Live Artist Deborah Pearson guest teaches at this year's Volcano Conservatory. Her workshop, Dramaturgy, Narrative and Structure in Experimental Performance looks at the unique ways in which contemporary performance can address our preoccupations with narrative.
Did you always question conventional theatre elements, like three act structures, and what made you gravitate towards experimental performance?
I guess you could say I have always gravitated towards what frequently gets called "experimental performance" because of one aspect of my work that is not "experimental" at all, but that is really at the heart of a lot of very old theatre. I just can't get over the fact that the audience is there. I have always wanted to address them, to play with them, to hang out with them. I don't know how to ignore them. I really admire work that adheres to this "ignoring the audience" convention and somehow still manages to feel theatrical and moving and live. But the truth is, work that firmly stays behind the fourth wall while genuinely effectively reaching out to its audience is very rare. It's a convention that is very difficult to explore effectively. Even Shakespeare doesn't do it! And I think this is because the very thrilling thing about theatre is of course the fact that the audience is there in the room with you. When you think about it, not acknowledging that is a highly unusual thing to do. It's only the prevalence of fourth wall theatre (some of it very lazy and bad) in the last sixty years or so that has made us think of that approach as traditional. It's actually a very weird thing to do, and I think it only really justifies itself as a form once every five years or so. A truly stirring "well made play" is that rare.
That said, the "Three Act Structure" is not the property of fourth wall theatre. It's the property of the human cognitive process. We organize every experience we ever have into a "beginning, middle and end." We may not remember them in a chronological order in terms of actual time - but things begin, they happen, they end. It's a very simple thing to keep in mind, but a very useful way to conceive of building an interesting experience for an audience. How do you want it to begin? What do you want them to reach deeper into once they've entered? And how do you want it to end? What do you leave them with? The "Three Act Structure" has been conflated with Hollywood narratives, but that's just one approach to that structure. It comes from Aristotle's Poetics, and all he specifies is that nothing comes before the beginning, the middle follows, and nothing comes after the end. There's nothing about a climax or inciting incident or Hero's quest. It's just those three very simple components - but they're very useful to keep in mind when making work.
You mentioned theatre being preoccupied with Representation, Conflict, Arc, and Meaning/Message. You mean there’s more to a story?!
Ah you may have misunderstood my use of the word "preoccupation." I don't mean that preoccupations are negative or positive. They're just there. I don't think that there's more to a story than a beginning, middle and end. But I also think that those three categories are HUGE - so why should there be? Representation, Conflict, Arc, and Meaning/Message are all things that we may expect to exist within that beginning-middle-end structure - they're cultural baggage, and we can play with that cultural baggage in interesting ways if we want to. Theatre Replacement, New World and Chris Abraham made the show Winners and Losers, for example, and really toyed with the audience's preoccupation with Conflict. But they didn't approach it uncritically - they made the audience sit with that preoccupation and dig deep into it, and a lot of incredible insights came out of that deceptively simple premise. I'm not sure "more to the story" is the right way to navigate the preoccupations I bring up. They're very rich and problematic elements of narrative interest. We don't really need more - but if we think deeply about them, we will find more.
As an associate artist with Volcano Theatre, how have you grown with the company over the years - as the lead on inFORMING CONTENT and having worked as the librettist for Synonym for Love?
I owe a lot to Volcano. Ross Manson and Kate Alton gave me my first professional job in the theatre, as their research assistant on The Four Horsemen Project. I remember thinking it was really cool and totally strange. I hadn't ever seen anything like it before, but I loved it. I think one of the reasons that I love working with Volcano is the incredible variety of projects that they make, and the amazing but excellent risks and opportunities they take with their artists and with their form. When Ross asked me to write a libretto for the company I joked that it was like he'd asked me to build a cabinet. I had no idea how to do it. I learned on the job. And it was one of the most fun and interesting things I've ever had the privilege of doing. I learned how to read music, and over the years have gone from someone with no musical knowledge at all to someone who can play the guitar. A Synonym for Love really sparked that desire to learn in me. But I didn't necessarily stand out, because everyone involved was doing something totally new and challenging for them with that project. Even the orchestra had to figure out how to accompany an opera that was moving around a hotel! I love Volcano because it's a company that genuinely prizes risk and experimentation, and encourages other artists to take risks too. It's worth mentioning that I moved to Europe on Ross's advice, and that was a great risk to take.
As the co-founder and co-director of Forest Fringe, would you consider festivals safe spaces for experiential work?
It depends on the festival. Forest Fringe is a venue that exists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the biggest experimental theatre festival in the world. So asking whether or not experimental work is safe at the fringe is sort of like asking if a baby is safe in New York City. It depends on the apartment and it depends on the parents. I wouldn't just drop your baby anywhere. There are a lot of wonderful venues taking very good care of artists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Equally, there are a lot of smaller festivals, like Fusebox, PuSh, FTA and Offta, and I hear that Progress was great too, that really look after artists. Generally speaking, the smaller a festival is, the more support it will have for artists, and the less it will resemble a shopping mall of work. It's a very sad thing as an artist to feel like you're selling a product. It's necessary sometimes, and often true, but also necessary I think to convince yourself that it isn't happening. That's the only way to keep the work good.
What is one thing you miss about living in Toronto since moving to London?
I miss biking. I have a bike in London but it is a terrifying place to do it. When the weather is nice in Toronto, if you know the back alleys well, getting from one place to another can be the best part of your day. Something about how much fun it is to bike there really sums up a lot of more abstract and atmospheric things that I miss about living in Toronto. I think it's a really healthy place to live, with a lot of love and good feeling. I'll always miss it. And when I miss it most I think about biking down a sunny leafy street somewhere in Little Portugal.