Initial Thoughts and Project Impetus
Presently the world is experiencing a phenomenon of self-quarantine and social distancing due to coronavirus. The pandemic has spread quickly and dramatically causing Arizona State, as well as many other universities, to move the remainder of the semester online. This proved to be an interesting challenge to design a Performance as Research (PAR) project around, particularly given my focus on audience engagement and participation through theatre.
Through my first two projects, Something to Chalk About? and Complimentary Currency, I had successfully built projects that elicited pedestrian audience participation through very limited, mostly non-verbal invitation strategies. However, previous attempts to activate participant use of social media as a method of audience engagement during these projects had failed miserably in both of these projects. Due to the overwhelmingly digital nature of the current world circumstance at present, I decided that I wanted to bring the option for social media interaction back into this project. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to turn to social media as a primary form of social interaction. Considering this, I set out to design a project that would be pushed out via social media and create the opportunity for an audience member to encounter and explore it on their own. While I initially wanted the audience to create something they could then record or capture and share back with me via social media, my own journey through Within These Walls taught me the value of art for arts’ sake on an intimate individual level.
How can I adapt an in-person theatrical devising experience so that it can be self-led by a non-theatre practitioner in their own home on their own time?
I have been very curious about what might happen if an audience-participant could be fully autonomous over their experience through a theatrical event. While audience members always have the option to remain in the event or leave it, I wanted to discover what might happen if I could create a playground of sorts and let them choose where and with what to play. Before coronavirus, I envisioned creating stations within our classroom and inviting my classmates to enter the space and engage with different stations as their momentary whims dictated. I also had an idle idea of setting up objects along the cubed window-sills outside our classroom, inviting classmates to grab an item they would then use that as a stimulus to lead them through the stations in the classroom.
However, given the limitations of social distancing, I had to revise this idea, and so chose to create a choose-your-own-adventure tool that could be prompted by computer or phone and completed on the audience’s personal time while in their own homes. Initially, I thought I would use Prezi, a presentation tool that uses animations to zoom the viewer into the next “slide”. While this visual element could create the illusion of a journey and add to the immersive experience of the tool, it was very cumbersome to navigate and build and I ultimately decided would not work for this microproject iteration.
While discussing my idea with another ASU Theatre for Youth graduate student, Sarah Tan, who happens to be focusing her thesis on participant-devised theatre using social media, she mentioned a previous project another friend had completed using google forms. This struck a chord with me. While I didn’t love the aesthetic of a form/survey, I knew how to navigate its creation extremely well. Ultimately, I decided that function over form had to be the priority in testing this idea. Immediately I got to work creating the Google form.
As a director, I rely heavily on being in physical space with people. I find that my work increasingly builds off of the architecture in a room, especially when devising new work.
After grappling for a few days with how I could translate the experience of leading someone through a space exploration remotely, I mentioned my conundrum to my sister, Katie. She challenged me to embrace the forced quarantine by looking “within the walls” of my home to make something. This comment set off a fuse that quickly gained momentum in my brain. I began to reframe my thinking to ask myself, “how would I facilitate or coach someone through a devising sequence remotely?” Immediately, I pulled up Google Forms and began to type my response.
EXCERPT FROM CONVERSATION DURING THE EXPERIMENTATION PHASE: “It’s so interesting to try and translate my work into a virtual space because it’s so not what I do. I have found recently that architecture and physical space is the first thing that informs my work in devised spaces. …How do I translate how tactile my work is another space where I might not be?”
I developed the initial form, Within These Walls 1.0, based on Bogart & Landau’s Viewpoints and Tectonic Theatre Project’s process of Moment Work. Both of these methods have helped me to discover new things about the spaces that I inhabit frequently. Beginning with sensory prompts, the tool offers a wide variety of options for Adventures to choose once they begin the exploration.
Ideally, I imagined this tool could be used by a broad audience – youth, adult, artist, or non-artist. Therefore, I wanted to create options that enabled as much participation as possible for anyone willing to adventure. As I developed the questions and sequence that the audience-participant (Adventurer) would travel through, I decided I needed to create options that were both narrow enough to not induce decision fatigue and yet broad enough to appeal to a diverse set of Adventurers. I also wanted to invite Adventurers to explore freely and set them at ease while embracing processes that a non-theatre maker might find odd or off-putting. Finally, I felt obligated to some sort of transparency as to why this tool existed – for research purposes – and designed the initial interaction with the tool (the video below) to warmly invite the audience in while communicating the research purposes of this creative adventure.
Within a day of deciding to use Google Forms as the implementation form of this tool, I had crafted the initial 1.0 version of Within These Walls and pushed it out via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All told I had 8 participants who completed journeys, other than myself. I will discuss the results of that engagement in the next post further.
After a week of running the 1.0 version, I tweaked the decision to create a 2.0 version that I would try out with PARticipant classmates as a part of my weekly presentation of this work. In version 2.0 I made two distinct differences, which I will explain more specifically in my next post. The first significant difference was that I replaced the informational, transparent introductory video with a playful introduction that cast me in-role as a “model” adventurer. I hoped that by modeling “silly” play, I might set my audience-participants at ease and put them in a mindset to begin adventuring on their own.
The second major adjustment that I made to this form was in the post-creation portion of the form. In the 1.0 version, Adventurers had many off-roads out of the adventure that would ask them to choose between one of three options:
- I want to play some more.
- I’m ready to perform.
- I’m done. Thanks.
If a participant chose the first option they would be hurled back into a second layer of devising prompts (and possibly a third, fourth, or fifth layer) and would later be prompted with a similar message. Those who chose the third option were immediately led out of the form and brought to the submit screen to “turn in” the google form. However, those who selected the second option were led to a series of questions designed to encourage them to perform and share their work on social media as well as give permission for me to view and/or cite or refer to their creations in this report.
In version 2.0, however, I tweaked the design of the form so that all participants on the pathway out of the form had to share some sort of reflection on the journey and were given the option of sharing a “performance” of their creation with me.
This particular adjustment in the design came about from two significant experiences I had with version 1.0 Adventurers, which I will speak more specifically to in the next post.
I would be amiss without mentioning one specific aspect of the tool’s design: the choice of language. In order to appeal to a broad audience and particularly a wide variety of creative practices, I wanted to choose language to refer to the different levels of creation within the form that wouldn’t burden the audience with the pressure of making “great art”. I used the terms crumb, nuggets, and muffins that I have gathered from my work with Grey Box Collective, a Tempe-based devised dance-theatre company. Artistic Director, Molly Schenk, uses these terms to help delineate the sequence of devising based on Tectonic Theatre Project‘s (TTP) Moment Work process. While very synonymous to TTP’s language of moments, layers, and sequences, I find “crumbs”, “nuggets”, and “muffins” to hold clearer imagery that can lead an non-professional creative to understand how to build off of a small “crumb” of creation by combining crumbs into nuggets and nuggets into muffins.
In altering and refining Within These Walls 2.0, I also consciously unified language to shift the experience of the form into a metaphor for an actual journey. I hoped that allusions to a “fork in the road”, “the trailhead”, and “the path begins to clear” might both allow the Adventurer to have a sense of how far into the journey they were and keep them immersed in the imagined circumstance of a creative adventure.
To be quite honest, it’s hard to articulate exactly how I wanted to assess engagement through this tool. I know that I wanted people to enjoy the experience and hopefully share it with others, which would be a clear marker of success. Part of me felt strongly (especially at first) that I wanted Adventurers to share their creations with me, and the structure of version 1.0 reflects that desire. I was also curious to see what similarities or differences I would find in the exploration options chosen by participants. Would there be any patterns that cropped up?
As I poured over both data and documentation while both versions of the tool were in use, I felt more than ever that I was assessing my own process as a PAR researcher. In a project that required me to take a passive role and yield to the whims of my audience-participants, I found that I learned more about myself and my supposed research goals, than I did about my audience-participants’ and their tendencies toward devising. However, the feedback, data, and documentation that this project generated through audience-participants did shed light on the tool itself and continue to influence my thinking as I prepare future iterations of this project.
Ultimately, as I assess Within These Walls, I am left with the following questions that guide my understanding of the results:
- As a researcher, which is more important for me to collect: Adventurer’s creations or their experiences?
- How can I encourage “safe discomfort” (a state of audience-engagement that I named during my most recent PAR project I Wear the Mask, It Does Not Wear Me, in an at-home remote setting where I am not physically present?
- When it comes to process vs. product, which allows the audience to experience a more meaningful engagement with the art?
Below you can view one of my own creations from version 1.0 of Within These Walls, a Twitter Poem that I wrote during my second adventure. To see the poem in its entirety, please click the link below. To continue reading the next section of this report, select the hyperlink on Performance & Experience below.