By Germaine Ingram
It’s been about a month since our last gathering for POLITICAL SHENANIGANS. Memories and ear worms of Hanns Eisler songs, Brecht’s and David Gordon’s text, dancing chairs and tables, and the mystery and intensity of the three-week experience poke through the activities that have replaced the 30 hours per week that the workshop absorbed. I think about the lessons I took away from the experience—lessons about humility, about embracing uncertainty, and about artistic leadership and collaboration. Questions about the process also linger, indeed, have concentrated and crystallized. Rather than wrestle with them alone, I invited workshop colleague Dawn Falato to join me in a look-back conversation on April 3, 2014. It was a casual, wandering chat, as we met at Old City Coffee, just around the corner from the workshop venue at the Neighborhood House of Christ Church.
I was interested in Dawn’s take on Gordon’s aversion to “gesture,” a topic I explored in a mid-workshop reflective essay. What does a veteran theater artist think of gesture being on a hit-list? Dawn found that Gordon’s approach to gesture brought her back to what she learned in nearly two decades of studying and practicing the theater arts. Gordon echoed Dawn’s training on the dangers of “parasitic gesture”—extraneous movement that betrays “mistrust in the ways that we’re communicating with our voice and delivery” and takes on meanings that are parallel to, and not necessarily illuminating of, the text. She confided that even with all her training and experience, unintentional gesture creeps into her delivery, and she has to apply an extra level of concentration to invest her trust in “the economy of my tools.”
She was interested in Gordon’s experimentation with “gestures that don’t support what the vocal message is saying.” We recalled such an experiment that occurred on the final day of the workshop, when Gordon asked Dawn to say “why?” with four different inflections. Then he asked her to repeat the four “whys” while executing four gestures that he gave to her. Finally, he asked her to repeat the four “whys” while executing the four gestures backwards, matching them with the four verbal expressions. (In relating her reaction to the exercise, Dawn noted that it was satisfying to have the movements given to her, allowing her to relinquish responsibility for making the delivery appear authentic. At the same time, she felt the pull of actor’s instinct to tweak the material to make the verbal expressions and the gestures come in line with one another in an authentic way.) After that, he sat back and looked out at all the nodding heads. I suspect that there were as many reasons for nodding as there were people in the room. As there was no discussion of what had happened, we’ll never know what Gordon was thinking or what was behind all those nods.
I was also interested in Dawn’s perspective on the value of having showings each Saturday during the workshop. These free public events were not billed as “performances,” but there certainly was a degree of performance pressure and anxiety as we spent Friday afternoons and evenings and Saturday mornings preparing for a public viewing each Saturday afternoon. It’s not evident whose idea it was to place so many public windows in the project—Gordon made clear that it wasn’t his. More important is how the showings were envisioned to serve the objectives of the project, and how they affected the research process. I’ve seen how the focusing power of performance can galvanize synthesis and a sense of collective learning in a process-driven project. One example is how, after three intense weeks in a private laboratory with flamenco artist Rosario Toledo—a time when I often felt confused and incompetent—the public showing was a glorious, affirming reveal of what we each learned in the process, and of the personal and artistic relationship that emerged from our weeks of working together in a tiny studio. No experience other than a performance event could have accomplished that outcome. Yet in POLITICAL SHENANIGANS, I felt that the showings worked to limit the experimentation and compress the time and content of our explorations. I remain curious as to what we might have done had a quarter or more of our time not been spent in preparation for three showings.
Not surprisingly, Dawn had a helpful perspective on the value of the showings. She said that she feels that “at least 50% of [her] performance doesn’t come until the audience is there.” I understood her view to be that the purpose of theater is to put a product before an audience, and therefore you can’t know whether you really have “theater” until you’ve got an audience in the house. Her response was enlightening for my perpetual questions about “what can performance do?” especially when process is the stated aim of the project. Perhaps performance, by whatever name, has its value in a process-driven project because it can be a way of testing the purpose and rigor of the process—does it raise meaningful questions, does it build tools and competencies, does it create a sense of artistic community. But if that can be the value of performance, there are still questions of how much and when.
Germaine Ingram is a Philadelphia-based jazz tap dancer, composer/choreographer, and vocal improviser. A former civil rights and trial lawyer, she serves on several nonprofit boards dedicated to education reform, supporting arts and culture, and arts education.