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In the interest of personal growth, I stepped outside of my comfort zone as a critic on three recent occasions. On September 16, 2012, I attended The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a National Theatre Of Scotland production performed in Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill bar; in late September I attended an evening of music by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble at UNC’s Memorial Hall; and on November 2nd, I viewed Meredith Monk’s multidisciplinary work Education of the Girlchild Revisited at Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater.

Each of these productions showcased a unique directorial vision that I have not previously experienced as a viewer, and each left a lasting impression. Here’s what I took away from each company:

The National Theatre of Scotland: Audience engagement is everything.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart told a theatrical story of self-discovery through spoken word, choreography and live music. The performance took place in the back room of a bar – an intimate performance space with no separation between the stage and audience seating. Actors utilized the room’s nuances, delivering a combination of poetry and prose from atop covered tabletops, tall chairs and bar counters. Company members also used their bodies to build what props they lacked; a car made of human bodies with flashlights as headlights was a standout in this category.

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Actors prompted audience participation many times throughout the evening with requests that ranged from audience chants, cheers and songs to impromptu prop construction. Luckily, no hardhats were necessary; before curtain up, actor David McKay shook hands with seated audience members, instructing them to tear napkins to create “snow”.

By taking such an inclusive approach with their audience members, the members of the National Theatre of Scotland ensured that their performance would command attention from the start. To learn more about The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart click here.

Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble: Learning occurs through different senses.

At their UNC performance, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble performed four musical selections: John Zorn’s Suite from Book of Angels (2004), Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah (2010), Vijay Iyer’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion (2010) and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s Sacred Signs: Concerto for 13 Musicians. Though the ensemble’s cohesiveness and technical strength were jaw-dropping, it wasn’t just the group’s musical prowess that captivated the audience.

Silk Road Ensemble in performance / Photo Credit: Jennifer Taylor

Silk Road Ensemble in performance / Photo Credit: Jennifer Taylor

Artist Hillary Leben created moving visuals to accompany the live performance of Sacred Signs: Concerto for 13. These graphics were based on The Rite of Spring’s original ballet scenery and evoked dance imagery from the 1912 production.  By giving the music historical context, Leben contributed an additional storytelling method and introduced a new way for audience members to process the musical composition.

On a more visceral level, compositional dynamic and character could be interpreted from the faces and body language of the ensemble members. Watching the Silk Road Ensemble felt like being invited to tight-knit family jam session, where both the laughter and the mutual respect flowed freely between participants. The musicians communicated with one another and the audience through the tension – or ease – in their bodies and faces, an element that spoke to how well this group works together both personally and professionally.

Silk Road Ensemble / Photo Credit: Max Wittaker

Silk Road Ensemble / Photo Credit: Max Wittaker

To learn more about The Silk Road Ensemble, check out their website

Meredith Monk Ensemble – Open-mindedness is key.

Meredith Monk’s Education of the Girlchild Revisited featured a solo from Monk’s 1972 work in Part I, and Part II, Shards, featured music, images and movement from the Girlchild period, 1969-1972. The latter section introduced three women – an androgynous dancer and two tall blonde vocalists – to Monk’s formerly solo act.

Performers explored a free spectrum of sound and movement, as well as the passing of time, both within the piece and during human life.  In Part I, Monk regressed from an old woman into a child of sorts, in a slow-paced 45-minute solo. Monk’s choreography included upward glances, rotations of the body, and ticking in the spine and fingers; vocalizations ranged from sung English words to high-pitched animal noises. See what I mean in the clip below.

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In Part II, Monk continued her kinesthetic and vocal explorations with performers Katie Geissinger, Ellen Fisher and Allison Sniffin. Live keyboards onstage dictated the performers’ progression from Stage Right to Stage Left, and also defined the passing of time for audience members. In its more lively segments, this section featured galloping, skipping and snake-like trains of movement; in slower moments, performers surrounded keyboards singing bizarre harmonies.

Based on the audience’s fidgety behavior throughout the night and the sparse, hesitant standing ovation at the end of the show, it was clear that Monk’s exploration of minimalism was difficult for many audience members to endure. Post-show, I found myself asking what the performance meant and how I could learn from it, two questions that turned my critical eye inward.

The Meredith Monk Ensemble reminded me that as an audience member, I must approach all work with the same level of patience and open-mindedness. One of the best things about art is that it challenges what its audience finds familiar, and though I didn’t love this work, it certainly made a lasting, valuable impression on me.

To learn more about Monk’s work, click here.

Have you seen a performance recently that expanded your horizons? I’d love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below. 🙂

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