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UA show 'this heart in my mouth is called home' explores experimental theatre

Exposing students to techniques of experimental drama expands their range of expression

While it may start with improvisation, a performance-ready piece of devised theatre develops through repeated collaborative workings until it evolves into a fixed shape designed for maximum effect.

This weekend, Tucson audiences will have the opportunity to experience a unique form of experimental theatre at the University of Arizona. Led by Melissa C. Thompson, students from the Theatre Arts Program have created a collaborative work of devised theatre entitled, "this heart in my mouth is called home."

"It's the idea of physical performance or performance that doesn't have the primacy of the text," Thompson explained. The style, popular in Europe, posits the actor as a creative artist, rather than hired hand moved about by a director.

Asked to describe the work, developed around the theme of "home," Thompson paused.

"It's halfway between a dance piece and some poetry, if you happened to stumble across a box of old photographs and letters from someone you don't know at a garage sale," she said. "There will be fragile moments and that's okay. We're trying to create a conduit for people to reflect on their own stories, the things that they love and the things that give them comfort."

What is devised theatre?

Based on actor training developed by Jerzy Grotowski and others, the techniques stand alongside method acting as a component of the contemporary curriculum for theatre. Although collectively created, devised theatre differs significantly from improvisation. While it may start with improvisation, a performance-ready piece of devised theatre develops through repeated collaborative workings until it evolves into a fixed shape designed for maximum effect.

"It's a kind of writing process, even though it may or may not involve text. It's more like a sculpting process," said Thompson.

With a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and additional training in physical theatre in Wales, Thompson is in her third year teaching at UA, where she guides students in experimental performance techniques.

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Thompson said her own personal performance aesthetic is "inspired by embarrassing matters of the heart, the remembrance of trivial events, and depictions of physical endurance and vulnerability."

Thompson's areas of concentration include experimental theatre performance and practice, compared to the text-based linear narrative model of traditional theatre. "In the creation of my own work, a bunch of people talking was something that wasn't terribly satisfying for me," Thompson said.

Sometimes ridiculed, experimental theatre has been a vital part of the overall theatre scene since the early 20th Century, expanding its range of expression and artistic authority. In the 1960s, experimental theatre blossomed and its study became de rigeur for the complete education of an aspiring actor or actress. While never commercially popular, it found a dedicated audience in Off Off Broadway and a permanent place in the lexicon.

The UA Theatre Program's Studio Series presents unique and experimental works in the intimate setting of the Harold Dixon Directing Studio, a 70 seat performance space dedicated to the department's former chair and emeritus professor.

The process of creating art

Although 'this heart in my mouth is called home" is personal for each of the students, "It's not a giant confessional free-for-all," Thompson said. "First we did a few weeks of different kinds of physical training where we don't let anybody talk at all, because if you start improvising or writing text, you rely on that as a crutch."

Thompson then gave the students a prompt to respond to individually, related to the theme of the show.

"Everybody has to come back with a solo performance response to the prompt, however they take it," she said. "Then we take the solo performances and say, 'Can you take that idea and these other five people and make that into an ensemble piece?' We take these blocks, how viscerally might an audience respond to this, sculpting an emotional tone and rhythm, rather than constructing a written narrative."

Devised theatre focuses on the actor as artist. The techniques encourage risk-taking in search of effective expression and connection with the audience. It forces the actor to examine and expose his or her sense of self, the possibilities and limitations of the body as the raw material for creating art.

"It opens them up to the possibility of the body they have at this moment being a valid instrument of art, which can be a little cerebral, but also risky," Thompson said. "They become more all around artists, saying 'I'm scared and I'm going to do this.' They're better able to be in the moment, rather than just talking about artist risk."

"When we make something like this, we are the least important people in the room," she said. "The most important thing is serving what the piece needs to be, doing what we need to do, working collectively towards the art."

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"One of the really important things about live performance," she said, "versus film or television, is the immediacy of the live body that we see in front of us, compared to mediatized performances. We're used to seeing images of perfection. Physical awkwardness is actually kind of profoundly beautiful and connects the everyday person to this kind of performance. I think something opens up for people who come to see this, if they're willing to just sit and see what they see and let their experience be their experience."

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1 comment on this story

Nov 21, 2015, 8:50 am
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Saw the performance Thursday evening & found it at first confounding, then started to attribute my own meaning to it. When it came time for the obvious (to me, it was) deceased-mother-living-daughter spiritual connection, I found tears streaming down my face. My biological mother passed away on 11/23/14 after just being diagnosed with cancer in Michigan (we were reunited in 1995 after she gave me up for adoption & were friends since the reunion, though 2,000 miles apart), so just days away from the anniversary of her passing, I found myself caught off guard & quite emotional. This was a truly warm & beautiful performance. It was definitely thought-provoking. If you want to experience something a bit different in theatre art that also makes you deeply introspective, I encourage you to see this piece. It’s only $7 & the students do a beautiful job.

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UA School of Theatre

The cast of 'this heart in my mouth is called home.' Front (l-r): Ryuto Adamson, Leslie Soto, Angelique Fustukjian, (back) Hannah Launius, Lance Guzman, Tierney Harris, Cindy Cantos and Claire de la Vergne.

Youtube Video

If you go

  • What: "this heart in my mouth is called home," presented by the UA Studio Series
  • Where: Harold Dixon Directing Studio, Drama Bldg. Room 116
  • When: Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 19 – 21 at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 21 – 22 at 2 p.m.
  • Tickets: $7 general admission, no reserved seating. Tickets available at the door and online.