Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project's Process of Devising Theater

Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project's Process of Devising Theater

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A detailed guide to the collaborative method developed by the acclaimed creators of The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency--destined to become a classic. A Vintage Original.

By Moisés Kaufman and Barbara Pitts McAdams with Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Kelli Simpkins, Jimmy Maize, and Scott Barrow. For more than two decades, the members of Tectonic Theater Project have been rigorously experimenting with the process of theatrical creation. Here they set forth a detailed manual of their devising method and a thorough chronicle of how they wrote some of their best-known works. This book is for all theater artists—actors, writers, designers, and directors—who wish to create work that embraces the unbridled potential of the stage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101971789
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 917,720
File size: 27 MB
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About the Author

MOISÉS KAUFMAN is the founder and artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, a theater company based in New York City. His 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde was named one of the best plays of the year by Time, Newsday, the New York Post, The Advocate, and The New York Times. With Tectonic he has directed works by Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Benjamin Britten, and others, and created new works including The Laramie Project and 33 Variations. He is the recipient of the 1997 Joe A. Callaway Award for excellence in the craft of stage direction. In 2016, President Obama awarded Kaufman a 2015 National Medal of Arts for "his powerful contributions to American theater."
BARBARA PITTS MCADAMS was an actor/dramaturg for The Laramie Project, performing at BAM, Alice Tully Hall, Union Square Theater, LaJolla Playhouse, Berkeley Rep, and Denver Center. She also appears in the HBO Films adaptation and shares an Emmy Nomination for the screenplay. Barb originally codified Moment Work for an internal teaching manual, and, as a Moment Work master teacher, leads trainings and devises new plays at colleges and high schools. She has also served as an adjunct professor for Drew University and CUNY’s Applied Theater MA program. She is a two-time Orchard Project and Sundance Theater Lab alum and a proud cast member of the award-winning web series Anyone But Me, about lesbian teens in the post-9/11 era.

Read an Excerpt

by Moisés Kaufman
The stage is the arena that most awakens my sense of wonder. I’m fascinated by what’s possible on stage, and by the myriad ways we can create theatrical narratives that generate riveting and profoundly intimate dialogues with an audience. It is this sense of awe and curiosity that led me to found the laboratory that is now Tectonic Theater Project.
Growing up in Venezuela, I had the good fortune of seeing the work of artists such as Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Jerzy Grotowski, and Tadeusz Kantor at Caracas’s world-class inter­national theater festival. These artists were rigorously explor­ing the potential of the stage. They created strange and wonderful new worlds that could exist only on the stage. Every aspect of these productions—sets, acting, sound, movement—helped build a new reality. Their work was experimental, ad­venturous, and very theatrical.
I was so used to these experimental works that when I saw my first “realistic” play, I thought, “This is so avant-garde! Look, there’s a sofa onstage! And water comes out of that faucet!” I guess my reaction must have been similar to that of the audi­ence in Moscow in 1896, when The Seagull premiered. For them (as for me), naturalism was a new form that broke with all prevailing theatrical conventions. And because of the new­ness of that form (Masha sitting with her back to the audience, sounds of birds and horse carriages in the distance!), the audi­ence was invited (or forced) to experience the content of the piece in a different way. Chekhov’s words were given a new canvas on which they could communicate with that audience.
This early exposure to a broad range of theatrical vocabular­ies ignited my curiosity and gave me a hunger for experimenta­tion that has never left me.
Tom Stoppard once described an outdoor production of The Tempest that had become almost legendary among those who’d seen it. In Act V, Scene I, just after Prospero grants the spirit Ariel his freedom, Shakespeare writes, “Exit Ariel.” The produc­tion Stoppard describes was performed on an outdoor stage, near a lake. After Prospero bade Ariel farewell, the spirit ran across the stage straight into the lake, where to everyone’s sur­prise he continued to run on the surface of the water (the set designer had built a walkway in the water invisible to the audi­ence). The audience saw Ariel running across the lake, and as he disappeared into the darkness of the oncoming evening, fire­works erupted into the air from the far shore. When the sparks were gone, so was Ariel.
I can’t help but think of the enormous awe and delight ex­perienced by the audience. These theater artists had figured out a way to capture the magical and ethereal essence of the character and express it theatrically: Ariel— a spirit—defying the laws of physics and then exploding into a blazing fire! Fur­thermore, by having him disappear in the distance just as the fireworks burst, they had used the audience’s imagination to create a metamorphosis. This combination of theatricality and ingenuity had not only managed to articulate a sophisticated idea onstage but also to dazzle the audience and generate a sense of awe.
Theater as an art form has such magnificent potential! And theatricality as a language is endless in its ability to address the audience’s imaginations, minds, and feelings.
So why is it that much of the work we see on contemporary stages makes little use of that full potential? Why is it that so much of the work we see onstage takes place in living rooms or kitchens? Why, in a time when film, television, and the Internet continue to redefine what can happen on a screen, are natural­ism and realism still so prevalent as narrative styles onstage? Today we as a society are constantly exposed to narrative. We have become incredibly adept both at evaluating aesthetics and at interpreting narratives within them. So why do we continue to use the same well-known forms to talk about new ideas? If we want to tell stories on the stage, how can we do so in a way that uses all the magnificence, the poetry, and the idiosyncratic discursive power of that which is theatrical? Which theatrical vocabularies and languages will best allow the stage to express contemporary narratives?
These questions were with us in the rehearsal room as we started the company, and I am still contemplating them more than twenty years later. Our name, Tectonic, refers to the art and science of structure— as in architecture, architectonic. We wanted to focus on form and on how that form relates to the narratives we construct. (Tectonic also refers to the movements of large continental plates, and this idea of shaking things up appealed to our youthful bravado.)

Our first years as a company were devoted to staging authors who were themselves experimenting with new theatrical vocabularies. During that time, Moment Work began to emerge as a series of exercises that allowed us to pursue the full potential of their plays using a new, shared language. It was Moment Work that would eventually lead us to create our own plays, and it is Moment Work that has led us to write this book.

I once visited Argentina to give a lecture at the Teatro Colon, a magnificent nineteenth-century theater that was modeled on La Scala in Milan and the Paris Opera House. While touring it, I noticed that on either side of the audience seats the walls were made of metal grills that resembled vents, which seemed odd to me because the theater was built before the invention of air conditioning. I asked the artistic director about them, and what he said really struck me.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, when the theater was built, widows were not supposed to be seen at social events for a year after their husbands died. To work around this ridiculous social restriction, the theater's owners and architects decided to build rooms on either side of the audience behind the grilles in the walls where the widows could come to see plays without being seen themselves. I was deeply moved by this: it showed how much that society valued our art form and how important they thought it was for people in times of strife.

When I look back at Tectonic’s work over the past two decades, I think the one question that has consistently given us focus and driven our work is this: how do we articulate a vision for this art form today that will allow theater to secure that vital role in our culture?

Moisés Kaufman
May 2017

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction 3

Part 1 Tectonic's Antecedents, History, and Approach 7

Antecedents 9

Postmodernism and Deconstruction 9

History 15

Approach 19

The Most Prevalent Process of Playwriting 19

Defining Devised 20

Form and Content 21

Theatrical Narrative vs. Dramatic Narrative 22

Collaboration 23

The Role of the Theater Artist 23

Part 2 The Moment Work Process 25

Level 1 Making Moments 29

Prepping the Space 29

Introducing the Elements of the Stage 30

Introducing the Moment Work Construct: I begin/I end 37

Two-Person Moments 39

Group Moments 42

Concepts: Defining Moments and Moment Work 43

Architecture and Space Moments 44

Concepts: Tools for Critique 50

Prop Moments 54

Concepts: Discursive Power, Logging, and Sharing Moments 60

Costume Moments 63

Concepts: Discursive Line, Narrative Flexibility, and Layering 72

Light Moments 76

Concepts: Tension, Dynamic Change, and Scoring 88

Sound Moments 91

Text Moments 108

Adding Texts to Preexisting Moments 109

Some Additional Elements 120

Level 2 Constructing Short Narratives 125

Consecutive Sequencing 127

Moment Layering 128

Context 131

Additional Structuring Took 134

Level 3 Creating a Piece 153

The Hunch 153

Source Material 154

Organizing Principles 157

Using Throughlines 158

The Plays 160

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde 160

The Laramie Project 176

I Am My Own Wife 212

33 Variations 218

One Arm 226

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later 235

Uncommon Sense 242

Part 3 Essays 249

What Do We Bring into the Room? Andy Paris 253

Interview Technique, Research, and Fieldwork: Muster Some Nerve and Embark Greg Pierotti 259

A Team of Dramaturgs Jimmy Maize 271

Writing into Form: Creating the People's Temple Leigh Fondakowski 275

Brecht and the Use of the Narrator in Tectonic Plays Moisés Kaufman 283

Devising a Moment Work Play with College Students Kelli Simpkins 287

Afterword 295

Company Members' Biographies 297

Acknowledgments 305

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