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Collaboratory #3: Speech Acts – a mini-symposium with theatre artist Jen Plants and glass artist Helen Lee exploring language, performance, and materiality – was an exciting experience! Forty-five people attended throughout the day, spanning disciplines from English, Art, and Theatre to Public Affairs and Design Studies, as well as local artists and community members.  Each workshop explored language in action with a dynamic integration of theory and practice, and resonances between the two workshops – from a focus upon the rhythms and cadences of everyday speech, to donut-based metaphors – abounded!  Both workshops explored embodied language in new and invigorating ways, and in particular the breath — or pause, or stutter, or beginning again — as expansive space within the live utterance.

 

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Jen Plants’ workshop, “Verbatim Theatre Master Class,” explored the theory and practice of verbatim theatre, a documentary form through which the body becomes the means of transmitting another voice.  Jen, a director, deviser, actor, playwright, and teacher, first situated verbatim theatre within the context of non-documentary forms of theatre, and introduced verbatim theatre’s particular relationship with truth, evidence, technology, and knowledge production. She next discussed the work of Anna Deavere Smith, who has made one-woman, multi-character shows such as Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror based upon interviews with LA and Brooklyn community members from diverse backgrounds.  Smith presents her interviewees’ words verbatim, attempting to reproduce a sense of authentic speech (while still, of course, selecting and arranging the material). Another example Jen presented, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road, transformed interview texts with London residents into a musical — still using the exact words, rhythms, and cadences of the natural speech, but using layering, repetition, and music to craft the text into a new form.  Jen explained that verbatim theatre often engages “moment work,” crafting a series of moments rather than following traditional narrative structure.  Another distinct characteristic is that verbatim work doesn’t try to hide its theatricality or suspend disbelief; rather, it reveals its own mechanisms of truth-telling and reality-production.  Jen emphasized that these works — which often present multiple perspectives and question notions of truth — can “intervene in the creation of history through unsettling the present.”  After this introduction to the form, Jen led participants in creating their own interview-based mini-performances.  In pairs, participants interviewed each other about their first day at school, quickly establishing trust and empathy.  Each participant took a turn listening and taking notes while the other told a story. The listener then worked from the written notes to try to reproduce the story verbally, taking care to faithfully represent the storyteller’s narrative.  Next we found a new partner, and switched from handwritten note-taking to digital audio recording.  Jen gave us three prompts for our interviews:  “Have you ever come close to death?  Do you know the circumstances of your birth?  Have you ever been accused of something you did not do?”  Again participants took turns being the interviewer and the interviewee.  With our recordings in hand, we listened, rewound, and re-listened to our partner’s speech, transcribing just a few sentences in order to capture the rhythm and cadence as accurately as possible.  In both the handwritten and digitally recorded instances, participants seemed moved by what they and their partners were able to remember and transmit. Jen closed the workshop with a much-needed reminder:  “We are all full of stories, and listening is a radical act.  Remember to listen.”

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Helen Lee’s workshop, “WORD,” introduced participants to glass as a state of matter, and glassblowing as a movement-based practice.  Helen began the workshop by discussing the trajectory of her own work with the objecthood and materiality of language, which has been influenced by her bilingual background and her experience as a graphic designer, a poet, and an architect. To introduce her exploration of physical linguistic presence, she showed a series of slides combining word and color, asking us to pronounce each word aloud – the word red in the color red, the word yellow in the color yellow, and the word blue in the color blue were easy, but next came the word red in the color yellow, the word blue in the color red, etc. We were confused about which color to say – the color we saw visually, or the color signified by the meaning of the word – as our brains processed the disjunct between the physical quality of the word and its semantic meaning.  This exercise performed a disconnect between the material/visual and the immaterial/semantic, defamiliarizing language as a solid rather than transparent vehicle for meaning. Helen then showed a series of slides of her glasswork, which operates in the interplay between word and thing:  a shelf with glass objects which created the shadow of letters on a gallery wall, “placing an image of language in a space intended for objects”; a typeface based on characteristics of blown glass, then transmitted through letterpress and paper-thin glass; an erasure of the periods in a piece of written text with the “displaced periods” physicalized in the space.  In another piece Helen retyped her father’s graduate thesis, and then, with the remnants of the typewriter ribbon, projected a physical landscape of his thesis research.  Another project recorded and transcribed Helen’s speech for an entire day, evoking verbatim theatre’s methods.  In another project, phantom-typing on glass, “the material functions as an optical aid to locate language in the body,” exploring how technologies of the written word have modified our bodies (e.g. hands typing).  After Helen’s presentation we moved into the Glass Lab, where we put on safety glasses and things heated up near the furnace!  We witnessed the hands-on work of glassmaking, and helped Helen and her glassblowing students shape the word “flux” into glass, a perfect melding of meaning and materiality.

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