news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Q & A with Deborah Pearson

Deborah Pearson is founder and one third of the award winning UK-based arts collective Forest Fringe. In Toronto she most recently showed a work-in-progress of History History History at the Progress Festival, and co-created the immersive dance piece The Queen West Project with Allison Cummings in 2012. In 2009 and 2016 she and her Forest Fringe co-directors were named in the Stage 100 list of the 100 most influential people working in UK theatre. She is an associate artist with Volcano, and recently submitted a practice-based PhD on narrative in contemporary performance at Royal Holloway, where she was a Reid scholar. Deborah is co-creator of Volcano's experimental performance lab, inFORMING CONTENT. Much of Deborah's own artistic work blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and in her 2016 Volcano Conservatory class "Playing with the Real: Approaches to Non-Fictional Theatre" she will push her students to explore 'truth' on stage. 

Q: What is "Playing with the Real"?

"Playing with the Real" is a course about collaborating and negotiating with “the real” in theatre.  "The Real" or "Non-fiction" is about moving us out of a frame of mind where we take fictional characters and settings for granted as being a default-setting for theatre.  I'm interested in having us explore theatre that attempts to tell no lies, and when it is lying, is honest about it.  The course will be split up into “real people”, “real places” and “real time."  We will spend time focusing on either playing yourself on stage or working with performers (or non-performers) who are playing themselves on stage, and on including content about real people on stage.  We'll move on to working with the reality of a space, not attempting to have a piece transform a space so much as allowing the space to transform and collaborate with the piece.  Finally we’ll look at the “real time” that audiences and performers spend together – how to acknowledge the shared time spent in the theatre, and when a performance becomes an event or a happening.

Q: You're a returning teacher at the Volcano Conservatory--what makes you want to come back?
I had a great time teaching the Volcano Conservatory last year – the students are intelligent and engaged and really committed to expanding their practice, taking risks and introducing new ideas and perspectives into their work.  The topic I’m teaching at the Conservatory this year is about distancing Canadian theatre from fictional stories, characters and settings as a default setting for live performance, and instead thinking through the possibilities of a performance as an unrepeatable event with the potential to change and provoke.  There are a lot of artists in Canada already doing amazing work in this vein, and a lot of artists who I know are interested in making more of this kind of work.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing who comes out and to getting to know their interests and preoccupations!  

Q: Who do you imagine will benefit from participating in "Playing with the Real"? 

The course is for artists who are already making more unconventional theatre as well as theatre artists who are accustomed to more conventional theatre. It's for any professionals who are interested in expanding their practice and making work that focusses more on the live, the real and the unrepeatable. This class is about encouraging artists to shift the priorities and conversations that begin the process of making a new piece. Like many of the workshops I’ve taught with Volcano before, I’m always on a mission to help make work that does not take form for granted in theatre – that does not see a well made play taking place in a fictional world as a default, but as one possible choice among many.  I like to help make and facilitate work where the form that artists choose for their work is born out of the content they want to explore.

 If you’re a theatre maker who is already making this kind of work, this course will give you an excuse to make more of it, and to think through and question what you perhaps already know instinctively or from experience.  If you’re a theatre maker who has primarily acted in plays or written plays with fictional characters and settings, but who is interested in doing something else with audiences, who is perhaps interested in conceptual art, performance art, live art and installation-based art, and bringing some of the techniques and thinking used in that work into theatre, then I hope that this course will also be for you.

Deborah Pearson performing History History History 

Q:  As you've mentioned, the majority of your own artistic practice is based in 'the real'. Can you tell us about a recent project of yours made with these approaches?
Almost every project I’ve ever made has worked with “non-fictional” approaches in some way.  I'm constantly collaborating with real sites, or real people, or real objects.  I'm interested in trying to tell "true" stories in a theatrical form, even if the "truth" is an illusive, ephemeral and largely absent thing.  My most recent piece, History History History, which I showed a work-in-progress version of at Progress in Toronto this January, collaborated with a Hungarian film from 1956 to attempt to tell the story behind the film in terms of its historical implications, and the large scale political (now historical) events that impacted both the film, and me.

Although the actors in the film are playing fictional characters, framed in this way the audience can see them as living, breathing human beings, just doing their job - the job of being actors in a film.  The audience begins to sense the very real consequences that the political events in Hungary had on the actors who are immortalised on screen doing a funny dance or pretending to play football.  The people in the film, the writer of the film, the director of the film, are all real people, many of whom have died and some of whom are alive but very very old.   I had some ethical concerns while making the piece around how to frame their stories/histories, and whether or not I was the right person to tell them given that I could not offer a definitive version (if a definitive version even exists).  I tried to bring this ambiguity and sense of the loss of a "definitive version" of the truth through history into the piece.  I was as explicit as possible with the audience about my personal connection to the film and to the piece, and the biases and difficulties that connection creates.  Using real people’s stories and biographies is always a minefield – it generally makes for very interesting work, but I do believe it should be done responsibly, as much as possible.  Then again, the UK comedian Kim Noble’s show You’re Not Alone uses almost entirely real people's images and stories without their consent – it’s probably one of the most unethical pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – and one of the most interesting.  This is just one element of working with the real in performance, and one that I'm constantly grappling with, as both an audience member and an artist.

Deborah Pearson's class "Playing with the Real" runs as part of the Volcano Conservatory from July 25-29, 2016 at The Theatre Centre. You can register here.  You can find out more about Deborah's work at her website

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