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SPRING/SUMMER 2005

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Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2005 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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University theatre experimentation, creative experiences connect artists and audiences

By Patricia Lavender
Associate Professor of Theatre Arts

The opening scene of "God Favors the Predator." Photo by Byron Kennerly.

Randy Ward, Ping Chong, and Michael Rohd. Photo by John McCormick.

All The World’s A Stage? No, All the World’s A Lab
   In 2004, the Virginia Tech Department of Theatre Arts received the university's Exemplary Department Award for linking research and scholarship to teaching.
   "Student contributions are at the core of faculty scholarship in the department and all production participants work together in a vital and symbiotic relationship," says Patricia Raun, department head.
   She explains, "Our undergraduate curriculum is unique in the nation with its focus on collaborative teaching and learning that is examined and tested in the laboratory - the theatre. For example, a rigorous way of involving all students in actual production beginning their first year is the Production Lab, an opportunity for every student to learn some aspect of theatre production through practical work."
   Students are given the opportunity to learn and experiment with such areas as lighting, costumes, performance, arts management, stage management, properties, and sound.
   "With some 190 performances a year, performance work absorbs more than 50 percent of our faculty members' time," Raun says. "By creating Production Lab, we have explicitly connected the performance work with the teaching/learning mission. We make the invisible visible."

This photo and the ones below depict scenes from God Favors the Predator. Photos by Byron Kennerly.

Rigidly seated and dressed fully in white, a man and woman glide soundlessly on a white bench across the empty white floor. The stage lighting of dark mottled green against the black curtain invokes a deep jungle setting. The silent gondolier rowing rhythmically transforms the bench into a boat.

So began God Favors The Predator, a world premiere production that opened on the Virginia Tech campus in December 2004. The new work was the result of a partnership between Ping Chong & Company of New York City and Virginia Tech’s Department of Theatre Arts, with financial support, in part, from the National Endowment for the Arts.

This work is the most recent in a string of collaborations between internationally acclaimed theatre artist Ping Chong; Virginia Tech alumnus Michael Rohd, founder and artistic director of Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore.; and theatre arts Professor Randy Ward. It also is their second world premiere created at Virginia Tech.

The first, in 1999, brought together Chong, Rohd (then an M.F.A. student in directing), guest artist Jeffrey Randal, and Ward to develop and stage American Gothic. That play gathered national attention with further performances, and the script was published in American Theatre in March 2000 under the revised title of Truth and Beauty. Its publication added to the repertoire of new works available for theatrical production.

"Universities are incubators for advancing the theatre form; they are a place for theatre research," says Chong. "In the field of experimental theatre, it is about discovery and new approaches to the work."

Chong, himself a recipient of many artist fellowships, believes that universities have become a prime source for this kind of research. National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for individual artists no longer exist and there is little money available to develop theatrical productions, especially new works. The university setting advances the form by allowing an experimental environment that commercial and regional theatres can't support.

Says Chong, "I do not do work that is a re-hash of what's been done before, or work that is over the head of the audience. I am interested in work that offers engagement, connections. I strive to create a compelling live event for an audience that is meticulously constructed from a particular point of view."

Like many of their other projects, for God Favors The Predator Chong and Rohd co-wrote and co-directed the play and Ward designed the set and lights. In this production, Virginia Tech students formed the acting ensemble, and additional faculty and students provided leadership for all areas of production support. Together they mounted the Blacksburg production in a meager 17 days of rehearsal.

Like their other works, their process of creation began with an issue that the artists have a concern about and feel a need to address, examine, and consider. Abandoning conventional theatrical realism, which builds from response to human emotional trauma and a dramatic crisis, these three instead focus on theatre as a force for awareness and change in response to events and trends in the world. They construct a theatre event around a specific topic.

God Favors The Predator centers on issues of power - economic power, class and gender power, military and government power, even religious power - and its currency in today's world. In Truth and Beauty, the questions of media manipulation in the modern world are explored. "The issue becomes the 'hypothesis' to be tested in the laboratory of theatre performance," says Ward.

The realization of that point of view on stage is the work of their experimental theatre explorations.

Chong has long been acknowledged as a master of visual storytelling and a leading theatrical innovator. His works use stories and storytelling techniques to create a non-linear form of theatre with a fragmentary structure that is at once imagistic and poetic. The stories are all based in fact. Says Ward, "The amount of background research Ping does, including historical, sociological, cultural, political, and visual aspects, is amazing."

On stage, unity is achieved through the weaving together of all elements — text, scenic, lighting, costumes, sound, properties, acting, and physical movement — to create a cohesive visual, aural, and texture-rich world. The stark and simple scenic design creates a malleable canvas for performers, directors, and designers. Lighting becomes sculptural and creates auras of new realities, traversing time and space throughout the script. Noted one audience respondent, "The artistic vision of the directors was burned into the minds of the audience through selective choices and their daring to hold those images for extended periods of time."

These plays challenge audiences, diving into questions that are rarely asked, even by the most adversarial media outlets. Post-show discussions to gather audience feedback, reactions, and challenges to the show's issues are common. The responses become part of the critical review to inform the advancement of the theatrical form, and the university setting provides a unique opportunity for both scholarly and general viewer reactions.

Ray Paolino, associate professor of theatre at the University of Georgia, wrote after seeing God Favors The Predator, "This production was an outstanding piece of new, relevant material that was presented in a modern and cutting-edge style. Virginia Tech is to be applauded for bringing to its program, students, and audiences, the work of such highly regarded national and international artists as Ping Chong and Michael Rohd. It appears to be a perfect match for a university setting."

With their Virginia Tech connections, both Chong and Rohd credit Ward as the "special ingredient" that prompts their return to Southwest Virginia. Their particular working chemistry keeps their collaboration going. Since their first encounter five years ago, Chong, Rohd, and Ward in some combination have worked together in Boston, Japan, Seattle, New York, Germany, France, Portland, Michigan, Ohio, and Maryland.

The works range from new theatre pieces, such as Blind Ness: The Irresistible Light of Encounter, which was presented at La MaMa in New York (2004), to opera staging with La Clemenza Di Tito (2003) and the large puppet theatre work Obon, Tales of Rain and Moonlight, which toured Japan in 2002 after performances at the Spoleto International Festival in Charleston, S.C. Another work, The Edda Project, was performed at the Lincoln Center Festival (2001) and garnered Ward a nomination for the prestigious American Theatre Wing Hewes Design Award.

The three theatre artists credit their successful collaborations to a shared aesthetic and their common interest in physical and visual theatre, as well as political and social activism. Chong and Rohd agree that they complement each other as writers and both have theatre improvisation processes at the core of their work.

The trio's next project, commissioned by the Kennedy Center as part of a $2 million China Festival in October 2005, is Cathay: Three Enchanted Tales from China, an original puppet theatre work encircling China's ancient past, its tumultuous recent history, and its 21st century re-emergence as a global economic force. The piece premieres at Seattle Repertory Theatre in September and will tour in China after the Kennedy Center performances.