I'm just back from the annual ritual of taking students (graduate and undergraduate) to the Petit Jean Performance Festival at Petit Jean State Park outside Morrilton, Arkansas. I've been attending this event off and on for the past 20+ years. And it is always a good time.
Now, by "good time" I mean that this is a bunch of (mostly) college students on a mountain doing the work/play of performance by day and socializing by night, with the occasional hike to a waterfall thrown in for good measure. And all of it somehow related. It's a bit of a struggle to remind party-hearty students that this isn't a university-paid vacation but an educational experience and an opportunity to be ambassadors for the university. But so far, we've kept our focus on the learning objectives all while making space for what should be a good time.
This year's theme was "Experimental Adaptations," and the workshop was facilitated by long-time festival attendee, Jason Hedrick of Sauk Valley Community College. Jason is an alum of the SIUC Performance Studies graduate program, so seeing him run an excellent workshop was an extra joy. He asked that we consider "distortion" a productive tool of interpretation. He also asked that we not only consider traditional "literature" as an artifact for such distorted interpretation but also other media. So, for example, he brought a show that involved live performance distortion of classic experimental short films that occurred in various relationships (in front of, behind, around, over, etc.) a screening of those films. The result was something recognizable as performance art but arrived at by some pretty classic traditions of oral interpretation. In the process, I thought he showed clear directions for the future even as he embraced traditions that many like to consider "retro" and without relevance today.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Petit Jean Performance Festival is that, in addition to prepared solo and group performances that the schools bring, the workshop generates its own group performance. Students (graduate and undergraduate) mingle in multi-school small groups and follow a prompt given by the festival facilitator. This year there was even a faculty group. At the end of the two day (!!) festival, we present the group work. Jason did a great job creating a frame for these performances such that they hung together as a cohesive festival project. Imagine a performance event where the audience and performer roles are constantly shifting, as do the aesthetics. We move through a space with purpose and structure, audiencing and performing as we go.
It's hard to leave that space and its energy to return to the world of classes and end-of-term grading. It's hard to let it go. But we do as we must. And I plan, against all odds and the ever decreasing university budget for such "luxuries," to return with a fresh contingent next year. Or well, luckily for us, this is a strange calendar where the festival will move from spring to fall and so 2010 will have two Petit Jean Performance Festivals -- one in April and one in October. Who can say what influence such a confluence of ritual energy will have on the universe?
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