From linear to experimental
Most actors experience what might be called “linear” theater, in which the play tells a straightforward story. The piece may be filled with symbolism and have layers of meaning but a “linear” play has a logical script for the actors to follow.
But, if an actor becomes part of experimental theater, sometimes known as avante garde theater, the linear convention probably goes out the window when the rehearsal process begins. An actor who has never been exposed to that environment might find the going a bit difficult.
At SIUE, performance students are exposed to experimental theater on a regular basis through class study as well as creating a piece organically from the ground up. That’s what happened last fall when the Department of Theater and Dance produced Whammy!! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self, created by students and Professor Chuck Harper, head of the performance area in the department, who also directed.
One of the cast members of Whammy, which was definitely an organically created experimental piece, was Maggie Conroy, a senior who will be graduating in May with a bachelor’s in theater performance and who is headed to a prestigious experimental theater workshop in upstate New York. She will be in the cast when Whammy is reprised at the SIUE Xfest in mid-May.
“The new version has been reworked to accommodate the loss of a cast member and to expand on what we did in the fall,” Conroy said. “Instead of taking what we had before, Professor Harper has stepped in and is reworking the concept and then expanding the piece,” she said. “Whammy was finished to us when we opened the play originally, but we all agreed that we could have done more with it. So, now we’ve got that chance.”
Harper’s premise in creating Whammy was the fascination that consumers have with self-help books. “We started with an idea of reacting to what he found in all those books,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t what you’d call linear theater.”
The play consisted of screen projections of phrases from the self-help books as well as readings on stage by the actors themselves. Actors would then react to these self-help ideas, usually in a satiric way, but it wasn’t about relating a story line. There was creative movement, some singing, some recitation and even an actor dressed up as a banana.
“We had choreography to learn even before we got on stage,” Conroy said. “It was a lot more physical than anything I had done before; the closest thing I’ve come to that was in experimental theater class.” Conroy explained the cast, with Harper’s help, made compositions of pieces within the show. “We were given a list of words, props, music and then as a group we came up with something from those elements.
“The set also is being retooled to turn it into a traveling show, but the banana’s returning.”
Conroy, who is a two-time winner of the SIUE Friends of Theater and Dance William Best Performance Award, also has been nominated four times for the Irene Ryan Award during her three years at SIUE. After graduation she is heading to upstate New York to study with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, an actors’ studio dedicated to creating and teaching experimental theater. During the intensive four-week workshop at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, Conroy will be immersed in the Suzuki theater method as well as other techniques.
Bogart, whose SITI Company is permanently based in New York City, is internationally known for her work in experimental and cross-cultural theater, and to be accepted in the workshop is a quite an accomplishment for Conroy. “The Suzuki theater method is a rigorous physical training program, gathering elements of martial arts and ballet, traditional Japanese and Greek theater styles,” Conroy said.
“We have learned about these techniques in our experimental theater class at SIUE, but we also learned about ‘viewpoints,’ a training method that was created by Mary Overlie and also taught in the upcoming workshop.
“I consider myself very lucky to have been chosen to participate in this training,” she said. “It is very competitive among actors and directors who are clamoring to be in the SITI Company because you train with the best acting teachers in the business. This is all a side of theater I’ve never really experienced outside of SIUE.
“Musical theater is not my strong point so I will be focusing on non-musical plays as I go forward with my career and this training will allow me to be exposed to many facets of experimental theater training, which will be invaluable.
“I want to be a better actor and, since my thing is physical theater, this is my dream to work with the SITI Company. They generate new work and that’s what I want to do, help generate new theater. I also hope to learn a lot about myself as an actor,” Conroy said. “Suzuki, for example, makes you do impossible things with your body; it’s definitely going to be intense.”
For now, however, Conroy is looking forward to performing again in Whammy for SIUE’s Xfest but she’ll also be enrolling in Xfest workshops and attending Xfest performances. “It will be great to meet the people who do experimental theater for a living,” she said. “I look forward to this learning experience.”
Behind the Scenes at SIUE Xfest
The shows are chosen. The contracts are signed. The time is drawing near. What actually has gone into the planning of Xfest, SIUE’s inaugural experimental theater festival?
Xfest executive producer Peter Cocuzza and artistic director Chuck Harper, associate professors of theater and dance at SIUE, have spent the last several months making all the arrangements to ensure the campus will come to life during the four-day summer festival that will take place May 12-15.
“We have been looking for years for ways to expand, and bring uniqueness and vision to the SIUE theater program,” said Cocuzza, who also is chair of the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance.
Cocuzza and Harper want to expand the University’s role in bringing culture and energy to the region and increase the area’s visibility as a cultural hub. Through Xfest, the pair hopes to expose the area’s theater students, as well as the University and surrounding community, to more than quality theater productions. They want to broaden horizons and generate interest in the vast, colorful world of theater.
“Anytime you can get students to see new work and think differently, it enhances their development as an artist,” Cocuzza said. “I’m learning, too. Based on the preparation for this experience, I’m a lot savvier now than I was just a year ago.”
Cocuzza added, “It’s been a blessing for the faculty and staff to be so collaborative like they have been. This has all been a learning experience and we’ll see how it evolves and what we learn to make things work for future festivals.”
Through support from the SIUE Office of the Provost, the College of Arts and Sciences and the University’s Arts & Issues series, Xfest is off to a great start. Cocuzza is already researching funding and support options for next year’s festival. Volunteer support and donations from individuals, organizations and agencies are important components to putting the event together.
Both men have spent hours behind the scenes finding businesses, organizations and individuals to sponsor the shows and campus activities during the week. Harper used his extensive list of contacts in the experimental theater world to attract talent to the area, even bringing back a distinguished alumna, Sarah Maxfield, artistic director for Red Metal Mailbox. Sarah wrote and will direct [ ] and will lead the workshop “Investigative Theatre Forum” on May 12.
Designing a Dream
When Lex Van Blommestein joined the SIUE faculty two years ago, he said it was the University’s “edginess and willingness to try almost anything” that attracted him. Originally from Canada, Van Blommestein, an assistant professor of theater and dance, has been involved in theater and scene design for more than a decade.
Last fall he had the task of selecting the scenery, lighting and projection design for Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self. The show will be performed again as part of Xfest, but as an experimental piece with different elements and an entirely different design.
“As a designer, especially of scenery, I always try to design for the emotion of the play,” Van Blommestein said. “I want the scenery to reflect what we want the audience to feel. For me it’s much more about creating an environment and a world. For experimental theater, I try to create another world where the events that will unfold will be best-suited.”
For experimental theater, he creates a design that not only affects the audience, but influences the performers’ moods and impacts their performances. “We’re treating Whammy! as if it’s a new and different piece for us,” Van Blommestein said. “We’re trying to change things up. I have the opportunity to design another dream.”
There is nothing that he is approaching in this scene design that comes from any type of reality. “I’m designing as if I’m in a dream-like state. I had to go into my imagination to develop how things appear as if you are in a dream. Distortions, twisting, gross enlargements—all of these elements will be in the design.
“The nicest thing about dreams is that they are as open as your imagination. When you are open-minded, you can come up with anything.”
Van Blommestein enjoys experimental theater as a means of placing experimental moments into what is considered a traditional play. “A lot of theater has scenery that might be a backdrop and the performers don’t necessarily need that backdrop to make their performance any better,” he said. “I try to create a world that is integral for the performance, the performers and the audience.”
In the heart of the Midwest, experimental theater groups from coast-to-coast will delight audiences on the SIUE campus for four days in May.
The vision to bring SIUE Xfest, in the form of four experimental theater companies—one local, two from New York and one from Seattle—to Edwardsville came from a discussion between two SIUE associate professors of theater and dance; Peter Cocuzza, chair of the department, and Chuck Harper.
During an informal meeting, Cocuzza and Harper toyed with the idea of making campus more vibrant over the summer. Cocuzza recalled, “I said, ‘Let’s have an experimental theater festival.’” Harper remembers smiling, breathing deeply, and becoming a bit frightened, and then responding, “Let’s try it.”
“This is an area that is close to my heart and what I’ve tried to do over the years with experimental theater has energized the students in some new ways,” Harper said. “It seems to have opened some horizons for them.”
Cocuzza, the festival’s executive producer, and Harper, Xfest artistic director, hope to expand Xfest on the SIUE campus for years to come, and that its growth will help let the nation know what’s going on in the Midwest.
What will Edwardsville, Illinois, soon have in common with Dublin, Ireland; Edinburgh, Scotland; Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada; and the U.S. cities of San Francisco, Cincinnati and New York? This May, thanks to the support of a dedicated faculty, staff members and students, SIUE will introduce its very own experimental theater festival.
If you choose an online search engine and plug in “experimental theater festivals universities” you will come up with a handful of campuses that currently engage in such undertakings. These campuses are on the east and west coasts, as well as a few in Texas, New Mexico and Michigan.
Two SIUE associate professors envisioned bringing an experimental theater festival to campus and decided to just take the plunge and hopefully put the “e” on the map. “Each of these plays is about 70-80 minutes long,” said Chuck Harper, director of one of the four experimental theater shows that will come to campus. “These plays are short, sweet, exciting and full of life, ideas and fun.”
Along with being an associate professor of theater and dance at SIUE, Harper is the festival’s artistic director. The festival’s executive producer, Peter Cocuzza, is department chair and also an associate professor of theater and dance at SIUE. Both men agreed that the way to make the dream of an experimental theater festival at SIUE come to life was to dive into the project head first. “We’re taking sort of an, ‘if we build it they will come’ attitude,” Cocuzza said.
He added the department of theater and dance faculty, staff and students have jumped right on board with helping make the dream a reality.
The two men also thanked the SIUE Provost Paul Ferguson and Grant Andree, director of the SIUE Arts & Issues series for supporting and backing the project. “We hope this becomes an annual event and that it grows,” Cocuzza said. “We would like to expand the activities in which the public can participate and encourage the public to participate in roundtables with directors and cast members of shows.”