Points of Departure
By Danielle McClelland
MAY 11, 1998: Nearspace. Far space. space. Infinite space. Can you explain to me the difference between each one? Can you show me what each one looks like? A performer trained in the Viewpoints can.
The Viewpoints are a theatrical tool. And a philosophy of movement. And an aesthetic vehicle. And a series of creative exercises. They're, well, a lot of different things to a lot of different artists in the American theatre. At their most basic, the Viewpoints are a technique for creating performance. As the name implies, they provide ways of looking at a theatrical situation or text, with each Viewpoint relating to a basic element of performance: space, time, motion, emotion, and so on. As they encompass not only the material being performed and what the artists are doing but the artists' relationship to the audience and the environment they share, the Viewpoints can be applied to theatre on the metaphysical plane as well as the physical. And more and more individual artists and companies in this country are finding ways to apply the Viewpoints to their work. They're rebuilding an American theatrical language and giving us something new and exciting of which to partake. And Austin is a big part of this revitalization.
We are sitting in the Pace Downtown Theatre of the Schimmel Center for the Arts on Spruce Street in Manhattan. "We" are close to a hundred people from across the country attending "Viewpoint Theory and American Performance," a conference presented by the Drama League, Pace University, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, and Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU) in January of this year. Onstage are 15-20 young performers, students in the Experimental Theatre Wing (ETW) at NYU's Department of Drama, where the Viewpoints have been a primary teaching tool for the last two decades. Master Teacher Wendell Beavers and Viewpoints founder Mary Overlie lead the ETW ensemble in a morning demonstration. An athletic blond woman is asked to demonstrate an aspect of one of the Viewpoints for us: Space.
Shyly, she concentrates, lifts an arm, moves a leg, takes a step. Movement vibrates throughout her body, speaks to itself through her fingers, flows in and over itself ó but never leaves the dimensions of her own form. Intimate and emotional and intensely focused, her movements draw me in. She moves again. The action of her body is not so different from what it was before, but suddenly, she includes me. The flight of her arms encompass my fellow audience members, the lights, the balcony, the curtains, and cold, darkened hallways of backstage and bring us all together. She laughs self-consciously, dips her head, then focuses all of her energy on the slightest of repositionings. The gesture expands everything inside of me, and I am pulled into history and future, this place and all places. This maneuver, created in less than five minutes during an early-morning exercise by a 20-year-old student, has opened the infinite. And it is only the beginning of this language.
"The Viewpoints are a horizontal approach... without hierarchy. I refer to the vertical approach as being one in which one Viewpoint takes precedence over another or the others. In theater there has been a traditional, vertical idea that story is more important than space, for instance. In reality, we may get the end of a personal story before we get the beginning, or come into the story in the middle, constructing the beginning and an end later. This way of looking at things opens up our ability to see reality more honestly and playfully."
"In the late 1970s we hired a consultant to develop a curriculum of experimentation," says Arthur Bartow, Artistic Director of the NYU Department of Drama. Dance, music, theatre, were to be cross-listed. Performers were to be cross-trained. The group brought together to teach this new curriculum were a diverse and highly individualistic crowd. Many of them were adamant about their own techniques and visions, and against certain other techniques and visions. "So we had all these teachers not speaking to each other," explains Bartow. "But we began to realize that, thankfully, the students would synthesize the work of all the teachers." Serving as go-betweens as they developed their own performance styles, these first pupils forged natural bridges between seemingly closed systems and simultaneously inspired their tutors in new directions.
Among these instructors was Viewpoints founder Mary Overlie, a dancer/choreographer who had been a younger member of the Judson Dance Company in the Sixties and had just completed seven years with an improvisational dance company called the Natural History of the American Dancer. Rehearsing four to five times a week, the ensemble worked entirely non-verbally. Overlie directly links this process with the simplicity of her theory. "This non-verbal approach allowed us to come in contact with the basic structures of dance without the filter of previous established knowledge and hierarchy," she recalls. "In this process we discovered the existence of space in dance, the existence of body line and design, the existence of time, the existence of logic, the existence of intuitive emotional communication, the existence of kinetics (movement)."
As she began teaching regularly at the new Experimental Theatre Wing, Overlie started to solidy the forms and articulation of these ideas. Two years later, she passed her observations on to fellow teacher Wendell Beavers, and the Viewpoints began to expand exponentially. Soon, they were formalized in six divisions: Space, Time, Shape, Movement, Emotion, and Story. Then, in 1982, while she was on the faculty of ETW, leading director Anne Bogart came in contact with the Viewpoints and expanded Overlie's vision. Bogart focused on the areas of Time and Space, dividing these two elements by four and five sub-categories respectively. She took these concepts ó used chiefly in dance up to this point ó and applied them to theatre with remarkable, poetic results. Traditional texts were exploded through vigorous exploration of these nine windows into the play. Avant-garde writings by contemporary playwrights such as Tina Landau and Mac Wellman were executed with specificity rather than muddled innovation for innovation's sake. By 1992, Bogart had joined her adaption of Viewpoints with the potent physical training of Tadashi Suzuki and co-founded the Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI). In six short years, SITI has grown from a summer institute to a year-round program in New York City with a summer season in Saratoga Springs, New York. Through its workshops and residencies, SITI has established relationships with theatres across the U.S. and internationally, and, more significantly, trained an ever-growing number of performers around the world in the Viewpoints. The method's influence has spread still further via the book Anne Bogart: Viewpoints, edited by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Joel A. Smith.
The hunger for a greater examination of this working technique is evident in the 400-plus responses generated by a single advertisement for the January conference in American Theatre magazine. "The Viewpoints are very comprehensive," says Una Chadhuri, Chair of NYU's Department of Drama and coordinator of the conference, "though it's not exactly a new aesthetic. It has been around for at least 30 years now, but it has not been talked about systematically, certainly not pedagogically." Interest on the part of instructors nearly eclipsed other participants. A luncheon for directing teachers was packed with enthusiastic professors, many of whom were already planning Viewpoint workshops at their schools. This launching of a new army of dance-theatre fusion recruits seemed to position the weekend at an important place in time. Chadhuri was happy with this sensation. "My sense is that Viewpoints work as it's been developed here is really interesting historically."
On that note, we went forth, reaching for the near, the far, and the infinite. Next stop: Texas.
Topography. Begin where you are: Austin, Texas. You move on a grid, moving only east and west or north and south. Your only options are moving, stopping, and turning. If you do this with a bunch of other people for about 20 minutes, you've had your first lesson in Viewpoints. If, at the end of 20 minutes, you haven't done anything except move, stop, and turn, you have failed your first lesson in Viewpoints. But don't worry, it's not hierarchical. You won't get a grade. You'll just keep doing it. Pretty soon, you'll make choices, like how fast you move, for how long you move, in what shape you move, how you move in response to someone else. Before you know it, your movement will tell a story and your story will elicit emotion. These are the basic Viewpoints. Watching a group of people playing with it is often better than some fully staged productions by professional theatre companies. You laugh out loud without even thinking about it. You're horrified by the particular shape found by a bunch of people moving in space. You're comforted when they move again. That's when the lesson succeeds.
It was just this type of lesson that local actor Barbara Chisholm faced when she was directed by Anne Bogart in a San Diego Repertory production of The Women in 1992. "My previous work was very cerebral, text-oriented, kind of a watered-down Method," says Chisholm. Her exposure to Viewpoints, and to Bogart as an individual director, changed her approach to acting forever. "I always wanted to find the 'right' way to do this role. I believed there was a 'correct' way. I no longer feel that way. Maybe there's not even a correct way to do the role during the performance process. It's been a profound shift for me." The production used actors from across the country, but Chisholm credits the immersion in Viewpoints with forming an immediate bond with a diverse group of actors. "By the end of the second day, we had forged such unity. And by the time we opened, there was this incredible cohesiveness." The result of this work was particularly arresting, she says. "I mean, we did preposterous things onstage. There was one bit where an actor just walked over this pile of suitcases.... The first thing you do is go, "What?!" Then, it's funny. But then it makes you go, "What about that?"
The Viewpoints are elastic, individual. Maybe Shape doesn't have anything to do with your production of Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Maybe you don't have time or license to work with Kinetic Impulse. So, says Mary Overlie, focus on what is in front of you. One of her own first lessons in Viewpoints came from the Judson Dance Company. A fellow member led her to a new space and told her, "I want you to dance the energies in this space." Her mentor didn't return for a month. "I cried. She abandoned me in that space. Then I explored," laughs Overlie.
Katie Pearl, director of Physical Plant Theater's recent production The Whimsy and marketing director for Salvage Vanguard Theater, describes her first reaction to the Viewpoints: "When I learned about them, it was this amazing code that seemed to apply to everything. That's all I wanted to do." In her recent collaboration with Lisa D'Amour, Dress Me Blue/Color Me Sky, Pearl focused primarily on Gesture and the Architecture of Space, finding ways to explode the potentially limiting nature of the solo, site-specific piece. Pearl believes her directing will always lean toward the Viewpoints. "Viewpoints have given me a respect for things outside my own head. It's taught me that things outside my head can be telling me where I should put my head."
One of the original students of ETW, Dance Umbrella's Phyllis Porreca-Slattery, has been bringing Viewpoints to Austin's performance scene since 1985. Though the popularity for the technique is growing, she commonly finds the obstacle of a literal mindset in those to whom she's trying to teach the Viewpoints, even when her services are requested. Conducting a recent workshop for Austin Lyric Opera, she encountered resistance on the part of some singers. "Actors and, I guess, opera singers often react with frustration" to some of the basic Viewpoints exercises, says Porreca-Slattery. One, called "the grid" or "corridors," in which the performers may move only forward or backward, in straight lines, "takes everything away and allows the performers just to be seen," she describes. Though you might think this would suit the purpose of an opera singer, the experience was a little unsettling for some. "One person was very articulate," she chuckles good-naturedly, "'I think this is pointless,' he said. 'I need to know what you want, and then I get there.' But the point of these exercises is for people to get there together, to work together. That's not as easy as it seems."
Margery Segal, the artistic visionary of Margery Segal/NERVE dance company and artistic associate to Frontera@Hyde Park, studied with Mary Overlie in New York. To Segal, "She was the teacher. All doubt, all the time, and the reverse. Everything its opposite. Dyslexic perfection. And pure joy. There was exotic joy watching her dance that first time: The clarity was as pure as the zaniness and that was ecstatic everyday." Segal's work with Frontera has given her special insight into the actor's hunger for movement-based knowledge. She describes the basic challenge of Viewpoints for a non-dancer: "I think it's the difference between linear and non-linear learning."
Another Austinite sharing in the Viewpoints legacy is Shawn Sides of Rude Mechanicals. After two years of study with SITI as part of her master's degree from NYU, Sides has begun implementing Viewpoints into the collective's training program. The company's curst and Shrewd, produced last August, cut the members' teeth on Viewpoints. Though they're still working on mixing in elements from other members' repertoires and, as Sides says, "tweaking the technique to our own personal style," she describes some intriguing successes in their rehearsal process. "We improv around how we are going to use [the text]. This grants performers [the opportunity] to co-create the play with the author in a much more profound way than the standard process allows. It's a way to wake up the text, to develop contrapuntal movement scores, a way for the actors to respond kinesthetically to the words, rather than just 'acting them out.'"
Starting with images (Space, Shape), then adding music (Emotion, Time), outside texts (Story), and, finally, the preposterously simple exercises that build relationships with bodies instead of just heads (Movement), a growing number of Austin's theatre and dance artists are giving us new ways to look at performance.
Try stopping and starting for a while. Reach for infinite space. Can you tell a story by drinking a glass of milk? A performer trained in the Viewpoints can. Try putting your head where you can see one of them.
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