, about midway through the two-week course. The first half of the day began with writing exercises and conversation with American solo artist and Chichester faculty member Brian Lobel, who came in to explain his practice and offer his models for creating material. After lunch, summer intensive leader Louie Jenkins (an artist and Chichester faculty member whose personal and professional ties to San Francisco since the 1990s inspired the initial bridge-building in 2011) and San Francisco partner/tutor Mark Jackson broke the class into four groups, which would each begin working on a collaborative piece to be presented to the public, in whatever form, on the final day's showcase.

Among the participants in the intensive were many dance-based and nightlife performers, a handful of UK students in Chichester's MA program, and more traditional theatre artists like Stephen Buescher, head of movement and physical theatre at ACT's acting conservatory.

After the event, Buescher enthused about the variety of artists in the room. "Yet again it's another great example of how the Bay Area collaborates," he reflected by phone. "It’s great to see a devising MFA program interested in collaborating at a nexus of dance with CounterPulse. There was also a very queer vibe and aesthetic, and it was exciting for me to be in the room with quite a few drag performers. For me, that was diversity."

In describing his experience in the intensive, Buescher pointed to a teaching methodology he, as an artist, found invigorating and, as a representative of a preeminent MFA program in the area, found distinctive. "It sure seems like there's room at the table," said Buescher, "and it's exciting that the Bay Area may have another complicit cohort."

Ironically, given the Chichester program's emphasis on producing work and continually trying things out, Buescher was most affected by the intensive's complimentary emphasis on refining a personal and social point of view. "For me, personally, it was a different way of work. I've experienced a lot of different devising practices, and [in the summer intensive] I was reconnected with writing. There was a lot of writing, a lot of personal observation work and a lot of conversation, which I had kind of set to the side to just 'get up and do stuff.' So I was reconnected with that—you can get deep with these conversations, and hearing these different perspectives, and Louie's drive to get at a political point of view or some sort of personal political perspective."

Louie Jenkins, speaking to me during the lunch break the day I visited Z Space, expounded on the importance of getting at such a perspective, as an artist and as an individual. "Who are you, what are you, what are your working methodologies? You have to discover that," insisted Jenkins. "I can't tell you what they will be. But we can facilitate you discovering that. I think that's what our MA and, hopefully, our MFA will do, is introduce people to their own potential, their own working methodologies, and their own performance registers and abilities—and [let them] surprise themselves through that process. And to be working with people who are excited to discover that is a gift as well. It might be the right time to be exploring this kind of work."

The showing on July 6 seemed to illustrate that. All the performers that night, with the same investment in the work, rose to the same high level of execution, in pieces that in most cases came together with a startling degree of formal unity. "I felt that as well," agreed Buescher. "And people didn't compromise their spirits away."

Robert Avila is a theatre critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Thanks to Mark Jackson for assistance in pulling together materials for this article.