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Jay Dunn’s Rehearsal Diary: Devised Theater and Murmuration

First Day of Rehearsal – September 25

I thought I’d start off the second blog post by introducing myself. My name is Jay Dunn and I am an actor in The Conference of the Birds, playing October 23 to November 25 at, you guessed it, The Folger Theatre. I’ve been asked to do some reporting from backstage as a sort of insight into the making of this show. I already wrote a quick post about our first read-through, with designer presentations which was inspiring, to say the least. But quickly, a little about myself.

I lived and worked in DC for several years as an actor before going to grad school at L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq, a small conservatory for devised theater. Coming out of school, I began creating my own work with various companies in NY, DC and Philadelphia and that is what I have continued to do since.

What is devised theater?  It is a means of creating theater that generally applies to an ensemble of actor/director/writers, many wearing more than one hat.  A common idea or text is brought to the table and, as a group, we work in collaboration to stage ideas, decide on style and aesthetic, write additional content, even design costumes and a set.  In the end, hopefully, we have a truly original piece of theater.  There are many iterations of this process.  Sometimes you can start from scratch with nothing but an idea; other times you have a text and more defined roles where a director and a team of designers work with the acting ensemble to shape the play. The Conference of the Birds falls into the latter.

More than anything, devised theater is a forum for the open exchange of ideas between a creative team’s moving parts.  A forum in which the show is discovered and built through the process of creating it as we go, as opposed to deciding on what it will be beforehand.  And that’s what makes this rehearsal process so exciting.  And daunting.  To have so much input is a wonderful luxury and a huge responsibility.  There has not been a documented, professional staging of this production in the US since Peter Brook brought it to La MaMa, NYC in 1980.  You can be sure that this will be a show you have never seen before.

In rehearsal for The Conference of the Birds

We have completed our first day of rehearsal.  Whew!  All I know about this process is that it’s going to be difficult to sum up in writing alone, so in my posts I’ll be trying to include links to photos, text/ideas and videos that I am looking at.  A good place to start would be with a single word: Murmuration. Definition: Noun 1.  of starlings: flock (in the stackyard there was a great murmuration of starlings).  What a cool word.  It’s from Latin –  “murmuratio(n-) “a murmur” or murmurare ‘to murmur’. The usage as a collective noun dates from the late 15th century.” 

Why murmuration?  Although you will not see us as birds, per se, on stage (no wings, beaks, flying, flapping, pecking, chirping, etc.), we are still drawing inspiration from birds themselves.  What rhythms, dynamics, movements and mannerisms can we incorporate without actually re-creating birds onstage?  One idea has been to pull from the way birds flock, flying together in large groups and shifting direction/altitude intuitively, seemingly on a dime.  Check out this video before reading on (there are many more if you just type Murmuration into YouTube):

Theater innovator and director, Peter Brook

Wow.  Right?  Insanely beautiful, mesmerizing, meditative, impossible, perfect.  A murmuration is a rare occurrence in nature, but it gives us two pieces of useful information for this show.  One is simply how as animals, we have the intuitive sense and ability to move together.  It IS possible.  We are just out of practice.  We’ll be working on that.  Two.  This video is basically just a group of birds traversing an empty space, right?  But I could watch it for hours.  Which brings us to Peter Brook, the writer/adaptor of our story, and his book, The Empty Space, what many would call a cornerstone of contemporary theater.  In this book, one of the main tenets, roughly put, is that all you need to create a compelling piece of theater is an actor and a space to frame him/her.  An idea that will certainly be influencing this production.  More on Peter Brook in a future post.

Thanks for reading!  Please feel free to post any comments below.  All feedback is very welcome.

One Comment

  • This post is a great idea. It gives us insight into the play before seeing. It will help us to understand it in a more comprehensive way. The murmuration was incredible. The beauty of nature –priceless. Love your work.
    Love you, Mom

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