Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Viewpoints

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Viewpoints

When I write Viewpoints, what comes to mind? Point-of-view? Opinions? Perspective? I, and a growing bunch of others, have something else in mind. A few years ago, in Los Angeles, I got turned onto a quiet revolution in theatre-making, ‘Viewpoints’. What started in the 70s in NYC has now become S.O.P. in theatre-training programs & theatre-making across the U.S. and, increasingly, in Canada. If you check out the astounding work coming out of the Independent Aunties, Theatre Why Not or Volcano Theatre here in Toronto, you’ll see Viewpoints.

What started as a way for me to explode my theatrical practice (as an actor, director and teacher) has evolved into a system of artistic principles. These principles have helped me to enter the moments, people and dynamics populating my fiction. Let me describe what Viewpoints are, in general, offer a couple of examples, tell you where they come from and how you might use them in your own work.

Viewpoints come out of dance in the 1970s. Mary Overlie, now of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, originated six Viewpoints. From Overlie’s website,
“The seed of the entire work of The Six Viewpoints is found in the simple act of standing in space. From this perspective the artist is invited to read and be educated by the lexicon of daily experience. The information of space, the experience of time, the familiarity of shapes, the qualities and rules of kinetics in movement, the ways of logics, that stories are formed and the states of being and emotional exchanges that constitute the process of communication between living creature. These are the six materials named in The Six Viewpoints that constitute basic deconstructed theater.”

So, Overlie starts with six principles from which movement in its broadest sense (action, speech, spatial relation, tempo, etc.) emerge. What is so brilliant, is that Overlie simply and elegantly deconstructed theatre to its essentials provoking immediacy, spontaneity and life in an artistically constructed environment, such as a set or, for me, a story.

In the 1980s, Anne Bogart (SITI Company, Columbia University) took Viewpoints further. She articulated a number of key pieces. So, for example, she broke Overlie’s ‘experience of time’ down into Tempo, Duration and Repetition. She massaged shape and kinetics into Architecture, Gesture and so on. Working with Viewpoints, at first one’s head feels like it’s going to explode with intellectual machinations. It’s a very heady process—at first. But, then, something miraculous happens. The mind surrenders to the space, to impulse and to what is in the room. Nothing more, nothing less. Needless to say, this leads to some very exciting theatre.

But, as I spent time here in Toronto leading a number of Viewpoints workshops, usually in the context of Literary Story Theatre (the type of theatre I was first trained in), and wrestling with writing problems in my book, I kept noticing the Viewpoints in Alice Munro, Carol Shields and even Proust. Proust! I can even see traces of them in Aristotle’s Poetics. When Munro writes about the recurring sick mothers; or Shields the expansive mind of the wife stuck in a claustrophobic car on a cross-continent drive in Milk Bread Beer Ice; or Proust when, over the course of, let’s say, five pages repeats over and over, Albertine is dead. you’ve got to wonder what they’re up to. About the same time, I started noticing Viewpoints in literature, I began seeing them in painting, architecture and every artistic medium besides just dance and theatre, from all epochs and all cultures. What, had I been asleep?

Each of these writers, let’s focus on the writers, may be aiming for a million things. But, what I take from Munro’s sick mothers and their agonizing, debilitating illnesses is the slow drain on life, energy and creativity over a long duration. She deploys the Viewpoint of Duration in order to get us the experience of long-slow death and dying. That wife of Shields’ is stuck in car for a long duration too. But the cramped architecture of that machine allows her mind to run over moraines, mountains, ditches arriving at the realization that the funeral that she and her husband are hurtling towards is for a suicide; somebody who wanted out. Proust’s narrator is struck dumb by the death of Albertine, his great love. Over a relatively short time in the book, while a million thoughts go through his mind, he always falls back to Albertine is dead. He uses Repetition so we get a visceral experience of his response to her death. The thud of his reality hits us too.

So, we could say that each of these writers are using, say duration combined with another Viewpoint. That’s what happens after a while. All of the Viewpoints are organically connected because they are organic points of awareness. And, what’s better is that we already know them. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. We understand the distance between us and a fast-moving car (Spatial Relationship); we hurry into action when a baby cries (Kinesthetic Response); when something doesn’t make sense we repeat to ourselves over and over (Repetition).

When a person in our work is moving through, let’s say, a low-ceilinged shack, it will change the way they move through the space. What they think about that space will change how they feel about that space; about them being in it, about others that are in it, about the objects in it; about the smells, textures and grit. Once I realized that I could use the Viewpoints as a writer—and as an theatre-guy—my whole writing experience and the resonance of what I produced was so much greater. This is how we can use Viewpoints in our work. Now, for example, I do a rewrite for each one of the Viewpoints. That’s not all I do, of course, but these systematic passes through a text allow spirit, aura and vivacity to come through. I think of Viewpoints now, as an organic formalism—a word I used to be highly suspicious of—but now appreciate. Viewpoints has given me a skeleton from which all of the literary elements can spring.

Check out The Viewpoints Book by Bogart & Tina Landau at TheatreBooks. My heavily-marked and well-thumbed copy is never far from me.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page