Division III Retrospective

Morgana Rhalina Smith

Division III Retrospective

If we do not honour our past

we lose our future.

If we destroy our roots,

we cannot grow.

-Friedensreich Hundertwasser-

At the outset, Division III seemed like everything I had been waiting for, everything I had been working toward. I couldn’t wait to be able to spearhead a long-term project of my very own; I was so excited that I started planning toward the end of my second year at Hampshire. At that point, all I knew was that I wanted to do a circus show.

Mid-summer before my final year, I finally hit upon the theme that would motivate me through the eight or so months of work it would entail. Sitting alone, listening to Italian music, I remembered a plan I once had to record my grandparents’ stories of growing up in Italy. Now that my grandfather is dead and my grandmother’s getting older, it is harder to accurately take down those stories. But I realized that I could pay homage to my family in a different way – by centering my show in the sociopolitical climate of Fascist-era, small-town Italy. Not only would this very personal topic inspire and push me through, but it was an excellent culmination of the kind of work I had been pursing in the arts, in performance, and in Italian studies.

I wanted my show to achieve a few goals, as opposed to being merely a combination of all the skills I had acquired. First off, I wanted it to bear a message; circus shows are known for being solely based around dazzling an audience. I would never want that sense of wonder subtracted from the circus experience, but I thought that circus would be a very unique vessel for insinuating a moral, rather than stating it outright.

I wanted my audience to think about Italians differently. I wanted them to think about their own families, and why those families are important. I wanted them to have a better understanding of the sociopolitical turmoil that individuals living in the rural South have had to face – always, but especially during Mussolini’s reign. I wanted them to see a relationship between opposite but complimentary sides of womanhood through my two female characters.

I knew that putting together a show was a lot of work, but I was optimistic. The first challenge I had to face was creating a circus performance while identifying as a studio arts concentrator. I had to defend my reasoning, and it took me a while to figure out just why studio arts was more my calling than theatre – and why I did not, and do not, consider circus to be theatre.

My initial response was a sort of, “because-I-said-so,” mostly because the decision to be a studio arts concentrator was something instinctual at the outset, something I hadn’t weighed too heavily. But as I considered my reasoning, I realized why it was the natural course for me to take; the studio arts have been an outlet for my thought processes. I make art to get ideas out onto paper (or into clay, or what have you). I like to be able to lay things out in front of me and see how they’re going to work out. I’m a designer.

I actually think that I didn’t do as much on the art and design end of things as I wanted to, or as I anticipated doing. The costume designs came to me very slowly, some being easier and more obvious than others. When I found a staple to carry over into all the costumes (striped socks for the women and one striped/one argyle sock for the men), I felt as though I had finally had a breakthrough. The Widow’s costume was the easiest to design, but once I actually started buying the costume materials, they all started to mesh together. I had been afraid of conflicts in the color palette, and conflicts between the set and the costumes, but I was fortunate to be able to find pieces that really highlighted my ability as a designer. In some ways, I wish I had more cast members so that I could have designed more costumes.

There are many who place circus under the vast umbrella that is “theatre.” I, however, do not see the kind of circus I do to be theatre as I understand it; I have nothing against theatre, but I do not believe myself to be a practitioner of this art form. Circus is a different kind of performance art, with very different requirements. There is overlap, but in addition to having a stage presence, a circus performer needs to have the skill to perform daring feats that most actors are not expected to perform. Circus does, I think, bear resemblance to many experimental theatre shows, but I think that’s probably about as close as they come. I believe that circus needs a little more respect as its own form, as opposed to being a footnote in the theatre history books.

Despite my thought process being very linked to my art-making, I found that I was having trouble coming up with ideas and pieces of artwork. I had taken a number of books out of the library that dealt with tarantism, Italian Fascism, and life in Southern Italy. I was asked to stop reading my reference material; I was over-thinking the issues I was reading about, and I had been feeling as though I needed to find inspiration solely from my reading. Setting aside the reference material and picking up some fiction again really helped to relax and open up my mind. I also conducted an experiment where I wrote down all of the things that I think about all the time. I posted this list on my studio wall, so that it could live there instead of inside my brain, and I could glance at it to remind myself that there are lots of ideas buzzing through my head all the time.

The art and design process really picked up from there, but the organizational/directorial aspects of running a show were still difficult for me – probably until a month or so before the show went up. It is the nature of Division III to take on a project that may involve things you’ve never done before. In my case, I had no firsthand experience with directing, and I think I severely underestimated the learning curve involved. I had imagined that working with friends from circus would be easy (or at least easier) because they would understand the kind of work I wanted to do, and they would be able to contribute their ideas and their talents easily and willingly.

What I hadn’t counted on was having to motivate my cast. That is to say, I had planned some exercises for the first semester of rehearsals – but I had expected that these exercises would both build chemistry between the cast members, and give them inspiration and ideas. My experience with leading the exercises (most of which were timing-related and contact improvisation) was more lacking than I thought, and I remember being frustrated with myself for not having a wider arsenal of activities at my disposal.

I also felt, in these early rehearsals, that I spent too much time explaining my ideas and why I was doing things the way I was doing them. To me, everything made perfect sense, because the inspiration for my show was very personal, and very much a part of my identity. Until I was sitting down with my cast, I hadn’t entirely realized that, in addition to having them portray Italian characters, I was going to have to educate them about Italian life and culture – about Italian-ness.

In an effort to provide my cast with glimpses into my inspiration, I created a blog (https://mygrandfathersgoat.wordpress.com) over Christmas break and asked them all to please read it. Whether or not this was successful, it is hard to say – but the blog did serve as an excellent place for me to dump all my big thoughts about the show and where I was coming from with it. Soon after this, I chose a name for the show, Ritorno. In Italian, this word means “return,” or, “I return.” I wanted the title to be simple and descriptive of my renewed involvement in my family’s history and culture.

The blog also helped me to identify and discuss my influences. Certainly, much of my inspiration came from within my own, lived experience of being Italian – but there were a lot of artistic and literary influences on my work, as well. In separate entries, I lauded Charlie Chaplin, Jim Henson, Cirque Mechanics, Cirque Eloize, Mummenschanz, and Michelene Wandor. The influence of these artists is more apparent in my show in some ways than in others, but they have all contributed heavily to who I am as an artist, and to the kind of work I make – and the kind of work I would like to make.

Because of my lack of directorial experience, I was constantly battling with my own insecurities about my show. I was worried that my slow process was a reflection of a poorly executed idea, and that the show itself would be a shambles because I couldn’t get my cast to perform at the level I had anticipated they would be performing.

In addition to directorial experience, I was uncertain about my ability as an act-creator. The one act that I knew had to happen, no matter what, was the opening act where the Widow gets dressed by the Witch, and then goes into her contact juggling. The funeral was essential. The Widow was so imbedded in my experience of observing my grandmother after my grandfather’s death; but the Widow also had an air of hope to her. As a young Widow, she has the opportunity to make a new life for herself. I knew my grandmother would be seeing the show, and I wanted her to take away from it the understanding that she still has value and potential, even though her husband has died.

The rest of the acts were slow going, but my cast really did pull through with ideas. I think most of the really good work happened toward the end when we had all the costumes, props, and music. The cast was more creative and familiar with the scope of the show. I really believe that the nerve-wracking knowledge of the show looming so close also helped propel everyone into a state of creativity. There is no motivation like a deadline!

I found, against my expectation, that I felt timid about asking for help, or setting rigid deadlines for the people who had already agreed to help me. I was trying to find the balance between being a good friend and being in charge of a show, and while I eventually got better with it, I could certainly use more experience. I believe that a large part of my problem was that slotted shows in the theatre get first dibs on designers and operators, so I had slim pickings from the get-go. I do think I should have more actively pursued people, however; I ended up having to do all the booking, designing of promotional materials, and figuring out lights and sound – in addition to coming up with act ideas, directing, and performing.

There are times when I believe I shouldn’t have performed in Ritorno. I would probably feel differently if I did have a more experienced and reliable crew to work with; then I wouldn’t have had to worry so much about the precarious balancing act I was trying to maintain in terms of responsibilities. But it was very important to me that I did perform in this show, because a large part of my interest in circus is a love of clowning. To be able to perform in a show of my own design – this was something reminiscent of my idol, Charlie Chaplin, and a chance I couldn’t pass up. Ultimately, I was glad to be able to perform with the rest of my cast; I think it gave us a stronger bond than if I had just been telling them what to do.

The more I worked on the show, the more difficult it was for me to separate myself from it. It got to the point where I could no longer tell whether or not it was “any good,” because I was just too far in it to see it for what it was. I was worried about the quality, worried about whether or not the show would seem like it took eight months to create.

The feedback I received, especially on opening night, was really helpful for me to gauge my work. I don’t ever believe that you should rely solely on the opinions of others when you make art of any kind, but a new perspective from a fresh eye is a wonderful opportunity to remove yourself from the work. I knew that I wasn’t going to receive any blatantly negative comments, but in addition to the “good jobs” and the “nice shows,” I received a lot of comments describing why people liked certain aspects of the show.

I received a lot of positive feedback about the subject matter/exploration of family ties, about the use of objects and space, about the soundtrack, and about the combination of grief and humor. I was very pleased that audience members were able to appreciate these aspects of the show – that I was able to give the gift I had been hoping to give.

Despite the overall positive reaction, there are things that I would do differently in the future, or that I wish I had the opportunity to do this time around. The first has to do with the space itself; I would have loved to have been able to be in the space far sooner than the day before opening night. The reality here is that the space would not allow for that, as the Red Barn is a very popular venue, and it was booked clear through the entire month of April. Still, I was stubborn and determined to have the show in the Red Barn, and I’m pleased with the aesthetic and atmospheric quality the barn lent to Ritorno.

I also wish I had all of the props and set pieces far sooner than I had them. Mocking out the acts with stand-in props and set pieces worked in a pinch, but there is a relationship between performer and object that I believe could have been strengthened with more exposure.

While funding ultimately worked itself out, I wish I had known sooner that I was going to need to be applying for any and all grants. I received $100 as a studio arts concentrator, but was unable to secure more funds until quite late in the game; my set designer was able to get some funding from Theatre Board. Worrying about the cost of the show hindered a lot of the costume and prop purchases for quite some time, as I was not really equipped to be funding the show entirely by myself. Being a hybrid artist gave me some difficulties in securing grant money, I think, but I also learned how to write about the work I do, and why it’s important to me.

All in all, with its successes and its failures, I am proud of the work I did on Ritorno. It wasn’t a perfect show, and there are things that I would change about it if I had the opportunity. But I feel confident that, if I were to do this kind of work again, I would be far better prepared. I would be more decisive, more direct, and more secure in the knowledge that I could pull off a great show. One of the most valuable lessons I learned this year is to not be afraid to ask for help or afraid to give direction. Collaborating on a project and giving other people work to do is not taking advantage of them; it is distributing the responsibility so that no one person has to do the majority of the labor. It was a hard lesson, especially in terms of my stress levels, but it’s an experience that I will keep in mind in my life beyond Hampshire.

While Ritorno was my main project during Div III, it was not the only project I had a hand in. In the fall, I took Thom Haxo’s Advanced Sculpture: Focus on the Figure course. For weeks, the work I was producing in this course enabled me to take a break from the creative block I had been having with the as-of-yet-unnamed Ritorno. I was more able to directly link my performance abilities with my art-making by basing my figure sculptures off of my understanding of my body and its movements. This experience helped me to realize that I did, in fact, have more freedom when I gave myself guidelines to follow for any given project. I was able to work within my self-imposed rules, instead of being lost in a sea of endless possibilities. I found that I even started imposing rules on my show, to help give it boundaries. This is a practice I plan on using for all my future projects.

In the spring, I was the teaching assistant for Thom’s In Search of Character course, which I had taken in my second year. This was my first time TA-ing a course, and it was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly had to offer knowledge that I had taken for granted – and I also had to learn to be patient with students who seemed lost, or who wanted their hand held every step of the way. I found myself gravitating toward students with more experience or independence in their projects, which leads me to believe that I am more suited to being a collaborator than a teacher – at least for the time being.

Division III has been a tumultuous experience – more so than I had imagined it would be. But nothing would be gained if it had all been smooth sailing; I really do feel that I have gained skills and knowledge that I can apply to future work. The challenge I face now is whether or not I can accomplish my goals without any sort of outside motivator. Hampshire students are known for being extremely passionate and motivated, but the structure of a Hampshire education serves to boost that motivation and give clear goals. I have to trust that what I have learned in my four years will carry me through in the years to come; and though the thought of graduating and going out into the real world can be scary, I do have faith that I will be able to persevere.

I also have to assess my options for my life after Hampshire. I have no concrete desires other than being able to make art and continue practicing circus. There are, however, many opportunities available to me, so I intend to spend some time working while I determine which route to take. I have to decide if I want to specialize in any of the things I studied at Hampshire (studio art, circus arts, or Italian studies), or if I can find some way to continue working in all fields. I have been seriously considering applying for the University of Connecticut’s Masters program in Puppetry, as well as sending my portfolio to the Jim Henson Company to become a creature creator.

Regardless of my next step, it is my personal goal to beef up my art portfolio and to work on my circus skills. I am in the process of setting up boundaries for a few different art projects, both in sculpture and in drawing. I am interested in doing work that I could have done for my Division III project and see how that turns out – a large series of drawings, perhaps, or an installation of characters in costume and mask.

My first year at Hampshire, I had some serious doubts about whether or not I could ever meet the challenge of a Division III project. I now know that I have the capacity to set up a project of my own and see it through, and I also know that, while the process may not always be smooth, that does not mean that the project is inherently flawed. I will be going into my life after Hampshire with the confidence to continue working independently and making art that reflects my ideas and my beliefs, and I am profoundly grateful for the experience I have gained.


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