How I Work

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Barclay, J.L., 2002. How I Work. Body, Space & Technology, 3(1). DOI:


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I began directing plays in 1980. However, my current working process as a director has evolved from the experience of directing a play in college entitled The Serpent by Jean Claude van Itallie. This play was created in 1968 in collaboration with The Open Theater under the direction of Joseph Chaikin. When reading the script, one is confronted with the final record of a long collaborative process and invited to reinvent and/or rediscover the territory, which inspired this map. The experience of attempting to do so, while also making the play relevant to 1983, excited me again about the possibilities of theater, which had seemed fairly bleak at the time and gave me a new sense of mission. I wanted to continue this process of investigating territories beyond words. The Serpent explored, for example, the creation myth, the Christian mythos and the seemingly terminal issue of America’s nostalgia for its lost innocence. The goal was to create a theater that was more ritual than narrative, more of a participatory ceremony than a consumer spectacle.

I spent many years after this experience trying to recreate it and was frustrated in these attempts. Most plays did not invite this kind of open-ended exploration and I was not writing texts for myself. Also, in that time-frame (mid-1980’s to early-1990’s), I found it difficult to find a group of performers who wanted to create work as an ensemble, and, quite frankly, I wasn’t as clear as I could have been about exactly what I wanted to create or how to go about it.

In the early 1990’s I began working as a director with a playwright, C.J. Hopkins, who was using language in a far more interesting way than most other playwrights were. We received an Artists’ Residency at Mabou Mines so that we could investigate new theatrical techniques in order that performers could inhabit (and to some degree create) this territory. The language of these plays created a kind of symbology, and the actors working on them needed to hear the text on this level. The text was composed of fairly “everyday” speech, but which also had meaning on this symbolic field, so the trick was for the actor to hear both levels and learn to play the music he or she heard simultaneously. The reason for this work was to get underneath the grid of meaning in which we found ourselves in the world, especially in the U.S. In order to continue with this work after the residency, we created Monkey Wrench Theater. Monkey Wrench produced several shows, all with workshop time built in to the process in addition to the normal rehearsal period so that performers would have the time to discover and create the new worlds necessary to perform the texts.

Most of our work focussed on text. The idea was that since the 1960’s-70’s theatrical experiments were so basically anti-textual, we wanted to create a theater that engaged the textual assumptions of our time as well. While the past experiments had been very successful in terms of getting at the ritual and spiritual roots of the theater and outside of the language-prison of narrative dramas, we felt that to leave text behind was perilous, since that also left behind the basis of how we think and construct our realities and interpretations of experience. However, after a few years of working in this way, I grew restless with this almost sole preoccupation with textual language and wanted to get beyond working with plays that proscribed set roles and scenarios altogether.

To begin this new level of investigation, I stopped directing C.J. Hopkins’ plays, and started a laboratory/workshop with a group of actors in 1997. The actors and I began with the notion of investigating the roots of each “rule” of the theater. We wanted to explore how we could use each element of the theatrical rules of the room in order to unearth and examine the themes of gender/sex, religion/god and class/money in America. The goal was to show the way in which we constructed these ideas as malleable and therefore changeable. Underneath all my work has been this core belief, that the ability to look at and investigate any reality construct, no matter how deeply entrenched, is the beginning of the ability to question that reality construct. The very ability to point it out is a way of showing it as malleable and a construct, rather than as “God-given,” “unchangeable human nature” or “scientifically irrefutable” or whatever is the sweeping intellectual justification for why some way of being supposedly cannot change. Of course, since I am working in the theater, the rules of the theater itself must be the first level of investigation, since without addressing the theatrical rules of engagement (audience watching performers with a whole set of expectations), all the other issues will remain within a traditional, unexamined framework and therefore remain unmoved.

Through the course of investigating our theatrical assumptions, we also investigated the cut-up technique as a way to generate text to work with during our exercises, and perhaps to use in any possible final showing. This cut-up technique was based on the explorations of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin as outlined in their book The Third Mind. We each created a cut up text from found texts we all brought in relating to gender, class and/or religion in America. We then enhanced these cut-ups using memory texts of our own we brought in for each other’s use. These were our first memories of awareness of gender, class and religion. These texts provided the starting point for a lot of exercises I created and did in fact end up in showings of the work two years later. I also directed the cut up text I created as a separate theater piece three years later. These cut up texts were so evocative because by splicing together sentence fragments from one text onto another, one ends up creating texts which undermine each other and end up showing their sub-text: the cracks between the reality grid, which thereby illuminate the outlines of that grid as a grid. The language code begins to skid off the road a bit and it provides a wonderful textual map to begin to find the territory of the as-yet undiscovered countries which have been obscured by the all-too visible territory which surrounds us most of the time and parades around as The Real. We took this concept of cutting up and applied it not only to language but also to gesture and to the ideas of levels of address and presence, theatrical masks and styles. We continually reformulated these ideas of “cutting and pasting” different levels together and then cutting them up, interpolating them into one another and the like.

The replicable techniques we discovered in this workshop (after many, many false starts) had to do with levels of address and presence – of text and (to a lesser extent initially) of gesture. More precisely, we broke these levels down into component parts and created “jams” off of them – cutting up text and movement in the moment until a certain kind of alternate universe emerges wherein everything can be read on multiple levels at once. Other elements entered into this initial exploration, including dance numbers, moveable scenarios and the like, but these basic techniques of levels were the elements that stuck and which we were able to teach others. We showed this work-in-process in June 1999 at The Present Company in NYC under the title Inside of a Shapeless Angel. The performers who participated in these showings were Fred Backus, Renée Bucciarelli and Chris Campbell.

These performers and I taught a short-form of this workshop at the New York International Fringe Festival (which is produced by The Present Company). Based on her experience in the workshop, choreographer Sophia Lycouris invited me to teach at Chisenhale Dance Space in London. She was excited by this work with levels of address, especially for dancers using text. The level of address she was most intrigued by was the final one, which asks the performer to address the rules of the room itself, meaning the theatrical rules, as well as the social, personal and political rules that surround us. These rules I define as anything we say “that’s the way it is” about, and therefore view as intrinsic and unchangeable – something I refer to in shorthand as the “reality grid” of right now. By its nature it too changes and therefore it cannot be defined as a set of rules as much as the state in which these rules exist. These grid rules, these base assumptions, are also by nature not immediately visible and need to be teased out, through a series of exercises, including cutting up of text and gesture and concentration on levels of meaning. Sophia felt this concept of a reality grid gave her a guidepost as to where to address the text she used in her own performances, which she had not yet defined to her satisfaction. In our communications about the workshop I would teach at Chisenhale, Sophia encouraged me to expand the use of gesture and break it down with the same precision as I had with text. While working with the dancers at Chisenhale, I began investigating seriously how gestures can also fall into these categories and how different stage zones (having certain areas of the stage imply specific levels of address and types of presence) enhanced this work.

The other levels of address are simpler, namely, to one’s self, to another person on stage, to the audience and any permutations of the above (e.g. gesture to one level, text to another, overlaps etc.). However, all of these levels imply different levels of presence and masks and styles of theater. For instance, addressing another player on stage may imply naturalistic theater, the wearing of a tight character mask, which appears “natural” and a “natural” presence, whereas addressing the audience may imply presentational theater, the wearing of a broad, obvious mask and a large and stylized presence. These are not implications that need to be followed through. In fact, it is more interesting when they are consciously subverted (e.g. addressing the audience with a tight mask).

However, following along the above lines, one can also look at levels of meaning: for example, which levels of address and presence imply the literal (naturalistic, to each other – perhaps to one’s self), metaphoric (presentational, to the audience), symbolic (communal/ritual, to the reality grid), etc. I am now exploring how all of these levels can also be investigated using objects and lighting, along with levels of movement, gesture and text. In other words, to create a literal moment with a chair, one can sit in it, lit in a fairly “normal” way while talking to another person on stage. To create a metaphoric and/or symbolic moment, one performer recently placed boots at the foot of the chair, tied a rope around it, taped a picture of a man and woman from a magazine on the chair and held a lighting instrument over it as if to interrogate the objects. He was not consciously using text or gesture at the time, but if he were, where to address it would have been an interesting question.

At about the time the original workshop was ending, John Clancy, who was then Artistic Director of The Present Company, asked me to write him a mission statement defining my goals in the theater so that he could determine how The Present Company might help me manifest the theater I was trying to create. I include below an excerpt of what I wrote because it remains true for me today and will hopefully elucidate the goals of the work. I hand this text out to all the performers I work with on shows and workshops, so that they too are aware of the goals of the work (I am a big believer in the Brechtian notion that a performer who knows the larger goals of the work has the capability to speak on more than one level in performance – not only from his or her own perspective, but also from the perspective of the work itself and with knowledge of him or herself as an agent in this work):

What I want to do in the theater:

Undermine the reality-grid of right now: meaning that which we say “that’s the way it is” about - either publicly or privately.

Regarding class/money, race/ethnicity, gender/sex, religion/God, realpolitik/politics, nationalism/patriotism, war/peace...etc.

Through the creation of theatrical work that challenges these assumptions by, first, owning them as our own (not pawning it off on an “other” which somehow creates a world in which we live as victims), exploring the depths of our own assumptions/investments and investigating our own “desiring machines” (concept from Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari). The Deleuze/Guattari theory is that we all, to some extent carry within us fascistic investments (meaning investments in a state of “being”) and revolutionary investments (meaning investments in the process of “becoming”). Their desire was to enact a kind of radical psychology wherein our fascistic investments could be examined, owned and somehow uprooted to bring about a social investment in something other than “being” - i.e., a static, repressive environment which rewards conformity and a certain kind of subservience to an other-centered order of things as they are. I believe their vision has to do with a more revolutionary social body - one in which the process of becoming itself is integral to living, and there is no need to impose a hegemonic force onto other living creatures (examples of this now and in the past: capital, Christianity and other Evangelical/missionary religions, slavery, women as property, man’s dominion over/destruction of nature, psychology, “the Big Bang”, etc.) This is an incredible reduction of everything they said, but serves as a useful starting point for the goals of the theatrical endeavors on which I want to spend the rest of my foreseeable life.

By creating theatrical pieces that uproot the static nature of both language, gesture, character, etc. in such a way as to bring about this process of becoming. Both in our own bodies/souls/minds as players/writers/directors and thence into the bodies/minds/souls of the audience.

* * *

While directing the first workshop/laboratory (and after having written the above mini-manifesto) I began to write texts. These texts were a mixture of cut-ups in the “traditional” sense (as defined above as the Burroughs-Gysin technique) and cutting up my own thoughts as they arose in my mind, words on my bulletin boards surrounding my computer, advertisements I had seen on television, memories, reveries, dreams, nightmares, rants, and nameless “characters” who would give voice to visions of their own.

The first text I wrote in this way became Word To Your Mama, which I directed onto the stage twice in 2000. These productions of Word were produced by Screaming Venus in New York City, and the performers were Nicole Higgins, Monica Sirignano and Kate Ward. When I directed the first version, I was focussed on the levels of address as they related to text and movement in the space, but had not yet clarified the gesture work. I re-staged Word for the New York International Fringe Festival after returning from Chisenhale, and used my discoveries having worked with dancers, codifying gesture work and stage zones. The actors improvised many levels of gesture and text within proscribed stage zones. We created a vocabulary of over 140 gestures, which were broken into categories. They created idiosyncratic gestures (gestures which they found themselves doing habitually), cliché gestures (gestures which create an instant identification with gender, religion, class, etc.), and finally transformative gestures (gestures created collaboratively which communicate something wordless, which can best be communicated by gesture). While they improvised during rehearsals using all of these elements, in the end, I choreographed much of what they did – using their improvisations as a base point from which to do so. This work was satisfying, but I wondered what the possibilities were beyond such in-the-end-choreographed work.

I then launched a three-month workshop/laboratory in the winter of 2000 at The Present Company. In this workshop, we again created memory texts, brought in found text and created cut up texts from all the above. We investigated with more clarity and focus the issues of level of address, not only in terms of text and gesture, but also sound and stage zones and specific elements within each of these component parts. In the showings the performers created in the summer of 2001 (under the title Awaiting Repair in the Eternal Hootenanny), the group broke into smaller groups of four and created structures within which to improvise, with the goal being to touch on all of the tools created and some of the texts as well. The performers involved in these showings were Fred Backus, Rachel Beirnat, Daniel Hope, Kimberly Justice, Scott Mendelsohn, Erin O’Leary, Robin Reed and Alyssa Siemon. The result was more in the realm of Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz” than, for example, John Coltrane’s style of jazz, which is rooted as much in melody as improvisation. (I had the dancers at Chisenhale create similar structures for an informal showing when I taught there, and the result was much the same, though the movement element was much smoother.) In the NYC showing, there was also an uncomfortable mixture of “the rules” of showing a process and performing. Since we were showing in the context of the New York International Fringe Festival, we couldn’t get away from the “show” element, and that caused friction with the intent of showing a process rather than a product. I discovered once again that an almost impenetrable grid of meaning is imposed merely by the context in which one is showing work.

While contemplating this, and before we as a group could reconvene and discuss what happened, two planes flew into the World Trade Center and all hell broke loose in New York City. We did reconvene a week later, but it was hard to focus and I decided to withdraw a bit and focus on my writing again. I spent the next months writing and directing readings of new work, including No One, which I wrote in October and November of 2001. I directed readings of both Word and No One in London and New York City. For one set of readings in London at The Lion and Unicorn I cast performers I had worked with at Chisenhale Dance Studio: Bill Aitchison, Caroline Griffiths and Jane Munro. For the second set of readings at Arcola Theatre I cast performers who took a one-day version of my workshop. In all of these readings as with the below-mentioned performance, I began to loosen the rules of the readings, and not pre-assign lines to performers. Therefore, while a pre-existing text created a structure, there was more “action” being improvised. I was moving away from choreographing each moment, and more towards giving tools and loose structures to performers within which they could improvise.

In March 2002 I was offered an opportunity to try something new. I was asked by Elena Holy (now the Producing Artistic Director of The Present Company) to present my newest stage text No One as part of an evening of post-9/11 writing that she was producing. There was not a lot of rehearsal time available and the piece had to go up in May. Elena had seen an unrehearsed reading of the text and encouraged me to think of a way to present it with a rotating cast, in some informal way. Could we use these new improvisational principles in the performance context as well as in the reading context?

I gave the text to a group of performers experienced in my work (and a couple who were not, but I thought could catch onto the rules relatively easily). The actors involved in this series of performances were Bill Aitchison, Chris Campbell, Maggie Cino, Marietta Hedges, Nicole Higgins, Daniel Kleinfeld, Dan Maccarone, Daniel O’Brien, Nicole Poole and Robin Reed. I conducted a few workshops to define a rudimentary gesture vocabulary and review levels of address and define some possible stage zones for performance. I then let them improvise, script in hand, from night to night. They improvised not only gesture, but also who would say which line, which part of the stage to inhabit (and which levels of address this implied) - in other words, everything but the words themselves. While the results varied from night to night (and from moment to moment), sometimes resembling nothing more than barely contained chaos, sometimes improbably singing, the germ of an idea was formed on which I am currently acting.

The Present Company is now producing the next stage of this process. Elena Holy and I were both encouraged enough by the results of No One to want to see how much further this process could go with adequate rehearsal time and new theatrical elements added. I am now directing both Word and No One simultaneously, with the goal in mind of presenting both of these texts with everything but the order of the words themselves improvised from night to night. We will be performing the results of this process in London in February 2003 and in New York City in March 2003. The performers are Bill Aitchison, Fred Backus, Maggie Cino, Marietta Hedges, Daniel O’Brien, Robin Reed, Julie Shavers and Kate Ward. I am now also working with choreographer Johanna Meyer to further expand the movement vocabulary and add a much-needed connective tissue to the gesture work I have thus far created; set designer Juliana van Haubrich who is adding material elements for the actors to manipulate and re-arrange at will; and lighting designer Justin Sturges who is working with the actors, teaching them how to manipulate certain lighting instruments and how the work he will be doing independent of them will affect their work, and their work will affect his. Berrian Eno-Van Fleet and Justin Sturges are also performing the invaluable task of assistant directing. Some of the performers are teaching workshops on object manipulation and how to move in relation to objects and the material space. In short, I am adding new tools, all of which are moving through the filters of the original levels of address work, so that the performers can play with each of these elements each night, thereby creating a theatrical jazz jam with multiple levels, which will be united by the one common text and the basics of the theatrical vocabulary discovered over the course of years of workshops.

The process I am engaged in now is longer and more well-financed than any I have had the opportunity to direct in the past, and this gives me the luxury of discovering layers of meaning in each new element, including the text, and also the perhaps even more important luxury of making mistakes and re-tracing my steps. However, this process was preceded by two long-term workshops which were made possible by the commitment of a handful of performers who were willing to work long hours, over long periods of time with little to no heat in the winter and nothing even resembling air conditioning in the summer, for no money, and by The Present Company which let us use their space for free. Without that harder, more tedious, and at times more frustrating work, this more playful time would not be possible.

I brought up the experience of directing The Serpent at the beginning of this article not only because it marks the origin of all of my subsequent theatrical inquiries, but also because this current experience of directing my two texts feels more like the experience I had in college in 1983 than any other theater work I have thus far created. I am collaborating with other theater artists on a deeper level than I ever have before and am exploring with them a lot of unknown territory with little to no idea of what to expect the outcome to be, but with the same sense of excitement and anticipation I experienced then to see not only how it all comes together, but also what new territory can be discovered within the process itself. There is a sense of letting go of the grips of definitions and theories and plunging headfirst into something new, which creates a sense of play I have been missing for many years. It reminds me of a line from Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, in which one character says “Sometimes you have to go a long way out of your way to get back the right way correctly.”

Julia Barclay 2003



Julia Lee Barclay





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