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Visit from Tectonic: An Inside Look Into the Devising Process of 33 Variations

posted on September 26th, 2018 by Philip Merrick

Two weeks ago, Grant Varjas, a teaching artist with the award-winning Tectonic Theater Project, visited the JKB. Varjas lead the Skidmore cast of 33 Variations in a workshop centered around Tectonic’s “moment work” method of theatrical devising. Cast member Spencer Evett ’21 gives us an inside look at his experience in the workshop.

During his visit, Grant taught us Tectonic Theater Project’s devised theater method called “moment work.” Simply put, a “moment” is a theatrical unit of time during which something happens. An actor states “I begin,” does something, then states, “I end.” Grant first had us do “gesture moments,” meaning we did any gesture at all between our beginning and ending. With these, he emphasized the importance of the placement of the boundaries of a moment. Saying “I end” while your arm is in motion tells a very different story than saying it when your arm is still. We then did what he called “architecture moments,” in which we explored the space we occupied, and how our bodies could relate to that space. Through these moments, we both told a story with our bodies, and learned something new about the space.

I found all of the moments to be an effective way to improvise and let my creative juices take control. Simply stating “I begin” put me into a state of readiness and openness. I listened to my impulses and didn’t censor myself. Anything was possible and everything was correct. That atmosphere was in the room thanks to Grant, who brought consistent positivity and acceptance to our work. Every time one of us completed a moment, he validated it and mined something meaningful out of it. Interpreting the moments in this way was how Tectonic laid the foundation for 33 Variations. Some of the scenes in the play came directly from moments that happened early on in the multi-year devising process.

While Tectonic used moments to create the original piece, we used moments to explore our characters and the world of the play. For instance, my character has a first date scene in which my scene partner and I narrate our inner monologues. We tried acting that first date without saying the dialogue, which perfectly captured the discomfort and awkwardness we needed to find when playing this scene. That moment was actually quite similar to one that Grant did while devising the piece—one that ended up informing that first date scene. It was a treat to work that scene with the person that devised it.

Beyond the moment work, we got so much information about the play from working with Grant. Learning of the choices Tectonic made during the creation of the piece from a first-hand account helped us better understand what the play is trying to accomplish. Having Grant in the room was invaluable. Due to his endless bank of information on the play, and the moment work he guided us through, we made huge strides in the rehearsal process in just a few days. Grant’s visit was a terrific experience for me personally, and for the whole cast and crew of 33 Variations. Thank you, Grant!

Video by Hanna Yurfest ’21 and Dante Haughton ’19


Spencer Evett is a cast member of 33 Variations.

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