Reflections on 2010 Sojourn Theatre’s Summer Institute

To read why I did this workshop read the blog post The Future Of Theatre.

Shelley Virginia, institute participant, summed it up well: “Finished Sojourn Theatre summer institution devising civic theatre, led by Michael Rohd. Amazing! I recommend it to any theatre artist, educator or community leader interested in using theatre to build community and create space for civic discourse.”

The participants were theater practitioners who were doing devised and applied theater work in a various of settings and were looking to learn more from Michael Rhod. The format of the workshop was familiar from my classes at NYU. We would be wearing two lenses while in the workshops. One lens was that of participant and the other lens was that of facilitator. We would first experience the sequence of exercises, or games as they were called, and then afterward we would reflect and ask questions about the facilitation. The experience level of the institute was broad, ranging from undergraduates just starting in the work, to older professors who have had years of experience as facilitators. This lead for great conversations and insights.

Michael Rohd is best known for his book, Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. It is a great book that introduces the author’s “Hope Is Vital” program and methods. It shares his vision and methods for creating performance workshops that actively investigate social concerns. The book consists of a series of gradually intensifying exercises leading from fun warm-ups to image-building bridge activities. While he has moved away from this process work, and into generative production work with Sojourn Theatre, his mastery of facilitation is based on this model and has deeply influenced aspects of the rehearsal process for their current production of On The Table.

A big component of the book is the purposeful sequencing of games in order to parse out a theme, idea or concept that the ensemble would be willing to explore. This was demonstrated through out the whole workshop. The first set of exercises we explored how can a new ensemble begin to connect to one another through using a common, physical vocabulary, which lead into a discussion of how an ensemble works through collaboration, aesthetics and dramaturgy. In the afternoon, games were played and the theme of responsibility emerged and the ensemble agreed upon wanting to explore that further. With the partner we had for the previous game, we shared personal stories of responsibility (or lack there of). From there we shared to the whole group one sentence summaries of the stories we heard, and then each pair picked a sentence they remembered someone else saying and created a physical presentation of that sentence. From there we discussed in small groups how one or two of the same stories were picked by each group and how we would could further explore those themes as facilitators.

The evenings were spent observing the rehearsals for their production of On The Table that opens July 15th. Most of the rehearsals that week were spent working on act one. Act one (read more about act two and three here and here) consists of a four person cast, each in Portland and Molalla. Through the research the actors have done, they created fictional characters that have come to together at a memorial service in 1980. The memorial service is also for a fictional character in the town, that is in some way connected to the fictional characters the actors are portraying. The goal of act one is to set-up the idea of people and place. During the performance, the actors pop in and out of being the narrator telling about the research and portraying characters in scenes they created. During rehearsals the teams set up the presentation of act one as a game where there are rules the actors follow, but the order in which the stories are told is kept open and fluid. It was interesting to see the same game structure used in the workshops being used in the rehearsal process. The teams were creating the script on their feet and exploring how structured the content needed to be in order to be clear to the audience, while at the same time fluid and conversational. This lead to some frustration as the week continued as some actors were eager to keep exploring the rules of the game while it was clear others wanted to have a set script and/or outline. What I connected to most was that is was truly an ensemble of people creating the show. While it was clear that Rohd was directing/facilitating, many times it was his role of asking the actors what they needed or wanted to explore that determined how a rehearsal was structured. The lack of hierarchy seen in a rehearsal of a traditional commercial, narrative script was refreshing.

Due to the type of institute participants that were present, the theme of leadership was strong. The last day and half Rhod talked more about site specific theater work. We were then broken into four small groups and picked an outside location in which to present a site specific devised work around the theme of leadership.

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