What is a “Focus Workshop”? (OR: the history of grilled cheese sandwiches according to some PPL)

Institute_Institut is the last piece in a trilogy called the Transformational Grammar of the Institutional Glorybowl. Here is background, definition, and context for those who are interested.

In 2008, PPL created and produced the first work in this trilogy, Schooled and Unschooled, the first piece that PPL really considers a part of our own mode and aesthetic. I was teaching creative movement and acting when it began, both playing with 5 year olds and devising work with teenagers. On the same day, a six year old boy told me that his teacher told him he was a “Bad Kid” AND a sophomore in HS shared a scene in which a team of girls burned down their school. Likewise, I was struggling to use their ingrained physical patterns from school in my classes (hand raising for example, made me very uncomfortable as a teacher) and fully help them explore their experience through performance, but I was sensing a lake of rage and experience that I couldn’t possibly fully understand (having been unschooled K-12 myself). I was also conscious of my strong political and ideological opinions about education in this country (and how unqualified I was to be conclusive about any of these without any concrete experiences).

I wanted to test my subjective values, prejudices, and concerns about institutionalized education, and satisfy my curiosities about school at the same time. I was most curious about how it felt to be in grade school in the U.S, and how individual experiences with school formed worldviews, psychological and emotional patterns, and political perspectives. I ended up interviewing around 50 people, most of them teachers, children, and education “experts” of various sorts. I then combined/contrasted their statements, stories, and opinions with my own, and with the writings and theories of Piaget, Dewey, Adler, Bagley, Gardner, Foucault (and works using his theories), and many others. I was very nervous about the form of the piece, a class lead by a teacher with Brian’s songs performed live at intervals. The work was performed at Dixon Place (the old space) and the West End Theater on a budget of $135 by a mixed group of actors and “real people” who were school teachers, students, and individuals who had particular interest in the subject. The performances turned out of the pan in rather messy clumps of strong rhetoric, propaganda, and raw emotion. In retrospect, the piece seems very inchoate, the work of young artists throwing pieces of dough at the wall in hopes of creating dinner. During one of the performances, an audience member (a middle school teacher I found out later) stood up and shouted Boooo! and walked out. An excerpt from (rather poor quality) video documentation of Schooled and Unschooled can be found HERE.

The strong reactions to Schooled and Unschooled helped us form the next piece in the trilogy, Workforce/Forced Work. By this time, we had done a lot more research on documentary and post-dramatic performance post-Tectonic. It’s always useful to align one’s own theories with those of others. We also saw pieces by other theater artists working in “documentary” and engaged forms, as well as a great deal of performance art. I was also in the middle of collaborating with Dina Keller, a German director whose work is decidedly documentary. Workforce/Forced Work was created in an abandoned bank vault on Wall Street (across from the New York Stock Exchange) thanks to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The economy was collapsing all through the process. Here, for Workforce/Forced Work, the “Focus Workshop” was termed, as interviews became groups of individuals invited into the vault to re-perform their daily work actions, vent, discuss, and sometimes perform sequences of movement for video to be used in performance.  The final piece was comprised of pink rats, the repetitive gestures of workers, processed cheese food, and a dense, sample-driven score made from Brian’s field recordings in power plants, poultry factories, etc. We also did some clay animation, some Flash animation, incorporated a lot of video, and performed the piece in the vault and as a regular run through the Residency @ chashama. HERE is some documentation of this one. I also wrote this article for NYFA Current, which explains the direction that the trilogy was taking under the influence of Ranciere, Badiou, and a lot of other French Marx-influenced philosophers who appeared in NYC to lecture. This time, when an important funder asked loudly after the third show “WAS THAT EVEN THEATER?” we felt slightly less like juvenile delinquents and more like we were getting somewhere.

Finally, we have reached Institute_Institut, which will be less educational post-drama than the first two pieces, as influenced by PPL’s shift into documentary folk opera.  For this piece, the Focus Workshops figure more prominently as part of the project, and will be completely public. They are being advertised in English, Spanish, and French and will begin with a round-table discussion a la product-centered Focus Groups, with the consideration of “Institutions” and their suitability as frameworks for daily life. They will then “focus” into a group-psychology session, much like those made popular in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s regarding experience with gender, sexuality, and life path. Finally, we will enact institutional experiences and engage in explorations of institutions, using post-it notes, theater games, and other forms of physical analysis. I am using the workshops held by the Anti-Racist Alliance and permaculture guru Bill Mollison (among many others) as templates for this exploration.

Although the Focus Workshops will be taped, I doubt we will use actual footage from them in the piece (unless something is so amazing that it must be used). Rather, we will synthesize perspectives, opinions, experiences, and statements into “expressive” sequences which can be performed by four choirs. Dramaturgy is a major concern! We want to discover new forms of dramaturgy which do not rely on autonomous, symbolic/mythic/empiric systems. This project is more about the effects of institutional structures on individuals than it is about describing or defining specific institutions, as the concept of “institution” lies only in its enactment/influence. Most concretely, we are beginning with the idea that institutions are any mimetic (reproducing) social constructions which organize behavior, emotion, and so on into that which is perceived (by the institutional structure itself, as an emergent entity) as beneficial for a group of people. We wonder, how can we unpack this type of complex-systems-ese into ideas which can be used by individuals in daily life? How can we gain perspective on the “phenomenon” that is “institutionality”?

For an invitation to participate in the Focus Workshops, see the post below. Hope you can make it! We are also (in June) doing one-on-one interviews. If you are interested in being a one-on-one interviewee, e-mail me (Esther) at panoplylab@gmail.com.

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