Unfinished business

UK and SF groups partner on performance-making

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Eye, eye: costumed University of Chichester student Darren Purnell
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF CHICHESTER

THEATER About two years ago, a small band of Brits came on an exploratory mission from the South of England to the Bay Area. They wanted to discover what, if anything, they had in common with their American counterparts in the theater world. The trip ended with a party in the Mission, where UK performance duo Action Hero performed A Western for their new friends way out West.

And that might have been that. But a year later, in 2012, Action Hero (Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse) was back, this time leading a workshop-residency at CounterPULSE. This collaboration with local artists (six people drawn mostly from the experimental dance and performance world) produced a one-night smorgasbord of performance, complete with a dining area, a menu, and a wait staff to bring you to your performance when it was ready.

The evening was also a lively mixer, in which a friendly, jocular man named Ben Francombe — head of the pedagogically radical theater department at the small arts-focused University of Chichester in West Sussex — was an enthusiastic participant.

As Francombe explained at the time, the school of performing arts at his university was eager to maintain contact with places like CounterPULSE as a partner in creative exchanges. "We share a commitment to the idea of 'exchange' in creative processes," he wrote, in an email correspondence shortly before arriving in San Francisco, "and how artists develop methods of working through sharing ideas that are 'foreign' and different from their established practice. As an arts-based university, we are very interested in exploring ways in which our international connections stimulate our cultural ideas."

He added, "As a department we have a unique commitment to developing small-scale artists, and exploring radical ideas on the nature of theater and performance through facilitating interesting artists in interesting creative contexts."

That sounds good on paper, but what would it really mean in practice? The Chichester folks were the first to admit they didn't really know but were seriously interested in finding out, as long as their counterparts here were game to work on it together.

It turned out many were. The call for a joint programs of exchange geared to artist-centered new work found receptive ears among the experimental dance and performance makers gathered around CounterPULSE — whose working methods are already more or less akin to the devised approach facilitated at Chichester — but it also attracted people in the theater scene, where devised work (ensemble-driven theater built from the ground up) has its champions in companies like Mugwumpin and the work of artists like playwright-director Mark Jackson and actor Beth Wilmurt, co-creators of The Companion Piece at Z Space in 2011. Indeed, Z Space was soon onboard for more contact across the pond. Meanwhile, Jackson, Wilmurt, and CounterPULSE's Julie Phelps all went over to Chichester in February of this year to see the university's theater-performance MA program in action.

This year, Chichester's open-ended and open-minded dialogue with San Francisco's theater and performance scene ramped up considerably with a just completed summer intensive at Z Space. And there's more just ahead, including a festival of devised performance in October (at CounterPULSE) and, if all goes well, the inauguration sometime in 2014 of an international MFA program in theater-performance making exclusively linked to San Francisco.

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