Performance as Research:

Theatre, Power and Possibility: Performing Risky Stories

Drama 400, Fall/Winter 2016/17

Tuesday 8:30 – 11:20,  Friday 8:30-11:20 (in fall, only occasional Fridays)

Theology 102/Rotunda

Instructor: Dr. J. Salverson

Office: Theology 108.

Office Hours: Tuesday 12-1pm and by appointment

Phone: 533-6000 Ex. 77485 Email: salversn@.queensu.ca

“It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there”

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”.

“Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.” Herbert Marcuse

“Devising a play is a bit like building your own house: in my experience, people who’ve built their own homes have a different attitude to making alterations and changing things around a bit than those of us who’ve never touched a trowel, let alone built a wall, or put a roof on. Habits picked up over the years of making plays from nothing encourage me to see a text as a blueprint rather than a facsimile of the final thing. I’m not happy just to view the accommodation and imagine its potential, I want to knock it about a bit, look at the foundations and worry about the wiring. Of course you can’t do this unless you have ownership, but theatre-making is the most collaborative of all the arts. In a really good production, the entire creative team has ownership. If you want to play anything credibly, you must own it in its entirety. If you don’t feel that it’s yours, you’ll soon start to feel phoney and lose confidence or just get bored with it. You can’t fake play. You’re either really enjoying yourself in a game that’s delicate, unpredictable, and compelling to play, or you’re not. Whether you’re in high drama or the wildest physical comedy imaginable, if it doesn’t feel alive and absorbing to you while you’re playing it – how do you think it’s going to look to us?” John Wright

Director Peter Brook writes that the theatre audience is a third eye whose presence must always be felt as a positive challenge, an accomplice to the action, “a constant participant through it’s awakened presence” (1993:18). The challenge Brook poses to those of us who make theatre is to consider all of our actions public, communal and witnessed. Implicit in his statements about the audience is the need for us as artists to be awakened. To become a witness is to be exposed, vulnerable, to have something at stake. This course will explore how to think about what is at stake for theatre artists as translators of stories of public violence. We will examine how issues of performance relate to discussions in the fields of history, sociology, critical theory and education.

The overall purpose of the course is to learn how to devise and produce work in ways that will serve the student after leaving Queen’s. The focus is on the workshop: what does it mean to draft, revise, draft, throw away, and draft again?

Over the course of the year students will engage with critical questions and texts and investigate the nature of play. The class will devise and workshop a performance using as a starting point poet Carolyn Smart’s Careen (her theatrical telling of the story of Bonnie and Clyde).

The central questions for the class are:

  1. Do we live in a “tragic” culture? What does this mean?
  2. What forms of theatre and representation do we consider “ok” when it comes to performing testimony or remembering violent histories? What is the role of the comedic or the absurd in intervening in a melancholic tragic telling of events?
  3. How is performing history an ethical practice? How is the aesthetic and content of a performance an ethical issue?
  4. How can we, to quote Jill Dolan, “Find hope at the theatre”?
  5. What is the theatre’s role in making memory?
  6. How do we talk to each other honestly about the theatre we make and attend?
  7. What does it mean to think?
  8. How do we learn again to play?

The class will develop a vocabulary for mutual challenge and evaluation: how do we talk honestly about our work?

Class Books and Resources:  There will be two texts (Careen, and Collective Creation, Collaboration and Devising) available at the Campus Bookstore and a list of readings available through ARES (Queen’s Library).

There will be some professional performances and out-of class events the class is required to attend. There will also be some in-class guest artists, including one who will create story objects for performance. Students will have materials they can take away, and there is a lab fee for this of $20 per person. The first required performance is Contact! Unload, a show by military veterans at HMSC Cataraqui, Sunday September 18, 4pm. (see Schedule, Week A). The second is  Das Ding (The Thing) at Thousand Islands Playhouse, September 21, 22, 23 an 24. Buses will be leaving from the School for Das Ding. Cost is $23.



Carolyn Smart’s collections of poetry have been Swimmers in Oblivion (York Publishing, 1981), Power Sources (Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982), Stoning the Moon (Oberon Press, 1986), The Way to Come Home (Brick Books, 1993), Hooked – Seven Poems (Brick Books, 2009) and Careen (Brick Books, 2015). Her memoir At the End of the Day was published by Penumbra Press in 2001, and an excerpt won first prize in the 1993 CBC Literary Contest. She has taught poetry at the Banff Centre and participated online for Writers in Electronic Residence. She is the founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, poetry editor for the MacLennan Series of McGill-Queen’s press, and since 1989 has been Professor of Creative Writing at Queen’s University. Hooked – Seven Poems has become a performance piece, featured at the Edinburgh AND Seattle Fringe Festivals in 2013, and at Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, in 2015. The latter performance was nominated for three Dora Mavor Moore awards, including Best New Play and Best New Production.