In year two of the Guelph Shebang, we were joined by dance artist Katie Ewald for a text workshop. Up until that point, we had been exploring free-form vocal improvisations. It’s an area I’d been struggling with—feeling free enough to make sound, to take up aural space. For one thing, I lacked some of the vocabulary around music that many of my collaborators had, not to mention their training. What did I have to contribute? The question and its answer clammed me up.
Katie started by taking music out of the equation. We simply had to tell a story, using a regular speaking voice. The challenge would come in trying to capture the attention of the listener, and in maintaining focus despite the distraction of a parallel narrative. It mirrored what we’d been doing with dance, finding our way into a specialized form through the everyday movements of our bodies.
We also talked about what had been holding us back before, the feeling that singing was automatically equated with performance. Exploration in that medium was difficult, even for the professional musicians among us. Katie suggested a technique that had pulled her through her own self-consciousness. She advised us to remember that, “You are in the improv, or the show, that you want to be in.”
That line cracked the whole process open for me. It was okay if I was too shy to harmonize with the group; there were other ways to participate. Active listening, basic percussion, spoken word.
I think what that line changed for me was that it increased my responsibility. How I built my role in the improvisation was my choice, but I had to make a choice. Having agency became a kind of safety net and I found myself making bolder contributions, knowing I could always pull back.
It reminded me of something that Daniel Brooks said about his play “Bigger than Jesus.” People kept walking out, offended by the production’s content. Until one night, the actor, Rick Miller, made an announcement mid-show. He told the crowd that the show wasn’t going to get less shocking and they should feel free to leave now, no hard feelings. No one left. Making the audience responsible for deciding whether to bail or stay, ended up helping them engage.