the chorus

who wants to read a jargon-heavy post?

And we’re back. Last night, I held a chorus workshop at a small theater in Baltimore – my first such since the LYSISTRATA workshops at Q School last November. I never realize how much I miss it until I am actually doing it.

This theater, Single Carrot, is doing a production of Sarah Ruhl’s EURYDICE – a play which contains a chorus of Stones, and which has, in my opinion, the most frequently performed and also the most-often-badly-performed chorus of any contemporary play. I get very frustrated with interpretations of the Stones. I mentioned this to the artistic director of SC, who I met in Poland, and he was like, “Why don’t you come in and do a workshop?”

Er…why don’t I?

Many elements were successfully incorporated, including the presence of a living playwright/poet and some of his text, live drums and guitar from actor/ensemble members, learning text orally, both vocal and physical chorus improv, etc. This was also my first such WS with an ensemble who is used to working together all the time.

I walked the group through a strong vocal unison, using text from Sarah Ruhl’s STONES. I built the unison in the easiest way I know, assigning one line to each person, and gradually giving them the opportunity to join on each other’s text. We had a musical intro and central break, and added emotional underscoring music throughout when they were ready.

We then merged into the exercise where each person presents their individual chorus and I add more people to it. This is all fun, easy, and guaranteed to be successful. It comes from the “gestaffelt” staggered stuff I did with the Germans, I think. One at a time: A, A+B, A+B+C – generative – stacking – it’s both interesting and easily applicable.

Simple as that work is, I am always pleased with it, especially the part where I watch individual actors become more “choral,” or exaggerated, in the presence of music or of other chorus members.

But then, in the 3rd hour of the WS, both the participants and the playwright were eager to see some movement improvisation. I’d been waving around the “flock of birds” terms too much, and they wanted to see it. Me and my big mouth.

First, to get everyone up on stage and use all the individual choruses, I brought up the remaining 5 people and asked them to use their choruses all together, all at once. That was very nice, and they quickly adjusted to the idea of “I’m losing the text,” and self-corrected. Some beautiful simultaneity resulted here. I would have been happy to keep jamming on vocal overlap all evening, and stay away from movement.

But everyone wants the flock of birds, so I had to produce it. Also, having waited to the end of the WS, energy was low, for the work that requires the highest energy.

So, with tired actors and without experienced musicians, I tried to fast-forward them through the physical imitation exercises that I haven’t touched in over a year. This was tough, and I made it tougher by also trying to incorporate text without a leader, teaching long (new) passages orally, and then by trying to make them guess that the missing element in their work was imitation, instead of just telling them.

We took a much-needed break, and then the poet/playwright helped me immensely. I was kind of holding back from telling the actors what to do in terms of imitation. He jumped in, not having ever done this before, and kind of intuited the appropriate imitating directions. It was fascinating to see another director developing, on the fly, the kind of techniques that it has taken me ten years of banging my head into a wall to evolve.

He used different language than what I would have, too. He referred to imitative movement as “amplification” and “reverb” and used the metaphor of a Ouija board to great effect.

It was really cool to see him directing the actors. I was pleased that I was able to let someone jump into “my” process easily, and without much ego on my side. I was fine with sharing it. I jumped back in when I felt like we were going off the rails and like my experience could be useful, but I had no attachment to the idea of running the work.

I did this successfully once with JW in Portland, I think, but she is a trusted friend. It’s nice to see that I can do it consistently. Handing over a workshop in mid-process to another leader, someone who is essentially a stranger to me, is not something I could have done at seventeen, any more than I could have given up my Legos at seven.

Hooray for detachment.

Some things I am proud of myself for are:
– opening up input to other leaders
– taking ideas from the group
– allowing the energy of the group to shape the workshop, even when I knew it was leading away from techniques that we could succeed at easily and quickly
– allowing the possibility of failure to exist
– being mindful of the exhaustion level of the group, and safety
– allowing failure, but also ending the WS early at a point of success
– not yelling over the group – allowing their bubbly energy to burn out and them to come back to silence when they were ready to work.
– only giving one direction at a time (I got worse at this as I went on. Could still work on it.)
– not ending improvs too early
– admitting when I was confused or didn’t know what to do next

Some things I need to work on, or rethink, are:
– my use of the direction “Do it again, but make it better,” or “Do it again, but make it suck less.” Although I think this is a valid direction to give, there’s no reason I have to sound like a drill sergeant. What’s wrong with “Do it again, but find one thing to improve or change?”
– My use of the direction “Stop.” I need to remember to say “Hold” instead, or “Pause,” or “Relax.” The word “Stop!” makes it seem like a panic moment.
– my defeatist attitude. 2/3 of the way through, I started getting so sad that it would end, that I stopped caring. M, the poet/playwright, had to shake me out of that complacency.
– my attitude towards whether a new group of actors needs to experience techniques that I have seen before. Just because I have seen them doesn’t mean they can’t gain something new from feeling it. I need to find a way to integrate the physical improv bit into the basic workshop, even though I am less interested in it right now than I used to be. Other people need to see it. To them, it is new.
– my attitude that each new chorus WS should lead me to make a new discovery. The discovery can be in the repetition of old techniques with new people.
– my attitude that somehow a concept will be better if actors find the idea without my telling them. This is fine, for awhile, but if they don’t find something and aren’t going to, there is really no harm in my pointing them in that direction. I need to not have secrets.
– my energy level. I was exhausted and wired, all at the same time, after the WS happened. It was so intense. I went out for drinks and fish and chips with the poet/playwright, and I said to him, “I don’t know how I did this every night and all day on weekends, plus working a full-time job, for four years in a row. It’s no wonder that I spent all last year being sick.” The way I feel now, one or two chorus workshops a week, at full intensity, is all I could possibly handle. Running a full process like this, in my current (older, less Energizer Bunny) state, would require the support of a larger staff.

I mentioned to the folks in this ensemble that I was interested in forming a part-time chorus working group, perhaps something that would meet only once a week for an hour or two, and in having them audition when I was ready for that. I’m glad I put that out there. Perhaps it will happen.

Things I’ve never seen before:
– Actors mouthing words of text without speaking them to “decorate” or add to chorus passages. Lovely.
– Actors developing the “echo” concept without my introducing it
– Having a two-person chorus consist of two different characters with shared text (Romeo & Juliet)
– Having the musicians speak as integrated ensemble members
– Specifically asking to not see any leading, to not see movement being inititated (M’s idea, not mine – Ouija board…frankly, I am fine with seeing movement being initiated – but this was cool!)