Last week I had the privilege of studying with Tectonic Theatre Project in New York City to begin to learn their Moment Work™ devising process. As the week went on, a line from one of my all-time favorite plays, Stupid Fucking Bird, kept buzzing in my ear:
New forms? Why? Why? Why new forms? How about this for an idea: Just do the old forms BETTER! Who am I to change them?”
As a theatre-maker hungry to dive into the realms of what theatre can offer us in the time of media-on-demand, I have often struggled with this very concept. How do we push theatre to evolve and engage our audiences without bogging ourselves down in the mire of pretension? Over the past few years I have admired work of Theatre Devisers who have pushed the boundaries and expectations of what theatre is. And yet, while devising continues to grow and take over the modern theatre world, the processes by which these companies create work too often remains a vague mystery*. Enter: Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project’s Process of Devising Theater and The Moment Work Institute.
Within a week I completed the Teacher Training Intensive, which “is designed to train [college professors and high school teachers] in the method and pedagogy of Moment Work” (“Moment Work Institute”). The training was eye-opening, invigorating, and highly collaborative, and I cannot say enough wonderful things about it, although I’m about to try.
What is Moment Work?
Under the leadership of Moisés Kaufman, Tectonic Theatre Project has been developing this method for more than two decades. Initially a way to bring existing texts to life, the company eventually used Moment Work™ to create new plays including Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project & Laramie: Ten Years Later, and 33 Variations, to name a few. The process seeks to emphasize the theatricality of a play in order to help a text realize its full theatrical potential. This is done by breaking down a moment of theatre into its component theatrical elements (gesture, architecture, props, costumes, lights, sound, text, etc.), exploring each element separately, and then carefully experimenting with how these elements layer within a moment to find the version where these elements “kiss” to best invigorate the performance of the narrative. Prior to attending the intensive, I read Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project’s Process of Devising Theater, which the company recently published. If you are interested in Tectonic Theatre Project, Moment Work™, how the process has been used to create work, or are interested in theatre theory, then this book is a MUST READ. It’s concise and yet extremely informative. For any playmaker or theatre teacher (especially an IB theatre teacher), the hours of exercises alone qualify this as a vital reference.
Teacher Training Intensive
After introductions, icebreakers, and an overview of the week ahead, we began by discussing theatrical “Moments We Love” – examples from plays or musicals we had seen that had touched, excited, fascinated, and/or captivated us in some way. I selected a moment from The Great Society, which I had recently seen at Arena Stage, in which Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC arrive onstage to protest segregated housing in Chicago.
Amid the tension on stage, which pits the white ensemble versus the black ensemble, director Kyle Donnelly utilized a variety of theatrical elements to emphasize the poignancy of the text. (Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of the exact moment in the production, but I’m including a couple of images that will give you a sense of the elements that stood out to me.) A harsh fight sequence breaks out on stage featuring white “neighbors” brutalizing the black protesters, as darkness slowly descends over the scene. The primary source of light eventually comes up from the grates in the floor (which you can see in the image at left) spoking out from the Presidential seal, and from some side angles.
Eventually, only MLK and his attacker remain on stage, everyone else having scattered. The stage is covered in haze when the action shifts into slow motion. The white aggressor takes a bottle and slowly moves to hit MLK in the face with it. However just before he would make contact with his face, he instead upends the bottle above MLK’s head and pours out blood, which drips down MLK’s face and body and into the grates in the floor. Over this visual we hear MLK in voice over: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago […the people of Mississippi and Alabama should go to Chicago to learn how to hate.]” Within this example the staging illuminated the text: the tempo of the actors, the lighting, and the choice and use of a prop in particular. While the text is powerful in and of itself, when layered on top of these elements it became a visceral and evocative theatrical moment, rather than a mere piece of rhetoric.
From this exercise, we began to analyze the innumerable theatrical elements that we, as theatre makers, can manipulate to create moments. While the big elements might jump out at you (movement, lights, sound, costumes, etc.), there are more subtle dynamics at play as well (actor gaze, architecture, audience orientation, etc.).
Exploring the Poetry of Theatrical Elements
Over the course of the week, we expanded on this list as we discovered additional elements through discussion and play. By the end of the first day we began an almost rudimentary exploration of gesture, prop, and costume while also reinforcing the Tectonic practice of announcing “I begin,” before the start of a moment and “I end,” upon the conclusion.
Personally, it took me through the end of the first day to let go of the need to “make something happen” in these very brief moments of gesture and props. I once again felt that niggling pressure to be “interesting” on stage. As Stanislavski notes in An Actor Prepares, “whatever happens on the stage must be for a purpose” (Stanislavski 33). And while that direction does have a lot of value, for the purpose of letting go and exploring these basic theatrical elements to find the poetry within each, I had to let go of the need to be motivated and therefore interesting to watch.
That was the best part of it. You sat and waited and did not act anything.”
Finally in our last exploration on day one I had a breakthrough with costumes. I had chosen to explore a dress that consisted of a purple stretch tube-top bodice and a two-layered, asymmetrical wrap style skirt, the top layer of which was the same fabric as the bodice while the bottom layer was patterned in a complementary hue. Scott Barrow, our primary instructor, gave us about 10 minutes to explore the “poetry of the costume.” Having previously “failed” (in my mind only) the exploration of gesture and prop by trying to force some sort of character into existence, I focused on what surprises the costume had in store for the audience. If I began with the dress turned inside-out I could eventually reveal the second layer of fabric to the audience. By wearing the dress on my arm like a long sleeve, I could create movement in the fabric, which was extremely flowy and moved easily in the breeze from the wall mounted fans. Because the dress was rather limp on its own but had amazing elastic abilities in the bodice, I decided to play with the structure of the garment. I sheathed the back of a chair with the dress creating a make-shift dust ruffle around the legs of the chair. Straddling the chair itself I played with lifting one layer of fabric and then climbed underneath the chair to create a curtain effect. What I found to be most successful about this exploration, in particular, was that I let go of the idea that I, as the actor, had to be in the piece at all. And while there were points within this moment that one could argue I was an actor in the scene, overall I was more a manipulator of the costume than a character with a dress.
At the end of each day, Scott had us end with one reflective word to remember in the days ahead. I chose, “patience,” to remind myself to not force the process but to allow it to unfold for me.
On Tuesday our explorations focused on lights and sound. Scott assigned us to groups of three to explore light utilizing any of the other elements we had already worked with: gesture, architecture, props and costumes. We began to create “stock” moments that would become community property, meaning that anyone could take that moment and then alter it or “riff” on the initial idea to create a new moment. One such moment was “Box of Light” which initially started as a form in which two actors stand (one on stage left and one right) about ten paces from a box center stage.
The stage is bathed in black except for a shaft of light which escapes from the sides of the box about halfway up. As the two actors move simultaneously closer to the box, their faces move into light, then out as their torsos move into the light, then out, followed by their legs, etc., until they reach the box. In tandem the actors sink to their knees, crouching to take the box by the hand as the light hits their faces. Slowly they open the box to reveal a third actor standing upstage center of the box. “Moment: Box of Light” became a popular form to riff on over the course of the week. My sound group experimented with it by incorporating different musical styles for when the box was open versus closed. On our final day, another group took just the element of the box with a light in it and incorporated that into their final moment performance (seen above).
Another such moment, lovingly dubbed, “Creeping Corner,” began as my contribution to our architecture explorations from day one. As a director, choreographer, and avid fan of found spaces I immediately zeroed in on a nook within our rehearsal studio that would allow just enough room for an actor to mostly hide from the audience. From there I came up with this basic movement (which I’ve recreated outside of the studio): Creepy Corner Hand Movement.
This gestural and architectural form was repeatedly used and riffed on throughout the week.
Form and Content
By the end of Tuesday, we had begun to grasp the concept of form vs. content which is essential to Moment Work™and the creation of a piece of theatre. As the book describes, “an early mission statement for Tectonic included the line ‘We want Form and Content to copulate, and we want our work to be the offspring of that copulation'” (Kaufman et al. 27). The creation of form is as essential to the Moment Work™ process as the development of the content into a narrative.
One can think of the form as the structure, or “rules,” set up within the performance of a specific play. To go back to Stupid Fucking Bird as an example, Posner sets up the rules that the actors will periodically stop the play to directly speak to the audience with the expectation that the audience to reply to them. He does this in the first line when Con walks onto the stage and says directly to the house: “The play will begin when someone says, ‘Start the fucking play'” (Posner 3). Easily and immediately the actors enter into a contract with the audience. By creating forms, the deviser sets up a theatrical language for the production. Tectonic famously exemplified the so-called “docu-drama” form within The Laramie Project, and while that is in some ways a misnomer as they play is technically not a documentary, the form and style that Moment Work™ yielded on that project created a recognizable structure for the content. You can see this in action in the video below (skip to 25:00 to see excerpts from The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later).
If we’re thinking metaphorically, content is the box that will carry the story (or the content) of the play. The box (form) we choose to match with the contents (content) can yield very interesting interpretations if we make evocative choices. Not to belabor this metaphor, but if the content that we were trying to house were feces and we decided to dress that content up in our grandmother’s hope chest it would make for a very different production than if we simply put it into an old shoe box.
The idea of thinking outside the box (pun intended) on how we, as devisers and directors, play with the relationship between form and content has truly captured me as a theatre maker. And while this metaphorical example is extreme in its dichotomy, it poses an interesting challenge to the playmaker to search beyond a narrow view of storytelling onstage.
By mid-week we began to explore text. Initially, we took some found text that participants had brought in and layered this onto an existing moment from our list. My group of four chose a fascinating moment, “Glove Puppets.” The original moment featured a man, Chip Lamb, wearing a pair of black lace fingerless gloves explored the spatial relationship of his hands to each other and how to make the gloves almost dance together. It was so evocative that when his hands finally separated from each other and began to tremble, with a slight gasp from the performer, I interpreted the scene as if his hands were in mourning over the loss of their mate.
“Glove Puppets” eventually expanded into a form that included blocking and spatial relationship. Instead of beginning with the actor seated center stage with the gloves on, the moment began with the gloves sitting on a chair and the actor offstage. The actor opened a door, saw the gloves, and crossed to them. Arriving at the chair, he noticed the door was still open and crossed back to shut the door before returning to the chair. Standing just upstage of the chair, he lovingly put each glove on before sitting down and finished the movement that he had established in the first version of “Glove Puppets.”
Our text group, which luckily included Chip, decided to add one red clip light hanging just above the chair and placed the audience in a semi-circle around it. Apart from the red light, the rest of the room was in complete black until Chip began by opening the door. He again crossed to the chair, requiring him to gently, but firmly, adjust the audience out of his path to get to the gloves. Once he arrived, noticing the door was still open, he crossed back, shut the door, and was visually lost to the audience in the darkness. The tension built as for a few seconds we could only see the red light shining on the gloves. Anticipation grew as Chip, now invisible to the audience, made a wide loop around to the middle of the crowd in a just opposite from the seat of the chair. Without warning, he again adjusted the audience out of his way, to a few gasps. He moved the back of the chair and began to put the gloves on, this time holding them to the light as he put them on with reverence. From the audience I spoke the line, “You should not call your female co-workers honey.” The actor continued his movement from the original “Glove Puppets” moment without acknowledging the line had been spoken. As he came to the point where his hands exploded apart, the other group members and I joined his gasp and then said in unison, “because it’s condescending AF.” This layering of text (which was pulled from a friend’s Facebook post) created a reversal of the perceived narrative and became for me an exemplar of our next major lesson, never “put a hat on a hat.”
Putting a Hat on a Hat
This one concept may be responsible for completely shifting the way that I think about theatre for the rest of my life. In extreme layman’s terms, this idea boils down to maximizing the potency of each stage element. Essentially: allow each element (or as few as are needed) to do the heavy lifting of carrying a particular point of narrative information; for example, if a scene takes place in a subway, you don’t need a fully realized subway car, sounds of the conductor and the train rattling on the track, lights moving swiftly horizontally to show movement, the actors bouncing, AND the line “Does this train stop at Harlem?” to get the message of environment across to your audience. You’ve essentially put a hat on a hat, narratively speaking. Rather simply use one or two elements to effectively set a detail, like location, and you free up the other elements to tell other facets of the story or move the narrative along as needed.
Creating Narrative from Moments
At the mid-point of the Intensive, Scott assigned us a “Hunch” to think about, explore text options for, and even plan a moment to bring in to work on the following days. The assigned hunch was, “consciousness.” From this broad idea, we eventually split our cohort into three broad topics: loss of consciousness, self-consciousness, and alternative reality. The final two days of the intensive focused on how we could create new moments based on our hunches or riff on the moments we created throughout the week, and eventually build these moments into a narrative to create the seedling of a play. This part of the workshop was invaluable, especially for me as I’m not only teaching devised theatre next year but am also collaborating with my students to create an original devised piece.
My group began by creating five moments with each of us directing a single moment. We had about two hours in the studio to experiments with these. Initially, none of our moments could include text, although every other element was at our disposal. For the final half hour of our session on Thursday we were assigned to apply text to one of the moments we created. Interestingly enough, we had one Moment Maker (Gleason Bauer) in our group whose moment was specifically inspired by a news article, but ultimately once the moment was created, she found that the text was superfluous. The moment spoke for itself.
Rather, we applied excerpts from a poem, “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” by Frank O’Hara, to a moment called: “Newspaper Falling” which was directed by Daniel Lendzian. (Above is an excerpt from a rehearsal of this moment.) Initially, the moment consisted of a man reading a newspaper while the house lights remained up. A cowbell sound is heard, the man reacts. Lights go to black and then switch to blue and green side light as the man slowly falls allowing the newspaper to fly in the air. While he falls we hear an instrumental version of “Tomorrow” from Annie. This moment without any text had incredible potential as a form unto itself. The addition of “Tomorrow” cast a humorous mood on the piece. By inserting a voice over of the poem “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” we were able to begin to play with the idea of narrative by planting questions in the audience’s mind of what the text tells us about the story: “Is this man Lana Turner? Her biggest fan? Is this whole conversation happening in his head? Is it what he is reading in the newspaper?”
Receiving feedback from our classmates helped to reinforce the need for a Joe X in the room, a pair of fresh eyes who has no pre-contextualization for what he or she is seeing. Creators must continually ask themselves, “What will my audience make of this?” And these questions ultimately helped push our final presentation to take a large step toward narrative clarity.
The Value of Hands On Experience
While essentially every exercise we experienced during the Intensive is described in the book (and we experienced many more than are described in this post), in person attendance was invaluable as the instructor, Scott Barrow, also provided us with the pedagogy behind the method, multiple examples of how to work each exercise with students, a variety of methods to engage students in discussion of the work post-presentation, and even gave us a chance to practice teaching back. The entire experience reinvigorated me as both a theatre artist and an educator.
I have always found the camaraderie built among theatre teachers at conferences to be exceptionally empathetic and collaborative, and our cohort was no exception. In a very short time, this group came together and embraced each other as a community of theatre-makers, teachers, and learners. The resources and ideas each individual brought to this work helped us all to learn more about Moment Work™ and how to teach it to our students.
As a primarily kinesthetic and visual learner, I fully embrace hands-on experiences. If you have the opportunity to do any kind of Moment Work™ training, I highly recommend it. As a rehearsal technique, devising process, or simply as a way to think more critically about performance analysis, practicing the methods of Moment Work™ daily for a week helped me to ground the concepts of the process in my mind and body. It forced me to look at production in a new way. Two days after completing this training I had the privilege to see Hamilton on tour at the Kennedy Center, just three weeks after seeing it on Broadway for the first time. While the staging of the two productions was almost identical, my analysis of both performances was radically different for having lived the aesthetic and strictures of Moment Work™ for a week.
Lessons in Teaching
I would be remiss not to mention how much I learned as a teacher simply by watching Scott Barrow at work. Scott has been with Tectonic since 2008, was part of the creation of 33 Variations, Laramie: Ten Years Later, and Uncommon Sense, and is one of the expert teachers in Moment Work™ for the company.
If I had learned nothing else from this week, it would have still been worth the time and expense to simply observe how masterfully he navigated the content of the course, the pacing and assessment of our work, the cultivation of a community within our cohort, and balance of bringing every student up to speed while not holding back those who had grasped the concepts. I know that I fall into the trap of talking too much in discussions I’ve led in class, eager to make sure that my students note something that I saw and want to share. Scott possesses seemingly unlimited patience, and while he would contribute to the discussion, it would always be toward the end as a way to reinforce a key detail to the understanding of the curriculum. By the end of the workshop, he hardly jumped into the discussion at all, simply acting as a moderator and facilitator. This allowed us to own our discoveries as students, making the learning that much more meaningful.
He also utilized several classroom tools that I cannot wait to incorporate into my teaching practice. One such tool I particularly marveled at was the idea of a “Floating Concept” board and a “Pin Board.” As we hit upon major concepts of Moment Work™ the list of Floating Concepts grew. This was a list of concepts that recur throughout the course that you want to emphasize a connection to as students build skills and understanding. It creates a visual reference to connect educational content to concepts. The Pin Board was a way to acknowledge a question or a concept that came up too early in the course to be properly understood or required further research before answering. So many times students can get ahead of the flow of learning, or a question will come up and we are not sure of the answer in the moment. The Pin Board creates a place in the classroom where the student can see that the teacher has clearly acknowledged the query and has public memory of doing so, and will come back to that “pinned” thought as soon as possible. These boards are so simple to create and maintain within a classroom and so versatile for use in any subject area.
Incorporating Moment Work™ into IB Theatre
I plan to use so many aspects of Moment Work™ in my teaching this coming year. For IB Theatre, in particular, the tools that Tectonic offers go far beyond the Collaborative Project (which requires students to devise an original work between 2-6 theatre-makers.) The structural and interpretative analysis skills that we practiced in the workshop, and which are described thoroughly in the book, were not wholly new to me as a way to analyze and critique performances as an audience member. However, by first focusing on each individual theatrical element and then analyzing the discursive lines of these elements within a moment, we were repeatedly able to practice and build skills in play analysis and then play creation (key components to many aspects of the IB curriculum, but especially the Director’s Notebook.). Exposing students to Moment Work early in the year will gradually build up their sensitivity to slight nuances within a production and thus maximize their ability to manipulate these theatrical elements when they begin to work on the major performance assessments.
Additionally, the process of scoring a moment, which is also laid out in the book (although I’ve included a picture to give you a visual sense), will help students working on the Director’s Notebook to visualize their ideas on how to stage a moment from a chosen play and illustrate very clearly to the reader how production and performance elements will interact to get the intended intention across to the audience.
Finally, Tectonic’s work stems from the theories of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, Mary Overlie/Anne Bogart/Tina Landau, and Peter Brook. If you wanted to be able to build off of a theatre theorist unit into Moment Work™ it would make a natural progression for the student and easily fit into their work on the Solo Theatre Piece or the Collaborative Project. Personally I will be working toward adjusting my Brecht unit to segue into Moment Work™, as I feel that Brecht’s ideas, which can feel very odd to the novice high school student only grounded in realism as a theatre practice, seem to have matured within the framework and aesthetic that Tectonic has honed throughout the years.
As I mentioned early, throughout the week I kept hearing that line from Stupid Fucking Bird, “Why not just do the old forms better?” If I take only one lesson away from my experience with Tectonic, it must be the understanding that Moment Work fulfills that challenge. I awoke to the possibility of theatre creation that elegantly builds off of a team’s expertise while still being open to the creative freedom that comes with being a novice and a willingness to try something unconventional.
As I continue my journey toward graduate school, I found my time with Tectonic Theatre Project granted me space and time to focus on myself as a theatre artist. Reading the book beforehand helped articulate ideas that have been milling around in my brain for some time. In the prologue essay of the book, Artistic Director Moisés Kaufman asks, “how do we articulate a vision for this art form today that will allow theatre to play that vital role in our culture?” I hope to answer this question over the next few years as I continue my path towards graduate school and beyond.