Stirring the Soup, Making the Dance, Sharing the Meal

The other day I was asked to give a talk about the dance classes I teach at a Neuro Wellness Center that offers a variety of classes and resources for people with Parkinson’s. I’ve been teaching dance classes there for a few years along with classes that combine dance, theatre games, and vocal work. New members continue to join the Center and the weekly community “Coffee Talks’ provide a place to talk about the classes with new and continuing members alike.

Dance is one of the arts notoriously hard to describe — “ Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” as Martin Mull famously said, capturing three arts in one sentence. Just the term dance can be a little off-putting to some. People hear it and immediately picture tights and pirouettes and movement phrases too long to remember. It can be worrisome, the idea of stepping on a partners foot or starting on the right foot when it was supposed to be the left. Those concerns can become more pronounced when the dancers are navigating a neurological disease that impacts their movement.

People often think of dance strictly as performance on a stage, and most typically as a series of steps a dancer needs to learn. They are of course partially right, and yet….

It seems to me that dancing is kind of like sitting down to a good meal rich with benefits and delights – (lots of great dance happens while sitting) – especially the benefit of it being good for you. At its most basic, a healthy meal provides the nutrition we need; vitamins, fiber, proteins and fats. It fuels us. But a really splendid meal offers so much more. It includes all those warm smells wafting up from the table linking the present with our memory of past meals, events, and people. It includes vibrant images of color and form with tastes that are good unto themselves and delicious when combined with others. A good meal is often a shared meal and it provides sensory satisfaction as well as a coming together with others to enjoy the offerings. As does dance. At its most basic it is a series of steps – nutritious building blocks made through shape, time and effort. Yet as we dance – as the meal is made and eaten – those building blocks lead to something larger or greater. Yes, we move breath through the body, warm the muscles and consider our alignment as we move. Yes, we practice shifting our weight, finding our balance, recalling a pattern. But the dance, like the meal, is made up not only of the parts – combinations of steps and phrases – but of the whole. It fuels not only our energy but our spirit. Our cooking and our dancing, are expressions of who we are and encompass feelings of wonder, delight, passion, frustration, learning, fun, and companionship along the way. There is a deliciousness in both.

All safe movement is good for us, but it is dance movement that is an expression of who and how we are. We dance to inhabit our whole self and in doing so we enjoy the experience as we enjoy a wonderful meal. Through dance we bring color and feeling to our movement. We put elements together to create the flavor, and along the way we find some dishes or steps that we’re not that fond of, others that we love and want to have and do again and again. Dancing with others – sharing the delight, the frustration, the community of fun, is sharing the meal.

“Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.”
― Martha Graham

About Dance for PD®

Weekly Parkinson’s Dance Classes are offered at Banner Neuro Wellness Center
207 N. Gilbert Road in Gilbert, Ariz. (480) 699-0537 
Wednesday: 9:30 -10:45
Friday 10:15 – 11:30

Dance for PD® ( Mark Morris Dance Group ) offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease in Brooklyn, New York and, through a network of partners and associates, in more than 100 other communities around the world ( including the Phoenix area ). Participants are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative. The Dance for PD® method has been presented at the International Congress for Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders in Berlin (2005), the World Parkinson Congress in Washington, D.C. (2006) and at Neuroscience 2008 in Washington D.C. The program was recognized as a model program at the Society for the Arts in Healthcare’s annual conference and The World Parkinson Congresses in Glasgow in 2010.

Visit for more information. DVD’s for classes at home are available for purchase through the site.


Open Invitation

We had our annual termite inspection at the house today (all clear! ) – with a great, smiling guy named Rocky. He made his way through my husbands darkroom, filled right now with photographs of landscapes and old trucks, and then the movement studio, with scattered balls and foam rollers on the floor. He laughed and made a joke about having two left feet but really liking trucks. As he was leaving through the back gate he did a ( very) little jig kicking both feet up to the right in a final flourish which immediately disproved his claim of two left feet.

It’s a statement of the obvious yet one that we often forget – we are physical beings who are born to move. Our neurological development and health is dependent on our movement. Movement enables us to process information effectively and efficiently. Movement can be our joy, our challenge, our expression, our learning process. It informs our days and our lives. And dance, like sports, is movement that plays out in many different ways. The term dance may bring to mind ballerinas on stage or ballroom dancers kicking through a two-step, yet it is also a celebration dance at the arrival of good news, a rocking the baby to sleep dance, a flashmob at the museum, and the renaissance dance included in a social studies unit in middle school. Our dances communicate who we are and what we value.

While traveling in Uganda last month I spent time in a couple of schools and danced with lots of students. It was so great, – these kids in their school uniforms, shorts and sweaters and gingham checked dresses, many barefoot, dancing with limbs akimbo and beautifully controlled young grace. They welcomed me with dances, taught me a language lesson through dance, bid me good-bye with a dance. They were all dancers! Dance was one of the languages they spoke beautifully and effectively. It was one of the ways they connected to one another and to me, a visiting teaching artist from the southwestern United States. They danced with commitment, as a way to express themselves and their culture, wholly present to the whys and hows of their dances.

It set me to thinking about the ways dance plays out in schools in the US. Dance education here may include learning about history, health, and music and provides practice with imagining, persevering, and collaborating. Yet outside the social events of “school dances” we tend to focus on dance as performance. Dance class, particularly in the older grades, addresses style and technique and results in particular individuals becoming beautiful, skilled dancers. Yet as wonderful and rich as that training may be it tends to separate dance from other aspects of life, to keep it only on stage or in competitions, and helps build our identification as dancers or “non“ dancers.

Watching all those Ugandan students dancing – seeing their engagement and joy, the meaning they expressed, the comfortable way they used the language of dance I thought of the ways we might be short-changing students in our schools here. There will always be artists, like athletes, who are exquisitely skilled and expand existing limits. Dance is a performance art We need to support and celebrate the artistry. But dance is action and idea – big enough to provide an invitation to all of us to participate in ways that are social, spontaneous, trained, fun, purposeful, professional, performance, or approach to learning. It can include a welcoming, in classroom and out of classroom learning, a jig at the gate, and a way of saying good-bye.

Alison Marshall

Dance On

I’ve recently returned from several days at the Mark Morris Dance Group studio in Brooklyn, taking technique classes, choreographing, learning new work, and building my skill bank. Thirty of us came together from across the country and Great Britain to share ideas, experiences and questions from our own work as dance teachers with people who have Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that impacts the production of dopamine in the brain and impairs automatic movement. It’s often recognizable through movement difficulties; tremors, freezing in place, rigidity in carriage and expression. In 2001 a few visionaries who perceived the potential benefits of dancing for people with Parkinson’s disease came together in conversation. Those conversations led to a few dancers at the Mark Morris Dance Group Center starting a weekly class – Dance for PD. The class has developed and grown substantially, as good ideas sometimes do. Like good dance these classes have been tried, tested, revised and revamped into an evolving choreography of classes across the country and world. Those who started the classes in Brooklyn have generously shared their ideas an experiences and now over 600 Parkinson’s dance teachers have been trained worldwide.

As dancers, choreographers, and dance teachers, we have lived and loved the hard work and sheer joy of dancing. It has fueled us and in return we’ve wanted to bring some of that work and joy to those who grapple with the movement difficulties caused by Parkinson’s. During our classes each week we are able to teach and share dance in ways that are about the music, about connection to ourselves and connection to a larger community we make though dancing together. Professionally – trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge is useful to persons with Parkinson’s. Dancers know all about stretching and strengthening muscles, and about balance and rhythm. Dancers know about the power of dance to concentrate mind, body and emotion on movement because they use their thoughts, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control their bodies every day.

Dancing has all kinds of inherent benefits for all of us, not the least of which is that it can just feel good. When music plays we’re prompted to move. We tap our feet, glide across the floor, slap out a rhythm on our knee. It feels good to stretch a bit, expend some energy, express ourselves, get strong,

Leaving the studio in New York I was thinking about my classes and rehearsals over the years, from dance residencies in schools with five to eighteen year olds, to presenting professional development for teachers and teaching artists, to dancing with my University graduate students, to company classes and rehearsals, I’ve done musical theatre, dance concerts on stage, dance concerts in museums, parks, and classrooms. Whether I’m dancing full-out, quietly choreographing on my own, marking phrases in rehearsal, or dancing around my office warming my body and brain before spending the day writing, it just feels good to dance. Professional dancers feel it – Parkinson’s class dancers feel it – occasionally even high school prom dancers feel it. Dance has power, joy, confusion, delight, insight, flow. No matter what level of energy or expertise is required dancing can help us feel good.

As I walked to the subway, it struck me all over again the great common connection dance provides for all of us. Whether we are tangoing in Buenos Ares, dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet, jumping up at a concert to dance or dancing in Parkinson’s dance class – we dance because it feels good. It is one of the ways we say who we are. Yes, there are all kinds of significant neurological, physical, artistic, and emotional benefits to dancing. Those benefits are some of the reasons we’ve been doing it for as long as humans have been on earth dancing around the ritual fire, celebrating events, and marking occasions. You just can’t beat a beat you can dance to. Go on. Put on some music. Dance a little. You’ll see.

Alison Marshall

Dance for Parkinson’s

Part to Whole

Here was the challenge: Seven people from across the country, who had never met before, were selected to come together for five days and take a new play from page to stage.

This ‘magic act’ took place at the New Plays Workshop, under the auspices of the American Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) National Conference last month in Scottsdale, Az. Seven one-act plays were chosen for staging through a juried process. On day one the actors saw the script for the first time and on day five they were on stage performing the play.

Each play group (sort of like play groups and play dates we had when we were little, but with rehearsals ) included the playwright, the director, the scenographer (who designs the stage space and the visual elements of the play ), the dramaturge ( who helps in the development of the play, provides research to help inform the work of the actors, director and playwright, and is an advocate for the play ) and the actors.

Our play, written by C. Andy Landis, is titled Praying for a Hurricane. It has four actors, two of whom speak the dialogue, two of whom dance the unspoken thoughts and feelings – the subtext – of the two characters,a husband and wife. Our work process was similar to work in progress for any play going into production, it’s just that we needed to speed up the process considerably to double or triple time. There was time enough for several read throughs of the play,for sharing images and music to generate ideas, for trying out ideas – casting some aside and choosing others – but no time to get bogged down in egos or thoughts of “it can only be done this way”. With so little time we all had to step up to do the work quickly and thoughtfully while staying light on our feet.

The director and dramaturge arrived at our first group meeting very familiar with the piece and were steady guides for our work. A process that could have felt pressured instead felt fun,exciting and rich. Ideas were flowing. We paid attention, we listened to one another, we tried out an idea and then tried another. We revised, improved, kept exploring. We had a goal to reach and we made our own map of how to get there. None of us could have done our work without the work of each other.

Theatre is occasionally known for the diva-esque behavior of actors, for the drama off stage as well as on. It can be a muddled mess of cast and crew who are all doing the same play but never find a coherent approach or meaning for the work. They do their “own role” and the rest be damned. That was not us.

This staging of new work was a collaboration start to finish. All the players, both on stage and guiding from off stage, were united in a desire to serve the work and give the playwright a chance to hear and see how what she had put on paper came to life. As Shakespeare wrote, “The play is the thing”….. and this was a chance to enact that belief.

This was theatre at its best, which is to say it was a collaboration that respected and enjoyed all the parts of the whole. More experienced actors were on equal footing with less experienced actors. We approached this production with experienced and fresh eyes, eager to make this work be all that it could. And that is the joy of making theatre. We get to make meaning – to create something that didn’t exist before – to put story, characters, feelings and ideas forward and to share individually and as part of a team of artists. In making a play all the parts are needed. The whole becomes the whole only if all the parts are there.

Alison Marshall

ATHE: Association for Theatre in Higher Education

Developing New Plays Workshop

Praying for a Hurricane
playwright: Cynthia ‘Andy’ Landis
director: Janeve West
dramaturge: Patrick Elkins Zeglarski
scenographer: Juiet Wunsch
actors: Baron Kelly, Abel Zerai, Shelia Hickey Garvey, Alison Marshall

The plays the thing…
Act 2, scene 2 Hamlet
William Shakespeare

Moving it Out of Your Head

The performing arts have called to me since I was really young. My mom said I started to dance and make plays as soon as I could move furniture out of the way and get someone to turn on the record player. I listened to my parents whole record collection endlessly; Broadway shows to Trinidad Steel Drum bands,Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Harry Belafonte. I’d lie in bed at night, well past my bed time, and ask someone to “turn over the record one more time, please”. The music gave me images and made me want to move — and as soon as I was moving I was making up stories. When I wasn’t actually making dances or plays I was imagining them in my head. I was a busy girl before I’d even gotten to first grade !

Sometimes I had almost no idea what the musicals I was listening to were really about. Why did the songs in Carousel sound so sad when its very title was about a ride at a fair? The Music Man had all those fantastic horns and lyrics about a parade, so how come there was a song about a “sadder but wiser” girl? At age 4 and 5 I couldn’t figure it all out. But I could make up my own story lines and then put them into action with dances, dialogue, and songs. By the fourth grade I was running my own back yard theatre in the summer, bringing in all the neighborhood kids my age and younger to make dances and plays. I just loved spending my days making up stuff, sharing the making and the showing with others. I rehearsed and performed,but if no one was around I was happy to just create the shows and stories for myself. The jury was in, I loved the arts.

During my grade school years I went to summer camps and started to take “real” drama classes. It felt very official and grown up to be in the theatre, working with purpose beyond what my daily swim team practice required. I liked messing around with ideas. I liked figuring out something and then showing what I thought. I loved rehearsing with others. I loved making something that hadn’t been there before, and then was gone when we were done. A backyard summer camp and performance (By age 11 I was a playwright,actor, choreographer, director and producer all in one. I felt great!) generated enough money so that I could take some friends to the local amusement park one hot Phoenix August night. I blew my whole summer’s earnings in one four hour run but hey, it was worth it. From that point on imagination, hard work, celebration and the arts were forever linked for me.

I don’t think that everyone wants to be an artist at some point in their life, but I do think everyone wants to make things, and that impulse to make is central to the arts. Whether you are making a béarnaise sauce or a beautifully crafted table, composing a string quartet or a sonnet, making is the creative act. Making feels good. It comes with the challenges you figure out how to manage, and with the accomplishment of finding how to take an idea from inside your head and place it outside, where it can be seen and considered. Making shows us what we can do. It teaches us how to do what we’re doing and if we pay attention, can teach us how to do what we’re doing better. The whole process lets us – requires us – to question and wonder. Wondering prompts us to stay with it, to re-imagine, to revise, to connect ideas and experiences. Eventually, the process – and maybe the products – of our making can be shared with others. Ripples of response can provide accompaniment to the joy, frustration, disappointment, and curiosity that come along with the act of creating something. Considering ideas, taking action, assessing how things are turning out. These become the artistic processes of our days.

Alison Marshall

In the moment…

Lately I’ve had the chance to dance with lots of younger and older dancers. During a dance residency in Homer, Alaska I danced with 300 plus third through sixth graders and their teachers, and later with teaching artists from across the state. Weekly, I teach a dance class with people who have Parkinson’s, a chronic and progressive movement disorder. On the face of things the two groups seem pretty different from one another; younger – older, smaller – bigger, highly active – less active.

But amidst those differences real similarities are apparent too. They are all dancers who are discovering how their bodies can move now. They are eager and game to give the work a try and to see what they learn through the doing. They enter class, in a studio, a basement room, a classroom, a gym, not knowing exactly what our dance time together will hold, but my invitation to think and feel themselves as dancers combines with their curiosity and inclination, and off we go.

The school dance residency and the Parkinson’s dance classes include and combine various styles of dance – modern to tap, musical theatre to creative movement, somatic training to ballet, with a touch of hip hop for good measure. The focus is not strictly on building technical expertise but on helping them develop greater physical awareness and capacity while exploring movement vocabulary and expressing ideas.

During the Alaska dance residency all the students danced with me during their school day, which was a change-up from the norm and a signal to take the work seriously. When we first met I asked them, “ When you hear the word dance , when you heard that we were going to dance together today, what did you imagine? What do you think dance is? How would you define it? What does the word or idea make you think of?”

Their answers were great. They said, “Dance can happen in lots of difference places, in your kitchen, or bedroom, in the street, on stage, on TV. There are lots of different ways to move. Dance is loose and it’s about energy. You can move in place, like in a chair, or you can travel around.It just feels good to do. Dances show feelings. Dancing is like talking with your body. Dances can be about you, or about somebody else, like a character. Dance has something to say. It uses your imagination and shows who you really are. It’s fun. It’s cheerful. It’s a kind of art. It helps my brain power and I understand things better when I move. When you’re dancing you can let it all out – it helps you not be afraid to try. It’s about trying again.”

Their answers were not dissimilar to the responses I hear in my Parkinson’s Dance group. They talk about how dancing helps them to move more easily while in class and throughout the day. “It’s funny”, as one woman said to me. “ I work so hard to get it – the rhythm, the patterns, to kind of find the flow and then all of a sudden, it’s easier, I’m dancing. In class, I really feel like I’m a dancer, and I never thought I’d feel that way again.”

The greatest similarity between these dancers is that their work constantly engages – and transitions between – the cognitive and kinesthetic. Dance is ephemeral. We dance and then the movement image is gone. But the impact of dancing remains. The younger students found ways to explore and express their ideas – about land forms, literary character development, causes of the American War of Independence – through purposeful movement choices that became a dance. The dancers with Parkinson’s work with issues of balance , freezing, and movement flow and express how good it feels to dance with others. They learn combinations, find ways to come back into the dance if they lose a step or two, and simply feel themselves, enjoy themselves, dancing.

Dance enables you to find yourself and lose yourself all at the same time. It can center and ground you while providing magical moments of release and connection. The process becomes “being in the moment”. As one young dancer I know said, “ It can be hard work. It’s not fun every minute but it always leads to fun”



I’ve just returned from a visit to New Orleans for an extended celebration of Mardi Gras. Now that is a city that knows how to celebrate. Oh ha la!

The first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations were formed in New Orleans in 1781. By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” lit the way for the parades. The Mardi Gras krewes, (originally private social clubs) created fabulous themed street parades that included floats, music, beauty and antics. These days a krewe is any group or organization of revelers who band together to host a Mardi Gras ball, ride on a Mardi Gras parade float and participate in social events throughout the year. They have created what New Orleanians call the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.” In 1875, the Governor signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) a legal holiday in Louisiana and it still is.

Throughout the celebration, parade after parade wove its way through the streets ( oh, the beads, the beads…) Riders on the floats were dancing. Marching bands danced their way down the street while those watching joined in from the sidelines. There were parties up and down the French Quarter with people dancing in the streets and on the balconies. There was music at Riverfront Park with people of all ages dancing along to the music from various jazz bands. I’m telling you — there was dancing! And all that dancing put me in a mind to think about some of the ways dance has defined us throughout history and herstory.

As long as humans have existed so has dance. Movement is our first – and shared-language. Throughout time and across the world people have expressed their thoughts and feelings, and marked occasions in their communities and lives, through dance. Every human society includes dance in someway or another. It is one of the fundamental ways we express ourselves, individually and together.

Dance is a part of our celebrations and rituals. We dance to celebrate life events- graduations, weddings, birthdays, and occasionally, the lasagna we made turning out well. We commemorate a nation’s heritage and traditions with dances like the Chinese Dragon Dance, the Pueblo Indian community dances or the Irish harvest dances. Dance is elemental to the pageantry and participation in ( the wave !) sporting events, including the Olympics. It has been a part of religious worship, like the Aboriginal dances that help dancers reach the spiritual Dreamtime, or Sufi whirling dervish dances done to achieve a trance state. We come together to dance at all kinds of community social events from high school proms to square dances, elegant balls to folk dance gatherings, and make our own impromptu dances when a favorite song comes on the player.

Carnivals ( Mardi Gras) have allowed people to dance in the streets and generally turn the social order upside down. Throughout the weeks of this years New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration there was dancing, dancing, and more dancing. The dancing connected us as street neighbors as we watched the parades pass. It connected us as we raised a toast and danced in the street. We danced to enjoy, to mark an occasion, to be part of a larger whole. As we danced to the music from the bands or a DJ’s song choice, we were in good company. We were adding to the collective celebration and community that dance affords and encourages. Dance on.

Alison Marshall

Dancing in the Street – Martha and the Vandellas

Dancing in the Street – David Bowie and Mick Jagger

I have a theory that what we played at as a child is what we’re drawn to in our working lives….

As a kid I created theatre and dance all day long. My mom said I started dancing as soon as I could move the furniture. My parents had a great record collection and by the age of five I’d choreographed jazz scats with Ella Fitzgerald, steel drum songs with Harry Belafonte, and every Broadway show that had a cast album- though I had  to create my own story line for each one because the songs just didn’t really make sense to me at ages four and five. Most  kids live in  some kind of a world of make believe- creating circumstances and characters  in order to entertain themselves, create friendships with others, and figure out the ways of the world. I was no different – although from early on I knew that theatre and dance is key to who I am.  I loved stage work, grappling with all that it meant; analyzing character and objectives, finding the action of the story, learning the lines, the dance sequences, making the meaning.  And, while I loved making the work, I discovered I really wanted to share the power of theatre and dance with others who didn’t think they were artists. I wanted to help show those who  sometimes declared themselves “without talent” that they do have a talent and capacity to  respond in a moment, connect to others,  create the next step in a sequence, and show what they think through  their actions.

For the last several years- decades actually – I’ve worked to develop natural, purposeful ways to use approaches and skills from theater and dance with people off the stage.  I’ve worked with teachers, helping them use theatre and dance experiences in their classrooms so that their students can develop greater understanding in the arts and sciences. I’ve danced with people who have Parkinson’s to help them find balance, timing, and a movement flow as they travel across the floor.  I’ve worked with city council members and organization administrators to help them develop leadership skills.   I’ve taught theatre and dance with developmentally disabled adults, with learners in board rooms and classrooms. I’ve devised theatre and choreographed dances on stages in Mexico and in museums in Amsterdam, in places from Alaska to London, Bogota to Charleston and across the Navajo Reservation.

I started from my love of making theatre and dance and ventured into using approaches and techniques from those disciplines and worlds and moved  away from making theatre and dance only on stage. But lately I’m feeling the pull back to stage and studio to create and rehearse.  I’m taking classes, performing on stage and  film.  It’s a return to a deepest part of me and, to my surprise, it’s been really, really hard.

Good theater is in the eye of the beholder, but all actors know that to make the work matter you have to make something in a real way.  On stage we raise the stakes; theatre shows a snapshot of heightened life. But the actor’s work-the believability , comes from some combination of imagination and  a recall of moments and feelings from on our own lives. It is an amalgam  of intellectual analysis and sheer instinct.  We peel away the “should” of behavior to the actions and reactions of honest response.

Sandy  Meisner, the great  American acting teacher , defined acting as “ living truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of a play.” On stage that can be harder than it sounds. We have to find images, make associations, and recall moments and circumstances from our own lives that may be uncomfortable or painful . We have to give up  clever line readings or  acting how we think a character might  act and instead find a way to share who that character is, using ourselves as the conduit, and connecting with our own lives in the process. We create the action, the physical pursuance of a specific goal and  bring our  truths to the specific needs of the play or dance.  “What makes an actor a good one is his ability to act on the impulses his humanity creates in him.”  ( A Practical Handbook for the Actor. Melissa Bruder and David Mamet. Vintage 1986/2012)

In my work I use theatre and dance in schools and communities to  help others develop  a greater understanding of ideas and processes.  I make theater and dance on stage that requires me to learn about myself and the world, and to then step up and present.  As a teacher I rely on the power and meaning of language.  I say things- or share the words of others –  to better enable students to understand the meaning as presented. As an actor I  want to share the language of the play  in a way that encourages viewers to come to  their own interpretation.

Did I mention I’ve been at this work for decades? Stanislavsky once wrote that you should “play well or play badly, but play truly”.  In my best and most awful moments I’m still swimming in the deep morass of figuring out how to do this well.  If my luck – and grip on perseverance holds- I’ll be at it for years to come.  Learning never ends.


New York, May 2013

Springing into Making

fruit trees in bloom Riverside Park Springtime in Riverside Park

 My  last several months have been busy, filled with workshops I’ve presented, scenes I’ve filmed,  studios I’ve danced in,  classes I’ve  taught and taken.  Now I’m replenishing my reserves of energy and interest with work in New York; scene study, theatre, voice class.  A few ideas, from rehearsals and conversations, stood out to me during this last week.  Although the comments come from a performance context they really apply to all parts of our lives.

“Notice, listen, speak”

“When the words and the body are incongruous, trust the body”   

“Art means form and form means purpose…..”

“Theatre raises the stakes. It’s about life, but life based on the strongest choice you can make.”

“Give yourself to the other actor to create a balance of weight and energy. Push that balance to its limit. Maintain contact while you shift the level of balance and feel what changes. Be there for the other actor. Be present, but as you give, know you don’t need to solve the problem for the other actor.”

One of the great things about a play is that it has a beginning, middle, and an end. That is true of our lives as well, of course, but a play presents the three in way that allows us to see the impact of the choices a character makes in a telescoped or foreshortened way. Sometimes we don’t see the outcomes of our own decisions quite so quickly or clearly.  But the essential questions revealed for characters in a play are the same kinds of questions we ask ourselves in life.  When are we best served by noticing something first, listening to another, and then speaking?   How might  we look for our strongest choice and then make it?  When can we be there for someone else while not actually needing to solve their problem?  How can we combine attention and action in our lives, on stage and off? 

While reading an actor’s bio in Playbill this week I noticed the description “… is a teacher, director, actor, devisor and consultant.” I love seeing the word devisor in an actor’s biography. It seems to describe what we all do in so many different ways; on stage, in rehearsal, in the kitchen, in a classroom, in the office.    

Devising – It’s the making of something that wasn’t there before. Sometimes it’s done with planning and forethought- “I’m thinking about how I might present this idea in the workshop I’m teaching….”   Sometimes it’s done in a moment of intuition or insight, “Oh, I can use this clip to wedge the space and then be able to ….”

Devised theatre is a form of theatre where the script originates not from a playwright but from collaborative, often improvisatory, work by a group of people (usually, but not necessarily, the performers). In daily life devising may take place in collaboration with others or as a collaborative synthesis of our own varied ideas. It evolves out of noticing, listening, and making. It has to do with form, purpose, and trust.

 With the arrival of spring and new ideas budding forth here’s to making something that wasn’t there before.  Devise away.

Alison Playbill

More to Learn

I’ve been in New York since September, studying and performing theatre. Since my earliest days, when I moved the furniture in our living room in order to choreograph, sing, and dance my way through every record in my parent’s great record collection, dance and theater have always gone together for me.  I continued, from those in house productions, to theatre productions in grade school and then into high school shows. I kept studying and performing through college but as I did I began to hear a voice in my head asking “How might you do theatre and dance off stage as well as on? How could theatre and dance experiences offer something valuable to people outside of the theatre?  How can they help us learn? “

I paid attention to that voice and began to explore possibilities. I found work as a dance artist in the schools, co directed a theatre company for developmentally delayed adults, and developed dance and theatre programs for kids in a residential psychiatric treatment center. My graduate study combined performance study with studying the impact of dance and movement on brain development. I worked in Latin America creating dance and theatre in communities and schools.   I was the arts education director at the state arts commission supporting lifelong learning.  As University faculty I provided dance and theater based professional development programs for teachers.  It was all great work that I enjoyed and valued, but I had taken the work of theatre and dance off stage so thoroughly that I was seldom working on stage.  It was time to find a better balance. To start the process I headed to New York.

For three months there I’ve been there, studying theatre, dance, and performing on stage. During that time I had the incredible luxury of focusing my attention on being a learner rather than a teacher. The two roles should  not  be mutually exclusive of course, but lately, instead of presenting workshops and classes I’ve been taking them. The process has been filled with hard work and sheer delight. I’ve struggled through acting exercises designed to help actors  tap deeply into the emotional life of a character – as well as myself. I’ve delighted in losing all track of time as I researched aspects of a play, wrote a biography of my character, rehearsed.  I’ve bumped up against the experience of not knowing the answer to something. Suddenly, in my professional life I was back to discovering, to exploring, to wondering about.

Those things are a part of the teaching – presentation life too. But it can become too easy for me  to be seen by students and program participants as “the knower” prompting me to do my best to know what needs to be known.   The graduate students I teach tend to see me as the “expert” and my  attention  shifts from  the energy of questioning and discovering to  that of bearing  the responsibility  and challenge of figuring  out how to best convey information and ideas  to learners.

 During these last few months I’ve been swimming around in the seas of not knowing, finding out my own answers. One of the remarkable things participation in the arts offers is the chance to continually learn;  to ask questions, investigate, and uncover new questions.  As artists we study and hone our craft, we learn technique and varied approaches to making the work. We work to be present and in the moment, which is harder than it may sound when you are on stage in front of an audience.  We research, envision, rehearse, try something out and toss it away as we refine our work. Theatre and dance are disciplines requiring very  specific knowledge and skills. And yet, within that specificity there is always something mysterious about the making of the work. In the final analysis it is the alchemy of craft and practice,  and spontaneity and mystery that makes a performance come to life.