Thing Power

In early January I gathered with a group of artists to launch a new project, Object Karaoke. It was a launch, but also felt to me like a slipping in to something that had been in the works for a long time. This was the result of a few things -- the fact that this piece was part of a larger collaboration between Hand2Mouth, Artists Repertory Theatre, and Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center; the fact that we would be working with objects that were imagined, built, and handled in plays premiered the season before; the fact that the project, from  concept to title, was born from the deep mind of my dramaturg Jen Mitas -- but no project is an island, no matter how new it seems.

 Three lumps in rehearsal.

Three lumps in rehearsal.

I had read some of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter during my second year grad school seminar, and had revisited the text a few months earlier while working on a student-created project with my supervisor Steven Hill. I knew that Bennett's ideas of "thing power" would be the entry point for the work, but was worried about how to let theory hold hands with practice, particularly when I only had 12 rehearsals (including this first meeting) to build a complete show. Using a practice I learned from Miguel Gutierrez, we began rehearsal with timed sections of continuous movement, critical reading, free writing, and then again, continuous movement. In this way I could bring ideas into the room and into the bodies of the performers without having to talk about them. Each actor was able to absorb and integrate as much or as little of the text as they wanted; there was no "homework" feeling because we were all doing it together, and the chance for fatigue was minimal as we were doing each section for 7-12 minutes (depending on the day). I was thrilled that the actors took to the text and the ideas so strongly, asking for more reading, bringing up key concepts as they discussed the work we were making, and proposing new ways forward using the language of Bennett.

 Our stage, with plinths, harp, and ladders. Painted ice blue for Artist Rep's  Magellanica . 

Our stage, with plinths, harp, and ladders. Painted ice blue for Artist Rep's Magellanica

I spent the rest of January back in BC while each of the actors held solo encounters with the objects: three large pink fabrics, a green brocade drape, a hand-printed dress, three Victorian-style hats, a mask (which we cut early one), and a piano harp (located at Artists Rep and not the Shout House studio). I asked for reports from these encounters, and they ranged from short and pragmatic to wild and stream of consciousness. Jen responded to each with details about the object's origins, maker, and previous performance experience.

From February 6-10 we worked, improvised, and got to know the material qualities of the objects. The performer team, Erin Leddy, Liz Hayden, Kaj-anne Pepper, and Ken Yoshikawa, were incredible in their quantity and quality of ideas. Creating was no problem, how to organize it into something that contained a legible performance grammar, was something else. After a week away, we all gathered again on Febuary 19, nine days before the premiere (and close) of the show. There was still material to be made, and rough ideas to be refined, but my goals for the first few days were to discover a system for putting everything together. This final rehearsal period was gifted by the presence of our incredible musician and sound designer Erika M Anderson. I had spoken with Erika on Skype the previous month (she was in Europe opening for Depeche Mode, ndb), but this was my first time meeting her in person and my first time hearing her play the piano harp live. During an improvisation, which became the basis of the show's opening section, Jen and I came across the idea of turning the whole show into a score. This was appealing for several reasons: we didn't have enough time to fine tune each and every part; the performers were so generous and skilled in improvisation and so open to the power of the objects, and the performing moment, that it seemed right to give space for those impulses; part of the initial impulse of the project was to create a generative model of what can be done with post-show objects; and the score itself is an object of power, an object which gives rise to. All of these plus our unknown to each other fascination with performance scores sent us on our way.

 Object wake. Erin Leddy, Ken Yoshikawa, Kaj-anne Pepper, Liz Hayden, Erika M Anderson (L to R)

Object wake. Erin Leddy, Ken Yoshikawa, Kaj-anne Pepper, Liz Hayden, Erika M Anderson (L to R)

Despite snow and cancelled rehearsals, we crafted loose ends into a piece. We moved into the theatre, still painted ice-blue from the previous show, and declared it to be the most powerful object at our disposal. We added video and plinths, and the day before we opened, lights and amplification. More than any other show I've made, I did not know what to expect when we opened. We had only run the piece once before, and my attention was spent on tracking lighting cues and taking notes (though I suppose this is often the case...). While I hoped some sections would be funny, I was surprised at eager the audience was to laugh at others, particularly my opening remarks framed as a sort of pre-show speech. At the end of the piece the objects sit on plinths around the stage floor. Jen's concluding remarks have invited the audience to wander among the pieces, to read their didactic texts, to looks closely and examine. The theatre, our big object, had turned into another sort of object, a gallery, and the theatre audience was performing their part, wandering and remarking, wine glasses in hand.

  Object   Karaoke  team: Kaj-anne Pepper (on plinths with dress, green drape, hats, pink fabric), Jen Mitas (standing), Lucille Dawson, Erin Leddy, Ken Yoshikawa, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Erika M Anderson (front L to R).

Object Karaoke team: Kaj-anne Pepper (on plinths with dress, green drape, hats, pink fabric), Jen Mitas (standing), Lucille Dawson, Erin Leddy, Ken Yoshikawa, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Erika M Anderson (front L to R).