UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 14 Summer 21 Library

MFA Actors Making Moments: a powerful residency with the Tectonic Theater Project

To some, a moment can be fleeting. To renowned theatre artist Moisés Kaufman, it can be everything. 

This was just one of the lessons that Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project teaching artists Jeffrey LaHoste and Dimitri Moïse imparted last February to MFA students in the UVA Department of Drama in a month-long virtual residency sponsored by the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. 

For five nights a week, the MFA cohort worked in the Helms and Culbreth Theatres, masked and socially distanced, as Tectonic facilitators Jeffrey LaHoste and Dimitri Moïse. It led them on a deep dive into “Moment Work™,” a performance approach that uses every aspect of theatricality, from gesture to architecture to costumes, props, sound, light, and more, to create a new narrative language. 

The approach used to create classic works such as The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and 33 Variations, creates theatrical narratives from the ground up –in essence, “writing performance” as opposed to “writing text.” Rather than starting with a script or written outline, Moment Work™ begins with a “hunch” to explore in the rehearsal room. According to the Tectonic Theatre Project’s website, it “gives us the freedom to create individual, self-contained theatrical units (Moments) and then sequence these units together into theatrical phrases or sentences that will eventually become a play.”

Denise Stewart, who served as a faculty facilitator for the residency, said the process was incredibly freeing for the actors. “Most of our actors were used to doing traditional plays, so it was really wonderful for them to truly learn how to play.” 

The approach gave them ample freedom to create, Stewart said, and even to reimagine spaces where they had worked often,  yet never considered employing, including a backstage spiral staircase in Culbreth Theatre that became the setting for one of the pieces. 

The “hunch” provided to the group was “connections.”Students answered a questionnaire before starting that explored personal connections in their own lives and then encouraged them to bring those ideas into their work. Their answers, sometimes quite literally, became the text of the pieces –adding yet another layer to the process of the theatrical construction process. “Once you start taking these little moments,” Stewart said, “and you start collecting them, and you have these narrative phrases that then become sequences –that is how they build a show.”The students worked with the Tectonic team to build 50 of these moments, which were then cut down to the 18 that became the final project. 

Stewart could see the positive effects on students almost immediately. “They felt more connected to each other. After so much time doing traditional MFA work, including working a lot on scene analysis and text that is already written, they were having these different conversations about negotiations and batting ideas back and forth before finally saying, ‘Let’s do it!’” 

“The inspiration couldn’t have come at a better time,” Stewart said. “The students had been learning and working in a pandemic environment for so long, and here they were working with these incredible artists. You could just see how excited they were to be sharing even the most subtle moments. These artists just have a flame for this, a passion for creating and connecting with the audience. It is not about ‘let’s get it right for the audience,’ or to please the director, it is ‘I want to be a good actor,' and ‘I am a creator.’” 

The flame Stewart references clearly emanates from Kaufman himself, whom the students heard from in an hour-long talk and Q and A, and who joined his colleagues for one of the evening work sessions. “He was like an injection for our whole department,” she said. “An injection of courage and resilience and enthusiasm with an incredible work ethic and extraordinary generosity.”That generosity was on full display when Kaufman refused to end his talk until he had answered every question submitted. 

Kaufman’s talk was full of what Stewart called “nuggets,” thoughts and observations that have relevance not just to theatre but to all of life itself. “Once you find something you want to create,” he told the students, “you have to listen to that thing. The most important thing is that you have to follow the art. The art will tell you what it wants.” 

The power of the Tectonic message extends far beyond the world of theatre. Kaufman and his team have used Moment Work to impact people who need it most, including bringing a team Work outside of the theatrical realm and to people who need it most – he led a team to Parkland, Florida, in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting to facilitate workshops there. 

Brian Willis, one of the MFA students who took part in the residency summed it up the experience by saying, “Working with Tectonic has reaffirmed the power of theatre and storytelling and how much we really appreciate the act of coming together, both to create something and to experience something that people have created– it is humanizing and it is emotional, and it is absolutely wonderful.”

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