NET/TEN Shareback: New World Performance Laboratory - From an actor’s journal: Notes on the process of constructing a solo performance

2013 Spring Seed Grant Recipient

New World Performance Laboratory (Akron, OH) visited TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater (Madison, WI) to explore further collaboration, and to search for the optimal performance and workshop structure to showcase their individual approaches to ensemble work.


New World Performance Laboratory (NWPL) provided NET with an essay by company member, Debora Totti, about the process of creating a solo work titled, Medea. The shareback also includes articles about NWPL's performance ecology and creative training techniques. Photos from TAPIT/new works Theater Ensemble's new play, Now What, and the workshops on rhythm and improvisation that occurred as part of the exchange are included at the bottom. 


From an actor’s journal:  Notes on the process of constructing a solo performance

by Debora Totti

The set for Medea in Madison

I want to open with a haiku by the Japanese master Basho.  This haiku is a kind of motto or mission statement for our ensemble, New World Performance Lab:

Journeying through the world
To and fro, to and fro
Cultivating a small field.

 (Trans. R. H. Blyth)

I’ve been working with New World Performance Lab for over 14 years. One of the principles of our work is emphasizing the process, not the product. As the poet Pessoa said, “I am the travel, not the traveler.” Most of the time we don’t work with a deadline or, as I like to call it, an inspiration date. We present the work when we have the work!

But when I started working on Medea, I knew I had three months to get it ready to present in Madison, Wisconsin, as an exchange with the TAPIT/new works, sponsored by the Network of Ensemble Theatres. Three months could seem a long time for any other actor or company, but not for me. I’m a mother of two, I have two other part time jobs, and a cat, guinea pig, and husband to take care of. Believe me, three months is not much. I had to make smart, fast and energy saving decisions! Save energy in life to pour it into the creative work. This meant less social activity, less cooking, less cleaning, and no mom at bed time! And remember the husband? Sorry, but he is going to get even less of the above mentioned things!

Let’s start from the beginning. Why Medea by Franca Rame and Dario Fo? A member of the company took a leave of absence, so we were unable to perform our last project Gilgamesh any longer.  The performance of Gilgamesh was the result of a long process of the New World Performance Lab. It took over three years for the piece to reach its final maturity. We were supposed, in fact, to take Gilgamesh to Madison as our exchange with TAPIT/new works. The news of my companion’s sabbatical left me sad and disenchanted. I understood his motives, but I still felt empty. I had been looking forward to running the play and experiencing the freedom of playing within the structure.

So I decided that it was time for me to work on a solo performance. It wasn’t the first time I prepared a solo.  Ten years ago I created a solo piece entitled La Signora, but my director, James Slowiak, was with me for the entire rehearsal period of La Signora. During my rehearsal of Medea, he was busy directing Shakespeare’s As You Like It at The University of Akron with 25 students.

For Medea I was ready to embark on a real solo voyage. It felt like I was rowing a boat all alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I had to test the effectiveness of my own craft. I wanted to challenge myself and figure out my commitment to my art. I wanted to establish my own voice and my independence from the group.

It’s hard to be an artist, a woman, and an immigrant. I often would hear a critical voice inside me say, “Just get a real job! Leave! Go back to Italy!” But I’m resilient. With age I’ve learned to listen to a deeper voice. Under the critical voice a fresh, innocent, crystal sweet voice would reveal to me, “Theatre is what you love. Acting is what you know best.” And like a carpenter I couldn’t wait to go to the rehearsal space and make something with the tools that I gained during all these years of working on my craft. How to listen to that deeper voice is one thing I learned during the three months I spent working on Medea.

After I decided to start work on a solo performance, I needed to choose the material. I began by looking at an Italian book, Delog donne che viaggiano tre la morte, then a Dostoyevsky short story, “The dream of a ridiculous man.” I had always wanted to work on a Franca Rame monologue, but it was never the right time. Out of curiosity, I googled her because I wanted to know where she was or if she was even still alive. I discovered that she had died May 29, 2013, the day of my mother’s birthday! I ordered her collection The Woman Alone and Other Plays.

My director Jim Slowiak called me and asked, “Do you think you can make a solo play in three months?” I said yes. Without speaking to Jim about it, I started to read Rame and Fo’s Medea.  A couple of days later I got another call from Jim. He said, “I had a dream you were playing Medea, I think Medea is a good play for you.” That’s how it started. I never asked Jim about the dream …did  I hear him correctly? Did he say dream? Why did I never ask?

The important thing was that I start to work on it. I had a text, I had a space, and I had the actor. Now I had to begin. In any process, beginnings are the most difficult. To inspire my work, I took off the shelf three books: Anne Bogart’s And Then You Act, Michael Chekhov’s Lessons for the Professional Actor, and Stanislavski in Rehearsal. I got my best notebook to keep a journal. I read the text of Medea and let any idea, image, memory, association, or dream come to me. I noted everything. I wrote down what I dreamed each night. I started reading, working, listening, researching any material that was concerned with Medea directly or just through association: Euripides’ Medea, Pasolini’s Medea with Maria Callas, the music of Cold Play and Giovanna Marini and Leonard Cohen and old Sicilian songs.
Jim suggested that I watch the film A Dream of Passion with Melina Mercouri and Ellen Burstyn.

I spent probably the first two weeks of work on letting the text and all the research material just grow on me and in me and to believe that my system was processing it and that I would have a kind of magma to work with on the first day of rehearsal. I was surprised at how I was able to give attention to my constructive voice and to lower the volume of the destructive part of me. I was confident that the play was already inside me and that I just had to create the conditions for me to navigate the work and allow the play to appear without forcing it.

I decided to work on the physical score first and I believed that the memorization of the text would follow. The first night of rehearsal I tried to tell the entire story. I had seen Franca Rame perform the text on YouTube and I first tried to imitate her style. After ten minutes I knew that wasn’t working for me. Paradoxically, I realized that in Rame’s “simple” way there was a lot of acting--I mean putting on a mask to be theatrical, in the old-fashioned sense. I instead wanted to reveal. I wanted less, to take away, to do something different. I wanted honesty. I needed Medea to be more personal and at the same time to be all women, and I needed her to be in the present time. In my journal I wrote:

Not scared of Medea anymore.
Looking for intimacy.
No theatre.

I needed to answer the fundamental question, “Who is Medea now?” Where is she? What is she doing? I wrote down the question and waited, opening the space, confident that the universe would give me an answer. I used what I had read in Michael Chekhov as a starting point: “See the whole performance. Imagine the play. Create an atmosphere. Just as it opens our heart, it opens the heart of the spectators.”

I decided to work on the image that I like the most in the script: the image of a goat. I played with that image--the goat of our friend Ken, the goat that I saw sacrificed in India, the goat in the meat store window, the goat at the petting zoo. It was the beginning of an unfolding of images, of dreams, memories of childhood and part of the script flew out of me as I started to improvise actions in the space. The director in me was observing and at the end of rehearsal I wrote down in order the actions of my improvisation, giving them names like “the goat,” “the knife,” “the teacher,” “the bed action,” etc.

NWPL’s rehearsal and performance space, where I was working, stimulated me a lot. At first, I was afraid to work in the building by myself because at night the neighborhood is dark and lonely. When I was with other people, I never noticed it. I saw only the beauty of this old Jewish community center: the nice architecture and the nostalgic feeling from imagining all the people that have passed through here, dancing and having bar mitzvah parties and celebrations. But when I arrived by myself, at night, the place felt so sad. There are a lot of loud sounds--sometimes it cricks and cracks, surprising and scaring me. But I decided that I had to deal with that and that I could use that fear to work on my Medea.

It took a while to not be afraid anymore. By the end, when I came to rehearsal, it was like I was meeting a friend. The space became my partner because I felt its character, its story. I let it enter in me, and me into it. It helped me to build the most difficult scene in the play and to reconnect with some of the hardest memories of my childhood. The space was there for me always and I am thankful that I had it as a companion on this journey.

And finally, I’m forever grateful to Jim Slowiak, for being the best artistic adviser that this piece could ever have, and for encouraging me when I felt unsure of myself. The first time I ran the piece for him, he asked me how I felt and I said, “I’ve worked a lot, but I still have a lot work to do.” He looked at me and said, “Don’t be too hard on yourself, your work paid off.” But also I am grateful to Jim for being my greatest teacher all these years. Without knowing it, I was learning not only the craft and ethical principles of being an actor (to and fro, to and fro), but also how to direct myself, how to cultivate my own small field.


Debora Totti
NWPL company member
January 2014

Articles about NWPL's Performance Ecology

Description of NWPL’s Performance Ecology Research
“In Search of Eco-Theatre” by James Slowiak



Now What  production photo                       TAPIT Rhythm Workshop                      


"TAPIT/New Works joins Ohio's New World Performance Lab for an unusual apocalypse tale"

Document outlining NWPL’s Performance Ecology Workshop in Italy 2014


New World Performance Lab

TAP/IT new works

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Friday, January 31, 2014

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