The Open Rehearsal/Performance Experience

I love watching PBS’s new web series “The Art Assignment” – partly due to John and Sarah Green, who are a fantastically creative couple with serious vlogging skills, but also because of the combination of art history and art experience. For those of you who haven’t watched I seriously suggest you check it out – but the basic premise is that Sarah Urist Green (and sometimes John) travel to meet various artists, talk about types of art, and encourage viewers to try out an assignment for themselves. It gets you thinking about how art is more than our traditional expectations, and how to take those boundaries for your participation in creation.

So, why am I talking about this? This past weekend, I participated in an Open Rehearsal at the RISD Museum in Providence, RI. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited RISD, but if you ever get the chance, PLEASE check it out. It’s an awesome place for people of all ages, artists or not.

This Open Rehearsal/Performance is part of a  series of events that “brings dance and movement beyond the proscenium stage and into other cultural and architectural contexts.”

The event is described in this process: 

“The theater is a conceptual and physical space which conventionally specifies where performers perform and where the audience sits, and a set of learned behaviors about how to spectate. Similarly the art museum is a place that collects, preserves and displays artworks, and we can enter with all kinds of expectations about how to act, how to move, and how to look. Where do we direct our attention? How do we decide what to look at and for how long? Where and how do we position and move our bodies in space in relation to the performance, to artworks? How do the performers relate to each other and to the audience as a whole and as individuals? How do we experience and express agency as viewers?

The Open Rehearsal/Performance series takes place in the Grand Gallery of the Museum. It’s a standard gallery, as far as I know – I don’t remember all of the details, but it’s a large room with various portraits from the 15th – 19th century (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) Once called a “temple of art,“ walking in this room gives you a sense of awe – if simply because of its size, stature, or all the historical faces staring down at you. In the conventions of a museum, you feel restricted – you feel small beside these testaments to art and human greatness, the history hung up on the walls. 

Before the performance started, I kinda had that feeling. People were talking and rushing around, these dancers were stretching in the middle of the gallery, and I couldn’t quite grasp how all this action could take place in a room dedicated to silence. I wanted to take in the paintings and the room, but the movement around me seemed distracting and out of place. I could tell the docents outside the gallery weren’t too pleased with all the commotion going on, whether or not they could say anything about it.

But when the performance began and I was in the center of that room belting out “Amazing Grace,” I didn’t feel the same way. I’ve done performances very close up to audiences before, and in some unusual spaces, but this one really made me think. Normally when performing onstage or in a studio setting, you don’t get this intimate connection with an audience. But instead we shared this sense of oddness, trying to figure out how to perform in a space that wasn’t used to performance. Just as the audience had to take in where to look – the walls or the center – I had to consider who to emote to, where to get my sense of serenity in the middle of a song.  The physical and the painted audiences were watching, and I felt like I could take the energy from both. And this room designed to silence, with its 18-foot tall ceiling, practically begged me to sing out to the world. 

As I thought about the performance later on, I considered the ideas of the Art Assignment. I mean, the Grand Gallery of RISD Museum is a “temple of art” – shouldn’t dance and music and movement be included in that term? And how can we participate in that – as both a performer and as an audience? What kind of expectations does each situation conventionally have – and how can we change that 

The Art Assignment series, and this Open Rehearsal/Performance series as well, are about teaching people to think about the conventions of art. But it also makes us think about how artists (and those of us still working towards being artists) take these boundary conditions to create something spectacular that makes us all reconsider our ideas. 

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