"Viewpoints" on Theatre Studied at Confab

About 300 professional directors, actors, and theatre educators gathered recently to define and analyze "Viewpoints": a new approach to experimental theatre.

The Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF), the Drama League, Pace University, and New York University's (NYU) departments of English and Drama sponsored "Viewpoint Theory & American Performance," a three-day conference of workshops, lecture- demonstrations, performances, and discussions held Jan. 9-11 at NYU and Pace.

The Viewpoints essentially take the physical elements of performance (that modern dancers have used since the 1960s as the basis for movement improvisations and compositional studies) and applies them to actor-training and the creation and direction of theatre productions.

Friday evening at featured three speeches illuminating the history of Viewpoints. They were given by Wendell Beavers, a master teacher in NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing; choreographer Mary Overlie, originator of Viewpoints; and Anne Bogart, artistic director of The Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI), an associate professor at Columbia University, and the director whose work has served to popularize Viewpoints among the theatre community.

Saturday's events, held at Pace University, began with a demonstration of the six Viewpoints (space, time, shape, movement, story, and emotion) led by Beavers and Overlie. It was followed by a roundtable discussion tightly-moderated by Alisa Solomon, professor of English at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center. The panelists included: Liz Diamond, resident director and teacher, Yale School of Drama; Mark Russell, executive director, P.S. 122; choreographer and scholar Susan Foster; and Brian Jucha, artistic director, New York's Via Theatre.

Jucha began the discussion by claiming that, whether they know it or not, all good directors and performers use the Viewpoints but may not call them such. In a content-heavy, rapidly delivered presentation, Foster situated the Viewpoints within the history of modern dance. She praised their emphasis on doing rather than thinking and cheered their "unseating of the tyranny of the text," a phrase later challenged by Diamond who discussed the use of Viewpoints in the production of "regular plays."

An engaging argument ensued between the two women over the importance of the text in relation to the physical elements of theatre. It was not comfortably resolved, however, until Overlie spoke up from the audience during the Q&A session which followed. Overlie expressed genuine distress over the way in which her Viewpoints were being used to give a stamp of approval to abstract theatre while simultaneously negating traditional approaches. She gave an impassioned plea for the use of Viewpoints by any kind of theatrical artist interested in tools to expand understandings of performance and elements.

Her comments served to mediate the conflicting sentiment that seemed to pervade the conference--the idea that, in order to accept the Viewpoints, one had to reject a Stanislavskian approach to acting and de-value theatrical realism.

The afternoon session began with an intriguing demonstration by Bogart and SITI actors showing how they develop their awareness of the Viewpoints through ensemble improvisations.

In order to make the Viewpoints applicable to her non-psychological work, Bogart has reconfigured them as: spatial relationship, shape, architecture, floor pattern, gesture, tempo, duration, kinesthetic response, and repetition.

The presentation also included demonstrations of warm-up exercises developed by Tadashi Suzuki, a Japanese director and SITI co-founder. The exercises are designed to develop an actor's strength and clarity of movement.

The afternoon ended with a roundtable discussion that purported to examine issues of training and technique, moderated by Fritz Ertl, managing director of NYU's drama department. The panelists included: Overlie; choreographer Lisa Nelson, co-editor of Contact Quarterly; Ruth Maleczech, co-artistic director, Mabou Mines; Kevin Kuhlke, director of NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing, Dr. Joan Fishman Herrington, assistant professor of theatre, Western Michigan University; and NYU acting teacher Steve Wangh.

The day culminated with a 7:30pm performance at NYU's Abe Burrows Theatre which allowed participants to witness a variety of ways in which Viewpoints were used to inform the creation and direction of theatrical works. It consisted of six abstract pieces: "Bob," Bogart's lovingly-satirical tribute to Robert Wilson skillfully-performed by Will Bond; Cyrus Khambatta and Rob Kitsos's gracefully-violet duet "Modern Barbarism," evoking man's inhumanity to man in disturbingly-amusing fashion; "Trio," which featured a sensuously engaging solo by Overlie costumed in a see-through black unitard; Dadaist Tristan Tzara's 1920 comedy "The Gas Heart" which gave viewers a glance into the history of the avant-garde; and two additional ensemble works. Due to the limited seating capacity of the theatre, only a small percentage of the conference participants were able to attend the performance.

The conference ended on Sunday, at NYU, with a series of participatory workshops, two panel discussions exploring criticism and new applications of the Viewpoints.