Pure Research Submission Process
Pure Research Reports:
'The Choral Revolution'
by Rececca Singh and Nick Carpenter
'Kinesthetic Transference in Performance'
by Erika Batdorf, Kate Digby and Denise
'The Unsuspecting Audience'
by Moynan King & Sherri Hay
by Moynan King & Sherri Hay
by Camellia Koo
by Cathy Nosaty, Laurel MacDonald & Philip Strong
'Voice, Music & Narrative'
by Martin Julien
Sound, Voice and Connection'
by Heather Nicol
'Beneath the Poetry: Magic not Meaning'
by Kate Hennig
by Lois Brown & Liz Pickard
by Nick Fraser & Justin Haynes
by Shadowland Theatre
Read Brian's article on Pure Research from the Canadian Theatre
Pure Research Report:
Exploring the Land Between Speaking and
by Guillaume Bernardi
This report is structured four parts.
I will start by quoting the goals I set for myself and the participants,
as stated in the original proposal. I will then described how those
ideas were implemented. A few paragraphs will be dedicated to what
we achieved and what I learned from this process. Finally, I have
created a short anthology of quotes from the comments of the other
participants. I chose excerpts which seemed to comment on some of
the points I made. Hopefully this will give a more direct sense
of the rich and exciting week we spent working together.
The goals of this project, as stated in the proposal (quoted here
in a slightly edited version) were the following:
"The territory I would like to explore
in my Pure Research workshop is the transition between speaking
and singing in theatre and music theatre and how a director can
modulate, and use that passage. The questions I would like to
deal with are at the same time very pragmatic and quite abstract.
My initial impulse for applying to Pure Research came from the
strong desire (a need, actually) to tackle a concrete, two-faced
stumbling block that I encounter regularly in my work. When I
am working with actors, they struggle when I request from them
to deliver their text in a more "musical" way; when
I work with singers in my opera projects, they feel challenged
when I ask them to deliver the recitative with more sensitivity
to words, or also less cantando and more parlando. Those very
concrete rehearsal challenges often stem from gaps in the training
of actors and singers (or from the vagueness of the director
but beyond that, I think those challenges reflect a bigger, more
crucial issue: what is the territory that lies between speaking
and singing? What are the complex emotional and communication
issues that accompany the transition from speaking to singing
and back? What are the dramatic motivation and meanings to go
from one to the other? In rehearsal, there is never time to really
deal with the issue, but in the space opened by Pure Research
I would like to chart that territory, with both pragmatic and
theoretical goals. My first set of goals is to give the participating
performers a better grasp on those challenges, and for myself
to learn how to better guide and direct the performers through
those challenges. The second set of goals is to gain a clearer
understanding of that territory, and then to expand it through
experimentation and to see how that transitional zone could be
used to dramatic ends.
"My approach to the workshop rests on
the assumption that the performers, in touch with their bodies,
know best. I plan to alternate moments of work with three singers,
sensitive to language and two actors with a musical sensibility,
and see how each of them deal with those issues. I am interested
in seeing how they share their knowledge and how their mutual
skills could help them resolve those issues. It is essential for
me that one of the singers will be familiar with non-European
vocal traditions, as I want to expand the notion of singing.
"The workshop would be structured in
two halves. I would spend half of the 24 workshop hours on "classical"
material and the other half on experimenting with a variety of
The composition of the team was a crucial component
of the workshop. I was convinced that sharing expertise was going
to be the essential element of the workshop and, in my opinion it
indeed turned out to be that way. A description of the members of
the team should start with the co-leader of the workshop, composer
James Rolfe with whom I had many lengthy preparatory conversations,
in the months before the workshop. Our discussions were often about
opera as a genre, from the points of view of the composer and of
the director. Classically trained singers Brian McMillan & Vilma
Vitols, apart from their skills, brought their knowledge of the
classic western repertoire. Composer-performer Suba Sankaran brought
her deep knowledge of Indian music. Her participation was invaluable
as it opened totally new perspectives on the issues. The spoken
text was represented by actor Yashoda Ranganathan, with whom I have
worked many times and performer-writer Anna Chatterton, whose texts
focus on the rhythmic and melodic expressive qualities of language.
The workshop was split between three activities. In order of importance
I would state first the listening to a wide variety of related material.
James Rolfe put together a CD of excerpts which among many others,
included performers of Japanese Nô Theatre, Southern preachers,
hip-hop stars. I brought some CDs of the vocal music of Meredith
Monk, French classical tragedy, and contemporary Italian opera composer
Salvatore Sciarrino. These excerpts were the starting point of detailed
discussions on the relationship between singing and speaking. In
some ways we really had a mini-conference on the topic. Getting
the mental space and opportunity to exchange ideas on those issues
so important to each of us was deeply valuable. The third and most
important activity consisted in a series of improvisations, based
on a wide variety of materials.
The material could be divided in classical and contemporary,
but that is where the crossover of discipline was particularly valuable.
King Lear and The Winters Tale by W.
Belshazzar, an oratorio by Handel on a libretto by Jenssens
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
hey rea hey rea & Banished West by Anna Chatterton
I am Yours by Judith Thompson
Eunoia by Christian Bök
"Burn Hollywood Burn" by Public Enemy
"Humble Mumble" by Outkast
To explore this material we used a wide variety of
approaches, from different disciplines and traditions, reflecting
the interests and training of the group.
Among those, I should quote:
- classical diction of poetry (emphasis
on the meter; reconciliation of meter and meaning)
- choral composition of the voices (voices in counter-point; contrasts
between speaking, whispering, and singing voices
- structured post-modern improvisations: systematic use of one device;
for example, variation of the melody line imposed on the text
- use of beat, use of drone.
The workshop was a very rich and important learning experience for
me. I will try to summarize what I have learned in three different
sections, starting from practical and specific techniques about
bridging the gap between speaking and singing, then going to more
general notions about the tension between singing and speaking.
I will conclude this section of the report on some more personal
From a practical point of view, I first gained a deeper
understanding of the obstacles that confront the performers. The
long, animated discussions we had on those issues gave me greater
insight on how to guide better the performers through this territory.
If I had to roughly summarize the issues, I would say that the performers
have to confront various inner blockings. For the text-based performers
(the actor) it is about letting go the notion of "meaning"
and gaining confidence that meaning can indeed be conveyed through
musical means. For the musicians, it is more about letting go of
some kind of formal perfectionism, and in the case of the classically
trained singers an excessive reverence for taught values. As Vilma
put it, it is about "allowing one self to be bad".
As a director, I found the dialogue between actors
and musicians fascinating, and deeply illuminating. Having understood
some of the psychological challenges of the performers, the next
step was to figure out practical tools to bridge the gap sung/spoken.
During the workshop we experimented widely, looking more to cover
scope than to go in-depth. For me, that was useful in that it gave
me a full range of ideas, which I can now explore more methodically.
Again to summarize briefly our findings, I would say
that when dealing with singers, it is about giving tools to explore
the expressive qualities of text, by taking into account the innate
musical quality of language (rhythms, musical colours
from poetic texts proved to be a good strategy. With the actors,
I found the use of simple underlying rhythmic patterns (hand clapping
etc) and drones very useful. I discovered afterwards that a director
like Ariane Mnouchkine systematically uses a drummer in her (text-based)
rehearsals. All this information was very useful to me, and in my
own teaching of acting, I will keep exploring this material.
At a more general level, the workshop helped me to
see more clearly that the border spoken/sung sits across many territories.
This border has to be examined from different perspectives. It is
a performers issue: how does the performer go from one place
to the other? It is a writers issue: how do you integrate
sung forms in a play? What kind of play, what kind of narrative
can integrate this passage? Its a composers issue: how
do you write theatre for the voice? Its a directors
issue: how do you go from one mode to the other. Even more so, if
you are a writing-director, one who generates his/her own material.
Finally, it is an audience issue. The transition is always perceived
as a transgression. The issue is what models have the audience in
mind? What models of spoken/sung dramas are available to the various
communities? In other words, the borderline between singing and
speaking is cultural. The meaning of spoken/sung varies from culture
to culture. In a city like Toronto it is important to be aware of
this fact, and also to be aware that there is a great richness of
spoken/sung forms in the various communities that live in this city
that might be powerful sources of inspirations.
I would like to conclude this section on some more
personal comments. When I wrote the proposal, I was imagining a
very structured, methodical workshop, aimed at solving a very specific
problem. It turned out to be quite different experience, quite chaotic,
quite disruptive in a very positive way. As a director, especially
as an opera director, one learns that it is essential to be very
focused, very efficient, very clear in ones directions. In
this workshop, I felt, to use again Vilmas words, that I was
allowed to be bad. In other terms, I was allowed to take the back
seat, to let the performers take charge, to bring up problems and
not to have an answer. As I mentioned in the first section, the
issue spoken/sung had been causing me trouble for a while, but so
had other "conflicts": classical/modern; western/non-western
(for lack of a better word). Being able to bring up those issues
and explore them freely with a group of trusted collaborators was
a very rich and rewarding experience.
I am deeply grateful to the participants for their
enthusiasm, trust and generosity and to Brian Quirt, first for opening
with Pure Research such a precious space for experimentation, and
second for his support during the workshop, offering just the right
mix of freedom and guidance.
A Collection of Comments
In the first couple of days we developed a repertoire of "treatments"
for the texts. These reflected the participants respective
strengths or interests: Yashoda provided text analysis; James, Anna,
and Suba dealt with rhythm; Vilma and I focused on melody; Guillaume
listened, participated, and drew our disparate ideas together. We
then applied these to a number of texts. Some approaches worked
well, others did not; some worked all the time, others didnt.
But which approaches worked with which texts was certainly not obvious.
The rapped Shakespeare and Handel were my favourite sessions
I think in part because (1) these were musical styles completely
foreign to me and thus incredibly ear-opening and (2) the apparent
incongruity of the "treatment" and the text. Ive
always liked the clash of two different things that reveal something
new about each component part. In this case, adding hiphop rhythm
to classical texts helped to make audible the rhythmic vitality
of these texts, and made their messages seem incredibly contemporary/relevant.
Having a composer score a contemporary text like I am Yours
by Judith Thompsonwho is a playwright who really plays with
rhythm and high stakes emotionsfor her text, it seemed incredibly
natural to really exploit the emotion by putting a roller coaster
of vocal sound on it (like in an opera but not singing, playing
with range and sound within speaking) it elevated the
text and exaggerated and heightened the circumstances, which at
essence is opera. It took away my actor fear of being melodramatic,
and allowed me to just go for it, throwing away being careful and
diving wholeheartedly into the exercise of exploring vocal range
and finding how that could match the emotional stakes of the scene.
If there was more time, I would have then picked and chosen places
where the extreme of vocal range fit the scene. Gave me an approach
to an otherwise daunting emotional scene.
The diversity of the participants backgrounds was very helpful.
Everybody brought a different set of skills and experiences with
them, and it was possible to learn from each other. The unspoken
assumptions of the people coming from "theatre" and from
"music" were exposed through this contrast. It was refreshing
to step outside of my specialty.
Combining spoken, sung and whispered text forces the listener/audience
to become active. Also, the text in these different contexts creates
a mood, story, different emotional content, and different characters.
In An Equal Music, the combination of deliveries of the text
with the physical placement of the characters created the following
atmosphere for me: sung text was the musical backdrop, like a lingering
cello line, one of solitude, referring to the spoken text character.
The spoken text seemed to be like an audible journal entry, of self-reflection
and longing for companionship. The whispered text seemed like a
haunting refrain, a ghostly voice, the audible memory, again, all
from the point of view of the spoken text character.
On the King Lear excerpt:
Played with pitch: spoke each line from high to low with pause at
end of each line.
Certainly sounded completely artificial and I remember it being
very hard to do (a clear case of permission to be bad = "ptbb"),
but interestingly also underscored the sense of trying to control
madness & therefore surprisingly more effective, i.e. less bad
We also played with extreme ranges of spoken pitch. The extreme
spoken pitch made the transition from spoken to sung easier (easier
than in Vikram Seth excerpt).
I remember enjoying the freedom of this experiment and enjoying
the singing bits, very liberating, un-self-conscious an opportunity
to really savour the words (chew the scenery?)
I loved listening to Brian do it he sounded like a mad actor
doing Lear, even a bit comical, going against Shakespeares
intention perhaps, but the madness came through loud and clear.
Looking at other performing artists process helps us to think
outside of our respective boxes and in this way I found this workshop
particularly useful. For example: it would never occur to me as
an actor that imposing a particular rhythm or pitch direction to
a text could be helpful or revealing, but that doesnt mean
that it isnt.
There were many times during the workshop when I felt almost alarmed
at the suggestions coming particularly from the composer contingent
about what particular rhythmic or pitch pattern we should follow.
As an actor I am always concerned on some level that the meaning
of the text be preserved, but I think we discovered that other meanings
arose from this kind of exploration and with drastic changes
as in setting a classical text to a rap tempo the text was often
still very meaningful and interesting but in addition there
was another sort of non-literal layer of meaning that was most interesting.
This research was conducted at
The Theatre Centre, Toronto, Canada, from May 13 18, 2004.
Performers included: Vilma Vitols, Suba Sankaran, Brian McMillan,
James Rolfe, Yashoda Ranganathan and Anna Chatterton.
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