Playing with the Volume

Students experiment with sound, theatre technique, and interdisciplinary learning.
May 1, 2014

This past April, students in Theatre Arts Program Director Marcia Ferguson’s improvisation class learned something about experimentation from some of Philadelphia’s leading innovators of performance. As part of a two-week artistic residency, members of the Pig Iron Theatre—an award-winning company whose acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was a New York Times Critics Pick earlier this year—worked with students to explore the influence of sound on the audience experience.

In addition to staging groundbreaking productions, Pig Iron educates young artists in their ensemble method through their two-year professional school and through workshops and residencies at high schools and universities around the country. With support from the Provost’s Office’s Year of Sound initiative and the Interdisciplinary Arts Fund, Ferguson and Associate Director and Production Manager Eric Baratta were able to connect with Pig Iron and faculty across the university who were doing research on sound. Four researchers presented their work to the class and the Pig Iron artists as the raw material for the residency’s journey of exploration. They were post-doctoral researcher Michael Bonner from neurology, Assistant Professor of Architecture Simon Kim, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Orkan Telhan, and Associate Professor of Music Emily Dolan. The presenters returned for the final showing at the Annenberg Center and participated in the post-show discussion.

After experiencing the various research presentations, the students worked through improvisation exercises and creative assignments involving sound. In addition to their usual class time during the two-week residency, the students rehearsed four nights a week and participated in two Saturday workshops. During the week, the students collaborated with Pig Iron artists with open-ended directions. In the Saturday sessions they were given specific critiques and learned how to transform their ideas and experiments into performances. “There was a lot of creative license given to the students, and I enjoyed the autonomy we had to share our ideas with Pig Iron,” says Samantha Antrum, C’15. “I liked getting to know what kind of cool ideas were stewing in people’s brains.”

Ferguson calls the opportunity to connect students with professional artists invaluable. “For the students, this was a real immersion in various performance techniques,” she says. “They gained some real tools for the future. And for the program, I hope this is the beginning of a regular feature of our season: an artistic residency. We want to continue helping alternative, experimental young artists incubate work and connect with the students, providing post-grad resources and opportunities.” It was also an opportunity to introduce the University to a “work-in-progress” performance and acquaint the community with the experimental performance research process.

The performance itself consisted of a series of “etudes” on sound experimentation. One etude featured the presentation of a scene from beyond the opened back wall of the stage. Dolan later described this scene as “voyeuristic.” She also pointed out that “this piece was interesting because we could hear a little bit. There was a lowered volume on the sound, but a raised ‘volume’ on the acting and movement, so the audience could fill in the spaces.”

Several other etudes engaged different levels of audience participation and distance and featured actions mapped onto sounds that worked against conventional expectations. For instance, the students expressed the cognitive dissonance they experienced doing “sad” things to “happy” music. Concluding the evening, the post-show discussion centered around two defining questions of the residency: How do our experiences influence our associations or expectations for sounds, and how can we form a critique of these expectations through performance experiments?