Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Petit Jean Performance Festival

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.

My students and I brought a show of our own.  We did a critical/ experimental adaptation of J.D. Salinger's short story, "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," from the collection Nine Stories.  In our adaptation, we created several interventions drawing attention to Salinger's use of the "unsaid" to both mark and erase difference along race, gender, and class lines.  We tried to show what aspects of this story from half a century ago were still relevant to modern audiences even while marking  mysteries in the oblique references and suggestive characterizations of Salinger's prose.  I think we too gave a reverential nod to the past (the recently deceased Salinger, Chamber Theatre, etc.) even while experimenting with the holy trinity of Cultural Studies.  And we did so in a way that remained both accessible and entertaining.  What else do you call a production that takes a pause to have elite New Yorkers square dance to Dwight Conquergood's moral map for ethnography?  As one character says, "How esoteric!"  Indeed.

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.

So, I call this festival a ritual, mostly because it has a cyclical, repetitive structure that I think fits the broadest definition of "ritual."  We perform rites, from in situ group performances to contributed offerings, from libations to pilgrimages to nearby altars of natural beauty.  Each year, there are the converts, those students (and faculty) making their first trip to the mountain -- and there ARE initiation rites.  Each year, there is reverent talk of past festivals, from those recently converted and those of us who have been doing this ritual since we were new to the world of performance.  There may be no gods specifically named (except that shifty and ambiguous deity, "Performance"), but there is still something almost holy about the experience.  While some criticism can be made for the ways the rites change (poor additions, sad deletions), there is still a palpable sense of significance, the accumulation of time and regular practice in a space already magical but made more so by our work/play there.

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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