Installing audience feedback into an artistic process:
Encounters in the OPEN STUDIO
by Jenny Beyer
The relation between the spectator and the dancer is one of my persistent interests. Shouldn’t theatre ideally be a zone, a plane of intimate encounter where roles are by necessity in a continuous process of transformation? In an effort to find new answers to these old questions, in October 2014, together with dancers/choreographers Nina Wollny, Chris Leuenberger, Matthew Rogers, composer Jetzmann and dramaturges Anne Kersting and Igor Dobricic, I started a studio based practice of initiating direct communication with audience members. My expectation was, and still is, that this series of OPEN STUDIOS would inform and effect the outcome of the work in a way that will bring the dance and the audience a bit closer to one another, if not physically then at least in spirit.
From the start, these public rehearsals were not conceived as workshops or showings but as an invitation to join a creative process with all the openness and uncertainty that this brings. In them we practice being personal, informal and to not be stressed by the presence of strangers. We share material that is fragile and open for change and that we have questions about. We improvise, invite our guests to join physical practices and create moments of conversation. Most participants in the OPEN STUDIOS are not professionally connected to dance. Over the years we have built up a group of regulars but every time there are still new people joining. This makes the OPEN STUDIOS a place where we can receive feedback from genuine outsiders: non-professional, curious spectators.
It is important to note that the guest's role is not to be the usual giver of feedback – people that are just invited to serve our need for artistic advice. Instead we try and make the OPEN STUDIO a place for learning together where information can flow in many directions: The participants receive insight, knowledge and inspiration for their personal use as much as we do. Nevertheless, using feedback as information to influence and nourish the artistic work is one of our core motivations for the OPEN STUDIOS. To this end, we are interested in both non-verbal as well as verbal/written feedback. The moments of moving for or with the participants are just as important as talking or writing.
The OPEN STUDIO often starts with a non-obligatory warm-up in which we explore the physical tools of our process together with the participants. This phase of moving together offers the rare opportunity to experience practices that form the source of our material in a new way. Transferring and offering practices to bodies with different experiences is a chance to evaluate our habits and language of working. It also sets a foundation for further conversations by creating shared moments of physical experience and softening the borders between ourselves and the participants.
Other components of the OPEN STUDIOS are sessions in which improvised or prepared material is tested by how it (per)forms itself in tone, quality, timing and decision making in relation to spectators. What information do we gain about the material by doing it in the presence of others? These moments of performance embedded in the process are speculations on the further development of the work. Without having the pressure of finalising decisions yet, these moments serve to take a closer look at how the material presents itself at that particular point in time.
In order to collect individual observations of the material we create moments of conversation with our guests. Normally, we invite them to sit with us in a circle on the dance floor. Over the years we have established some guidelines for these talks. Rather than getting into a defensive or explanatory way of talking, we practice listening and taking in the voices of our guests without judging or censoring them in the moment. To begin, we often ask the participants to describe in as much detail as possible, a moment that made an impression on them or raised a question. Our experience is that out of this attentive atmosphere, participants are able to share elaborate and personal statements – voices that contribute to our further process.
We often finish the OPEN STUDIO with an opportunity to give written feedback on postcards prompted by a concrete question concerning the further development of certain aspects of the work such as music, costumes, roles or stage setting. This gives space for voices that do not feel comfortable talking in front of a group. We often explicitly use the cards in our subsequent rehearsals as sets for scores and further reflections.
My process of making work has changed through these regular encounters with audiences. What happens is that the surface, the membrane of the work expands. Instead of only sharing a work at the moment of performance, the work is already alive during the process, constantly changing, not yet in a fixed and directed state. As a regular, long term accompaniment to the creative process, feedback from guests of the OPEN STUDIOS affects the work gradually and sometimes imperceptibly. The osmotic combination of showing, speaking and listening in the OPEN STUDIOS, becomes a repeatable and collective gesture of generous sharing. This opens up possibilities for public intimacy and vulnerability, in which the roles of observer and performer are set in motion.
The OPEN STUDIOS practice feedback as a component of the process of transformation and communication that is inherent to performance and choreography. In that sense they are rehearsal spaces for both the creation of artistic material in encounter with genuine outsiders as well as the practice of performance as a moment of feedback itself.