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In the traditional model of theater, text is a tyrant—actors and directors pay it the utmost attention and devotion, believing it to be the most efficacious way to convey the story. But think of a particularly powerful moment in theater. Is a line from the text itself, or some dramatic action: the smashing of a music box, the destruction of a beautiful family heirloom—or even the “aha” moment, the sudden realization that the story being told through dance is one that you have read several times before?
Students in actor Scott Barrow’s Wintersession workshop “Introduction to Moment Work: Exploring Elements of the Stage” identified moments in theater most poignant to them, many of the participants focusing on such visceral instants. As one of the January Arts and Media Seminars organized by the Office for the Arts, Barrow’s workshop offered a limited number of students the opportunity to dissect other facets of theater, such as space, props, and overall aesthetic.
The JAMS programs offered students and non-students the unique opportunity to come in close contact with professional actors, musicians and other artists. Seminars and conversations held throughout the last full week of January were designed to connect students with the arts.
Joshua R. McTaggart ’13, a student in Barrow’s seminar and a Crimson Arts editor, got that chance as he recalled his moment from theater. For him, the actors’ electric performance in a production of Philip Ridley’s “Mercury Fur” culminated in a particularly charged scene. “Unlike ever before, I felt that I shouldn’t be watching this,” McTaggart said. “I felt as a viewer that I was intruding. And for the first time in theater, I felt a real sense of danger.”
These moments are made of the type of non-textual elements that Barrow encouraged his students to consider. A member of the Tectonic Theater Project, Barrow believes that the actor is a storyteller who, in order to better tell the theatrical story, should deeply understand its elements beyond the bare text. “The best thing for the students to get out of this would be to be able to develop a vocabulary with the more subtle elements of the stage so we can create an alternative to text-driven theater,” Barrow says. In order to understand theater, the students first deconstructed it by listing its components: light, shadow, sound, direction, tempo. After delving into these elements, the students created theatrical moments of their own.
As the JAMS initiative aims to draw in people of diverse backgrounds, however, the workshop did not attract only actors or even only those involved directly with theater. Nicolas Maffey ’13, who performed in Cirque du Soleil after high school, joined actors, directors, and playwrights in the workshop. “Being a more holistic, a more well-rounded artist is extremely important [in the circus],” Maffey said. “I’m always very interested in learning more about all the tools I have available to come up with a better routine and to become a better artist.”
While Barrow’s workshop was limited to students, public conversations were also held around campus as part of the JAMS initiative. In a master class with Christine Ebersole, the public listened as three undergraduates performed and were afterwards advised by the celebrated Broadway star. And audience members learned the tricks of the comedic trade during an afternoon with “Seinfeld” writers Tom Gammill ’79 and Max Pross ’79.
In the Kirkland Junior Common Room, Harvard undergraduates had another chance to learn from some other successful artistic alumni: Richard Kogan ’77, Lynn Chang ’75, and Yo-Yo Ma ’76. In a conversation entitled “Forty Years of Music Making: The Divergent Musical Paths of the Kogan Chang Ma Trio,” the three musicians spoke about their experiences since attending Harvard and how they got to where they are today as artists. Kogan, who is both a psychiatrist and a pianist, recalled how his undergraduate experience encouraged his musical talent. “I became really interested in music my freshman year,” he said. “But, probably the more important thing was the friendship I made with [Ma and Chang].”
The three friends alternated between reminiscing on undergraduate times and offering advice on how to pursue one’s passion. Though he also emphasized the possibility of combining the humanities and science, Chang encouraged those in pursuit of a purely musical career. “If you have a passion for it, why not?” Chang said.
Ma’s particular interest was in the innovative power of music and art. Specifically, he spoke about art’s ability to unite divergent fields, as with Kogan’s marriage of medicine and music. “For something where you think there is a dichotomy, you can creatively find a connection that no one else has thought of,” Ma said.
This concept of the unifying power of art encompasses, in a sense, the mission of Harvard JAMS. Whether they brought little theater knowledge or had already directed multiple productions, aspired to become professional musicians or sought to pursue art alongside a career in medicine, students and non-students had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the arts through these Wintersession activities.
—Staff writer Adabelle U. Ekechukwu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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