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2019
Friday, February 22nd
3:20 PM

Musical Theatre and the American Dream: The Hidden Language of Music

Jane Best

UC North Ballroom

3:20 PM - 3:35 PM

What does music add to a theatrical production? What depth can lyrics, melody, and harmony add to a story? As a music director, it is my job to answer these questions. Music illuminates the subconscious mind of a musical; the melodies, harmonies, and musical stylings in a show add depth to a theatrical production. These tools can guide actors to more effective and honest storytelling. The musicals in UM’s 2018-2019 season, White Christmas and Assassins, provide an excellent exploration of content and contrast through the way music is used to portray their viewpoints on Americana and the American Dream.

Musical theatre is a topic with a smaller body of research than many other art forms, and scarcely any of the research that exists is from the viewpoint of a music director. Viewing research through the lens of music direction allows for synthesis of literature about the social history of musical theatre with music theory and music history. Specifically, it is fascinating to explore how the stylistic similarities in White Christmas and Assassins are used to wildly different effects. Their scores and interpretations are informed by the history of musical theatre in America, the use of folk and jazz styles throughout the 20th century, and the ways that theatre and music can make a social and/or political statement.

White Christmas uses the music of a master songwriter from the early 1900s, Irving Berlin, to tell the story of a classic musical comedy. His music was a vehicle for escapism and optimism, painting a picture of an America that could be carefree, fun, and full of love and hope. Berlin used big band jazz stylings, witty wordplay, and pleasant harmonies to allow audiences to escape the troubles of the Great Depression and World Wars I and II via the music. Nowadays, audiences can still use this music to escape the anxieties of the modern world.

Contrarily, Stephen Sondheim’s music for Assassins, a much more intentionally political musical, uses folk music to peel back the curtain of idealistic Americana to reveal the darknesses that lie beneath. He uses music that sounds familiar and nostalgic to our ears, but when sung by killers, we see what can happen when the American Dream is taken too far. The contrast between what is being sung, how it is being sung, and who is singing it puts audiences on edge. Instead of escaping via the music, they find themselves drawn in and confronted by the uncomfortable.

Music is a powerful force for connection and empathy. Both musicals in UM’s current season use this force to opposite ends. Musically, one show comforts; one show confronts. The subtleties in the melodies, lyrics, and stylizations allow the actors to more convincingly portray their stories to an audience. As musical theatre artists entertain our audiences, we also open them up to social, moral, and/or political themes that create a fuller artistic and human experience.

3:40 PM

Interaction

Hila Tzipora Chase

UC North Ballroom

3:40 PM - 3:55 PM

"Interaction" is an integrative performing arts piece drawing from biological concepts and communicated through movement arts. Colloquially it is a dance piece, though it involves techniques from circus arts, improvisation, and other performing arts disciplines. The piece was born from a shared love of combining biology and movement arts between graduate student Hila Tzipora Chase and research mentee Stephanie Klein (both biologists with a background in movement arts).

Join us in exploring some of the most intimate and fundamental interactions in nature. From predator-prey relationships to interactions between humans and wildlife; from the dynamics of wind meeting wings to the strangling tension between competing plants. Explore what it means to interact- to be defined as an active entity by those around you and they in turn by those around them. To be a constantly shifting network of interactions. This is how life works.

This brief dance piece will tell several stories of interaction, and seeks not only to evoke emotions and impressions from the audience, but also to educate and engage the audience in specific biological concepts. These stories include specific examples from biological research and highlight some of the active research currently going on at UM, particularly with regard to bird biology and ecology.

4:00 PM

Sister Cities

Alyson Spery

UC North Ballroom

4:00 PM - 4:15 PM

In the early ‘90s, a man from Tlaxcala, Mexico traveled to a Wyoming dude ranch for work. Though he followed a long lineage of migratory workers, he marked the first Tlaxcalan to arrive in Jackson Hole. But he was not the last.

Today, 30% of residents in Teton County, Wyoming are of Mexican descent, and the majority of them hail from Tlaxcala state. While the Teton County School District reports over 40% of their students speak Spanish as their first language, general enrollment at the primary school in San Simeon, Tlaxcala has dropped in half. Meanwhile, all around Tlaxcala, the construction of new homes (built with money made in the US) marks the promise to return to Mexico.

Although we are a country founded by immigrants, Americans talk about immigration (especially from Mexico) with a growing sense of fear: the fear of “criminals”, “rapists”, and “drug dealers”. Americans must get to know their Mexican neighbors. We need to see each other, eye to eye.

With a team of filmmakers and educators, our grassroots organization (Eye to Eye Media) will teach documentary storytelling skills through instruction and mentorship so these communities can take cameras in their own hands in order to tell their own stories, through their own lens. Spanning more than two years, our flagship community media project entitled Sister Cities, will produce a canon of films from Mexicans living on both sides of the border by spending one year, on location, in each place: Jackson Hole, WY and Tlaxcala, MX. This two-year project culminates with screenings in both countries as well as a web-based platform to host the entire collection.

No documentary on immigration is as ambitious or as authentic as Sister Cities because these films are not about, but by the immigrants themselves. And now, more than ever, we need to hear these stories. As racial tensions heighten in the US over immigration, Sister Cities provides an avenue for a vulnerable population to take ownership over their own representation. Each story contributes to creating a multi-faceted (and multi-faced) narrative about the immigrant experience in America today.

Sample narratives include the Garcia family, who work in Jackson so they can afford to build a house in Mexico. Now that its built, they must decide between renting and raising their four children in Jackson or returning to Mexico for good. Though the kids were born in the US, their parents, once they cross the US border, can never go back to the place they’ve called home for almost 20 years. Then there is Ivan who has never felt the sense of belonging to any specific place. He emigrated at nine years old with his parents, and although he has US residency, he will never visit Mexico. Since his family in Tlaxcala lives like their above the law, the danger is too great for him to return even to see his last living grandparent. Back in San Simeon, the elderly doña Maria is supported by the remittances from her four children who all live in Jackson. Without their financial support she would be homeless, yet without their physical support she is left to care for herself by herself. These are just a few of the stories from the sister cities.

Since studying documentary filmmaking, I spent the past two years producing immigration stories driven by the participants themselves: from Renga for the West (premiered at 2018 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival) and Bon Polis: Immigration Lovestories (currently in production). Through these experiences, I learned the importance of owning and directing your own story, especially for otherwise underrepresented people. In October of 2018, I visited Tlaxcala to successfully garner the support of the local community in San Simeon to launch the second phase of this project in 2020. Currently, in Jackson, I am establishing local partnerships and recruiting participants to launch production in May of 2019.

The real humanitarian crisis at our border is the loss of humanity. We no longer see the people entering the US as anyone like us. Many contemporary documentary films address this issue, but none allow the subjects to direct the films themselves. If Americans want to understand immigration, we need to see it through the perspective of those that experience it. Films are our most powerful communication tool. By compiling compelling stories into self-directed films, Sister Cities reshapes the public narrative so we begin to see each other eye to eye.

4:20 PM

Computer as Character

Kurtis Hassinger

UC North Ballroom

4:20 PM - 4:35 PM

Traditionally, theatre has consisted of performers on a stage telling a story to an audience against the backdrop of lights and sets. This was the accepted mode for most of our performance history and has proven to be a successful method of entertainment for thousands of years. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, have introduced technology that allows both theatre-makers and audiences to experience storytelling in new and innovative ways unimaginable to the performers, designers, and audiences of yesterday.

My area of study in the University of Montana’s College of Visual and Performing Arts focuses on these innovations and asks: how do we story tell when digital media is incorporated into our performance environment? Does the blending of live performance and digital media aid in the storytelling? How does it influence the performance for the actor/audience? What if the actor can interact to the media incorporated?

Working with these questions, I’m currently building a performance piece that incorporates an interface which allows an actor to hold a conversation with a computer. The interface, more commonly known as a ‘chatbot’ works through combining JavaScript, HTML, and an open source coding language called RiveScript to create a program that resembles an Alexa or Siri voice recognition system. However, my concept differs from both examples in that it has been built with the intent that it challenges, through a performative lens, questions of machine as live performer. Daniel Shiffman’s Coding Train tutorials served as inspiration for the project. The performance, itself, consists of the actor asking the computer a series of questions and the computer responding with answers that are sometimes set and predictable but at other times varied and randomized. The purpose of this is to produce a unique scene for the audience and live performer that is at once different each time it is performed yet depends on an unchanging digital system that is not ‘live’ yet fulfills the role of a character. The piece serves as an example of theatre that reflects our current culture and the digital media that fills it as well as our symbiotic relationship with it. The work, under the guidance of Dr. Michael Musick: Associate Professor of Media Arts, is an evolving project of increasingly complex voice recognition patterns that affords a live actor the opportunity to explore a performance arena of increasing digital complexity in the realm of visual arts. The benefit of UM students viewing and interacting with the computer in a conference setting is that they can experience first hand a voice-activated program that performs with them as opposed to serving them in mundane search tasks, thus demonstrating what future interactions and live performances might resemble in the coming decades.

4:40 PM

The Artist

Stephanie Whitney

UC North Ballroom

4:40 PM - 4:55 PM

Music has been ingrained in human culture for thousands of years. It is tied into many facets of life. We use it to teach, to heal, to tell stories, and even to pass on history. It has the unique capacity to embody emotion and memory on a personal and universal level. Because of this there is no way to give a direct definition of the meaning of music. With this thought in hand, I asked myself if there is a way to capture what our brain goes through while listening to a song?

Within my work as a media artist I began to build a code in processing that could do just that. The Artist Is a series of still images that is created by utilizing brainwaves of subjects while they listen to a specific song chosen by me. Each image represents a small piece of that person’s memory and feelings that come up when they listen to that song. I wanted this to be shown in the image so I made the objects that the spikes in brainwaves produce small yet deep and complex on a vast canvas. But when all the objects come together it seems as though you are looking in on something much larger than just an image. In order for this to work I had to relinquish control over how each piece would turn out and let the brainwaves speak for themselves. Because of this they are all vastly different and each one stands out on its own even though each one is run through the same code.

The ideal space for me to present this piece would be a ten by five foot area. I will also need a TV to project on and will be providing the computer, software, and headset. The best way for me to show my piece would be to do a live presentation and allow people to participate and create the art as well as be able to view the still images that are created.