Inspired by the need for more performance opportunities, and the desire to impart a DIY self-reliance to my students, I got the notion to self-produce a show with the members of my CalArts vocal studio. I would provide direction, musical and repertoire coaching and an Alexander approach to the project. We would create an independent piece and take it from conception and development to performance.
From a pedagogical standpoint, I wanted to give them an experience that would allow them to take the Alexander and vocal work they were doing with me in the studio into a performance that was geared toward working with those principles. The tendency I was seeing was for students to have relatively few performance experiences throughout the term and to treat them more like exams than performances. I wanted them to be part of an environment that would encourage them to observe each other and themselves in a constructive way, and to have the stimulus of a public performance where the emphasis was on using the Alexander principles and treating the performance as an experiment.
As for the shape of the performance itself, I was keen to utilize and expand on some of the performance concepts I had learned while singing in Cirque du Soleil. These included using transitions as prominent aspects of performance, avoiding clear “applause points,” bringing humorous moments into the darkness, and of course, interacting with the audience. Which means entering the audience’s physical space, as well as dragging at least one person onstage.
1. Make it about the process
2. Make it a constructive performance opportunity
3. Explore visual as well as aural aspects of musical performance
4. Engage the strengths and interests of the performers in creating the piece
5. Require boldness
We kept our rehearsals and any details of the performance secret, which contributed to the overall giddiness and conspiratorial mood around the whole project. The larger pedagogical goal though, was to keep the project entirely process-oriented, so that should we, as a group, decide not to do the performance, we could freely do so without the guilt of canceling an anticipated performance. Additionally, this allowed us to create the mood and quality of a true speakeasy. We had limited seating, and wanted our audience to feel they were involved in a unique and unpredictable experience.
It was also imperative to me that the project be entirely voluntary and unrelated to a grade. It had long seemed to me that musicians and artists are vastly better off if they are self-motivated, and have experienced taking an idea from conception to execution. I fought mightily to not let the project slip into the realm of obligation. Tricky business, I find.
The Mechanics of Sexy
To convey an alluring demeanor to our audience, we set about reverse-engineering the quality of sexiness. We focused on the movement quality of confidence, coyness, playfulness and seductiveness. Most of these involved basic Alexander principles of freeing up, elongating, spiraling, taking time, and staying with oneself. We found that in general, good use led to ease and a more convincing character. Sensuality was not far off from just feeling yummy in your own skin, or “acting as if.” Collapsing and compressing was both unflattering and impractical. The classic pulling back and down of the head and lifting of the face seemed to convey a quality of pushiness that was counter to the "come hither" effect we were after.
"We're going to Dance?"
In keeping with the spirit of the project, I designated myself as the in-house choreographer. I wanted to do something as an ensemble that made a strong visual impact. Since I was asking students to move and dance even though many of them were significantly inexperienced or uncomfortable with this notion, it seemed only fair that I walk the walk. Which meant trying the role of choreographer and being guided by the principles of the Alexander Technique. Economy of movement meets slinky Burlesque.
I let the movement evolve out of experimentation. I spent many an evening in heels trying to figure out how to get out of a chair on a specific beat without tightening- or falling. These types of challenges led me to some seemingly random but eventually very effective Burlesque-type movements. Working in this way, movements seemed to suggest themselves; a sequence would unfold without my having to contrive it, such that our finale even had us dropping to the floor and crawling while singing.
Using mechanical advantage to make easy transitions that would give us the time and support we would need to be able to sing well, and not appear or feel awkward. The movement utilized individuals’ varying levels of flexibility, (I sang a piece in half split- not hard to do, and looks striking) kept unified torsos, mobility at the joints and found out how we could move convincingly and use that same coordination to generate free and spontaneous sound.The aesthetic that resulted was one of lengthened curves, long lines, space in the underarms, unhurried, directed, deliberate movement and a sense of push-pull; both coming toward and away simultaneously.
Choreography for the solo pieces was developed based on their music and text as well as what individuals were comfortable doing while singing, and comfortable doing in public. Using principles of counterbalance and spiraling, we came up with some very simple but utterly cat-like choreography. Contrary to the notion of singing and dancing being two separate elements to be juggled, we found that they could come out of the same gesture of enlightening and enlivening, which made the movement inevitable and effortless, and also gave the performer the ability to be extemporaneous.
Broken Doll Burlesque
A little bit Cirque and a little bit burlesque. Sexy, but dark.
Among our ranks was a young woman who had a strong theater background and was brilliant with makeup. She designed the look of the makeup and gave us several tutorials on how to execute the look. Some of the phobias of our performers included makeup application, makeup removal, and makeup usage of any kind. (Similar list for costumes.) We ranged vastly in size, shape, experience and virtually every other category. With a very supportive atmosphere and our makeup designer doing serious damage control, we all managed to get our faces and costumes assembled and attached in time for the show.
MADAM DAMNABLE’S MIDNIGHT SPEAKEASY
We had no opportunity to rehearse in the space before the day of the show. This meant two things:
1. We had to practice transforming into smoky sirens in highly non-conducive classrooms full of chairs and fluorescent lighting up until the day of the performance.
2. It was of utmost importance to me that we spend as much time as possible in the space that day defining it as our Speakeasy.
In this sense, it felt more like an installation than a performance. The "show" portion was just the time frame in which we allowed people to peek in through the windows. We ourselves were the "set" and atmosphere, so I made the schedule in a way that would allow us time in the space, in character. That is what was intended by doing constructive rest in costume and onstage- fully inhabiting the space before and during the performance. Our first piece was a processional in which we literally escorted the audience into our space. Once there, we set some ground rules (our first, large ensemble piece.) Most of the show consisted of solo, duo and trio pieces. The other large ensemble pieces were a family portrait moment with an increasingly dissonant version of the Carpenter’s “Close to You” and a Bollywood finale.
I could write in endless detail about the insight and ingenuity of the people who were involved in this production-as well as the many aspects of its execution, from the transcribing of electronic samples into a solo violin part, to people singing solo for the first time in public in this production ... and I will, in a format that permits more length. Here I will simply say that I am extremely appreciative of those who were bold enough, and who trusted me enough to participate in this experiment.