An Alt-Traditional Structure

This is a version of a paper that I was supposed to give at a conference at York University at the end of the month – which unfortunately was cancelled due to Covid-19. So I decided to turn it into a Dancing Monkey Performance Paper. This is part two of the ‘Thr(3)e Dimensional Text‘ series, which touches on some earlier research and expands from there.

A Thr(3)e Dimensional Text:
Playwriting for an Alt-traditional Structure.

I have been using this term “A thr(3)e dimensional text” for a few years now. It started by simply playing with words, looking for meanings within meanings, however abstract. That moved into making up complete – and yes – ridiculous words, like this “P3rsp3ctasp3cifisualization” which means that in a performance “It is the witness who drives the narrative, not the performer, creating a stronger bond between performance and witness, a unique bond where a single ‘performance’ can elicit countless ‘stories’”.

The desire to do this came from two experiences. The first, was when an academic at a talk-back after a workshop performance of one of my shows asked how I was going to continue the plays development. I answered, I thought thoughtfully, listing the things I was going to do, and he, unsatisfied with that answer, asked what ‘method’ I was going to use. I guessed they wanted to hear something like “Cognitive, devised research as practice something, something’, but I just answered that I was going to use “My method”. The other experience is a dissatisfaction with how and what was being taught and academic writing in general – which has a direct correlation to what emerging practitioners begin producing once they leave school. Undergrads getting too much theory before they even know how to practically make anything. I am not saying that these things were or are wrong, every department will have their mandates and focuses, they’re just not the only way to look at the work and are not the way I see the work. I am not an academic, but I am an instructor. I am a playwright, creator, sometimes director, dramaturg for theatre and more recently for contemporary dance and an encourager of disruption within the emerging artist community in Calgary and wherever else I can get their attention, from the stage, on the page, articles at Intermission magazine, or in a university studio.

I was/am dissatisfied with traditional structures and how new plays were treated. Not to say that great work can happen in traditional forms, but our current dramaturgical practices have a hard time adapting to anything outside the norm. We still kneel in front of Aristotle and that archaic order of importance, when our current theatrical organizational models look more like a Jackson Pollock painting. So, I wished to follow a more descriptive path instead of something so prescriptive.

When I started my performance collective, Dancing Monkey Laboratories, I wanted to see how else I could present my own stories. The collective is made up primarily of myself as writer/director, a choreographer/dancer and a composer. The working model is a process we called a ‘Structural Triangle,’ where the writing is created and adapted through various editing lenses (playwriting, choreography, composition and also design which should also include projections) and not simply presented as a narrative based ‘textual blueprint’ but more in-line with the idea of ‘Emotionism’ (more later). This process involves developing each element—text, dance, and music—with equal weight and emphasis allowing each individual art form to stand on its own as well as fitting precisely together to create a unified performance. The ‘Structural Triangle’ is the guiding formula in our creation process in which we strive to build a single wave of energy out to the audience where each element echoes one another. Each member of the collective balances ownership of their contribution as well as actively participates in the development of the other elements, encouraging each artist to broaden the understanding of their work in the context of the production as a whole.

We began with an attempt to remove the text from an obvious narrative and to instead create imagery first. I consider this similar to a band’s set-list, a series of individual, unconnected songs, strung together with intent to create the feel of a story. This led directly to an experiment of whether the words could be ‘danced’ or replaced with a musical phrase. Our first real attempt at this was for a piece called SATELLITES in 2013.

Results from these experiments allowed for a writing process that strives not for a specific end result but to write with a potential end result, and discovering that if the intention of the complete production is understood then the creative process can stay fluid before, during and beyond show time. In an article called “Scoring Outside the Lines”, the self-described ‘Punk-Classical’ composer Pat Muchmore suggests that musical scores are “not the music”. As an example, he writes how no performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is the entire work, but is a part of the “Potential Performances” that exist in the written score.

Isn’t that the very definition of a play text? No two productions can ever be the same because they are being filtered through different bodies and minds and if the creative team is the same, the performances would be happening in a different time, maybe in a different space. Even night to night, no performance is the same, so why do we try to dramaturg new work into some specific structure?

When I was writing my play Satie et Cocteau: A Rehearsal of a Play of a Composer by a Poet, about Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, I wanted to embrace the musical mind-set of the characters, to give the play a ‘scriptuality’ – meaning I wanted the structure of the play, the physical shape of the script, to also have a musical intention. Early in its development, before the heavy research began, I scribbled a narrative equation into my notebook:

‘Actor needs Cocteau,
Cocteau needs Satie,
Satie needs Cocteau,
Cocteau needs Actor’.

When I returned to review my old notes, I was struck by how this mirrored, pseudo ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus’ structure had become the actual shape of the play and how it in turn fit so easily into the very shape of Satie’s music, as an example, the evenly mirrored structure of Satie’s ballet, Parade.

Research usually leads to new research, so following this play, I took a deep dive into ‘Pataphysics, treating its concepts as if they were on par with the Poetics. Then I discovered Oulipo which means “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or roughly “workshop of potential literature”, where they play writing games with certain grammatical restrictions. And that word comes back; potential. This all lead to the writing of a play called AFTER US THE SAVAGE GOD about Alfred Jarry and King UBU. Where I accurately claimed that Jarry didn’t die of malnutrition and alcoholism but actually; Time Travel.

So, the play and Jarry, jumped through time. That research lead to the concept of Eye Music, where the sound of the potential score was was mirrored in how the notes were visually presented.

While, I found this inspiriting, and just beautiful, I knew this kind of structure would be much more difficult in a theatrical setting, but I tried.

It is the combination of all these things; the ‘potential performance’, the mirroring, the visual-ness, the structural triangle that drives me towards a thr(3)e-dimensionality, towards how and when words are spoken, word choice and placement. Even if the conceptual theoretical ideas embedded into the text are never consciously realized on the stage – their potential will always be there, within their intent, like an actor’s ‘Invisible work’.

This first phase culminated in Dancing Monkey’s KARL NIMENI IS NOT DEAD – I KILLED KARL NIMENI in 2018. Based on a possibly Romanian philosopher named Karl Nimeni that a group of German performance artists introduced me to in 2014. For this production, I created the philosophy of Nocturology in the spirit of ‘Pataphysics in which I tried to make these 3 dimensional ideas the emotional core of the play. So, I made up more words and created the term a “Night play”, which is defined as a play that contains the structural triangle, the concept of mirroring – both physically and thematically – the structure of dreams, as well as the intention of disruption. The ‘What’ of the play was less important than how it made you feel.

Amy Sawka, Melissa Tuplin, Michelle Brandenburg. Set & Lights by Leon Schwesinger. Photography by Harry Papavlasopoulos

The experience of creating that show, teaching playwriting masters students and even the dance dramaturgy I’m currently doing, brought me all the way back to this vague notion of Emotionism, which I am now trying to unpack. I first encountered the term as “Visual Emotionism” watching a short documentary on the Quebecois artist Andre Desjardin who makes these large works of faces with charcoal, oil paint and ink – he says what he’s trying to do is create a “Visual representation that fuses the figurative with the abstract and translates the interior state of the subject.” Again, isn’t that what writing a play is about? To embed the emotional life of the story into the script.

We teach actors to not play emotions, but instead, play the given circumstances of the scene, which comes from the script. But if we spend too much time on perfecting some kind of traditional structure, we can very quickly lose the emotional immediacy of the play and those very circumstances that are supposed propel the actor, are flattened.

I wanted to test some of these ideas out in a more typically traditional play, so I incorporated some of them into my latest play AFTER MOURNING, about Johanna Bonger, the widow of Theo vanGogh and sister in law of Vincent. Without her, vanGogh is nothing but a footnote in art history. It’s a fairly straight ahead history play, but also jumps through time a little. There’s no real singular life or death moment for her, no super dramatic pivot to hang the story on, her story was a slow series of ups and down, joy and sorrow, small decisions leading to a 35-year journey when Vincent went from nothing in 1890, and Johanna’s family and friends telling her to just trash it all and sell his canvases for materials to 1924 and London’s National Gallery showing up to make a substantial offer for one of the Sunflowers. I didn’t want to invent anything, so I focused on the Emotionism. The feel of the scenes, the weight of individual moments – like a set list of songs to create a larger emotional arc. Early script notes from more traditional leaning practitioners, where correct in their desire for me to find that central obstacle for her, that thing we would build towards and find our collective catharsis, but I wanted to go in the other direction and so far, reactions from 3 stages readings, from the Glenbow museum in Calgary, the central library in Red Deer, to a large art studio in Beaumont, Texas, have been positive, a more subtle, emotional reaction that resonated a little longer, and the residual effect was on the discovery of Johanna as a person and the accumulated emotional weight of her journey, not one singular moment she was able to overcome.

In August I’m going to take this even further with a Fringe show called CLEAN UP ON AISLE GO FUCK YOURSELF – a conceptual mixtape in the form or a play. Where I’m going to string together a series of politically themed scenes, within a thin overreaching arc, powered by a punk and Hip-Hop score to drive each scene to create a unified sonic palette – stretching the set-list idea pretty far. I won’t be concerned with creating a tradition structure at all, only in creating moments, only exploring alternatives, different dimensions of a play text, to discover new ways theatre and performance can tell stories.


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