Topic #3–In the studio

(3) The performers’ process (or, in the studio): Performers of dance and theatre often run in very different circles socially and professionally. Typical rehearsal processes are very different for each – dancers often meet less frequently but for longer stretch of time, while actors might cram the same number of hours into a few short weeks – so what might a compatible process be? Can a theatre director know enough to elicit a strong performance from a dancer, and can a choreographer effectively direct an actor?

Let’s stick with the practice of posting  first, and then commenting on other’s posts. Since I am posting this exactly one month before our conference date–Nov 18–I am setting a deadline of a week before–Nov 11–to post, so we can spend the last week commenting on each other’s posts and preparing for our meeting in the flesh— and the manifesto.

Carrie and Jeffrey

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6 Responses to Topic #3–In the studio

  1. Carrie Ahern says:

    Let me begin by noting some logistical concerns for rehearsals (and performances) for the forms. Most often, the two things that are essential for dance rehearsals are the floor and the amount of space. (If the ceiling is too low, that can also be a problem, but not nearly as major). Good floors and a good amount of space are expensive commodities. Typically, with theatre, the amount of space or quality of the floor is not such an issue, but a place to store sets and props often is. In general, dance has to be more particular with both the spaces it can work in, and also the time of day. Most dancers will not rehearse past 10 pm or before 9am–the body has a more limited region of time to be at a fuller range of expression—and often it is difficult to work for longer than 4-6 hour stretches, unless there are more technical aspects involved, when bodies are more at rest. It is also more difficult for dance to work in spaces that are too cold because of injury. I envy theatre for often being able to adapt to any cramped or huge space with concrete floors and dirt and grime everywhere.

    There is bleed in these necessities—dancers who wear shoes; physical theatre; more or less spare as far as props are concerned, and that affects the space the piece can live in.

    As for the time constraints—dance often works over longer periods of time (at least in my experience) because it is creating the “script” or “score” as you go along—and it is very difficult to do an extensive amount of homework. I do not know anyone who uses Laban Notation. Often with theatre you have some sort of script or source to reference and you have language. Personally, I find movement takes a great deal of time to settle with depth into the body—it just takes so much time to get rich, multi-layered movement into the bones. I am curious to hear what those of you coming from theatre find with language.

    I do believe a compatible studio process for dance/theatre may be to work in denser chunks over longer periods of time. This may also allow artists coming from the different disciplines to observe each other—as long as respect is given to each disciplines needs. But this can get complicated because of another issue–unions–Actor’s Equity rules, and then the relative freedom (with no protection) of free-lance dancers.

    As for directing the other discipline–both performer and director have to learn from each other about how to illicit the performance that is required. I think each person has to be able to step out of their comfort zone, and have the self awareness of where their own boundaries are–and where they can push, and when they may not have the training required. But it teaches you a lot about your process and why you are drawn to a certain discipline in the first place and what the countless hours of training and dedication have taught you. And that certain forms can do certain things well–but can also often suprise you.

  2. You’ve heard quite a bit from me already. For this response, I thought I’d turn things over to Rob and Kugler, as well as our two performers, Justin Reist and Victor Mariano.


    Performers of dance and theatre often run in very different circles socially and professionally. Typical rehearsal processes are very different for each – dancers often meet less frequently but for longer stretch of time, while actors might cram the same number of hours into a few short weeks – so what might a compatible process be?

    In general, the kind of dancers that get involved in interdisciplinary work are contemporary dancers who have had a multitude of different kinds of rehearsal processes—some long term projects, some short, some with long days of dancing, some with only four hours a week. In my experience of working with actors who have little or no dance background, it may take some time to get used to a more physically intense process—but it usually doesn’t take long to find a rhythm in rehearsals. To accommodate both disciplines in the process of creation, the space (dimensions and quality of the floor) is the number one necessity. The space needs to be big enough to move confidently without structural obstacles, allow some distance for the directors to step back and see the work, and should have a sprung floor so the performers can move athletically for extended periods of time without excess stress on the joints. After the working space is in place, the rest is workable. If you are an experienced dancer or choreographer, you can monitor how much the performers can be pushed, how long it will take to absorb complex structures, and what sections of material need to be developed within a single rehearsal and over the course of the process. The text and the movement in a new work needs to be cultivated simultaneously as each discipline continues to shape and inform the other. To accommodate this process, steady monitoring of the performers’ energy levels and bodies is important. This may require adjusting the schedule periodically, as each new work requires different levels of rigor.

    Can a theatre director know enough to elicit a strong performance from a dancer, and can a choreographer effectively direct an actor?

    As a choreographer interested in working with actors (and from my experience watching directors interested in working with dancers), the vocabulary is the only possible obstacle—which in many cases can be easily solved. I know what I want from an actor in any given work in the same way I know what I want from the dancers. How to communicate that to the actor may be challenging if I the actor needs the direction in the form of psychological motivations of a character or where to place stress within a sentence. But most of the time, what I want can be communicated to an actor based on my observation of a moment that didn’t feel right. I can identify what the issue was (a disconnect to the preceding moment, a spatial relationship, etc.) and offer some suggestions on how to address the issue. Watching directors (like Kugler) work with dancers, only the development of movement vocabulary offers a challenge—although a director who doesn’t have a dance background could access the many tools available designed to elicit material from the performers. But in terms of directing the performers, Kugler could see right away when the movement sequences didn’t work and had many ideas on where movement could be developed within the work.


    Performers of dance and theatre often run in very different circles socially and professionally. Typical rehearsal processes are very different for each – dancers often meet less frequently but for longer stretch of time, while actors might cram the same number of hours into a few short weeks – so what might a compatible process be?

    our production neatly meshed (juxtaposed) these two processes that are presumed to be antithetical… we workshopped material two hours twice a week for over seven months, then went into a three-week rehearsal… our long-term workshopping allowed choreographic material to accumulate and transform, the performers learned their lines in short non-chronological units, we experimented by combining various movement and textual elements, and all collaborators (not only choreographer & director, but playwright, performers, composer, videographer, stage-management team) had time to respond to the developing material… our rehearsal process was about putting the accumulated elements (text, movement, video, music, and eventually lighting) in relationship with each other… in this process, one of our more significant decisions was that not all elements needed to be present all the time… even though the material existed, we often pulled back some elements, to let other elements lead…

    in terms of timing, the tension between dance and theatre was rarely problematic… I found the most difficult relationship with video in terms of the timing of its process, since video had to be set much earlier, and was less flexible in the rehearsal process…

    Can a theatre director know enough to elicit a strong performance from a dancer, and can a choreographer effectively direct an actor?

    language can sometimes be problematic, as can the timing of various notes, and there were (brief) moments of seeming crisis… but the performers received valuable feedback throughout the process not only from choreographer and director, but all of the collaborators (listed above)… our work would have been greatly diminished if we had agreed only to comment with areas of our supposed expertise…


    Rob and Kugler’s system… I would call it more of a tag team match, in the best possible way. My initial thought was that jumping from text to movement or visa versa would impede or delay my ownership of either, which was true to an extent at the beginning of the process, when we would often work on unrelated parts. Soon, however, the opposite proved true. It was completely natural to have an accumulation of movement and text sequences developing independently, because the comfort level with each allowed for a certain confidence later on, in combining the two. Furthermore, both Rob and Kugler found ways to inform each other’s choreography and direction respectively. When working text, Rob would often interject with physical considerations and Peter would hash out any pertinent background information… This worked for me; having more eyes on the work meant that it evolved that much quicker. Seldom did I leave rehearsal feeling that an idea was undeveloped, and if so, these moments were usually addressed right away in the next rehearsal. Having both a director and choreographer in the room at the same time made for a rewarding, stimulating process.


    “The Objecthood of Chairs” was a nine-month process for me, beginning with a reading and movement workshop in December 2009 and culminating with the public presentations in September 2010. The project presented a number of intriguing artistic and personal challenges. I had very little experience working with texts that shifted so abruptly from dialogue into monologue. Furthermore, I was attracted to the language and the necessary balance between capturing its precision and intelligence and conveying its emotional layers and subtextual meanings. From a movement standpoint, I had not “danced” in a few years, and I had allowed those muscles to get a bit rusty, a bit flabby. And in terms of the bigger picture, how would the text and movement coexist, how would they work alongside each other, and with the other storytelling elements and visual media images? The scope and scale of the project was huge, but there was always a lot of trust in the rehearsals and production meetings. That trust in the respective and collective visions of the other artists involved meant I was free, as a performer, to focus on my singular task within the whole.

    The internal structure(s) and goals of the workshops and rehearsals were usually quite clear and specific, which allowed for a wonderful amount of freedom to play and get lost in the minutiae—knowing that the bigger picture would sort itself out as a result of the imposed and implied structures. This is not to say that it didn’t get personally frustrating or confusing at times, because it certainly did, particularly with respect to the “dance” elements and their integration with the “acting.” For some silly reason I thought and assumed things would go a lot more easily than they did. I had expected my background and previous experience working on other “physical theatre” projects would naturally lend itself to this one. In order to keep my spirits up, I kept telling myself that it’s “like riding a bike…you don’t forget.” My underestimation and overconfidence, however, was getting in the way of that pure act of “riding,” of just doing it rather than thinking about it. To extend the bike analogy a bit further, that famous Einstein quote comes to mind, that in order to keep your balance you need to keep moving. That’s exactly what I needed to do during the workshop and rehearsal process: just keep moving and playing with the dance, keep talking and working with the text. Once I was able to do that, things began to fall into place.


    Me again. Our process, as you might have gathered, was somewhat unique. In addition to being blessed with the time to develop the material organically (and in depth) over several months, all the principal collaborators were in the studio together for most of this period contributing to this development. As a first-time writer with an idea for a piece that crossed disciplines (and not just, as Kugler says, those of theatre and dance), I remain forever grateful that my thoughts during workshops and rehearsal were not just welcomed, but actively sought, by the real experts in the room. Admittedly, I don’t have much to compare it to, but I’d say the collaborative method we came up with for “The Objecthood of Chairs” is one we could easily bottle—and ideally uncork for future projects.

  3. Jeffrey Frace says:

    I am having a hard time imagining an ideal-compatible process for actors and dancers, because I have to assume that I’ll inevitably take what I can get, time-wise. It seems I always want more time. I usually get about 90-120 hours (minus breaks, per Equity rules) to stage and tech a Shakespeare play. That’s always crammed into the minimum number of weeks immediately preceding opening night. This theatrical model would benefit from greater duration. Back in my pre-Equity days, working in dusty hot community arts centers in lower Manhattan, I would devise shows with a young company over a 6-week period, but working only about 4-hours per day. We could have used longer days, and even a few more weeks (at least). I envy choreographers who work up to a year (or more) on a project before it opens, but then I wonder whether they get enough hours per week. Are the performers’ attentions diluted? Are there problems with retention (of material… and of performers?) Very occasionally I’ve been able to workshop a piece and then return to it some time later. This is effective both economically and artistically. I get the benefit of more duration while not having to pay full-time salaries for the whole duration.
    As far as directing dancers and choreographing actors goes, my concern is of the limits of ignorance. If you don’t know how much you can ask, how will you get the fullest performance out of the performer? I think problems of vocabulary can be overcome with some patience and creativity. But as an actor, I wonder whether a choreographer will demand as much as he or she can of me (except when I work with Carrie, for whom the sky’s not even the limit!). As a director, I wonder whether I am challenging the dancers enough. I wonder whether we can benefit from our ignorance, and ask for things so outside of “standard practice” that we shatter assumptions and create new challenge?

  4. Elizabeth Lentz says:

    I do think any process that’s trying to blend/shatter traditional expectations should start with a good conversation about just what the heck we’re trying to do. It’s a great time and place to say, “let us know if you don’t feel challenged enough” or “be sure to speak up if you don’t understand the language we’re using,” etc. Dance theatre creative processes tend to be so collaborative anyway that transparency about the process itself can only help.

    I also think we need to start introducing blended processes more at colleges and universities. I am working to incorporate more traditional “acting” elements in my dance technique classes at University of Sothern Mississippi. This way, dancers at least begin to see these elements as part of their “technique,” something to be explored even if they might not be mastered. On the acting side, I know many undergrad drama programs require only one movement class throughout a student’s career (if even that). We need to find ways to get actors thinking and experimenting more with movement earlier on. This is where we’ll expand minds about what our movement arts can be and produce.

    As for logistics of rehearsals, I also have had great success in the workshop model. One of my favorite processes and piece to perform was created over 6 months, where actors and dancers met for 2 weeks, three times in the first 4 months. We created, played, and improvised. The last 2 months we rehearsed more consistently to craft the final work. Jeffrey, I hear you about the joys of a longer process. It CAN be very satisfying. But our short, short, short run times in dance can also make the long process incredibly frustrating. We need more performances. I have loved hearing the outrage from actors performing with us in our one- or tw0-weekend runs!

    Last thing, I think taking time for a group class or warm-up, even 30 mins, can be a place to build common language to use in rehearsals––both verbal language and movement language. I know we sacrifice this when we work with pick-up companies, or with abbreviated rehearsal processes. It can be vital.

  5. Todd Coulter says:

    I think this post addresses the heart of the matter. The intersection of dancer/actor and choreographer/director may prove to be the keystone of a future manifesto. It is particular appropriate as I am starting work on Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, as director/choreographer. My degree is in Theater not Dance.

    The language used in the prompt is indicative of latent assumptions about the two halves of the theater/dance or dance/theater relationship. “Can a theatre director know enough to elicit a strong performance from a dancer, and can a choreographer effectively direct an actor?” Asking whether a director ‘can’ know ‘enough’, suggests that theater directors have a lack as well as possible inability to posses sufficient or appropriate knowledge to work with dancers. The corresponding question for choreographers is whether or not they may effectively direct an actor, suggesting that they already posses the complimentary knowledge the directors lack. I readily admit that the prompt was not intended to imply any of what I just pointed out; however, I do think it is important to consider how each part of our beautiful bastard refers to the other.

    The questions do point to an inescapable fact: actor training, within the United States, is woefully inconsistent. By comparison, dance training draws on a common vocabulary, both verbal and physical, from which the different idioms draw (I recognize that this statement is as loaded as the original prompt). Stanislavski may have been a baseline of technique at one time, but there has never been an agreed upon interpretation of his teachings and system. I do not need to digress further into actor training, but suffice it to say that there is a conflict and multiplicity of technique. I do feel this trickles down to the rehearsal studio. Theater artists are allowed to be messy and vague in their direction, because it is assumed that what we deal with is emotion.
    Ramsay Burt makes an excellent point in his article “The Specter of Interdisciplinarity” that speaks to this tension between theater and dance. He offers, “Rather than attempting to theorize the difference between verbal discourse and dance movement, much twentieth-century dance theory has taken the position that dance’s essential ontology is its nonverbal character and that any dependence within theater dance on actual verbal discourse is a supplementary irrelevance” (4, Dance Research Journal 41,1 Summer 2009). This brings us back to the persistent dichotomy between verbal and corporeal expression. I don’t feel that allowing this split to endure does any artist any favors (and this is the point of Burt’s argument).
    Rather than asking whether a director know enough or whether a choreographer can direct, it falls more to the dancer and the actor to allow the direct to choreograph and vice versa. If the performer her/his self will allow a different discourse into the studio, then I feel we can begin to explore a new kind of production.

  6. Meagan Bruskewicz says:

    I think dancers and actors socially intermingle perhaps more than this question suggests. Professionally, working in separate forms, there is less overlap. But I feel such creative collaboration is definitely possible and easy enough to accomplish for hybrid forms to be more readily created. Of course such collaboration involves logistical and artistic challenges. Logistically, there is the matter of rehearsal schedule and process. Though generally actors tend to rehearse intensely for short periods and dancers more sporadically over time, I feel that often the reverse is also true. (I have gone through both methods as a dancer.) I would suggest that most performers would be able to adapt easily to whatever process is needed for a project. Perhaps more influential to the shape of the rehearsal process is the nature of the project itself. Is it a previously created work being placed on new performers or is the work being sculpted through the process? How many creators are involved? Do the creators like to work from big picture to specific or vice versa? Do any performers need to be trained along the way? Though, I will add my opinion that hybrid works probably require more creation time than those in singular forms – time to thoroughly address all forms involved, time for performers to gain confidence with a new form, time for collaborators (creators and/or performers) to compromise and find common artistic ground.

    No, I don’t think a choreographer can effectively direct an actor, nor a director choreograph a dancer. This goes along with our previous discussion about needing to treat each art form with utmost care and technical consideration. A choreographer should stick with choreographing and a director with directing, unless somehow also versed in the technique of the other form. Or perhaps, as we’ve heard about in these discussions, one could collaborate with creators from other backgrounds to work together on all the components of a piece – for technical integrity but shared creative input. The better question might be if actors can be choreographed on and dancers effectively directed to act? Can someone trained in the form impart enough knowledge to an untrained individual during the process for the acting or dancing to be done convincingly and successfully? Peter’s recently successful work seems to show that this is indeed possible – difficult and time-consuming but possible. But this brings up other questions. What are the best kind of performers to have in the room when creating a hybrid work (all dancers, all actors, mix, people trained in both)? Is there a need for new college programs or other hybrid training programs to produce performers that are “double threats”? What would this training look like – what skills would need to be emphasized?

    Speaking from my own experience, I will note that the theater and dance departments at my college were actually one joint department, sharing the same spaces, but the works presented and classes were still mostly segregated. Since I graduated in 2008, though, the school has begun to respond to the growing presence of hybrid works and has produced more collaborative works of its own, which has caused more crossover of studies for its students as well. (Of course, my college is way behind the times in this, as other schools have been going in this direction for some time now.) It definitely seems schools will continue to follow this trend of dance theater and try to adapt their programs to best prepare multi-dimensional artists. I certainly wish I had taken acting classes while also training in dance and had had more opportunities to use my voice in performance. And it would also be nice now to have more opportunities for study and practice of both dance and theater skills in some sort of combination class/training. I feel that I would be better prepared for the works being created by most choreographers today, which require a mixed bag of skills and training.

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