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 Where are YOU?, What are you DOING?
To WHOM are you talking to in the story?
Critical Performance Questions

An Integral Setting Tells More than When and Where

Jerry J. Watson

Even though Interpretive performers do not benefit from a set in the conventional theatrical sense, it is still the interper’s job to imagine an environment, a world in which the character(s) exist. The interper should think about where their story takes place. Though the interper’s “set” is created primarily out of movement and reaction, it should still be ever-present throughout the performance. The secret to a powerful Interpretation is knowing every detail of where the character(s) are and why they are in their particular environment(s). What is in “the mind’s eye of the performer” will be seen by their audience if the interper considers the character’s world vividly in their mind—it is magic! To see the impact of the environment and blocking, we suggest you watch these performances: Bums performed by Michael Washington, Dramatic Interpretation national champion 1997; also from 1997, Marty performed by Josh Gad, third place; and for Humorous Interpretation watch the 2011 performance Regina Flector Wins the Science Fair by Marah Wilson, second place.

After the interper has chosen their story, researched their character(s,) and thought about their motivations, it is time to “block” the scene. “Blocking” simply means to work out the details of the movement concerning the world in which the character(s) live. In other words, what are the character(s) doing? If the interper realizes where their character(s) LIVE and what they DO in their world, the audience will have a more visceral experience. The goal is to allow the interper to actively step into the character’s world and watch the performance to experience it.

FIRST STEP: Designing and Living in the ENVIRONMENT

Believable performances take place somewhere and at some time. They do not take place on an empty stage (a tournament classroom). Environmental details are the lifeblood of creating a fully realized “human” interpretation. Each physical element built by the interper provides clues to the audience of what is vital to the character. If the student finds something TO DO in which they have a personal investment, the imaginary circumstances’ truthfulness will become real.

To bring a three-dimensional reality to your Interp performance, and for the characters to live truthfully and move in their various places, a performer should map out the room(s) and/or outdoor space(s) in which their 10-minute performance takes place. Below are a few exercises that will help the interper create their environment(s). Have the student complete each of the following:

    1. Become the stage designer and draw the set on paper or tape it out on the floor. 
    2. Build the world(s) and practice moving around (like rehearsing a scene for a play).
    3. Research pictures of the chosen environment(s).
    4. Find a world that one can use to simulate the imagined location(s) (could be a picture).
    5. Try to create a 3D environment. An interper should see their world from multiple perspectives.
    6. Film the performance in an environment similar to the one the interper is imagining.
    7. Live truthfully in a fully realized world(s). For instance, I had a young man whose DI took place in a church. We went to our campus chapel and rehearsed by candlelight. The reality of his environment forever impacted his performances.

Consider these items:

Size: What dimensions of each space your characters are in, and what effect does the area have on you emotionally, socially, and so on?

Objects: What items are in the room? Consider furniture, rugs, pictures, mirrors, electronics, shelves, small tangibles. Lay each thing out precisely. For example, know where the windows are, see where the door is, know where the sofa and loveseat are located, and so on. Note the colors, shapes, and textures of each. What feelings, if any, does each item give your character(s)?

Here are some ideas which will create the imaginary circumstances an interper needs to be “truthful.”

Tape it out

Block in it

Find actions to do in it

Build it

Flashback or flash forward

Play in it

Photograph it

Video in it


Living In It 

We explained to a group of 30 interpers their job during a summer workshop to find a place in the student union that could symbolically represent their interpretation environment (one location). 

We reminded them, “The application of sense memory to acting lies in the fact that it trains you to create realities that really don’t exist.”

Further Instructions: We asked each student, while in character, to conduct a tour of their world when they finished imagining it. We told them to be as specific as possible. We asked each student what they saw, felt, heard, or smelled in their space. We asked them to pick up at least one object that was very important to them in their world. THEY SHOULD NOT BREAK CHARACTER DURING THIS PROCESS. We asked them how they felt in their environment. Were they comfortable? How familiar were they with their surroundings? 

While giving their tour, we asked them to speak in the first person as one of their characters. 

Last, we asked each interper to enter their environment and explore their world for one minute before they utter their teaser’s first line.

The audience had the following responsibilities: Ask the students to observe the activity to comment on what they see. Did the interper seem to know their world? Do they have any questions for the interper?

After everyone in the group had lived in their world, we asked them to sit down and journal their experience. How did it feel to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances”? Remind them their audience will only see what they specifically see. Help them understand what specifics they can use in their performance to make their set an integral part of their story.

Of course, we needed to put the Johnson Center at George Mason University back to its original form, and that was quite a task!