Devising a Playground: ARTEL’s Strategies for Embodying Research and Text

The videos in this blog entry were filmed in 2006 purely as documentation for ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory). They are part of a larger article being developed for publication and are currently being used to discuss the ways in which training develops or responds to text and other research as part of the Working Group at TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association). This entry will be updated in the near future.

A decade ago, ARTEL, the American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory, was created in Los Angeles, a city where the majority of theatre companies operate(d) as amateur dramatic societies that stage classic or new playscripts from a “page-to-stage” approach to text.  In opposition to this dominant practice, and modeled on the laboratory theatre tradition, ARTEL aimed to create an ensemble[i] of actor-creators that approached research, text, and staging from a collectively embodied process.  Using as source-texts the life and works of Mikhail Bulgakov, historical and cultural research on Russia and the USA, and traditional songs, ARTEL generated a series of strategies for embodying and sharing research as text.  These strategies merged and built upon multiple training and devising practices, such as the Polish Laboratory Theatre’s plastiques, Viewpoints, Roy Hart work, Michael Chekhov work, and contact improvisation.  From these strategies, two primary training/devising processes were distilled: BodyStorming and PlayStorming.  The first is a free form physical and vocal improvisation of sharing and colliding texts.  The second is a way to analyse playscripts through the performance of them immediately, while holding a script in hand.  Both processes develop an iterative means for saturating individuals and ensembles with associations, understandings and passions for the source-texts that are later enacted as physical expression, vocal delivery, compositional images, or scenographic choices.

All of the video extracts are slices of much longer processes. I have purposefully chosen to have them be a bit longer than we might be used to watching on a blog in order to remind the viewer that a main tenet of this training is what ARTEL refers to as “saturation”.  Our aim in developing these approaches to text and research was to re-embody ourselves in a culture far too dependent on cars and other forms of “chair prisons”. It was also to explore other ways of understanding, conceptualizing, and sharing research, text and our own psychophysical impulses.

The first two extracts are from Playstorming “Crimson Island” by Mikhail Bulgakov. The text is a layered one in which a Russian theatre company is rehearsing a new production about the Revolution for a censor. The production is more of an allegory on revolution and takes place on a non-European island. These clips highlight the playfulness and the struggle of performing a play while reading a text (often for the very first time). They also hopefully reveal how this type of training allows an actor to listen to full-bodied impulses while reading a text and how much camaraderie and development of non-textual relationships can be created in a “first company reading”, particularly around the character of the censor who is sitting on top of the latter in the second clip. In the background is also shown clearly the wall ARTEL used as inspiration throughout its training and devising process.

The second Playstorming clip is from “Flight” by Mikhail Bulgakov. This clip illustrates the scenographic choice of representing bodies with pillows and how exploring these and the wider themes of Civil War as grotesque and embodied characters allows for more playfulness/exploration in each actor and begins to saturate them in the atmosphere, relationships, and moods of the text in ways that a table reading might not.

This first Bodystorming video is part of a much longer improvisation in which the ensemble was developing a shared vocabulary and focusing in particular on listening and exploring from a place of silence (something often underappreciated in fast-paced, car driven cities).  The texts are from Bulgakov’s oeuvre and explore in part a recurrent theme of “no document, no man”. The implications of bureaucracy and authoritarianism that ARTEL was exploring through these Bodystorming sessions from prompts presented by Bulgakov and the Russian Revolutions seem to me today even more relevant to explore now in 2016 than they were in 2006.

The second Bodystorming video shows a use of text as song and the improvisational use of dances and gestures the ensemble had been creating and sharing from directorial prompts to imagine the final production as a dance. The music is also being improvised by ensemble members and was part of the ongoing exploration of how much we could generate as ourselves without recruiting other artists into a finalized production process. Near the end of the video is a wonderful example of the ways in which the company was embodying Russian cultural forms through dance training with a Russian dance master.

This final video “Now is the time” is from a Bodystorming session that was directed towards composition.  Here the use of lights, objects and song, develop into an improvised ritual. This typifies a celebratory training ARTEL developed around ensemble members birthdays. I have written briefly about this in:  Britton, John (ed.) (2013) Encountering Ensemble, London: Methuen Drama Snapshot #16 “Birthday’s Make the Best Training”.

[i] We use ‘ensemble’ as signifier for a processual relationship, a daily commitment to togetherness. See Britton, John (ed.) (2013) Encountering Ensemble, London: Methuen Drama for more, esp. Introduction and Chapter 1.

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About Bryan Brown

Former Executive Director of Schkapf, performance incubation house in Los Angeles, California, Bryan is a theatre practitioner and scholar. He is co-artistic director of ARTEL and Lecturer in Drama at the University of Exeter. His forthcoming book “A History of the Theatre Laboratory” (Routledge 2017) investigates the organizational processes of curious practitioners in science, visual art, and theatre.

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