With a think-tank approach and a cohort of students from the visual and performing arts, Brown/RISD CoLAB, a new summer institute, gives students the tools and freedom to experiment with new forms of theatre and performance.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — At the end of a new summer institute called Brown/RISD CoLAB: Innovations in Performance Practice, 15 students from Brown, Rhode Island School of Design and other institutions gathered in T.F. Green Hall to perform the works they had developed in collaborative sessions over the span of three research-intensive weeks. But rather than present finished performances, the students performed their still-evolving pieces for the audience, a decision that reflects the Brown/RISD CoLAB ethos of experimentation and discovery over presentation.

During their time at Brown, the students were asked to focus not on what they already know, or on a polished final product to deliver at the end of the institute, but on the process of breaking new ground, said Jane South, an assistant professor of film/animation/video at RISD. South co-directs Brown/RISD CoLAB with Kym Moore, associate professor of theatre arts and performance studies at Brown.

“Students are often focused on the final product, and that’s not the best way to learn one’s craft,” Moore said. “You can’t get to a new place and can’t innovate anything if you’re just busy trying to recreate a show that sold out on Broadway.”

While students naturally bring their own discipline and approaches to the institute, South said, CoLAB’s intensely collaborative atmosphere continually challenged them to find intersections with methodologies common to their peers’ work in other academic departments.

Because this can be a tricky feat, Moore and South — who created the CoLAB structure together over the past year — provided the students with a five-point philosophical framework emphasizing collaboration, work as process, discipline, presence/attention and curiosity. They added to that training in movement, sound, lighting, set design, performance theory and practice, and the history and evolution of theatre.

Students and community members were also invited to presentations by visiting scholars including performance scholar Amelia Jones, performance artist Narcissister, theatre projection designer Wendall Harrington and performance scholar Jennifer Parker-Starbuck.

And because Moore is a practitioner and researcher of the theatre while South is a visual artist with a background in set design in experimental theatre, the two constantly modeled both sharing responsibility and ways of communicating across disciplinary boundaries.

“Students were seeing a collaborative model in place every day,” Moore said, both through the co-directors’ work and by working with Gob Squad, a group of German and British artists who have worked collaboratively on the concept, direction and performance of their live theatre for over 20 years, as well as with Third Space Laboratory Theatre, a newer company whose members were working through some of the thornier questions of collaboration.

Those questions, Moore said, include, “How might one develop listening skills and foster the ability to be generous and supportive? How can you develop a collective voice and then make sure everyone in the group is participating?”

Moving from asking to doing “is actually painful,” Moore added. “How do I let go of my idea, or if I really believe in my idea but the group doesn’t like it, what do I do?”

Midori Cassou, a rising senior at Brown who is studying theatre arts and performance studies and has experience acting and directing, said that learning how to work with other artists opened up her approach to starting a new piece.

Cassou worked with one of the five-person teams that organized themselves organically to create collaborative devised works in the final weeks of the institute. Her group’s project, she said, transformed dramatically from one week to the next. It focused on “how we can and can’t control consumption, how we deal with this,” and looked specifically at overeating and consuming via the internet.

“There’s very little hierarchical structure in the decision-making,” Cassou said, unlike the traditional protocol when a director is in charge. And having two weeks to devise a performance, she added, doesn’t allow for a drawn-out decision-making process. “Everything we do… happens in a way we could never expect,” she said, speaking on the day before the works in progress were to be presented for the penultimate time to an invited group of guests and producers.

Guests who viewed the students’ 20-minute performances were invited not just to consume the performances, but to contribute to the participants’ developing practices. Each audience member received a list of questions and was asked to provide extensive feedback to the performers. After that, students had one day to reevaluate their works before performing another iteration for the CoLAB group to close out the program.

The end of the institute, however, did not mark the end of the process. Instead, the focus on process marked “the end” as a beginning, Moore said.

“With how personal a lot of the work is… all of our practices have been changed and affected here,” Cassou said, adding that she felt confident the artistic and collaborative relationships formed at CoLAB would continue beyond the program.

South and Moore plan to follow up with the CoLAB participants in six months to find out how the program affected their work and practice and to help inform changes to next year’s institute. Overall, Moore said, CoLAB offers something unique not just to students from Brown, RISD and other schools, but to the broader field.

Locally, Moore said, Brown and RISD students can become focused on being “titans of the visual art and academic world and trying to be the best,” but CoLAB offers the chance to “get dirty, make a mess and to explore the potential for other possibilities. All great art needs to incubate, needs a place to fail.”