First, you leap

by Artist Development Fellow

Daniel Giles ’13, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in English, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to participate in the the International Student Drama Festival (ISDF) in the UK. Giles presented his own piece CryHurtFood, performed in Fall 2011 at the Loeb Experimental Theatre, and attended ISDF sponsored master classes. Giles also plans to reserach material for a new work about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. His work on CryHurtFood garnerd him the Phyllis Anderson Prize for Playwriting (2011). Additional theater work includes appearances in a number of on-campus productions including The Balcony, The Flies, and Sara Kane’s Cleansed. Giles plans to pursue work in theater, with a focus on playwriting and directing.

This June, I went with eight other Harvard students to the International Student Drama Festival in Sheffield, England. We had been invited to revive CryHurtFood, a play I wrote and directed at Harvard last November, alongside other student shows from Iran, Israel, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Georgia, Japan, Australia, and ten groups from the UK. Over the ten days we were there, we also took part in twice-daily workshops from visiting artists, the subjects of which ranged from movement and rhetoric to sound design and directing new writing.

For me, the most exciting challenge of the festival was reviving our show. I had never tackled a revival, and I wasn’t sure how to approach a rehearsal process that relied on recreating something instead of inventing it for the first time. There was also the elephant in the room: our show was transferring from the 50-seat Loeb Experimental Theatre, where a real elephant might hit his head on the lighting grid, into the 980-seat Sheffield Crucible, which after visiting I imagined an elephant might be prompted to ponder his infinitesimal status in the vast and bewildering universe.

Usually when you don’t have the answers in theater, one of two things happens. The first is that you leap and the net appears: you make a move and something helpful happens because of it. Our rehearsals started by going through the play scene by scene, checking back in with these people we had created and their relationships. Quickly, the actors started to find new possibilities in unexpected places, and these little mysteries went a long way toward giving what we were doing new life.

This brings me to the other thing that happens in rehearsal when you don’t have the answers: more often that not, someone else does. We had a tremendously thoughtful, brave, and talented cast, and so I found that my job more than anything else was simply to pay attention, react honestly to them, and learn from them about what we were creating.

When we got to the festival, rehearsal time became scarcer—between seeing up to four other shows a day and attending workshops, we were busy. My first workshop was with a Russian experimental theater guru who had us create on-the-spot performance pieces that were supposed to engage with the materiality of various objects. I made what I thought was a clever piece involving a dented ping-pong ball and falling in love. When I performed it he gave me an enigmatic smile, said "Ah, literary," and then moved on. I still have no idea if that’s a good or bad thing (how do you make theater that isn’t literary?), but at least I’ll remember the ping pong ball.

I met a lot of fascinating people who had much to teach, but my favorite workshop was with a younger director who works a lot with Shakespeare and new writing. She started out by having an actor perform a prepared monologue, then used a group game to gently but ruthlessly deconstruct and rebuild everything he was doing. I was struck by the power of her focus: the environment was rigorous and exacting and it allowed for real failure, but it also encouraged productive risk because it was playful, friendly, and supportive.

By mid-week, it was time to put our show up, which was not as fraught with peril as I had originally imagined it would be. It helped that the Crucible as a theater is gorgeous and not actually that overwhelming, and that the festival tech team was outstanding. The actors and stage-managing team responded to the demands of the space and to the limited amount of tech-time with an admirable can-do attitude, and almost before I knew it, we had opened. I felt incredibly lucky that a play I wrote was not only getting a European premiere, but that it was happening in a beautiful space with a group of people who, over the course of putting it together, had come to mean a lot to me as collaborators and friends.

One of the most interesting parts of the festival for me came after the play, when for the first time I had a lot of feedback from a lot of different people. I learned to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful opinions, and I found that the most useful feedback was the kind that was critical but generous—the kind that tried to free the play up rather than pin it down. For example, the head of movement at the Royal Shakespeare Company pulled me aside one day and talked to me about the different vocabularies of movement in the play. Pretty quickly, I realized that what he was saying was brilliant. He pointed out patterns of behavior the actors had picked up that were accidental but quite powerful, and he showed me that if these movements were properly focused, they could add new layers of depth to the characters’ relationships and transform the play.

In addition to pointing out how both the play and my process as a director could grow, he taught me a lot about how to give supportive feedback. As skills go, I figure that’s an invaluable one to develop in a discipline as collaborative as theater, and also probably in life in general.

[Caption: Lucy (Mariel Pettee), a chimpanzee who believes she is a person, in Daniel Giles' "CryHurtFood."]

[Caption: Lucy (Mariel Pettee) watches her favorite Western film in "CryHurtFood."]

[Caption: Alex (Sam Clark) in the rehabilitation center in CryHurtFood]