By: Jerome Yorke
UpLift Physical Theatre recently finished a fantastic long weekend in Spokane, WA, engaging with the students at Region 7 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festivals (KCACTF) in February of 2018. The energy and vitality of these future theatre makers was palpable and left us wanting more opportunities for this kind of fresh engagement with our work. The fertile garden of current and future professionals creating together is challenging to replicate in any other setting. UpLift has tended this soil and understands the potential for our seeds of creativity to blossom into the future of American theatre. When we share the kind of theatre we love, there is an immense enjoyment of the hard work. We have found that in every KCACTF Region there is very little contact with physical devised theatre making. Only recently, have a few regions added devising to their respective festival’s programming. In the years to come, we hope to help till more ground within this territory of the American theatre landscape.
This period of time in Spokane aligned with the one-year anniversary of our first university residency at the University of Dayton (UD) Theatre, Dance and Performance Technology Program (TDP). During this residency, we worked with the students to devise an original physical adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s topically relevant play, Enemy of the People.
The success of our residency was three-fold. First, it held strong outcomes for UpLift as a theatre company by creating a space of investigation for a project that was yearning to be created, but not yet ready. Secondly, it allowed UD’s TDP to further re-imagine their curriculum to be more inclusive, impactful, and to have a strong creative focus on theatre for social justice and the common good. Finally, it encouraged greatness within the students themselves, increasing their level of engagement in the work and leaving them inspired, and hungry for more. Our dynamic rehearsal process actively prepared the students to be more versatile, informed, and embodied actors on the stage and the experience further challenged them to become poets of the stage.
Our rehearsal process was intense. First, we fostered a strong space for trust and established a work ethic that is standard expectation for working artists in our field. As Nicholette recalled during our internal post-residency feedback, "We're challenging the students on so many levels: to approach theatre physically instead of psychologically, to rehearse with a highly diligent work ethic, to be present and active for 3-5 hours at a time, to think critically about Ibsen's play as written, and to devise a well-crafted adaptation.” Once we established a culture of trust and openness, we were able to break down preconceived ideas and obstacles of the ego, so that we could jump into the physical work of gestural exploration.
Our rehearsal structure made it possible to physically explore the themes we chose to highlight. We then took our explorations further and used them as inspiration to engage in a critical breakdown of Ibsen’s story. Exploring the themes of the play through the body allowed us to better understand the drives of the characters, relationships, and the overall narrative.
As our physical vocabulary and material accumulated, we shaped the story around the theme that was most compelling to these particular student ensemble members, which was a valuable aspect of their participation in the process in that along with a high level of engagement they are encouraged to develop an ownership and agency in the world they are creating on the stage. As a result, they felt a deep compelling to tell the story, because it had become theirs to tell. Telling a story from the heart is a great risk in the end it took personal courage and belief in themselves to bring the whole thing to production. The end result of all our efforts is that the students experienced what it is like for an audience to be viscerally engaged with the actors, rather than simply watching from their seats.
As an audience member we long to have experiences in the theatre. As theatre makers, UpLift longs for dynamic physical storytelling that moves directly out of the heart of the actors and is told with a poetic honesty. For us, the relationship between the actor and the audience is physical and we hope that the work we are creating has visceral impact. By the end of the project, the entire team of actors, designers, and teachers gathered around in a large circle and spoke to their gratitude and truth with tears in their eyes and with their whole bodies. We owe the students of this ensemble our thanks for their courage and for giving us the mantra “I will hold you up.”
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