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Teaching “Experimental Theater”

With Some Questions about Theatrical Style

by Jim Hamilton

 

In this paper I describe a project employing a successful kind of pedagogy in theater education that is, so far as I know, fairly novel. I offer the description both because the pedagogy is successful, interesting, and replicable and because I think the results obtained in the project occasion challenging philosophical questions about the notion of theatrical “style.” I begin by explaining the goals, objectives and workings of the project. I then sketch some claims about theatrical styles that are prompted by reflection upon the project and that are in tension with standard philosophical accounts of style.

The project is a workshop in “experimental theater.” The participants are all high school students recruited from high school programs in debate/forensics, music, and dance, as well as from theater programs.1 As a result, a fair number of participants have experienced their first attempts at theatrical performance in the workshop.

The goals of the workshop can be made clear by noting two contrasts. The first contrast is to the form of theater most familiar to North American high school students. Not surprisingly that form is Naturalism/Realism. Mainstream theater in North America usually presents what is called “naturalistic” or “realistic” representations of characters caught up in stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends. At the risk of some oversimplification, it is plausible to say that Naturalism and Realism, as styles of theatrical representation, were developed in the late Nineteenth Century to focus attention on the inner lives of the characters in plays, because that was thought to be the arena of human life about which the most significant lessons could be learned in theater.2 In characterizing “Naturalism” and “Realism” this way, I mean to call attention what Raymond Williams calls both “technical naturalism” and “naturalism as a dramatic form.” “Technical naturalism” involves the representation of a “natural” looking physical environment - created by such devices as the picture frame version of the proscenium, abolition of the apron, the stage as a room, and so on. “Naturalism” as a dramatic form, however, uses this represented environment treated “as a symptom or cause… part of the action itself.”3 In “high naturalism,” Williams asserts, “the environment has soaked into [the characters’] lives” in such a way that “the actions of high naturalism are often struggles against this environment, of attempted extrication from it, and more often than not these fail.” This is because the high naturalist’s is a world “which has entwined itself in the deepest layers of the personality.”4 I also want to follow Williams in locating the historical centers of high naturalism in late nineteenth century Europe (and to a lesser extent England), and Euro-American theater in the 1940s-60s. And I think he is right that “the great majority of plays now produced, in all media, are technically naturalist, and… many [technically] non-naturalist plays are evidently based on a naturalist philosophy…[about] character and environment.”5 I would only add to Williams’ description a further emphasis on acting styles developed for the purpose as well as a manner of using standard conventions of theatrical narrative for the purpose of achieving Naturalistic aims.

In the present context, it is important to note that this is the form of theater most often presented by and to high school students. It is the form most often studied in high school theater classes. And it is the form that (anachronistically) guides most readings in high school literature classes of plays from periods before the development of Naturalism.

The workshop allows participants to explore alternatives to the form of Naturalism/Realism. If the wide variety of avant-garde theater practices in this century have anything at all in common, it is a distrust of the effects and of the means of Naturalism or Realism.6 So, in the workshop we learn a variety of non-naturalistic styles of theatrical representation and presentation. We examine techniques for dissecting, disassembling, and reassembling story lines. We examine theatrical styles that are simply non-narrative. We learn to develop techniques for focusing upon things other than the inner lives of characters; for example, the characters’ social situations, or their ideas, or their capacities for various kinds of expression. Part of the goal is to get a clearer understanding of the hidden motives and unconscious effects embedded in any Naturalistic or Realistic theatrical plotting of a series of events. A more immediately practical goal is to increase the student participants’ own expressive powers by providing them with more, and more varied, techniques of expression.

The second contrast is to the form of theater practice most familiar to high school students. This practice is the production of plays conceived and written by others. It is a generally beneficial practice because it provides hands-on exposure to the variety of tasks and skills required to mount any form of art. However, it is obvious that two important skills are not taught in this mode of theatrical production: how to make a basic style choice and how to write a play within that choice. In fact, since these two skills control what plays are all “about,” even in the best atmosphere of cooperative production of plays students may be led to assume the most important elements in a play are still not within their control.

In the workshop we turn over to the students the basic decisions about subject-matter and conception of style, as well as all the basic writing and performance choices. As will be explained in the next section, each year the whole company of workshop participants choose what story out of our “popular mythology” they wish to subject to theatrical investigation. Each participant works together with three-four others also wishing to work in a chosen style. That small group drafts a script and makes the performance choices that will turn the script into a performance. This process generates a confidence in performance that is astonishing to behold. This confidence derives directly from the fact that the students understand exactly what they are doing and why. They also come to “own” their own piece, not just by working hard on it, but by investing themselves creatively in the most basic and detailed choices in the piece.

The process by which they achieve these results is a five week workshop experience. In the first two weeks all students go through a “crash course” in the experimental movements of theater in the twentieth century. The workshop company meets for three sessions each week for three hours per session. The company reads over two hundred pages of theater texts, beginning with the Futurists and dada from the first two decades of the century, and going on through movements like the Women’s Project in the 80s. The instruction combines reading from the experimental literature with exercises and rehearsal practices that would enable participants to see for themselves how to perform the scripts. Vocal and physical exercises provide a base and inspiration for non-naturalistic modes of expression. Rehearsal practices provide students with a fund of alternative theatrical conventions and ideas for developing their own conventions. This allows students to see that with any text, the essence of every performance choice is to ask, “Who says what (sentence, word, or syllable), where, and while doing what?”-and to realize that no answer to any of these questions is predetermined.

At the end of the first two weeks participants make two important choices. The first choice concerns which style of avant garde theater they would like to continue to explore. As a result of their choices they are formed into small groups of three to four participants, each group working in a different style with its own set of conventions. Secondly, the entire company selects the “target story” and discusses its themes and issues in preparation for the work to come. The strategy of picking a common target story allows both participants and audiences at the performances to see more clearly the effects of the different conventions and styles. Because the participants must think about what they and the others might actually do with the target story, this is the first fully creative choice the participants make. And because it engages everyone’s creative capacities, it generates the energy needed to carry them into the work of the next three weeks. Target stories in past years have included Romeo and Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, Medea, Bambi, the Arthurian Legends, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the first four chapters of Genesis. From this point on, participants meet both with their small groups and with the whole workshop company.

The writing process is a modification of a traditional technique for teaching writing styles. For many years the technique has been used to teach students of Latin how to appreciate the differences among the styles of Caesar, Cicero, Horace, and so on. Each group carefully studies the style they wish to work within by dissecting the example of that style that was read in the two week crash course. This is referred to as their “resource text.” Next they are to imagine what the target story would look like had it been written in the style and with the thematic concerns of the resource text. This produces a new outline of the target story, often significantly different from the original. Each participant in the group is then assigned a segment of the new outline to draft in one or two days. The group reconvenes and goes over each participant’s draft, rewriting as they go along so as to provide a working text as quickly as possible. Typically, a first draft is produced by each group in two three-hour sessions; and usually a third session is needed to complete the working scripts.

The performance practices are characterized by two important features: first, unmemorized moments can be just as interesting as memorized passages if the group invents a convention that openly acknowledges reading as a performance choice; and second, before resorting to the use of properties, costumes, lighting effects, electronically produced sound effects, and so on, participants are encouraged to make use of the main resources of the theatrical performer, the performer’s own voice and body and the voices and bodies of the other performers. In these two ways participants are forced to focus their performance choice questions directly on what point or effect they wish to make at each moment in the text they have written without presuming predetermined answers.

These pieces are put together in a very short time and are experimental in nature; they are always “works in progress.” However, the participants are encouraged to drill their pieces so they will have solidity in performance and so the performers will be reliable for each other as well. These are, after all, theatrical experiments; and theater requires performance. Audience reactions have demonstrated that the pieces produced in the workshops are worthy finished products in their own right.

Three claims about theatrical style are implied in the description I have given of the workshop project. First. the critical structure of the project suggests that theatrical styles can be characterized by pairing a set of aims with a set of conventions that function as the means appropriate to achieving those aims. An important corollary of this claim is that, in many cases, the aims and the specific conventions are separable: so that, for example, a specific acting convention might well be found in different styles if, taken together with other conventions of performance, the actual effects achieved serve different aims. Williams, in noting above that “many non-naturalist’ plays are evidently based on a naturalist philosophy,” offers one important example of this corollary.

Second, the descriptions of both the details of writing process and the manner in which performance choices are made in the workshop process suggests that even self-conscious adoption of a style does not preclude the making of work that is artistically convincing. Whatever may be the case in other art forms, theatrical work can be convincing because the aims and conventions adopted are owned by the performers, a circumstance that can arise when performers have made all the basic creative decisions, even though they are self-consciously working under the influence of some prior originators’ aims and conventions.

Finally, the account of the manner in which choices are made (and underscored perhaps by the description of exercises and rehearsal techniques employed throughout the workshop process and sometimes used in performance by the participants) suggests that the key to understanding theatrical style is to be found in understanding the special nature of theatrical conventions and how they relate to the aims of authors and, especially, performers. These claims require more justification than I can give them here.7 In the space I have I can, however, give some sense of what the philosophical stakes are.

The first of these claims is likely to seem pretty noncontroversial at the outset. It is not inconsistent with Goodman’s contention that style and “subject” (or, manner and content) are not essentially separable. But it may not lead, or not lead in the same way, to Goodman’s conclusion that style does not “depend upon an artist’s conscious choice among alternatives.”8 It does lead to a different emphasis in the explanation of what is characteristic of style attribution. Goodman contends the importance of style attribution is primarily classificatory and he defines the style of a work as “those features of the symbolic functioning of a work that are characteristic of author, period, place, or school.”9 If the first claim is right, however, the classificatory functions of theatrical style attribution would be of secondary importance and would follow from historical facts about the emergence of certain aims on the cultural horizon. Since the aims of a style are what generate the need for the conventions that in retrospect come to be seen as characteristic of author, movement, and so on, it is clear that the first claim commits us to analyzing the artist’s role in developing an adequate philosophical account of style.

The second claim is immediately contentious of course. Harrison writes, “It is a dull skill to learn the trick of writing merely in the manner of [other] authors.”10 What informs this judgement seems to be the same philosophically popular account of style we have been discussing, developed by Goodman and Walton, and often referred to as the notion of “style as signature.”11 In general, Harrison follows Wollheim in criticizing this notion and suggesting, instead, a concept of style as “direction of salience”-where the conviction inspired by a work is a function of the artist(s)’ control of means in the service of her/his/their vision.12 But, since Harrison’s alternative notion of style is compatible with the second claim (at least insofar as it is also compatible with the first claim), the motive for the judgement of “dull skill” seems, after all, to rest primarily on commitments in the notion of style as “signature,” perhaps especially to its responsiveness to the needs and concerns of art historians and critics.

The third claim is, I believe, most interesting. If the first claim is right, it is by means of convention choices that the stylistic aims of theater are realized. But it is important that the expression “convention choices” is not reducible to “choices of technique.” There is in the theater, or in avant garde theater at any rate, a real sense in which techniques of presentation or representation are negotiated with audiences and, as such, are explicitly matters of conventional agreement. Consequently, a modified Grice-Lewis approach to analyzing the communicative situation of theater seems promising.13 And, although I have serious doubts that following Grice and Lewis in the details will yield an adequate account of theatrical convention, the emphasis on the necessity of explicating the connection between the intention of the utterer and the recognition and assent of the audience for the utterance makes prominent precisely those features that are most interesting and most challenging in giving an adequate account of theatrical styles.

I conclude with two worries. First, it may be that the collection of notions against which the three claims I have articulated are in conflict has its most natural home in the arena of the visual arts. These conflicts may be generated by a more general tension between how we understand the visual arts and how we understand performing arts, or perhaps even more precisely theater. Second, it may be the conflicts are not really very general and not material for serious general concern. These three claims are prompted reflections upon only a particular pedagogy for teaching avant garde theater practices. It remains to be worked out whether we have reason to think the pedagogy reveals anything interesting about theatrical styles generally much less artistic styles more generally still.

1. I have conducted this workshop each summer for nine years. Over 140 high school students participated, with thirty to fifty percent repeaters. Several participants who have graduated have written original plays whose themes and styles developed as a result of the workshop.

2. This is not an oversimplification. See O.G. Brockett, History of the Theatre, 4th ed. (Allyn & Bacon, 1982), 541-60.

3. Raymond Williams, “Social Environment and Theatrical Environment,” English Drama: Forms and Development (Cambridge UP, 1997), 203-23.

4. Ibid., 217

5. Ibid., 222.

6. Note the claim here is negative. It is more difficult to determine whether there is any single positive aim in avant garde theater practice.

7. Although they are suggested by a particular theatrical project, they are not (or not obviously) empirical claims, and so they need not only more but also different justification than is available by describing this project.

8. Nelson Goodoman, Ways of Worldmaking (Hackett, 1978), 23.

9. Ibid., 35.

10. Andrew Harrison, “Style,” in Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper (Blackwell, 1992), 406.

11. Kendall Walton, “Style and the Products and Processes of Art,” in The Concept of Style, ed. Berel Lang (Cornell UP, 1987), 19-36.

12. Op. cit., 405.

13. H.P. Grice, Studies in the Way of Words (Harvard UP, 1989) and David Lewis, “Languages and Language” in Readings in Language and Mind, ed. H. Geirsson and M. Losonsky (Blackwell, 1996), 134-55.

Copyright @ 2005 Jim Hamilton

 

 

 

 

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