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What’s On(line) + A Conversation with Jennifer Tarver

December 9, 2020

As we get ready to close the book on 2020, we’re reflecting on all of the lessons we’ll carry with us through to next year: the resilience of artists and the radical power of community care.

This month, we have something a little different for you. Marketing Coordinator Tamara Jones spent some time with Residency artist and Lead Creator of Bear Witness, Jennifer Tarver, to talk about oratorio, the fruits of remote collaboration, and how to shift our awareness towards self-compassion. If you’re curious about what the other Residency artists have been up to, make sure you stop by for the digital Residency showings next week!

Before we sign off, we would also like to point your attention to the important work the Encampment Support Network is doing to fight the eviction of our neighbours living in encampments around Toronto. For more details, please see the Learning, Unlearning section of this month’s Digital Café. The holidays may look different this year, but our team wishes you and yours a safe and happy one.

you're invited!

It’s been a wild year. Nothing is as it was and we can’t stop now. We have sixteen projects (!) in three streams of Residency, and the artists are ready to share where they’re at in the projects’ development and to dialogue with you as part of the creative process. Join us for The Theatre Centre’s first-ever digital Residency showing series.

From December 14–17, pop into the Zoom room from 5:30–7PM EST and see what the artists have been up to. Hosted by Aislinn Rose and Liza Paul, each night will feature four of the incredible projects in Residency. Scenes, readings, questions, conversations—anything can happen (and that’s exactly how we like it). We wish we were together, so let’s pretend we’re in the cafe—pour a drink, grab a snack, make yourself at home (cuz let’s be real, you probably are). Stop by for one night, two nights, three nights, or more, and join us for a holiday toast at 7PM on December 17! Click here for the full line-up.

thanks for your support!

Your support continues to give us and the artists we work with the hope we need to continue inventing the future. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, and donated in response to our GivingTuesday message to kickstart this season of giving. We appreciate all shapes and forms of your generosity! If you’d still like to make a gift to support artists, you have until December 31st to receive a tax receipt for 2020!

in conversation with: jennifer tarver

Jennifer Tarver in the Franco Boni Theatre (Photo by Kyle Purcell)

Tamara Jones: Bear Witness started out as someone else’s story and gradually became more personal in a way that seems pretty organic. Can you describe some of the intersections of both your friend’s story and your own that made this transition feel right for this piece?

Jennifer Tarver: The intersection of stories is the human body, how stories exist in the body, and how they emerge. We’re working with the idea that stories can become embedded in our body and they’re not always accessible to us on a conscious level. The original story source was the personal memoir of Dany Lyne, who was also my cranial sacral therapist. I started seeing her after I had quite a serious bike accident so I went to her for help in healing that injury. It’s through her work on my body that the relationship that’s actually pertinent to this piece exists. In a practice like cranial sacral therapy or reiki, there’s great sensitivity to the inner world of someone’s body that they may or may not have their own awareness of, so it’s about where our stories about ourselves lie in relation to awareness. The piece has moved away from her [Dany’s] story in the specific and has become about how bodies contain stories whether they’re buried or contorted and the conflicts and mix-ups that can arise when we get those stories wrong. Regardless of what the trauma was, the stories were, or the personal history is about, it’s about how the body revealed things to her that she had no awareness of. Although, being at a fairly early stage in the process, these stories transform; these are source material for an evolving narrative.

TJ: You’re working with the Element Choir, which will personify the body and the landscape in this piece. How would you describe oratorio, and what inspired you to work with the Element Choir?

JT: On one level, oratorio is a mishmash between opera and a choir piece. Opera, I find a lot of times, makes use of a large chorus, but they’re a musical and environmental texture and background, whereas, in an oratorio, the chorus is the meat and potatoes. The choir itself is the main musical and dramatic focus; it’s a piece of theatre embedded in a choir. In this piece, the choir is a metaphor for the human body so the members of the choir, it’s almost like they’re cellular. I have an image of the choir as a living, breathing organism so it’s within the organism that there are different voices that emerge and recede.

The element choir to me is one of the most distinct phenomena that I’ve ever experienced. It’s a community-based choir — Christine Duncan conceived and founded the choir, it’s her brainchild — she draws on members of a very diverse community. Reading music and traditional forms of music are not a part of the vocabulary of the choir. Christine has developed a series of hand signals that the choir learns and responds to, so it’s kind of like she’s playing the choir as her instrument in an improvisational way. It’s very reactive. Everybody’s on their toes, all the nerve-endings are firing. The vocabulary is so unusual, but I would say they’re organic human sounds — there are screams, guttural sounds, sometimes there are sounds that are sung or intoned, sometimes there are whispers that make use of text — any sound you can possibly imagine the human mouth making, Christine has mined it and created a signal to activate it. The very first time I saw the choir, it felt like I was standing on the edge of a frozen ocean in springtime. I heard cracking, I heard trickling, I heard this live environment of noises that just felt like I was surrounded and engulfed by it. Right away, I experienced this feeling of a living, breathing landscape which in the course of this piece translated into the body as landscape.

TJ: I think a lot of artists are grappling with learning to work remotely—knowing when to push through the discomfort and when to call it a day. What has that process felt like for you and your team? Have you found benefits to working remotely? How will you know when working remotely no longer serves the work?

JT: It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been as horrible as it has been great. It’s forced me to focus on the right things at the right time. My instinct would have been to perhaps go too soon into a live studio with lots of bodies. Although that is an important part of this particular piece, not having that as an option, has forced me to focus on text and story. 

There are people who are writing and distilling text from other sources, but we’re also telling each other stories, so the intimacy of that has been great in this context. With this small group of artists, I’ll give them a prompt or an offering and they’ll spend time with it and then video their response and send it back to me. And then I get to spend time with their video. When you’re in the studio, you can really miss stuff. It’s like things fly by and you might miss it, or you might go “oh my god, that was amazing,” and then you go home that night and you don’t really remember fully what was so amazing about it. So this has been a really fruitful process in that way.

Going into an empty space by myself feels weird. Having someone on Zoom in a big empty space feels weird because it’s like you’re not in the space with me. What was the worst, was when I got into the space with one other artist, Sara Porter, and we were in the Franco Boni and we were so excited to be there, and Susanna Hood was Zooming in from Montreal. Of course, we [Sara and I] had to wear our masks and keep our distance, and then there’s Susanna in Montréal on Zoom who’s not wearing a mask but is feeling really left out and out of synch with everything that’s going on in the room so it was like “oh my god, this is worse.” Anything in a group of three or more is a nightmare, especially if we’re not on the same platform — it’s just really weird. Where I’m at right now, I think I’m going to hit a [plateau] after another one to two weeks of work with my close, intimate collaborators. And it’s very specific to this piece; there’s no digital version of this piece, the whole point of this work is that it’s a live choir — the liveness is the thing. There’s no pivot; the pivot is a vaccine, and that’s ok! In an ideal world, in the fall a year from now things will be safe enough to work in the space together and we can really start to put the piece’s flesh and bones into a space.

TJ: Your piece, Bear Witness, offers commentary on the concept of the body holding trauma and the importance of coming together to recognize embodied trauma, which is always important but feels so relevant right now. On one hand, we’re experiencing trauma and grief collectively, but we’re also being exposed to the ways COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown is impacting certain communities disproportionately — bearing witness to those injustices. From your research and reflection, can you offer any insight on how we can begin to release or recognize the trauma that might be stuck in our bodies right now?

JT: In a way, my privilege is that because I don’t live in a threatening home environment, it’s allowed my relationship with myself to be investigated. I have time and I have solitude in ways I never did — not everybody’s Covid experience is like that, it may be the opposite. So I can only speak for myself, Covid has really exponentially increased my time in nature. I seek out nature on a daily basis; on a trail by myself, by a lake, on the beach, and be one-on-one with myself. And it can be something as simple as that, just spending time on your own in nature as much as you can is something that does have a direct effect on your body.

Our relationship with our bodies becomes heightened when our schedule shifts or when we have a lot of time to just embrace that. When we’re more in our daily grind, whatever your pre-Covid routine was, I feel like when there’s a shift in your routine, it shifts your awareness. One of the shifts that my own awareness has brought, it’s like “god, I’m so hard on myself.” I think people are very hard on themselves in many different ways and it can be a destructive pattern when you’re in a routine that doesn’t allow you to stop or ever reflect on that. So there are situations that might be violent or traumatic from an outside point of view, but I’ve never had so much time to reflect on how hard I can be on myself, which is just another one of those societal pressures that I feel like people can be caught in. Depending on your situation with Covid, maybe if you can shift your routine, you can shift your awareness and jostle those destructive patterns of thought that you can get immune to.

Jennifer Tarver, Sarah Porter, and Susanna Hood in the Franco Boni Theatre (Photo by Kyle Purcell)

learning, unlearning

“In the midst of an overdose crisis and a housing emergency, a pandemic happened. As overcrowded shelters became incubators for the virus, people started pitching tents instead. Spend some time inside the encampments that sprung up because of the City of Toronto’s inaction. Each episode draws on one of the four elements—earth, water, wind and fire—to talk about encampment life, local histories and the creative ways residents are making a home in one of the most expensive cities in the world.”

Listen to the first episode of the Encampment Support Network‘s We Are Not The Virus on AppleSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.