Getting my director’s feet wet – Black Box Week 1

[Written on January 13, 2014]

It’s Sunday night, and the first week of Black Box has concluded. It’s been quite a week – I was thrown headfirst into the world of SFU theatre, and particularly this class, which has so much aura and legend attached to it that it practically glows. I got a taste of this at our first artistic director meeting, during which my three fellow ADs told me all about past shows they had seen – mentioning powerful imagery, durational work, Greek myths, inventive lighting, and claw foot tubs onstage. They were excited, full of nervous energy, and so was I.

Our first task to complete as artistic directors was choosing a three-headed theme. We were told by Jamie, who is leading the course, to go for general, even cliché, because it makes it easier to generate material from a theme that is familiar than something esoteric or simply “good”. We each arrived to the meeting with a list of themes, and through voting and process of elimination chose “Solo – Duet – Party/Ensemble” as our Black Box theme. It won over “Blood – Sweat – Tears” (not my choice) and “Person – Place – Thing” (my choice). I was disappointed to have mine voted off because I thought it had great potential and was wide open to interpretation (but yes, there was also an ulterior motive, as I saw it as a theme I could most easily adapt to my own research interests). Nevertheless, I think Solo – Duet – Party has a lot of potential in terms of theme, structure, creation methods and design too. The trick will be narrowing down the general into the specific.

I met the rest of the ensemble a couple hours later, during our first class. I still don’t know much about them, but they seem to range from second years to fourth/fifth years. Together, we are an ensemble of ten. Jamie led us through a variety of games and activities that afternoon. We played the grid game, a Viewpoints-esque game of commands such as Grid, Contract, Expand, Retreat, Nap, Continue and Restore, to get us moving together as an ensemble. We also played a trick memory game, in which we generated the components of an entire show, entitled Jamie Long: My Part in his Victory. This ridiculous list included elements such as real sex, swan dives into the Woodwards pool, midgets on unicycles, and dogs doing needlepoint. The trick on us was that this would be the starting point for a mock show that we would devise and perform, over the next couple classes. This show, the Jamie Long show, has been a main focus of the past week’s rehearsals and class time. Working from our long list of absurd items, we created sketchy drafts of confessions, competitions, amateur dance and song, science experiments, and awkward moments. After showing a couple drafts in the classes, we were given the task of stringing them together with consideration for dynamics, virtuosity, and structure.

The JL show has been a regular part of our evening and weekend rehearsals. As eager as I am to just dive into the material of the real show and start making work, this mock show is a necessary part of the process…a quick and dirty challenge to get us started, and give us some insight into all it takes to get something together that is half decent. The JL show probably isn’t even a quarter decent. But it’s a place to start.

Leading rehearsals with my co-AD, particularly the parts where we are doing other activities besides the JL Show, has been an eye-opening experience so far. This is my first time directing in such a way (I’ve directed kids, I’ve lightly directed lots of experiments and works in progress, but never have I directed and devised an entire show), and I’m finding a lot of enjoyment in it. As an MFA student in my second semester, I’m an outsider to this group, which has its benefits and drawbacks. It’s easier to direct people when the relationship is purely a working one, or so it seems, but it’s challenging to come to a group from a very different place and navigate the various styles of training and creation to eventually find a process of investigation and authorship that is generative as well as exciting.

I am lucky to have a co-AD (I’ll call him D) who is a senior student here and has helped me become more aware of all this, explaining and translating where necessary. And so far, we’ve worked together really well to structure our rehearsals. We meet prior to each one, preparing individual schedules and lists of games, exercises and ideas we want to share, and then we figure out how to bring them together.  We both want to guide our ensemble to a place where we can consider the themes in-depth and from multiple angles, and to find a way of working that combines movement work and improvisation with different ways of creating and using text. I want to steer them away from writing as their go-to for making work (because it is safe and comfortable) and move them into their bodies.  It’s always harder to start with yourself, and the tendency with this group is to start with pens and paper, rather than on their feet. Even so, the ensemble responded well to a Double Edge-style training session that I led on Saturday, and to a Viewpoints activity led by D on Friday. They were focused and able to lead themselves while also being part of the group. Following both activities, we had the group identify and repeat moments, in groups and alone, and some strong images emerged from that. With a bit of direction, the moments became clearer and more compelling, and I think the ensemble was able to experience this as both performers and spectators.

So my aim is to continue training and improvising and making movement-based work with the ensemble over the next few weeks. We will continue to play with text too, but ideally in ways that produce texts that are less about poetry and scene-making, more about finding something unknown. D and I have led a small amount of automatic writing work with them, so we may return to this. I’m interested in seeing what kinds of tools Jamie will provide us with this week for working with verbatim and found text. The text thing is on my mind – how to approach it differently, and how to forget about it and then bring it back in.