Devising ‘Very Poorly Indeed’

Other than that, Mr. Donner, how'd you like the Party? Using devising techniques, a group from PETE creates a fresh take on a ghoulish tale.

It begins, as these things often do, at the nexus between worlds, the juncture, the crossroads of realities, with the audience and the performing area both in light and both in darkness. On the stage, just on the other side of a translucent membrane, a pagan entity (Myriel Meissner) approaches. Something stirs inside the audience, something akin to communal memory or a dream we all share that never quite fades away.

The entity steps through the veil and we see it has the body of a young woman and the head of a deer. It — she — is silent as she walks across the stage in a manner both strange and familiar, and we feel both welcomed and wary as this entity, this being, exists between reality and illusion, life and death, good and evil, God and human. Before long we will encounter snow and ice, want and fear, ghosts and madness, a Trickster/narrator, and a tree adorned with human flesh, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s visceral stuff, viscerally performed by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s training program, the Institute for Contemporary Performance.

As through a scrim, darkly: “Very Poorly Indeed.” Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

The piece, Very Poorly Indeed, is being presented at CoHo Theater this weekend by PETE and is the culmination of a year of hard work, training and exploration by ICP students Clifton Holznagel, Jonathan Lee, Meissner, Rose Proctor, and Myia Johnson. This is the third year the Institute has been in operation, and the students vary from those new to the stage to those with a wealth of experience. They’ve spent the past school year immersing themselves in a variety of disciplines, including Suzuki and Viewpoints (taught by Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman), Alexander Technique (taught by Cristi Miles), and Clown (taught by Philip Cuomo).

It isn’t easy.

Myia Johnson, the director of Very Poorly Indeed, recently spoke about the piece and the ICP program itself.

Myia Johnson

When asked what drew her to the ICP, Johnson mentioned a specific PETE workshop in which she was doing Suzuki. “I remember being in the workshop and being in this very physically demanding pose and speaking the text we were given and feeling my voice in my arms — which was a feeling I had never experienced before. It was an amazing sensation.”

More discoveries came. “You develop habits as an actor that are so deep inside you don’t even realize they’re there,” she said. “There was this awful point during our winter semester.”

During a Suzuki exercise, she recalled, class members were asked to recite a line from The Glass Menagerie. When she was asked to repeat it a searing pain shot over the top of her head, like nothing she’d experienced before. A couple of days later she mentioned during her private Alexander session with Cristi that her neck was sore. Cristi put her hands where it hurt. When you speak you tighten your neck, she said. “It was something no one had mentioned to me before because no one’s put their hands on my neck while I’m speaking.” It was eye-opening to discover a habit she hadn’t realized she had.

For the winter semester, the group spent 20 hours a week getting their asses kicked in Suzuki, Viewpoints, Alexander, and clown. Mondays through Wednesdays the ICP met from 6:30-10:30 p.m., and then Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 or 3 p.m. The five formed a bond, forged in creativity, learning and sweat. “We were all sweating through Suzuki,” said Johnson. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re suffering through this all together, we’re exhausted all together, we’re excited all together.”

(If you’ve ever taken a PETE workshop and done Suzuki with Amber Whitehall — and I have — you know whereof she speaks. Don’t let that sweet demeanor fool you. She’s a powerhouse).

The students emerged with an array of tools and techniques not only with which to create art but also to be fully present as artists and people on and off stage.

Before the winter semester break the students were asked to come back with ideas around which to create a piece. Rose Proctor had an idea about social interactions and that moment when you’re talking to someone and all you want to do is scream. Myriel Meissner had found a German play that had flopped but was all about language. Jonathan brought in as a source W.H. Auden’s book-length poem Age of Anxiety. Myia Johnson came back with, “What about the Donner Party?”

The saga of the Donner Party, of course, is one of the more infamous out of the Old West. A group of pioneer families are heading west when their wagon train, through a series of bad decisions, bad luck and bad planning, gets trapped in winter in the Sierra Nevada. Food — along with just about everything else — runs out, and members of the party, suffering through desolation, desperation and starvation, are forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Survivors were eventually rescued, but you could hardly call it a happy ending. Surprisingly — or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective and knowing the artists involved — the group went with the Donner Party.

An apparition appears in red. Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

But how do you approach such a subject without turning it into Stephen King-land? The process of devising theater seems particularly apt to this task. Devised theater doesn’t work from an already written script. And there are almost as many methods for devising as there are theater companies that practice it. In this case, with the parent company being PETE, the ICPers followed PETE’s methodology.

Jacob Coleman led the group through “moments” work. They broke theater down to its elements: director, text, performer, set, lights, objects, sound, and costumes. Then they went through each element and played with how that element could be manipulated and utilized. For instance, what can be done with light? A flashlight? A candle? These variations on a question are twisted and turned and played with in the devising/rehearsal room.

Each element is explored in this manner, and from these explorations, moments are crafted. A moment might be Holznagel and Proctor creating a sound with a bag of ice. Proctor shifted the bag of ice while Holznagel recorded the sound with his microphone and used his loop pedal to manipulate the sound.

Jonathan Lee created a moment with a can light and a red gel that cast a weird light on the wall. The way he moved the mirror almost made it look like a beating heart.

Another time, Proctor knelt down in front of a piece of white fabric and folded it up, took the ends of the fabric, and walked, creating a beautiful train, as though belonging to a dress. The ICPers called that moment the Snow Queen.

Another time, Holznagel put a bunch of lights on a tree and turned the lights on and off. He covered the tree in plastic so the light was almost contained. With the lights being turned on and off at a rhythm, the branches looked like arteries and veins. The ICPers called that moment the Heartbeat Tree.

These are only a sampling — a few that Johnson remembered on the spot — of the moments that Meissner, Lee, Proctor, Holznagel, and Johnson created. Over the four months they created and extrapolated upon a lot, and much more was left out. The brutal truth about devising work is that however much material is created — even really good, really interesting material — 75-80 percent is not going to make it into the final product. “Other stuff is really interesting and exciting but it doesn’t belong in the piece. It’s for something else that can be used later. It can hurt at first. But you need to get rid of that content to really focus on the content that is of this piece and making that content more of whatever it needs to be.”

Let there be lights amid darkness. Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

Devising doesn’t rely on the hierarchy of conventional theater. The director isn’t necessarily the lord and master of all she surveys. Johnson initially had no intention of being the director, and spent much of the past few months busily generating along with her colleagues. But as Jacob Coleman reminds his students in his devising directing workshop, you finally need a director because someone has to make a decision, someone has to decide what the piece is, what belongs and what doesn’t. That task of the outside eye fell to Johnson, and she felt she had to see it through. Which unfortunately meant she couldn’t be in it, too.

With Amber Whitehall and Philip Cuomo overseeing the project in its latter stages, Johnson and her colleagues built a work of theater piece by piece and moment by moment. It wasn’t a straight, clear path. Johnson tells the story of adding the narrator, an idea she admits she wasn’t on board with when it was introduced. “The idea of the narrator came about because Jonathan (Lee) wrote this fairy-tale-inspired text that turned into this narrator that just grew and grew and grew.”

To build a piece of theater, the group takes those separate moments and adds performers to them. Then they add transitions from moment to moment, or moments are layered onto others, or married together to become one, all centered on the source material. Eventually, narrative emerges.

The narrative won’t look like the traditional well-made play. The beauty of devised work is that it seeks to engage the audience’s imagination in an entirely different way. And if the spell cast is adept enough, precise enough, artful enough, an audience can be swept away before they even realize that they’re not watching a sitcom without a screen. Devised theater takes the crutches to the imagination, the tropes and stereotypes and cliches, and either gets rid of them altogether or throws them in a blender and rearranges them in the mind’s eye so that something new can be experienced. What that experience is, exactly, will be different for each audience member.

Very Poorly Indeed is a prime example. One audience member will come away feeling like she’s just seen a brutal, funny, American scene from The Golden Bough. Somebody else will feel something entirely different. When asked about the audience’s experience, Johnson offered this: “The audience is going to see two magical characters manipulating a story and two real characters trying to survive. There’s this whole idea about hope in an awful situation. What would you do? I want the audience to leave with questions — maybe questions about themselves.”

Right now, in this day and time, theater can’t get more imperative than that.

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Very Poorly Indeed plays at CoHo Theater this weekend only, June 22-24, at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 5 p.m.Sunday. Ticket information here.

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