J-TERM SPCPA – The Wretchedly Uncomfortables – with Jon Ferguson. process and play


Have you been in a theater production? How did it work? You started with a script. You do a read through and then go at it. Some directors tell you where to move, some just place you on the stage, and let you figure it out. (usually they have the final say). The point of departure commonly remains a text, a set of characters placed in a time or space that you have talked about, defined, discussed, described, and then together, as actors – as these characters –  you figure out how to tell the story.

As an audience member, you might not think about the process unless you decide to dig into it, study it, question it – do a production yourself?  Whether or not you are an experienced theatergoer, you may or may not be aware of different varieties of process.

Following the two weeks of production creation during J-Term at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA ) offers a chance for me to explore different performances and watch the process – and hopefully see some of the final productions.

Jon Ferguson practices an extraordinary, less common, less authoritarian process for creating theater called, among other names,  – devised theater, collaborative theater, physical theater, movement theater, commedia dell’Arte, bouffon clowning. The history is rich and multinational with roots in Italy, France and England, mostly- on a search to nail down how to define, or at least describe the background of this form of theater, I encountered more than a few academic papers, textbooks, and guidebooks of the devising theater practice.  In the end it seems more helpful to start locally with some of the theater companies that work in the tradition here in the Twin Cities by suggesting an article  from 2008 on the mnartists website by Christy deSmith covers the history of what she broadly categorizes as “movement theater” in the Twin Cities and mentions Jon Ferguson as “the most exciting movement theater artist in town.”    

Rather than going over the history, I want to describe the process during the production of a piece created by Mr. Ferguson with the SPCPA students.

He set out to do a bouffon treatment of Les Miserables – translation: the wretchedly uncomfortables. Bouffon clowning descends from a French tradition, possibly as old as the Renaissance, of allowing the disagreeable, outcasts of society to perform during festivals. The puffing root of the verb – bouffare – comes from Roman theater, where the puffed mouths of the actors where popped to comedic effect (if Wikipedia’s Encylclopaedia Britannica reference is to be believed) This might explain the farting, as well as other bodily functions that are common in a bouffon clown farce.

A list of steps in this process:

1. The collaborative production starts with an idea, not a script. In this case – Bouffon clown version of Les Miserables. The students know the musical (or at least the movie), characters, the plot. Although some collaborative theater doesn’t even start with those pieces. The goal is to make fun of the whole thing, a farce. Poke fun. Take apart. Respectfully disrespect. 

2. The idea in hand the students are set the task in small groups to define 14 pivotal moments in the storyline that they think need to be included. Parallel to this paring down process, they learn about bouffon.

3. Practice behaving like a bouffon:  Bend your knees, fart, giggle, look at the audience to see if they with you. Take the chosen scenes, some text in hand, a small gang of actors (bouffon clowns move in packs) and let them work through a scene –speak some lines, fart, giggle again. Pose, freeze, before leaving the stage. Check in again with the audience. Exuent.

4. Stuff your clothes. The odd look of the clown comes from them originally being actually deformed (seems a little un-PC to me, but the modern take is all for fun, and not specifically referential) Using all sorts of foam, sheets fabric, pieces of anything. The bigger your butt, the better. The hump back, sweet. Oversized gender-twisted and mixed body parts. Although, the bawdy physicality of this production is edited to PG 14. (Maybe 16?) In any case, less bawdy than an adult production could be.   

5. Take your favorite parts from Les Miserables, mix them with the above. Goofy costumes, exaggerated sounds and emotions. Each scene is worked as a group, piece by piece, musical phrase by phrase. Musicians play instruments, if they can,  holes in the plotline are narrated. Touches added, removed until the pieces add up to a piece, a show, a laugh, a fart, a giggle, a pose, an exit. Exuent.

The students practice scenes over and over, tweaking changing adding directly from their knowledge of the show with guidance from Jon. Eventually pieces are printed out and texts are used and fixed, more or less. Cosette in this production is all of the clowns.(see the video)  They regularly fight to be the center of attention, which, in a class of 28 means some serious wrangling and roughing around – but all in good fun, silliness, with a fart on top.  The short video piece shows some of the process. Who knows if any of what you see will remain for the final piece. You’ll have to come see the show to know.

Jan. 17,@8pm, Jan. 18 @10am, Jan 19@5:30pm

Red Eye Theater


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