The Open Choir

 

Since its foundation in 1986, the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards has been a base for research into the actor's craft, and what the world-renown theatre practitioner and researcher, Jerzy Grotowski, referred to as Art as vehicle: the actor's work on him/herself. The current work of the Open Program (one of the two teams active at the Workcenter) is seeking to bridge this research to wider social realities. Seeking to discover the nucleus of theatre, the moment of true contact between human beings, we ask: what else can the shared work of this art be a vehicle for? What are its intrinsic and social potentialities? For 29 years, the Workcenter's praxis and research has been articulated from the practical basis of a research on ancient songs of the African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Since 2007, the Open Program, a team of international performers directed by Mario Biagini, has been tracing a new branch of this research. They are exploring and developing old African-American songs of the U.S. South, which arise from within the dismal legacy of slavery as vehicles for remembering, healing, and nourishing the indestructible strength, dignity, resilience, and creativity of the human spirit.

 

The two Workcenter teams are often invited to prestigious institutions worldwide for residency programs that combine performative presentations and practical pedagogy. At a 2013 residency at Yale, the Open Program team encountered several African-American communities in New Haven, with whom these old songs catalyzed powerful, living ways of communal meeting and contact. Deeply moved by this encounter, Biagini determined to further pursue the possibilities of meeting with various communities in the U.S. Thus, in the winter of 2014 the Open Program launched a completely self-produced two-month program of performances, workshops, and meetings in NYC.

Open Choir sessions were initiated at West Park Presbyterian Church: weekly meetings, open to all, where people can explore the work on songs by direct participation. A Seed Group then grew out of this larger, more fluid group, as an ensemble of NYC-based individuals who desired to continue exploring this effort together. The Open Program also had the opportunity to meet, perform, and sing with various communities in the city: with especially meaningful encounters with the African-American and Nigerian congregations of the Church of St. Augustine Our Lady of Victory in the Bronx, where they performed their newest piece, The Hidden Sayings, and met and sang with the African-American Choir during rehearsals and even during their Sunday service. These fruitful meetings and experiences of the winter project, dubbed the Workcenter/America NYC Adventure, in turn gave birth to a new, powerful, and ambitious dream, currently called the NYC Revival Dream 

The Open Choir is an exploration of what we consider a forgotten art form, which allows for fluid and active participation by all who attend.  It is a free, open even that questions are assumptions about community, belonging, identity, diversity, cultural appropriation, and performance.  This unique, non-sectarian dynamic meeting of people through songs of the African diaspora, carefully led by a trained, core group of artists, allows people to come in contact with each other and with themselves through sons, dance, and interaction within a participatory performative context.  Participants, coming from different backgrounds, co-create an artwork beyond cultural differences, catalyzing a shared space of meaningful recognition and interaction.

This new/old performative art disrupts the common western notion of a choir.  Within the Open Choir, songs begin around the participants.  People are faced with choices: to witness, to move into the space of action, to follow remaining to the side; to find their own way to be present and support the work of the others.  The songs themselves, their rhythms and melodies help to initiate engagement.  The effect of the event encircles everyone in attendance, while the core group aids participants by articulating the space and leading the songs, actively building the evening together in present time.

 

This project has been in development since 2013 operating both in New York and Florida.