A Conversation with Joan Gavaler
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Today we sat down to talk with Joan Gavaler, Co-Artistic Director of Aura CuriAtlas. She started the company with Dan Plehal in 2013 and has delighted in creating and sharing new ideas with many different audiences. She is also a Professor of Dance at the College of William & Mary in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance.
Norah: You have worked in many different spheres of performance. What is it about physical theatre that speaks to you, and why do you think a strong grasp of physical theatre is important for performers?
Joan: What I appreciate about physical theatre is how much can be communicated through an immediate visceral experience; performances that are felt rather than only being talked about; performances that don’t depend on words. Performers who understand how to start from their bodies and their kinesthetic sense can connect to audiences in honest and authentic ways. I find that to be a rewarding way to work.
Norah: What are the biggest challenges that come with teaching physical theatre?
Joan: Performers need opportunities to learn to trust themselves and their own impulses and then to also trust others. Within the collaborative process, we learn to give up quite a bit of individual control while having the goal of shaping a piece that everyone can be proud of. Taking risks and being curious to try many different things without being overly concerned about what is going work is important too.
Norah: Do you have any memorable experiences from the most recent performances?
Joan: At the Kimball last April, we had nine performers - our largest group ever! The five guests who joined Mickey, Fiona, Carlos, and me didn’t know each other before this show. It was wonderful to watch the group appreciate one another’s strengths while taking on new challenges themselves. John and Marissa were new to the acting required for Seats, but they liked to warm up with a little hand-to-hand; Sophia has danced for many years, but learned to combine dance with acrobatics to perform Stack & Re-Stack; Jessica, with her beautiful ballet lines, made it possible for her and Mickey to bring an older piece – Pardon – back to the stage; and Wes, an actor and acrobat, accepted the challenge of learning a different style of acrobatics for A Life With No Limits. They were such a marvelous cast!
Norah: Where do you draw inspiration for your shows? What is the collaborative process like?
Joan: Inspiration might come from an image, a situation, a movement. For example, the image of being in a line, packed tightly together was the start of our crayon piece, the situation of two passengers and one broken bus seat inspired another story, and the swinging movement of the metal balls in a Newton’s cradle inspired a third piece. We have a longer work inspired by Stephen Hawking’s discoveries. Some parts of that story were influenced by situations in daily life, other parts were inspired by the image of the physics in his mind coming to life on the stage, and still others involved finding ways to translate quantum physics concepts into abstract movement.
The collaborative process can take a very circuitous route. We might play with many different movements, choose some favorite fragments, discover connections between elements as we start to create a structure, then re-arrange those connections to make the idea more coherent. Because we come together to work every 4 to 6 weeks for a long weekend, there is valuable time between rehearsals to process our ideas and develop them further. Dan and I come from backgrounds in theatre direction and dance choreography. Sometimes we improve the movement composition on the way to making a clearer story, and sometimes we clarify the characters’ intentions on the way to making clearer movement. I think those shifting perspectives help the works become stronger over time.