How to Make a Moment

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

Devising is a type of theater that creates a play by building theatrical moments, or little theatricalized scenes that we string together into a production. Instead of writing a script, we perform it and then record it. The script is the last thing to be created.

When creating a moment, the first thing you do (at least according to our process) is take an interview or a couple of interviews that share an idea, feeling, or theme and tie them together with a theatrical idea. For example, if an interview is about a girl who lost her sister to cancer, while she is speaking a hospital scene could be acted out in the background. Or, another different idea, pictures could be projected of her sister before she fell ill showing the nostalgia of the sister who was interviewed. It all depends on what you want to say, but it’s not a moment until it becomes something you can see on stage.

One of the defining aspects of the Civilians is their desire to incorporate media into productions. Their mission statement summarizes this by saying “The Civilians expands the scope of American theater and champions innovation by tackling complex and under-explored subjects, enabling artists to enrich their processes through in-depth interaction with their topics, diversifying artistic voices and audiences, and integrating theater with new media.” Many productions explore how theater can be enhanced by projection and actor and audience interaction with projected images. This idea of adding media to moments was a major aspect to consider as we started to create moments and present them to the class. How did we want to use media in our project? How much did we want to use it?

Here are two examples of student presentations on how we could use media for an interview about a girl who lost her Beanie Baby snail…

And an idea as to how an actor (Hannah’s finger) could interact with a projection on a screen…

We were greatly inspired by this video:

Creating a Character

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

One of the hardest things for any actor is creating a character. The actor has to be able to separate themselves and their mannerisms from the mannerisms of the person they are trying to portray. This is especially hard when trying to depict a real person that you have met and interviewed. In order to differentiate yourself from a character the easiest thing to do is to heighten their ticks (fiddling with a necklace, drumming fingers, running a hand through their hair, etc.) and try to match their vocal tone and posture.

Unfortunately, heightening these aspects of a person often come off as comical. Whenever is something is exaggerated, especially by some one who is an inexperienced actor or isn’t very perceptive to body language, it becomes a sort of mockery. That is not what we are striving for in Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief.

In our production, nine actors will portray over sixty characters in the span of two hours. How will they differentiate themselves from the characters they are playing? How will they distinguish their different characters from each other? Can they accomplish an honest depiction of real people?

When the representative from The Civilians company (the group that devised/wrote Gone Missing), Emily Ackerman, workshopped with us she taught us some tricks. The first exercise she introduced involved status, or how a person carries themselves. A person of high status (social rank, energy, or happiness level) carries themselves with good posture and a spring in their step. As the status decreases people tend to carry themselves more curled in on themselves, as if protecting, with slumped shoulders and their gaze on the floor. Emily asked us to walk around the room and she’d say a number from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and we’d have to depict how a person of that status would look. She then asked us who a person of high status would be (we came up with celebrity, royalty, overconfident jock) and who a person of low status would be (we came up with street urchin, abused woman, someone who was depressed). Through this exercise we came up with a range of emotion that we could depict physically. We went through this process for ticks as well.

Finally Emily asked us to create a character with a defined status (from 1-10), distinct way of carrying themselves, and a defined tick (how strong it was 1-10). We then interacted with each other trying to see if we could guess the choices that our classmates made.

See if you can guess who the character is in this video. Who is it? What is their status? How does it reflect their age, gender, and how they feel about themselves? Do you believe that this character is a real person?

 

 

Behind-the-Scenes with the Phantom Choreographers and Dancers

by Nicholas Sheets, dramaturg

This week I slipped into rehearsal to see what was going on with the dancers for Phantom. What I found was super neat. Just like the costume department, the dancing routines are divided as well. In other words, the dancing in this show is so intense that there are two faculty members at BYU heading up this show. Let me give you a breakdown.

First, we have Lisa Stoddard in charge of the Masquerade section. I spoke with her and asked her what it felt like to be choreographing a very important scene in Phantom. She mentioned it was kind of scary to take on this project. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s also fun.” She finds it neat to fulfill expectations of how people view the musical, but also to add her personal touch to the show through her choreography. Here is a clip of some of the masquerade dancing you’ll see when you come to the show. (I caught them with my camera phone, so forgive the quality!) Obviously when you come there’ll be lots of lights, music, and costumes.

Next, I spoke with Shani Robison, in charge of the dancing found in the opera scenes of Il Muto and Hannibal. She told me she had choreographed operas in the past, and that it had been a dream of hers to choreograph musical theater. She considers this opportunity an exciting honor. She’s working double-duty because she’s also in charge of BYU’s Theatre Ballet. Here’s a peak into her choreography for the show.

After rehearsal I spoke with Paige Hollingswort, Natalie Taylor, and Hilary Wolfley, all three members of the Ballet Ensemble within Phantom. Paige expressed how it had always been a dream of hers to dance in this musical. Now it’s come true! She’s also grateful to be around so many talented people. Natalie said her first show she saw on Broadway was The Phantom of the Opera. Since then she’s worked with professional theatre and now is combining her dance and theatrical talents in this production. Hilary loves the collaborative aspect of this show. For her it’s neat to work with different departments on campus like the School of Music, MDT (Music, Dance, Theater), Theatre, the Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.

There are so many integral parts to this show. You’ve seen the scenic designer’s work, the costumes, and now the ballet ensemble. In the next post you’ll see a little of what I did as a dramaturg to show the actors a bit about where they would live during the 1880’s in Paris. I pulled together this research to help them delve into their roles.

Until then, thanks for visiting!

The “Henry 5 Project” in Performance

By Anne Flinders, dramaturg

On the 28th of November, the TMA 401 class performed their devised production of Henry 5 as a Mask Club performance in the Nelke Theatre on BYU’s campus before an audience of theatre students, professors, and invited guests.

The production was prepared and staged by four groups that had been created during the semester from the TMA 401 class. Each group was assigned to prepare one of the first four acts from Shakespeare’s The Life of King Henry the Fifth. The groups each chose their own concepts, developed their own cuttings of the script, and created costumes and props supporting their productions.

After working on these individual pieces during the semester, the groups came together for two rehearsals to develop connection and flow between each act, melding the four pieces into one cohesive production. Lighting and sound were inserted during these rehearsals to augment the play, and on the afternoon of November 28th, the devised production of The Henry 5 Project “went on the boards.” Perhaps sharing accounts of the play from audience members would be a helpful way of describing what took place on the Nelke stage that afternoon. The following is a compilation of comments and observations made by students who are members of TMA 101, Intro to Theatre.

“The play begins with five actors in preppy tennis clothes, who fight verbally while viciously swinging tennis rackets, representing the back-and-forth-battle between England and France. The next scene is done by a group of five all dressed in everyday clothes such as jeans and sweaters, with one of the characters rapping a complaint about his associations with some of Henry’s former friends and the impending war about to take place. In the next scene, all the actors wear black face paint and stomp around in leather clothing, exposing traitors to Henry and thieves among the ranks of British soldiers. Finally, the actors in the last scene huddle around a fire, with ‘spears’ for props, while singing a pop song as a rallying cry.

“Through dramatic body movement using techniques like viewpointing and Suzuki, the different acts of Henry 5 were able to have a cohesive theme. All the body movements throughout the separate acts were succinct and deliberate motions; strong body motions and hand gestures were used to create war-like actions. Despite the contributions from many different groups, the solid movements came across as a consistent element of the play. One particularly strong choice was the transfer of the role of Henry from actor to actor (all played by women). This was done by actors placing a hand on each other’s shoulder and then rotating a quarter turn to exchange both stage position and character.

“The modern costume styles and color choices also connected the scenes together to make the play one cohesive story. The English all had hues of red with accents of black, while the French were costumed in blue tones. Overall there was a consistent feeling of characterization and opposition between warm and cool colors. At one point, King Henry was distinguished by a gold beanie to represent a crown.

“Although very different from the original play, The Henry 5 Project did a great job of using elements such as costuming and movement to portray the four groups’ different concepts and interpretations of the classic script. Each scene had its own distinctive style that separated it from the other scenes, but despite the many different voices, the story of King Henry came through in a consistent, unified, and entertaining production.”

Behind-the-Scenes with the Phantom Costume Designers

by Nicholas Sheets, dramaturg

The other day I visited the basement of the HFAC, known for its labyrinth-like feel and lack of sunlight (there are no windows). I navigated the halls until I arrived at the Costume Studio. I was curious as to what was going on in terms of costume making for Phantom. There are three design teams working on the costumes for our production.

One team is working on the costumes found in the three operas within the musical. The first opera is Hannibal. This is the scene where we return to the opera house and Carlotta is singing. During this practice the new opera owners enter: André and Fermin. The second opera scene is Il Muto. This opera is where the Phantom plays a prank on Carlotta and Joseph Buquet goes sky diving. The third opera within the musical is Don Juan, the Phantom’s own musical for Christine Daaé. Chelsea Roberts, a current BYU undergraduate, is the designer for this project.

            

A second crew is working on costumes designed by Janet Swenson, a recently retired faculty member, and Angela Robinson, a current BYU student. They have designed the “every day” costumes, or clothing worn by the characters when they aren’t “performing” in one of the three operas within the musical.

The third costume crew is building the quintessential masquerade scene. If you’ve seen the production before, or even the movie, you know the masquerade scene is full of lavish costumes. This team is headed by designer Deanne DeWitt, the Assistant Manager of the Costume Studio, and Desirée Moss, a current BYU undergraduate. These are really neat costumes. I’ll let you have a peak.

Carlotta-Masquerade

-Dancer

Donnette Perkins is in charge of the costume shop. Think of her like Morgan Freeman’s character in Batman. She oversees all aspects of the shop, including hiring talented students and being responsible for all products that end up leaving the costume shop. She is a very integral part of Phantom as the overseer of all three teams. What a job!

We hope you appreciate the work that goes into the costume makers of the production team for Phantom of the Opera. When you come to the show you will always see their work as each actor is on stage. You won’t be disappointed.

Nailing Down the Script (otherwise known as killing babies)

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

Over the course of devising, we have become very attached to certain ideas, interviews and moments. Some of these include a couple who posted a plea on Craigslist for their missing Chihuahua, while warning potential finders not to touch him, or a guy we met at the BYU Creamery on 9th who enthusiastically relayed his story of his lost water bottle (which we then turned into an epic rap battle).

We are fond of these moments and people we have come to know and love.

But, unfortunately, we have too many wonderful moments to fit into our 30-35 minute play.

That means one thing… It’s time to kill our babies.

As a class we sat down and listed all of the moments we liked. Then we looked at out main organizing principle, or theme, we want to pursue: how do we deal with loss? Looking back at our moments, we threw out the ones that didn’t explore this concept: stories about things people had lost rather than how they dealt with the loss itself. Unfortunately, that means that the water bottle rap battle didn’t make the cut.

This list of moments will be given to the writers and they will work out the nitty-gritty details of transitions and the creation of a cohesive whole.

Although these cherished moments have been cut from the script, they will live forever in our hearts.

And maybe on youtube. 🙂

 

Design Insights-Holiday Costume Concept

by Mallory Mckey, Co-Costume Designer

In the early stages of my design work as I was finding images and researching—I was trying to think of some way each character was connected. I was also trying to find my color palette. I’m a visual person and I love seeing color and texture.  I was thinking about gold and silver a lot for some of the characters, and then I realized that was the connecting piece. Gold, silver, and money!  Once I hit on that idea, there was no stopping me.  I immediately started looking up pictures of money and specific bills and coins.  The more I looked, the more I could visualize the characters and who they were.  Everything was clicking into place in my head.

I read the script again with the idea of each person representing a specific type of money.  How they presented themselves, how they saw the world, and how they related with people all made sense.  Now it was my job to show that in the clothes.  From the money, I got my color palettes for people, and from my research started my designs.  It’s not completely obvious, and people might not even see it at all.  But, through my perspective, each piece, accessory, and style was designed with this in mind.

Below you will find images that inspired the design for the Seton household.


Horizontal Theater

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

One of the most well known theatrical companies to use the devising method is the Tectonic Theater Project headed by Moisés Kaufman. Some of their most well known works include 33 Variations, Gross Indecency, and The Laramie Project. In each of these cases, the company implements the technique of horizontal theater.

The traditional setup of theater is vertical. You begin with a text. Then you add set, costumes, lights, a director’s concept, and actors. You build upwards always referencing the foundation (i.e. the text) off of which every decision is based.

Horizontal theater on the other hand treats every aspect of theater as equally important. Instead of building one on top of the other they come to fruition at the same time, with theater practitioners working together and influencing one another. Kaufman refers to these theater makers as “performance writers,” as they are all trying to create the performance as opposed to being assigned to specific roles like actor, writer, costumer, designer, or dramaturg. We all work together to write the performance.

Through out the process we are constantly keeping the end in mind. Our moments are not just words on the page but mini-performances that attempt to convey our message not just textually, but performatively.

In the upcoming week, we will be choosing the moments that we love the most and piecing them together (ordering them into a cohesive play) to write our performance.

Stay tuned to hear more about our process from our other performance writers!

The Spirit of Afghanistan: Final Thoughts on A Second Birth

by Katrina Forsythe, dramaturg

It’s been over nine months now since Professor Hollingshaus introduced me to A Second Birth and asked if I would be interested in working on it as the dramaturg. Has it only been that long? I loved the script from the start, and have continued to love it even more as it has changed over all this time. Ariel has been such an inspiration, and she is always so unstinting with her praise.

There have been a lot of details I have had to hunt down in the process of bringing this play to life. For example: “How do you tie a head scarf?” “How does one go about breaking an engagement?” or “What kind of bag would you get from a store in Kabul?” Sometimes I gave the wrong answer and had to come back with new information, and everyone has been very patient with me. It’s a daunting task to try to understand a culture as rich and varied as Afghanistan’s, and it has been an interesting challenge for me.

The first thing I tried to do when I was assigned the task of researching for A Second Birth was to understand the spirit of the Afghan people. I read memoirs and autobiographies, notably The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi, and The Dressmaker of Khair Khanna by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. I was fascinated by the culture and the history of these people, but mostly by their spirit. The people of Afghanistan have seen thirty years of almost constant war, and it has destroyed so much, but so many of them have not let it destroy their spirit or their pride. I loved that A Second Birth respected that pride. Yes, there are problems in their society, as there are in ours, but they don’t apologize for their faith or their heritage, and each character is fighting for what they want.

Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan Parliament, said it best.
“If there comes a day in your life that the fear takes hold of you so hard and it squeezes the fight out of you, then I want you to remember these words: Giving up is not what we do. We fight. We live. We survive.”

That is the spirit of Afghanistan, and that is what I hope I won’t forget from this experience.

A Playwright’s Perspective: Writing vs. Collaborating

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

One of the greatest things about being a playwright is that after you have ‘finished’ writing you get to hand over your words to a team of people and watch them bring them to life. Many people ask, “How can you do that? Doesn’t it bother you? Do you have any say in the production process? How much?” A lot of writers find this unattractive because they want to spell out every thing from the way a character looks to what they do to the very thoughts that go through their mind as they live their lives. I have one answer for these people: write a novel.

With this art, writing for the stage, the author/playwright is often dead (either literally or symbolically — i.e. they are so far away that they can’t have any say in the process). When you are putting on a show you can’t worry about pleasing the playwright. That isn’t art.

Personally, I find that the greatest work comes from people working together and discovering and suggesting things you would never have thought of on your own. A Second Birth is stronger because of the amazing suggestions I’ve received through workshops and performances. Even when we are so close to the performance, I have made changes to accommodate the actors’ insights. Chances are when an actor is having trouble, there is often a problem in the script. This causes me to revisit my words, ponder the piece, and make it stronger. There are some advantages to having a living, breathing playwright in the room. Of course there are also times when I have to put my foot down. After all, when everything is said and done, my name will be on the script.

I have been very blessed to work with a director (George Nelson) who is also my playwriting mentor who has been working with me on this play for over a year. I’m very confident that he understands the characters and what I am trying to say through the play. But that isn’t important. He has taken the script, analyzed it, and come up with his own vision for the piece. Yes, some of it is different than I pictured. But most of it is more incredible than I could ever have imagined. My joy comes from seeing others discover, share, expand, reinterpret and embrace my ideas and insights. Isn’t that what playwriting is all about?