Three hours with SITI company

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Anne Bogart and Ann Hamilton. Photo courtesy wexarts.org

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal for the theater is a blank page, Anne Bogart/SITI Company’s and Ann Hamilton’s new collaborative work. My friend Darron L West is SITI Company’s sound designer, and he and I worked together when I danced for Liz Lerman prior to grad school. He invited me to attend rehearsals while SITI Company is in town for a residency to develop this new work, which premieres at the Wexner Center for the Arts on April 23-26.

Darron walked me around the stage of the Mershon auditorium when I first arrived, pointing out where certain moments in the show will happen, and I was struck by just how much action will take place in the space, and how much the stage space will change over the course of the show. Words like building, tearing down, revealing, opening, closing, filling, draping, pressing, confining, releasing all came to mind as I listened. I’ve been on the Mershon stage before (when it is set up as a black box performance space), but walking around the bare stage on Friday, with props laid here and there, I felt such a sense of excitement and anticipation for how this cavernous proscenium stage can move quickly to drastic intimacy with the introduction of just a few elements, and the presence of actors who seem to be able to modulate how much space they take up in their bodies and voices from moment to moment.

At one point, watching the actors run a section of text from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I thought: this is rehearsal. And, of course it was. But what I responded to was the sense that the actors were reaching and finding the language in each moment in order to express the specific. There was no rote delivery, there was no given. I know the actors were running memorized (or almost memorized) lines, but I felt I was seeing them find the words themselves, and it was actually thrilling to witness.

Toward the end of my time in rehearsal, the company became involved in a discussion about the intention of an actor’s delivery, which turned into a larger discussion about how the actors related to the audience, to the text, to the nature of the particular moment developing. I started to wonder how we handle moments like this in dance, when there isn’t yet a firm decision on what a moment should be because the moment (and the larger dance) are still forming.

In Bebe Miller’s Designing Dance class, we’ve been discussing when we approach a moment with a directorial lens, a choreographic lens, a dramaturgical lens. I saw all three at work in how the cast and design team discussed this moment:

  • Choreographic: When does the actor step up on the stool in the center of the stage? What does she do with the book she’s holding? How does she show it to the audience? When do the actors standing among the audience step forward? Are they in line with the row of chairs?
  • Directorial: What is the intention of this moment and these people? Where are we headed? How did we get here? What conventions are we calling upon or subverting? What rules are we making?
  • Dramaturgical: What is the role of the book as an object and the book as a carrier of meaning/cultural information? What does it do to read something on stage vs. memorize it and “act” reading?

These questions can certainly drift and migrate between categories, but it was useful to separate them to see the variety of ways we can approach generating and crafting our work. The conversation at rehearsal on Friday ended with the Stage Manager calling for a break, so I’m not sure how this moment was resolved. It probably wasn’t so enjoyable for the people on the inside, trying to figure it out, but getting to listen in on this conversation really revealed the complexity of this company’s work, and the sort of exquisite stumbling it takes to make something new.

And, it’s silly, but when I left, I felt giddy. Round and round in my head I thought: “The theater is a blank page! The theater is a blank page!” And aren’t we fortunate that’s the case?

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