Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Week One Seminar: 1st October 2007

“Documenting devised work is just as critical as scripted” aptly seems to sum up the notion of the class blog.

As a preliminary to the main body of the Contemporary Theatre Making class, our class tutors Matthew Cohen and Nesreen Hussein began by asking for three volunteers to document and provide a full account of today’s class as well as citing the most relevant and interesting points that came up in our group discussions and practical work. Following on from this further, the blog writers would need to earmark the most useful things that could then be taken and developed along the way helping to create our final piece based on Bread and Puppet Theater.

Before we started our work the register was taken and as everyone’s name was called we were asked to say something about ourselves. Ranging from Emily’s “I’ve been told I smile a lot,” to Rob’s (prior to Marcus’ arrival in a female dominated class) “I’m a boy,” it was a fun and light way to break the ice and put pre-class nerves at ease quite quickly.

Matthew Cohen then proceeded to turn our attention towards our term focus; that of the theatre group Bread and Puppet. Asking if anyone had heard of them prior to the pre-reading we had to complete the general answer was no… Matthew and Nesreen told us their various reasons for being inspired to have Bread and Puppet as the group’s main stimulus.

Bread and Puppet is one of the most important theatre groups of the 20th century and have been running for over 45 years. They have had a huge influence not only in the USA but also the rest of the world and have a wide significance. Headed by Peter Schumann, the group deals highly with the different types of pictures theatre can create as well as the different modes of communal engagement.

In terms of their lasting impact there is an account of a seminal visit to England in which radicalisation of popular arts resulted. Elements of Bread and Puppet have also seeped into other elements of life such as protests where very often there will be large scale dolls symbolically carried down the procession.

Bread and Puppet itself is quite a traditional process where puppets are used to “political advocacy” to make direct statements about political states such as poverty, climate change etc.

Nesreen added further her own reasons for being a fan of the group citing the fact that to them “theatre is not treated as a commodity”. They do not perform for the selling of tickets or gaining of profit yet are more concerned with reaching those to whom theatre would not normally be accessible. They highlight global issues of concern whilst challenging modes of perception and how the audience views their work. By involving the audience they also encourage them to go to new spaces than they would normally choose.

Nesreen’s own interest was furthered by the notion of how can puppets and everyday objects can be animated and used to create a narrative. The idea that the puppets are not made to be beautiful and that the focus is more on the how and why of their creative process also came into discussion.

The talk was then opened to the group as we were asked to express our own initial feelings concerning Bread and Puppet.

Marieke commented that the approach seemed very idealistic and because of that it came across quite naïve in the process. Rob stated that the idea whilst being simplistic and at times silly also held a certain amount of power within it. Referring to “Plastic Surga-tron” the consensus was that despite it important meanings, it was portrayed in a fun and child-like manner.

Lou expressed some confusion however over the point of “The Diggers,” questioning whether it was there to make a point or to educate people. Charlotte picked up on what would appear to be a key theme when she said that a lot of the plays had a very “carnivalesque” theme to it using the 2005 production “The National Passion Play of the Correct Movement” as her specific example.

“By the people for the people,” was Emily’s addition as she stated that there was a sense of it being available to all people of all ages and leading on from this Catriona stated that it could appeal to all audience members yet allowing them to interpret the productions in their own ways.

Carmen added that the whole feel to it was very much like a hippy commune and that although portrayed in a fun way it did feel like there might be a sinister side to it. Annie added further that the messages of the piece do stay with you long after you have watched it. Alice picked up on the notion of giving bread. It being as simple as bread is to life as everybody needs to eat food.

Although at the time I didn’t mention it in class – the idea of giving out bread to the audience was an interesting one as the Bread and Puppet theatre make a point of highlighting issues such as poverty. Maybe this was an attempt at feeding someone even if they could not feed the whole world. However, on the flip side I do think it may be quite ironic that the people they feed are those in a position to feed themselves. Perhaps this would take away from their supposed messages? .

We then discussed what skills we would learn as part of this course and how they could then help us in later life. The two main groups of skills we will learn are those which are physical and those that are analytical. The physical concentrating on how the B&P actors move and their use of banners and masks, the analytical skills coming to the fore when we learn why this theatre group performs the way it does and how their efforts make a mark on the world of contemporary theatre. We then discussed how these skills are transferable to every day life, for instance how a movement can change a person’s perspective or approach to a certain topic or issue that they perhaps once found distressing. We also discussed how as part of this module we will be exposed to one of the B&P’s main theories, that of cheap art and how we will learn the process of recycling and learn to appreciate our surroundings and what we can take from them, along with a further understanding of the issue of Globalisation.

Learning about what skills we would learn helped us to think about which skills we could bring to our final performance, such as with the physical aspect how to move, perform and use the space provided for us, along with how to make certain banners and the types of props we could use.

Matthew and Nesreen then discussed how our initial stimulus is split into three sections:


We then moved on as a group to discuss our two assessments for this term: The Theatre Project and The Essay.

The Theatre Project involves putting on a devised collaborative piece of theatre in the B&P style. Our piece is not meant to be an imitation, but rather a reflection on the key themes and ideas of B&P. The performance should only be 10-20 minutes long and as such should attempt to include as many relevant and effective techniques as possible. We will be assessed on how we worked as an ensemble group and will be moderated with a 10% margin for the individual; this marking will be completed by Matthew, Nesreen and other members of the drama department. Several questions arose, such as Emily asking if there would be a director, the reply was that there would be a director, but they would also act along with the cast as Peter Schumann does (as director of the B&P theatre.) We are allowed to perform anywhere that we so wish as long as we ask permission from the University security team and keep Health and Safety at the forefront of our minds.
The Theatre Project is set with the following criteria:

The play must have a clear message
Must include B&P methods & Techniques
Must include a sense of play & Festivity

The essay has a maximum word limit of 2,000 words with a 10% margin either way, anymore than 2,200 words and you will be marked down. This essay will be set over the Christmas holiday and will be due on the first day back from Christmas break – the seventh of January. Although we are allowed to write informally on this blog (though it is not encouraged) this essay will be weighted in a similar style to an English essay, meaning that correct spelling, formal language and sensible grammar will be expected. We are allowed to email any questions that we might wish to ask to Nesreen or Matthew but it is unlikely that we will be able to submit a rough draft, as the time period we have to write this assessment is so short. The question will be set later on in the term.

Drama Games
We then played some drama games which came from the book “The Wise Fool Basics” as a group to get ourselves moving and to bond, also to explore some of the B&P ideas we had read about previously.

The first-game was a friendly ice-breaker which entailed each individual stepping out from the comforting circle, stating their name and teaming it with a specific action, for example I had to say “Charlie” and then my action was jazz hands as I thought this was a sufficiently drama-esque type action. Nia went first and after Nia came Annie who had to say Nia’s name and perform her action before saying “Annie” and then coming up with her own movement. This continued around the circle with every person saying all of the previous names and performing all their actions before adding their name and movement to the increasing list.

We felt this was a good way to break the ice and allowed everybody to relax and forget their nerves. This game also needed concentration, which after several names allowed us to focus clearly on the game and not our surroundings, helping us later on in the class when we played some of the other, slightly more stretching activities.

One game involved walking around the room in a random fashion until one of the lecturers shouted out an emotion or object such as “sad” where everyone had to pose instantly in a frozen image of that emotion or object. If the lecturer then said intensify is meant that everyone had to increase their acting and make the pose melodramatic. If the lecturer then said Transform everyone had to pose in the opposite manner to the original emotion or object so in this case everyone would pose in a “happy” manner. To go back to walking around the room randomly the lecturer had to say “Resume.” This was quite funny and everyone found it amusing when we were asked to pose as the opposite to Christmas, which left most of us confused as well and then the opposite of a chair, when most people posed as a table.

This game allowed us to notice how a small action or change in body shape could make a huge difference. For example when I (Sheryl) was “happy” I lifted my arms in a jubilant manner while smiling broadly. When Matthew shouted “Transform” I simply allowed my hands to drop, my neck to droop and wiped the smile off my face to create a realistic portrayal as a “sad” person. We felt this was helpful as when it comes to the final performance we can use small actions to differentiate ourselves from the surroundings and other characters to emphasize our points and emotions.

We then moved onto another game, this one called the “Music Machine” where everyone had to make a noise and action to correspond to a certain machine or group, for instance the first time everyone turned into a train, soon the lecturers shouted out different machines to transform ourselves into including Pollution where most people ended up coughing and Democracy which caused some confusion as it became very apparent as to how no one really understood the definition of the term.

We noticed within this game how interesting it was that one person could lead by starting a simple action and the rest of the group would follow suit. It was also interesting to see the different people’s reactions to the words, showing a different interpretation to the person next to them. This game also helped with team-work as we all had to work together, as a team, to create the one machine. This is one game we should develop as a group in relevance to our final piece as we could start the performance with the building of one machine, as research has found visual imagery to have a lasting effect than spoken word, thereby making our message stay in the heads of our audience.

The next game was called the “car game” it involved everyone splitting off into pairs, one person being the “car” the other the “driver”. The idea was for the “car” to close their eyes and allow themselves to be steered by their open-eyed “driver”. This game involved a lot of trust as the “car” could only move at the insistence of the “driver”, for example pressing the lower part of the back to go forwards, the left shoulder to turn left and the right to turn in the corresponding direction. There were also a few close shaves with this game where the “driver” would occasionally and accidentally direct their “car” into a traffic jam, closely avoiding injury by tapping their “cars” on their heads, allowing the person playing “car” to realize they had to stop and stop quickly. This game was then swapped, allowing the person who was the “car” to turn into the “driver” and vice-versa.

We felt this game was a good trust game as the car people had to be prepared to allow their bodies to be at the complete mercy of their drivers, however what was also good with this game was the way the car knew that if their driver was mean they would be able to be mean back when the roles were reversed, this then encouraged everyone to be nice to one another and again increased the “friendly-group” atmosphere that had been built up to this point. The driver also had to be aware of the surrounding space and people in order to prevent any crashes. The drivers all seemed to work together allowing certain people to move at certain times, while in the majority avoiding any collisions.

We then finished on the song game where the lecturers asked us to think about Global Warming, come up with a phrase, but that phrase to a tune and then make a group of four and share our little tunes, making one large song. Afterwards the group of four had to join with another group and adjust their song to include the other. The result was rather strange with a choir, beatbox and “You will die!” sound emerging. The lecturers then asked the three groups of eight to all join together, once again rejoining the whole class and to use those songs into one large one. It ended up starting with the choir group’s song then the “You will die!” group and finally ending with the beat box posse.

This game was brilliant in the sense that it seemed to encompass a key B & P theme of “cheap art”. The song was devised spontaneously and cost us nothing to produce or perform; it was also a good ensemble piece – putting our team-working skills to the test. Some individuals took the lead while others were submissive, however everyone was allowed their say and as a result the groups worked well and achieved a unique and intriguing final song. In terms of the final piece we would argue that a song would be a definite thing to include as not only does it remain true to the techniques of B&P but also is a good way of putting across a serious message in a light-hearted manner.

We then reformed a circle and started another discussion, this time discussing the games. Carmen thought that the style of B&P was relevant to today as we are dealing with the recent conflicts in Iraq along with the previous problems in Afghanistan and Korea, which can be seen to reflect the B&P focus of war. She also felt that this form of expression is more prominent today as people have less power than they have in previous years. Rob then stated that the B&P format of free performance was a really good idea as their plays would be able to reach more people and their message would be spread further than if they simply stayed in a normal, traditional theatre. He also felt that the free bread was a bonus. Kerry thought that the song game emphasized the message “strength against the evil of the world” and helped to show the important of being with others who also want to change the world in a similar way to yourself. Nia stated that the B&P was almost symbolic theatre as bread is a basic need and that by watching this style of theatre you gain something back from the performance. Charlotte then raised the point that B&P is interesting as it completely rejects normal theatre and that the machine game allowed everyone to join in, just like acting in the streets allows everyone to watch. Rob concluded that it was easy for the group to bond because the B&P style is fun and adaptable, making the exercises and lesson enjoyable.

We then selected our tasks for the following weeks:

“MUSIC” Research music as part of the B&P Theatre: Junk music, jazz band, sacred harp or shape note song. Diana, Alice, Emily, Rosanna, Marika.

“CHOREOGRAPHY”. Simple but effective aesthetic to Pick apart the B&P style. Use videos. Laura, Freya, Marcus, Fleur, Jessica.

“PUPPET & MASK MAKING” Research how they are made etc. Make prototypes from cardboard. Sheryll, Nia, Catrina, Lou, Georgia. [Recommended reading includes Wise Fool Basics and Engineers of the Imagination]

“SCRIPT” How the plays are put together as plays; how the different elements cohere; language and how performance is structured textually. Emily, Leah, Carmen, Kerry, Jolie [Recommended reading includes Stefan Brecht's book on Bread and Puppet and a script by Schumann in Puppetry International 20, 2006.]

“SPACE & SCENOGRAPHY” How do the performances fit into their surroundings. Explore how backgrounds & backdrops are used in the space. Charlie, Rob, Charlotte, Annie

Week One Blog Writers: Charlie, Nia, Sheryl

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