An excerpt from a book by Duška Radosavljević, republished from the zine exeunt.com. Each of the ideas she identifies can be seen in the rehearsal, performance and ethos of the White Pines ensemble Bright Invention. We are an ensemble which embodies the notion of "actors as authors", we have an empowered director who is a member of the ensemble, we are committed to education, we are mutli faceted and multi-dimensional, deeply committed to collaboration and partnerships, performance oriented writing (what a great way to describe longform improvisation, our genre!), and audience activation. Read on:
1. Education and Training – It is symptomatic that artists who declare themselves as ‘theatre-makers’ have mostly emerged out of universities rather than drama schools. (I base this distinction on an observation made by Lyn Gardner). Their artistic ambitions are inter-disciplinary and their understanding of theatre is performance- rather than literature-oriented. In addition, growing class-sizes in British universities cultivate group-work and collaboration rather than individual artistic development. (University drama degrees are similarly responsible for the changing face of theatre criticism today.)
2. Self-Determination – In contemporary theatre-making, the division of labour is no longer organized around economic and professional allegiance to a particular trade, guild or confraternity but emerges out of the individual artist’s determination, personal interests, aptitudes, skills and creative concerns. Theatre-makers, in various cultural contexts, more often emerge within subsidized rather than commercial sectors.
3. Deprofessionalisation – This term is used not to imply that theatre-making is ‘unprofessional’ but to acknowledge the unwillingness or inability of contemporary theatre-makers to occupy only one definition of the existing professional profiles of actor, writer, director, designer, composer, choreographer. Very often, a theatre-maker takes on more than one of these roles in an integrated way.
4. Collaboration – ‘Devising’ is only one possible manifestation of collaborative ways of working in theatre. Once a basis for a text-performance binary, devising is now a largely historical category, which had emerged within a very specific cultural context at a particular moment in time (Great Britain in the 1960s). Whether or not it is ‘text-based’, theatre-making in principle is collaborative – even if it results in a one-person performance.
5. Globalised Workplace – Despite the fact that contemporary theatre-makers are increasingly working in a globalised workplace, they nevertheless emerge within very specific cultural contexts, therefore inheriting specific and sometimes conflicting epistemic, ethical and economic legacies (this is particularly acute in the persisting East /West binary decades after the end of the Cold War). Different cultures appear to have different conceptions of text and performance (and of their relative value) in theatre-making processes.
6. Acting as Authorship – Actors are increasingly, once again, recognized as having the potential to act as authors in the medium of theatre (having lost their authority with the advent of the published playwright in the 19th century).
7. Performance-Oriented Writing – Playwriting is no longer conceived of as necessarily a literary activity but also a kinaesthetic, designerly and/or musical one, in the 21st century the performance script is increasingly an unstable entity, a structure deliberately open to and contingent on the audience input, rather than serving as a set blueprint for performance.
8. Empowered Directing – When present in the process of theatre-making, directors are increasingly recognized as having the courage to be equal members of an ensemble, rather than aiming to be cult figures.
9. Audience Activation – Contemporary theatre-makers are challenging the heritage of the late 19th and 20th century theatre conventions such as the ‘fourth wall’, passive audience appreciation, and the notion of a theatre critic as an arbiter between the text and performance by actively involving the audience in the live process of theatre-making. (This raises exciting ethical and economic questions for discussion.)
10. Refocusing Authority – In the context of theatre-making the prevailing interest is in the notion of authority as a property of authorship, rather than a term implying a hierarchical position of power. (For how else can authority be apportioned in the case of truly collaborative meaning-making?)
A theoretical context and a discussion of relevant examples and case studies of theatre-making – ‘a deprofessionalized, collaborative activity that takes an active and integrated intellectual and embodied approach to the notion of theatre authorship (whether or not it is based on text)’ – are provided in the book Theatre-Making: An Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century by Duška Radosavljević
The interview begins 5.30.
The First Day is an online magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction, visual arts, reviews, and poetry that highlights the individual experience of beauty, faith, journey, and growth. Their mission is to break down walls between faith traditions and cultural backgrounds to form a common space to share personal stories of struggle and triumph.
Editor Jana Lewellyn interviewed Benjamin Lloyd about his work for White Pines, his experience as a member of Bright invention, and the intersection of his faith and creativity. You can read the orginal interview here, and learn more about this beautiful publication: The First Day.
Here's the interview:
What was your first experience of theatre, and what led you to want to make it your vocation?
Ben: I grew up surrounded by dancers and performers, so from a very early age I was exposed to live performance. My mother was a dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1960s, and for a time my dad was the company manager. One event from that era in my life that had a lasting impact on me was when my dad took me to see Peter Brook’s famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1968. I made him take me back, and my love affair with Shakespeare and especially that play (which I have performed three times now) has continued to this day.
In adolescence, acting answered a very deep sadness inside me. I was a lonely only child who didn’t fit in, and suddenly, in seventh grade I found myself with a group of kids similarly afflicted, and we all “got” each other.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning American playwright Edward Albee (The Sandbox, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has a really compelling speech on the internet about the problem with theatre in our modern age. He says that because it’s gotten so expensive, it is mostly relegated to the upper classes. To what extent do you think this is true, and how does White Pines address this issue?
Ben: Albee has hit the nail on the head. We are in the midst of a sea-change in the way the performing arts exists in America. The twenty-five-year experiment of large institutions supported by robust philanthropic funding and well-heeled individual donors is ending, and with it so are the institutions themselves.
White Pines is living into this new age by creating a small community-based performance and education center which aims to pay its bills through meeting a “value proposition” it puts before the community it serves. We respond to requests from our neighbors about what they want, and we offer a lasting relationship to a group of artists—our ensemble called “Bright Invention”—who teach and perform at White Pines. Their fees are paid for by the audiences they serve, either through tuition or a box office split among performers. We offer Bright Invention ongoing training, pay for their travel, and support them in a myriad of ways that are not financial. We have been blessed with the support of a foundation for operating expenses over the last four years, so I don’t want to misrepresent us. We are still a part of the philanthropy-based ecosystem. But at least we are taking innovative steps towards a new and more nimble model, more able to pay its own way.
Do you find that people undervalue theatre compared to television and movies? In your experience, what does theatre have to offer that is unique?
Ben: I wouldn’t say people “undervalue” it, it’s just that many people haven’t had access to meaningful performances (see Mr. Albee’s observation above). When people have had the experience of a moving or hilarious theater experience, they don’t undervalue it anymore. I believe, from years of experience, that there is something fundamental to the human being which craves the shared communal experience. This is why I don’t freak out too much about electronic media. When you are in a room with other warm, breathing bodies, some of whom are delighting or provoking you with a talent that is mere feet away from you, and all of you breathe in at the same time when the actress’s eyes well up with tears, or when the clown slips on the banana, you are having a vital experience that your TV, iPhone and tablet will never, ever be able to replicate. The future of live performance is eternal, because our need for what it offers is absolute.
What deeper lessons do you think students and workshop participants learn from doing improv work?
Ben: The two basic improv rules kind of say it all: Say “yes” to what your partner offers, and take responsibility for building the story. Improv is the performance art form which most celebrates the genius of the actor. Since there is no script, everything which is created is created right in the very moment of existence, and out of the creativity of the people on stage. Seen in this light, it is not a great stretch to say that improv is a deeply humanistic celebration of our continuous unfolding potential as powerful forces of good, in every aspect of our lives. On a more basic level, improv is an extraordinary teacher of confidence, listening, empathy and faith (which is another way of saying, proceeding without knowing).
How does your faith intersect with your art?
Ben: As a Quaker, I felt like a fraud during worship until I slowly realized that God gave me gifts (like the gift of performing) and that I am called to use those gifts for good. Then the rest of my faith journey became an aspect of my creative journey, and my creative journey became an aspect of my faith journey.
I say a prayer before I go onstage: “God be with me, God be through me; I am the faucet, turn me on.” I try to inject what I call “Vitamin Q” into White Pines proceedings whenever possible (Q for Quaker). So no voting, plenty of moments of quiet, and a constant and tender attention to community, both among artists and among patrons. I try to set an example by speaking and acting with integrity all the time.
I’m sure all of the roles you have played have had a significant impact on you, but can you highlight a role that you felt had a particular transformative effect in your personal or spiritual life?
Ben: Alphonse Lebow in the Wilma Theater production of Scorched is a recent role which had a deep impact on me, because the play dealt with such brutality and then, such revelatory compassion. Truthfully, each role leaves a mark on my heart which I treasure. I just played a version of Mel Brooks in a Neil Simon comedy, and that role was deeply meaningful because I regard both Brooks and Simon as American masters and heroes, and because I hold comedy in such high esteem. And now, as a member of Bright Invention at White Pines, I get to have deep connections to characters I create with my stage partners. The characters come to life, live fully, and disappear in minutes. With the Bright Invention ensemble, It’s not so much about the characters, but about something deeper: the connections made among people.