TheatreWorks 2020: Puppetry, Chance, and Improvisation!

Courtney and her scene partner, Valentine!

TheatreWorks provides an opportunity for participants to learn and improve upon dance and theatre skills. What makes this program and all of our performance-based programs unique are our productions and how we shape them! A professional theatre director and choreographer guide teens through a process called devised theatre that allows them to create original performative works via imagination, collaboration, and skill-based workshops and exercises. 

This year’s TheatreWorks program was held online and we chose to celebrate the technology and the spaces we connect from by incorporating them into our art!

Dance — Research, Chance, and Improvisation 

For the dance component of TheatreWorks, participants worked with dance instructor Sarah Duclos to learn two approaches for creating choreography: Chance Method and Architectural Mapping.

Architectural Mapping is a process developed by choreographer Mary Overlie for her Six Viewpoints methodology. It promotes using research and investigation as tools for creating movement in response to a space or environment. 

Teens share their architectural map drawings with Sarah 

The focus of our architectural maps were the spaces we use for Zoom! To begin our research, we drew diagrams of our rooms and labeled elements that corresponded to the seven categories listed below. In between each category, we improvised short dance explorations inspired by our additions.

Here is a list provided by Sarah of the features we mapped and our considerations: 

  1. Floors — Note the shape of your room- the location of walls and floor beneath your feet. What does your floor look like? Is it tiled, concrete, wooden or carpeted? What patterns are on the carpet?
  2. Solid Masses — Diagram furniture or large, solid items in your space (walls included). Consider interacting and utilizing the solid masses in your space as you think about new ways of moving through it. 
  3. Textures Notice textures in your space and let them influence how you move. How would you respond to them through dance? Consider making movement that contrasts those textures. 
  4. Sources of LightObserve and note sources of light on your map. Is it artificial or natural? Where are the switches and outlets ?. Where does light pool in your space? Think about moving in response to the light. Move toward it or against it. Create shadows and/or trace those shadows in a dance. 
  5. Color — Take note of the various colors in your space. Consider the emotional qualities of these colors and infuse them into your dance. Let them affect your movement and the emotion you imbue. 
  6. Objects — These refer to things that are movable in your space and affect your dancing. Interact with these objects and incorporate them into your dances. 
  7. Distant Architecture — Look outside of your window or your room. What do you see? Do you see trees, other houses, or objects in nature? Perhaps, you see into another room or hallway. Allow what’s outside of your space to permeate your movement.

To preface part two of our project, we learned about avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham and his forward-thinking approaches to choreography. Cunningham developed a process called Chance Method that utilizes uncertainty and randomness to generate and influence movement. 

Inspired by Merce, we created our own 10-movement Chance Dance according to parameters set by Sarah. We employed random number generation, coin-toss gambles, and Sarah’s digital movement bank as devices to determine our motions, their length, and frequency.

For our final project, we converged our Chance Dance with movement inspired by our maps to create a dynamic dance solo. We recorded videos of our performance and sent them to Sarah to curate into one piece. In a final Merce-like act*, Sarah chose a single piece of music for the dances, which wasn’t revealed until we watched our final video!

*Merce would often choreograph in silence and not reveal music selections until the performance 

Theatre — Let’s Talk about Puppets!: Character & Scene Writing

Teens show Katie their puppet progress after our art-venture!

Theatre Director Katie Juster was back this summer along with… PUPPETS! Katie led us through a series of workshops on puppetry, character development, and scene work to ready us for our final project: writing and performing in an original scene! 

To inspire our creativity, Katie led us through a slideshow overview of puppets that outlined their history and the different types used for performance. Next, we began our own puppet process by building hand puppets using – you guessed it – paper bags! 

Katie explained that the design of paper bags is advantageous for puppets. They can be easily rotated side to side and have a built in mouth via their folded bottom flap- these maneuvers are important for adding physicality and the illusion of animation. Our group happily embarked on an arts and crafts venture as we brought characters to life using our bags and other supplies delivered by AIR staff earlier in the summer.

What followed was a character exploration to determine the voice, movement-style and backstory of our puppets. We learned that these facets are important for creating suspension of disbelief; even though we were going to be talking for ourselves AND our puppets – we wanted to create a strong differentiation of characters, so our audience would see our puppets as scene partners.  

Once our characters felt strong, we embarked on writing a 10-line scene according to criteria set by Katie. Our scenes were to:

  1. Indicate a location 
  2. Establish the relationship between ourselves and our puppets
  3. Feature a strong narrative arch by presenting a problem to solve 

Next, we prepared for filming! We reviewed recording guidelines from artistic staff and practiced using our cameras intentionally by adapting our movements to its frame. Teens filmed their own scenes, as well as introductions and final bows with their puppet pals, and submitted them to our Director to compile.

Katie leads us through an exercise to warm-up our facial muscles

Katie and Sarah worked so well with our teens, and in tandem with each other. Each session, they alternated leading a warm up and a longer workshop. Their warmups were short and fun investigations of their mediums that informed our final projects and got us thinking and moving creatively.

Katie and Sarah’s lessons challenged teens’ conventions of how art and theatre can be made, expanding on concepts from earlier programs that ideas and materials for art can be found in unsuspecting places. Seemingly everyday objects can catalyze theatre, and dance can be inspired by chance and the spaces where we live and work. 

Like all of our SummerWorks programs, this year’s TheatreWorks affirmed that barriers can spark innovation! We were obliged to hold this program virtually for the first time, but something new, challenging, and beautiful was born from this modification.

We’re thrilled to share the creativity of our 2020 TheatreWorks participants with you! Please enjoy “Presenting a Puppet Performance”and “Domicile Dance”:

Watch Katie’s Introduction to Puppets!: