MFA Thesis Festival 2017

Good evening! Cass Morris, ASC Academic Resources Manager, here to live-blog the 2017 Mary Baldwin University MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. Tonight, beginning at 6:30pm, members of the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, the 2016-2017 MFA class, will present research conducted for and during their year of company-building:

Paul Menzer begins by welcoming everyone, introducing the Compass Shakespeare Ensemble, and reminding us that the MLitt presentations begin at 9am tomorrow. Menzer stresses the unique nature of the thesis festival at MBU, designed to combat the isolating effect of thesis writing and give students the opportunity to share with and hear from “an interested and generous” audience. Each presenter will speak for approximately 7 minutes, ending with a “provocative question”, followed by a short Q&A.

Catie Osborn – Photography as Performance: Archive and/as Adaptation

Osborn begins by explaining the scholastic considerations that her work as production photographer provoked. “There is little to no research on the implications of photograph in the theatre”. She states her intent to challenge a 1956 assertion that “photographs taken during the course of production are uninteresting”. Osborn discusses two types of photographs in the theatre: marketing/publicity and archive/documentation, as well as sharing the OED definition of “adaptation”. She believes that the act of theatrical photography constitutes an adaptation of the theatrical work — the center of the Venn diagram between marketing/publicity and archive/documentation.

Osborn asserts that the photographer working during a performance becomes a storyteller in their own right. She presents some “not at all staged” examples of “That Nice Chris Moneymaker” — one photograph showing him as alone and isolated, another from a different angle showing the actor surrounded by the theatrical audience in universal lighting. The use of photos then becomes “an adapted act”. She also shares examples of photographs that photoshopped together figures from different productions in order to market a show.

Considering the potentially infinite record of production, given the storage capabilities modern technology provides, Osborn questions how to best curate those photographs for archival. She suggests that a production must “include the photographer in the production process”. Osborn states her belief that, by including the photographer in the process, it would be possible to create a record of performance that would allow someone to experience the performance through the archives.

She poses the question: “What is lost in these performances? What is gained?”

Kelley McKinnon – “We know what we are, but know not what we may be”: Engaging a Student Audience in Self-Discovery through the Mechanism of Interaction

“If you’ve spent five minutes with me, you probably know several things:” that she has a loud laugh, that she has Opinions, and that she loves to learn. She goes on to note that another five minutes will expose that she asks personal questions and loves working with students to help them learn. “There is nothing in the world that is better to men than watching a light bulb turn on” in someone’s head. McKinnon states her belief that nothing can replace the value of a personal connection between student and teacher, and she cites a viral video of a North Carolina teacher who invented a different secret handshake for each of his students, noting that his attendance and test scores seem to correlate positively with that practice.

McKinnon notes the importance of “reversing the expectation” for students of Shakespeare, fighting against the ingrained belief many have that Shakespeare is hard and that they’re not smart enough for it. Her thesis is based around how she approaches an educational tour from a director’s point of view with the goal of taking over/changing the world. “My approach as a director is to put the systems in place to build self reliance through connection.” This applies both to her cast and staff and to the audience. For student audiences, “the clarity of storytelling” is always at the forefront, but she believes a further step of personalization can be vital, particularly when interacting with under-served audiences.

McKinnon goes on to explicate why she uses Shakespeare to “change the world”, particularly by working with inner city students, with benefits including but not limited to: explorations of tyranny, nonconformists, and violence, “wrapped up with a bunch of dick and fart jokes”. Treating Shakespeare not as something inaccessible and privileged but as something that is for them augments the experience and can, she believes, be life- and thus world-changing. She finishes by asking: “Who is my audience for this?”

Joshua Richard Williams – “We will perform in measure, time, and place”: The Qualitative Effect of Spatial Architecture on Stage Combat Choreography

Williams specifies that he is looking at the development of stage combat in a touring process and how that does and doesn’t impact the performance itself. Last summer he engaged in training and certification with the American Society of Fight Directors. He discusses the concept of “violence as spectacle” that CSE explored in its touring production of Macbeth. His considerations include examining the ways in which the dimension and orientation of a performance space, and how differences in that in touring locations may change the storytelling. For his thesis, he focuses on the opening fight which establishes the violence of the play: involving eight of ten cast members, several entrances and exits mid-bout. He notes that the paratextual fight “serves as an introduction for the audience” to the play itself.

Williams then walks through the “bloody soldier” interchange from 1.2, pointing out five details which inform the physicality of the fight. While not explicitly called for in the text, these lines allow a director and fight director to make choices about the story they wish to present to the audience. In CSE’s production, it was an opportunity to show Macbeth as a fighter surrounded by violence, continually attacked from behind, instilling a sense of wariness, distrust, and betrayal. The actor playing Banquo appears to save Macbeth twice, establishing their relationship. The fight also introduces Malcolm and foreshadows the appearance of the Weird Sisters.

Williams notes that they blocked the show for two different conditions: Blackfriars-style, with use of a backstage space, and an on-stage presentation, where the actors are all in chairs and visible throughout the production. He notes that this second set-up presented challenges, and goes on to discuss one example in depth, where the company had “a lane of perhaps five and a half to six feet in width and eleven or twelve feet in length” to perform in. Williams thinks this was probably the most challenging space to work in, but also the most illuminating.

His question asks the audience for sources on found spaces for performance or dance. “What is the difference between a performance space and a theatre? What can one do that the other one cannot?”

Justine R. Mackey – “So hung upon with love”: Examining Physical Intimacy with Compass Shakespeare Ensemble

“My work… explores the many ways in which physical touch or the lack thereof” tells a story and communicates emotion. Mackey’s thesis examines touch as a means of communication in performance. She notes that, for her, physical touch ended up being a recurring theme in her roles across the CSE season (Lady Macbeth, the Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jacquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost). “When I refer to physical intimacy, I don’t always mean sexual or lustful touching.” Her definition covers everything from simple familiarity to passionate interaction.

Mackey cites research from the Touch Research Institute which “prove the healthy benefits of touch,” noting that touch appears to be vital not only to human interaction but to individual health. She moves on to discussing how CSE explored the process and potential of touch in their ensemble work. To foster positive energy and the sense of community they would need for their MFA year, one early exercise involved verbally complimenting each other. Mackey took the benefits of this exercise forward into the idea of physical intimacy. Osborn and Odenbrett demonstrate another exercise from the character exploration of Troilus and Cressida, creating a powerful gestural score for two characters who long to touch but are pulled apart by external forces. From this, Mackey decided to focus on how bodies travel and intersect.

Mackey ends by asking us all to close our eyes and re-imagine the process of experiencing their devised show back in September, then asks the audience to share their most memorable experience from that evening.

Clarence Joseph Finn – “Methinks you are my glass and not my brother”: An Experience of Playing the Identical Dromio Twins with One Actor Body in The Comedy of Errors

Finn begins by stating that his thesis focuses on the challenge of playing two characters in one body and the effect that it has had on his body image. He notes that, as a result of bullying earlier in life, he had never engaged in physical training, as he had never seen the point. Entering this program changed his perspective, and he particularly notes the Viewpoints exercises taught by Doreen as teaching him to think well of his body on stage.

Working through the Dromios was his greatest challenge, made moreso by the fact that this performance was part of CSE’s already highly-doubled small scale production. He had to develop different markers for each Dromio. Finn then walks us through his process of developing them, beginning with voices: he started with Linklater choices for finding each Dromio’s voice, then moved into using Laban to marry those vocal choices to physical choices. One Dromio was lighter and quicker; the other low and heavy. He then moved on to behavioral gestures drawn from Viewpoints training. Finn also notes that the relationship each Dromio has to his respective Antipholus further informed his own physicality and spatial relationship. With the help of Sczepankowski and Odenbrett, Finn demonstrates the difference in his two Dromios.

His question: Is there a clear and distinct physical difference, and how might he further develop the physicality to make that clearer?

Molly Beth Seremet – “This is and is not Cressida”: Resisting Anthropocentrism in the Shakespeare of Things

Seremet begins “in the negative space” between the thesis she’ll actually be working on and the thesis she can no longer write. She intended to build upon her MLitt thesis, but notes that the exploration of the conflation of “person” and “thing” has become profoundly uncomfortable in our current political climate. While she’s still fascinated by the cyber-potential of becoming-human value in objects, but she is concerned about the inverse: making an object of a human. Seremet uses several examples from the past month, including the Oklahoma bill turning a woman into a “host” and the interaction of the “nuclear football” with guests at the “Winter White House”.

She goes on to note that the thesis she would like to write isn’t entirely hers to tell, given her own privilege and societal status, and she draws a connection to the “no-place” that Cressida exists in. Seremet hopes to continue elevating the object while also interrogating  the view from her position of privilege. She hopes to connect Cressida’s experience to the current immigrant/refugee crisis and with her own family history of displacement. She discusses her need to “focus on the real and the material in this era of alternative facts”.

Her question: What are the ethical responsibilities of a theatrical and art-making practice in the year 2017? And, in unpacking object-based feminism, how can the voice of the object be viewed through the mechanism?

Zac Harned – Arguing with Myself: Body Building Stories

Harned begins by describing his experience as a rifleman as a metaphor for the various components necessary for success in the small scale production. He will address the roles he played in the small scale production of Troilus and Cressida and how rhetoric informed his physical choices.

“Shakespeare’s characters cause plot by action,” whether that action is implied in what they say or more explicit when they stab someone. “All acting choices are based in necessity.” He keys in on the idea of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and “art” being, essentially, an action of making something; thus, “rhetoric is the making of getting what you want” — which could also serve as a definition of acting. Harned discusses his discovery that rhetorically-informed performances are not, themselves, a style of acting — so “why should an actor give a damn?” He asserts that without engaging the rhetoric, an actor misses the opportunity for intellectual depth and aesthetic appeal.

Harned continues that “most people approach Shakespeare with a doctrine,” and that almost every doctrine that says “yes” to something says “no” to something else. His focus on scansion and rhetoric is not meant to be dogmatic, but he asserts that rhetorical knowledge enables an actor to be faithful to the story of a character. Harned asks the audience if they can see ways in which this approach is inaccessible to actors.

Ryan Odenbrett – A Face “full of O’s”: An Examination of Ecphonesis in Berowne’s Dialogue

Odenbrett connects his MFA thesis to his MLitt thesis on statsitical analysis. He believes echphonesis (the exclamation) is perhaps the most easily identifiable rhetorical figure. What, he asks, does the use of ecphonesis inform us about a character? He focuses on a line of Rosaline’s, accusing Berowne of having “a face full of Os” — rather than interpreting this as a reference to smallpox scars or syphilis blisters, he wondered if she referred to his exclamatory tendencies.

The process of documenting the use of ecphonesis was “monotonous, but not difficult”. Berowne uses ecphonesis 23 times in the play, 18 of those in 4.3 alone. 11 of those take place after he confesses to having written his love sonnet. 92% of his exclamations occur in verse. Odenbrett runs through a breakdown of the syntactical placements of these instances of ecphonesis. Odenbrett then created a table of the total ecphoneses used in all of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard comes in second with 11 instances.

Odenbrett then wanted to know if Berowne uses ecphonesis more than anyone else in the canon — but he believes not, as Love’s Labour’s Lost only has 68 instances (in 12th place), while Romeo and Juliet comes in first with 146. He intends to compare Berowne to other male characters in Shakespeare’s comedies. He asks what information we feel that ecphonesis gives an actor about a character.

George R Kendall – Directing Shakespeare in Intimate Performance Space and the Brechtian V-effekt 

Kendall begins by connecting his work to Mackey’s and Williams’s, as it deals with physicality and physical space. He interrogates the nearness to or distance from the audience in various theatrical approaches, looking particularly at the use of two “intimate spaces”: blackbox theatres and studio spaces. He notes that the Blackfriars Playhouse, while not fitting into either of those categories, still constitutes an intimate space. Kendall characterizes a component of intimacy as the “shared space” of actors and audience which enhances the emotional experience of the audience.

Kendall then discusses the practice of direct address and how it fits into the use of intimate performance spaces. Though it breaks the flow of the action, it does so in a way that is not an obstruction in these spaces. Kendall contrasts the intimacy of direct address in the Blackfriars Playhouse and similar styles to the alienation of the audience and distancing of emotional involvement intended by Brecht.

Kendall states his belief that directors should be very aware of the production space when deciding up on their approach to a play, particularly with an eye towards audience address. The more intimate the theatre space, the more personal that audience interaction can become; direct address has a less profound effect in a large proscenium theatre where much of the audience is physically further from the actors. Kendall questions: What have those of you who are actors discovered about intimate performance space? and How comfortable or uncomfortable are you as an audience member with an actor who addresses you?

Melinda Marks – A Labour Saved: How I Learned to Get Along with Love’s Labour’s Lost

Marks, who was the dramaturg for Love’s Labour’s Lost, also cut that script, and her thesis examines the practical process of cutting, what she cut, and how she decided to cut it. She admits up front that she strongly dislikes this play, which makes telling us about cutting it an intellectually interesting challenge. Since this cutting was for CSE’s “Ren season show”, the show styled after the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, Marks notes that the dramaturg’s role then becomes complicated, as they have no director’s conceptual parameters for either guidance or restriction. Marks notes the difference between creating a product “faithful to” someone else’s concepts and creating a product with the particular goals of the CSE Ren season show. She both had to rely upon subjectivity and had to combat her own distaste for the play in order to create a coherent script that would be interesting for both actors and audience.

After cutting the play, Marks went through all her cuts and made notes on her reasons for them. This allowed her to distinguish between objective and subjective cuts. She also color-coded these cuts for ease of analysis. She describes her role not only as dramaturg, but also as the editor of her own dramaturgical thought process.

Marks asks what we think would be a valuable quantitative or qualitative addition to this process?

Shane Michael Sczepankowski – The Story of the Storytellers

Sczepankowski informs us that his project is “like a thesis… but it isn’t. But it is.” As a response to a challenge from Paul Menzer to write a contribution to the MFA book that was more than an academic paper. As such, he is working on a play reflective of CSE’s mission statement. He is creating “a soft re-telling of the ‘Shane’anigans that have transpired” during the CSE year; his adaptation of Macbeth responds to and parodies CSE’s process of creating their school touring show. The director appears as Hecate and the “salty actors” as the Witches, among other correlations.

Sczepankowski posits this play as a sort of archival compilation, retelling the process of CSE’s experience. In a scripted scene, Tyler Dale expresses concern that Sczepankowski is skirting his responsibilities as an S&P student; Sczepankowski admits that this is an unusual approach, but believes that it will reflect the unique and meaningful experiences of the CSE journey.

His question: What makes a successful adaptation and what makes an absolutely miserable one?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s