Wherefore?

The theater at Epidaurus, in Greece.

WHAT ON EARTH DO YOU MEAN BY “IMPROVISING CHORUS”?

(A self-explanatory essay from August 2010, shortly after the founding of the ensemble.)

by Dara Weinberg

When we say “chorus,” we take the word from the Greek chorus, that group of people saying “Creon, you probably shouldn’t bury Antigone alive,” if you know what I mean. Those actors sang, danced, and recited poetic, metered texts. (Our translations of these plays often disguise that, write the choruses in free verse with very strange line breaks, and make no reference to the fact that these were songs.)

I started working on choruses after I directed Aristophanes’s LYSISTRATA, in high school, and realized I had no idea how to approach the things. I’m still trying to figure them out. We don’t really know what the Greek chorus was like–our best evidence comes from vase paintings, and that’s sketchy. I try to find contemporary ways of interpreting them.

What’s a chorus? I think the word makes us think of a group of people, perhaps speaking or singing or dancing in unison. We think of the corps de ballet, or a choreographed musical theatre chorus. If you’re an actor, the chorus is where you, perhaps, don’t want to get cast, because you might think you wouldn’t get to have any spontaneous Meisnerian impulses while performing. I have been working with different performance approaches to the Greek chorus for a few years now, with a variety of different theaters, and I find, time and again, that people think the word “chorus” automatically means “I don’t get to have any of my own ideas–someone’s going to tell me where to stand and how to act.”

When I started directing choruses, in 1999, this was how I worked. I farmed choruses out to choreographers, or if I directed them myself, I orchestrated every movement, every impulse, every gesture. The performances were beautiful, I think, but the actors were bored and over-controlled. (I’ve worked with improvised music from the very beginning–but that came out of laziness on my part, or lack of a composer. I didn’t understand that improvisation was fundamental.)

The solution, which took me quite some time to figure out, was to figure out that improvisation could be part of chorus work. Not to save time, but because it actually creates better and more inspired performances.

||8ve came about because I’d been teaching a number of chorus workshops in Baltimore, and it seemed like it was a good time to create a place to keep working with these people. We wanted to make music central to the process, to focus on sound, and have the opportunity to work on poems we loved.

When I read Dylan Thomas, or John Donne, or other poets with tremendous personality, I often imagine multiple voices speaking them, and music (I don’t want to use the word “accompanying”) informing them. These recordings are moving towards the idea that more poems would be choruses if we would let them be choruses.

We interpret “chorus” loosely to mean any kind of poem that can be spoken by a group of people in the presence of music. (Not all our recordings have multiple voices: to me, one musician and one guitarist can constitute a chorus reading of a poem. The music implies a multitude.) We also give all the performers freedom to improvise and to follow impulse. This is certainly not what the Greeks did: it’s what we’re doing.

It’s hard to explain how a chorus can improvise without losing all the integrity of the text. The best way to understand it is probably to come to one of our sessions and try it.

However, we’ve all seen something like it. A swarm of insects doesn’t have choreography or orchestration, but there is still a clear sense of that swarm’s direction. That direction, that purpose, comes from listening, watching, and imitation. Any member of the swarm can direct the impulse of the group, at any point.

Similarly, a group of performers can be as spontaneous, as various, as changeable, as a single performer–without sacrificing anything in terms of the text–as long as they are listening.

Another improvised aspect of ||8ve is that anyone can show up, any week, and that artists can be part of the group without having to make a commitment to be there all the time. The chorus is constantly changing and re-forming.

||8ve is a place for experimentation. We try everything that anyone thinks of trying. Everything. We record in a single take, most of the time, and don’t do much editing. Many of the recordings we put up here have some of the obvious flaws of something created in improvisation. I don’t know if everything we try always serves the text, or sounds good, or even sounds bad in an interesting way. But we are trying to create a new way of working. I would rather have the artists who work with us walk away with some sense of what a chorus might do than create precise, perfect recordings.

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