Thursday, 9 July 2015

Vibrating Dramaturgy: Cara Berger @ Unfix 2015

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Cara Berger: Vibrati started with a conversation between my collaborator, Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, and me. We were thinking about how we might link our really quite different practices and research interests – Brianna is a classical singer and a voice historian, I am a practice-based researcher in contemporary theatre and critical theory – under the umbrella of performance and ecology. In this conversation we found that the term vibration seemed to be relevant to both of us. 

For Brianna it evoked the cultural history and practice of vibrato, a singing technique in which the pitch of a tone is made to fluctuate, while to me it opened up how vibration is a central metaphor in ecological thought: it is often used to speak about ways of touching or connecting, it relates to a kind of vibrancy that goes beyond the idea that we are completely self-sufficient, independent beings. As a term it asks us to take into account how we are enmeshed or interdependent with other forces, beings and environmental factors. 

So we started with a word and then undertook a research process into all the different things this term can mean in different contexts. This led us into all sorts of unanticipated places such as atom models that describe matter as vibrating movement rather than a solid substance or the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that has been traditionally sung with a lot of vibrato because the vibrating voice is often associated with shivering, entropic body – the energy expenditure of the body to keep itself alive that at the same time recalls the threat of death.

Why bring your work to Unfix?
We began the process with Unfix in mind from the outset – I have been interested in ecology and what performance can bring to this field for some time now, so Unfix seemed like the right place to try out some of the ideas that I have been mulling over. 

What is particularly attractive about the festival’s take on ecology is that it goes far beyond the idea that ecological art naïvely celebrates nature as a value in and for itself. Instead artists are asked to explore the fraught, complex and volatile interactions between what we call nature and what we call culture, to grapple with the distinction between the two and how we can’t simply locate ourselves in one or the other. 

It asks pretty fundamental questions about how we dwell in the world and how we can take action in it. For me this means working on a kind of mental or imaginary ecology – changing the way we perceive ourselves, as humans, in relation to things that surround us and moving away from the Western lineage of thought that sees the human as the ruler, guardian or shepherd of nature. Unfix is consequently a place to – humbly – try out how we might start to imagine ourselves differently.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?I’m always a bit wary of prescribing what an audience member might experience in a show. Vibrati is the outcome of a process of thinking and doing around the term vibration, and we are sharing some of the images and thoughts that came to us while working. 

What I hope to provide is a space for reflection, to create a segment of time in which the audience are stimulated sensorially and cerebrally in a way that may be meaningful to them at that point, be that emotionally through the atmosphere we create or philosophically through some of the ideas we are trying to bring up.

The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
Dramaturgy is always a fundamental part of my working. For me a performance doesn't only become meaningful through what is shown, done and said on stage but also through the rhythm, pace and formal arrangement of its elements. For Vibrati this meant concretely that we spent a lot of time thinking about the dramaturgy of different vibratory elements of the stage: sound and light are essentially types of vibration at different frequencies, so we tried to make that tangible. 

We worked a lot on the dramaturgy of light for example. We use it very sparingly and precisely to bring its particular vibrancy to the forefront. Similarly, the dramaturgy of the human performer was important to us – there are many moments without live bodies on stage. Since we are talking about physical forces that act independently of human intervention it seemed logical to think about how we can make a show in which the performer is not always at the centre of attention.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
I wouldn't say that any singular tradition or inheritance is mainly operative in the performance but we cite a number of different performance traditions, many of which we also are sceptical about. Brianna, for example, is trained in a tradition of the solo singer – which basically means she is trained in singing in vibrato – and we investigate some of the history of that tradition and how it has been thought about. 

British church choral singing and a lot of the ideology of purity and ethereality that surrounds it is all about minimising vibrato because it reminds us of the earthly body that shivers, vibrates and decays. We explicitly move against this tradition by foregrounding the physiology of the singing, and embracing both vibration and vibrato. 

At the same time the solo singer is quite an individualistic concept – we work against that by showing how the solo singer is not entirely in control and self-sufficient but dependent on her body’s movements, physical forces and other processes out of her control.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it?
I often start with a term, an image or a cultural terrain – in this case vibrations – and work outwards from there. Making Vibrati included a lot of reading – about the cultural history of the singing voice, for instance, and how scientific findings impacted different arts practices in both Modernism and now. 

From the reading Brianna and I extracted images, texts or ideas that we wanted to explore in performance. We then tried out what kind of actions a text or image might inspire on stage, and later started stitching the material that seemed to click with us together. Much of the process of making this piece was about stripping back the material, simplifying it, until a really clear but dense stage action emerged. 

A lot of the ideas we are working with are quite complex, so we wanted to create a piece that gives the audience space to think and not overload them too much. It is more about inviting people in to join together the different ideas we have been working with than delivering an over-arching message or final statement. You could say that we followed the many vibrations that the word ‘vibration’ produces and are trying to create a space in which the audience might do the same.

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