The Endurance Project with Gwendolyn Schwinke and Maya Gurantz
March 1, 2022 | Kristen Chavez
Assistant Professor Gwendolyn Schwinke and artist Maya Gurantz discuss their latest collaboration, The Endurance Project.
A Work-In-Progress showing of The Endurance Project was open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 5:00-6:30 p.m. in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Arts, Room 102, UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and Friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I speak with Assistant Professor of Dramatic Art Gwendolyn Schwinke and performance artist Maya Gurantz. In our conversation, we discuss early collaborations and their current work on The Endurance Project. A Work in Progress showing will be open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Joan Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, Room 102. People are invited to arrive as early as 4:30 to listen to the audio installation.
If you guys could just introduce yourselves in terms of — Gwendolyn you as a professor at UNC, Maya you as an artist. Just a little bit of intro and then we’ll get into what you guys are doing together. Does that sound okay?
Gwendolyn Schwinke: So, I’m Gwendolyn Schwinke and I’m an assistant professor in the Department of Dramatic Arts. And I’m also a resident vocal coach for PlayMakers Rep and an actor and director and mostly a vocal coach, but I’m excited to work with Maya on this project and return to devised performance.
Maya Gurantz: Yeah, I was about to say and a deviser and an artist. My name is Maya Gurantz. I am an artist in the video and performance and installation. And I live in LA but a longtime fan of the Triangle, so I get out here whenever I can.
PH: Great. I guess my first question is… what did you say… Gwendolyn, can you say what, what was that term you used? Oh, man, I missed it. I was gonna ask about it.
PH: Devised, yeah. Can you, can you talk more about that?
GS: That’s a great question. We both can talk more about that.
GS: So, devised theatre is a term that might mean different things to different people. But the way that I think of it is theater, that’s, you know… or maybe it’s not even theatre, maybe it’s a kind of performance or performance art project anywhere on that continuum. But it’s something that is made live in the room through improvisation, experimentation, in our case, also discussion. And then after that, it may be written into a script, or it may never be written down. But it’s created not script-first then learned. It’s always created from improvisation from the ground up.
PH: So, what’s inspirational, what draws you to that approach? If either one of you want to answer that.
MG: It’s interesting, because the first decade that I was an artist, I was a theater director and I was an experimental theater director. And I found the structure of plays always really boring, which is maybe why I stopped being a theater director. But I always, when you’re, when one is devising work, and this is just I found personally — don’t offend any playwrights out there — when one is devising work, you’re not beholden to the structures of a play. I feel like you can get more into ideas that you’re exploring. There’s a lot more room for abstraction. There’s a lot more room for things that don’t make sense for surrealism. For… what one of my professors who’s a dancer and filmmaker called “radical juxtaposition”, where you get to put things together that might not go together and might be surprising. And there’s also in the invention and inventiveness that happens. Yet, you can surprise yourself. You can find things that, I think if you’re just trying to make a play come to life, might not happen.
GS: And for me as a theater person and sometimes a playwright, I find that devising is – is super fun and rewarding, because it lets me engage both the playwright side of my brain and the actor side of my brain at the same time. So that I’m not as much in my head as I am when I’m writing a play, but I get to, you know, fire on all cylinders and use my – my planning side even more than I do as an actor.
MG: I think there’s also something that is really applicable to us working in that when you’re devising, your body is writing some of the events that’s happening. The instincts of your body and your voice or – or the author as opposed to like the brain through language, becoming the author. Action becoming part of the author. And I think that that’s really applicable to the performance work that I’ve come to do outside of theaters since I’ve left the theater.
PH: Great. Thanks for that. That’s… I feel like I’m also devising.
PH: I like to do that with these podcasts because I don’t, I try not to prepare — like over prepare. And some people like that. I’ve had experience with people like, “are you gonna like, send me all the questions you’re gonna ask?” And I’m like, “not really”. But, I appreciate you guys being open to going with it and just being in the moment because that I mean, that’s what I’m trying to do with this — to be conversational. I don’t want it to be too, you know, rehearsed so that when I’m talking to the two of you, I’m not thinking of my next question necessarily. Or the one I’ve got written down, you know, I’m just listening to what you guys are saying. That’s a long way to ask, how did you two meet? And – and yeah, tell me a little bit about how you got connected. And then we’ll go into what project you’re working on now.
MG: Well, two years ago, I was a resident at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte. And I — there’s a longtime project that I’ve been working on… there’s a final film that I wanted to shoot. And somehow in Charlotte, it all came together. We found this amazing location, this amazing cinematographer. And I needed an actor to play my mother. And I’m like looking at actors all over and I saw Gwendolyn’s photo, and I was like, “oh, she could like… somebody could – could put that together, could believe that”. And I wrote to her and she came and acted for me in Gastonia. She took this amazing chance and was so incredible and we started talking, and the idea for this project came up. And then COVID just shut everything down [laughs]. So we’ve been waiting to get back together for you know, two years actually.
GS: And I suspect as you were looking at different actors and you not only saw that I was the right age to play your mother — and we do look a tiny bit alike people tell us all the time — but, once she looked at my bio she saw I’d done all this weird stuff.
GS: Like, that’s my type of person.
MG: 100%. Yeah. [laughs]
GS: Yeah. And then my, from my side I you know, I get this email from somebody out of the blue that says “would you like to do a project?” And a lot of actors get those emails and sometimes… sometimes they’re not the ones you want to follow up on. But you know, I Googled Maya right away and could tell she was the real deal and did some work that I was really excited about. So, I jumped at the chance to work on this project with her.
PH: That’s awesome. So you said weird stuff. What is some of that weird stuff that you mentioned?
MG: I mean, it’s true. It’s like you could, you could just — Oh, you are, you are my creature, you are from the same world [laughs].
GS: Yeah, so I, you know, I do have a career as an actor and a voice coach and sometimes playwright and director. But for about 10 years when I lived in Minneapolis, you know, which is a thriving city with a lot of the arts — it was a really great time to live there. And there were ways in which a lot of folks from the theater were crossing over into performance art and working with visual artists, and storytellers were all part of this mix. And there were, there were a lot of opportunities. And so I started to take advantage of some of those doing solo shows doing, you know, evenings of local artists as produced by Walker Art Center and other art centers in the Twin Cities. And you know, I have one piece that uses puppets and fire and another – another piece that’s about feminism and being a cater-waiter and it uses garbage and food. Another — the piece probably that was sort of my signature piece that I did the most — was called Stock Tank. And so I grew up on a farm… it’s kind of a long story but the pieces, the pieces have a bit of an exploration of my personal history and questions of death and violence in my, in my ancestry and my heritage. And it uses as a prop this giant stock tank, which is one of those big silver things that you water cows with.
PH: Oh, yeah, yeah.
GS: So when I was living in an apartment and I had this like 6-foot stock tank stored in my storage room. It was the only thing in my storage room, but it was… yeah, so that was the kind of weird stuff that I did.
PH: I like it. I enjoy it. Yeah, that’s awesome. Um, so I guess we’ll get to it. Like so what’s the… I invited you on and you know, we reached out regarding this collaboration y’all are doing so yeah, talk about it. What are you working on right now, the two of you?
MG: So when I first I made the transition into, I guess what would now be called like visual art or contemporary art and moved away from theater, one of the first pieces that I did was called Endurance Performance Proposition: Birth of a Nation. Endurance performance propositions are these movement scores. In the same way that that music has scores, there’s also a tradition of performance scores. Where instead of playing the notes, you’re playing certain actions. And… in this first score that I did when I was first making this transition, I took the chase scene from The Birth of a Nation, which is the first blockbuster film of all time — it’s the Star Wars of 1916. It’s also about the founding of the Klan as a heroic thing. So it’s this really problematic and important document in American cinematic history. Because it both set the rules for pretty much everything we know of as film, in the service of this white supremacist Fantasia.
There’s a famous scene in it where little Flora — it’s this little white girl — gets chased by Gus, who’s a farm worker and mulatto, and she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. And it instigates the founding of the KKK. It is one of the most famously repugnant scenes of all time. It is also cinematically the template of every chase scene you or I or Gwendolyn or anybody ever who’s listening to this has ever seen in terms of the editing, the rhythm of the editing. So we know the scene in our DNA as viewers. We’ve seen it a million times, we’ll see it tomorrow. It is all based on the scene and I thought, God, to have that in our DNA as viewers, how do we get it out? And so what I did is I taped the film frame to the floor and I taught the 66 edits to six dancers. And we performed it until — trading roles each time playing Flora and then Gus on each iteration — until we physically no longer can. Which… in the longest performance I did, we did it for like four hours.
MG: Where it’s like this exorcism of this scene and this acknowledgement that history and how we see history through culture, lives in our bodies. It doesn’t just, we don’t just see it, it resides in us. And that was the first one that I did. And then over the years, I’ve done more of them. And I did one about Lenny Bruce: Live at Carnegie Hall, which is this famous standup show from 1961. I recently did a new one that’s about Britney Spears and her Instagram dances that I just did for the first time that I think we’ll be re-performing.
And I was telling Gwendolyn about these because it’s really been on my mind and it was on my mind in 2020, like wanting to restage these. And so we started thinking about me coming out and restaging some of them and also making new ones together. And sort of working in this way — finding these artifacts that have this kind of cultural importance. Some of which we know, some of which we don’t know or we don’t even know that we know them. You know what I mean? They’re in us whether we know it or not. And then finding ways to do these performances that… that reveal the sort of impact of all of this information that, that is in these cultural artifacts. So that’s what we’re working on. We’re working on these endurance performances.
GS: And we should also say that when Maya and I’m met a couple years ago in Charlotte and had this idea that we’d like to work together sometime, the opportunity to do that came up when the Institute for Arts and Humanities put out a call for new faculty collaboration grants. And so I thought, Oh, that’s, that’s the opportunity that can make this possible. So we have a third collaborator named Charlene — Dr. Charlene Regester, who teaches at UNC — and she is functioning really as a sort of consultant for us. Yeah and has offered us some of her knowledge of, her vast knowledge of film and the way folks are portrayed in film.
MG: And particularly early 20th century representations of African American film or African American representations on film.
PH: Right. What, what do you find is one of the challenges when you’re interpreting something that’s like, on film, you know, as you mentioned there’s these like cuts and edits and things, then translating that into a performance?
MG: Well, it-
PH: Go ahead, I’m sorry,
MG: Interpretation in devised theaters is really helpful. Because a lot of the rules that you know, like you can’t do that or how do you do that? really don’t apply, you just do it. One of the pieces that I have, one of the scores is called Fade to Black, where we take the final moment of a play right before the fade to black — the moment where everything was resolved and you know where this landed and it’s done and you’re about to applaud — and we use the sunset as the fade to black. So this moment that normally is like three seconds and do it for like 40 minutes and see what happens with that. When… we did Birth of a Nation, one of the things that’s amazing is that because of the edits and the cuts, people — the performers — have to be where they’re going to be for the next cut. And you start understanding a lot of his editing tricks. Where there’s… a huge like erotics in the scene where he’s constantly cutting the two bodies so that they are on top of each other in the same place on the screen. And you can’t even really know that or understand what he’s doing until their bodies reenacting it. That’s like, oh my god, like he’s constantly putting the bodies in the same place. So I feel like with all of these, and some of it, it’s hard. Like the artifact that Gwendolyn and I have been thinking about a lot is that there’s this accent of American English, called the Standard American accent.
PH: Yeah, okay. Yeah.
MG: It’s an entirely invented accent. From the turn of the 20th century. It was started by this phonetician named Dr. William Tilly — who studied with Dr. Henry Sweet who was the basis of Pygmalion of My Fair Lady, you know, The Rain in Spain — like he studied with that guy. And then he came to the States and started, sort of invented and taught this Standard American accent that was like good speech. And he had all of these protégées — it was like a cult — like, all the protégées became like, major voice teachers like Edith Skinner, like all of these. So this, this invented accent, somehow became the way that everyone in the middle of the 20th century spoke on film; radio announcers, TV announcers, they all spoke in this invented accent. And it was used as a tool. One of the things we’ve been learning in our research, a lot of William Tilly’s students were like, New York public school teachers who were trying to assimilate these hordes of immigrant students and make them speak properly. So it’s a really complicated artifact. And one of the things we’re thinking about is like, what do we do with it? How do we re-perform it? How do we use it? so that it can… so that it can do those things? And… that’s totally the challenge, like Yeah, how do you do it? Yeah, that’s the question.
PH: Thanks for sharing that. That’s really fascinating. And I guess, I guess that standard, I guess, that coincided too with, you know, that proliferation of like mass media with like radio or whatever. So-
MG: Yes, right?
PH: It was good timing. Because what-
MG: The proliferation of radio and of the use of the telephone. So one of the texts that is still used as a diagnostic text for speech is called The Rainbow Passage. And we’ve learned that it was created by Bell Labs, as they were trying to like, test how they were going to have sound communicate over the airwaves.
PH: Wow. Okay. Yeah.
GS: Something that I think is really interesting about this accent is… so sometimes you hear it called the Mid-Atlantic accent.
GS: In its most extreme form. And that refers to not the area in the Northeast US that is close to the Atlantic Ocean but a little bit further in. What it does refer to is this accent that was supposed to sound as if it were halfway between America and Britain.
PH: Oh yeah, okay.
GS: What the way that Tilly was thinking of this accent was he wanted to find a way to fix speech. So that partly, I think his notion was that people from different areas could understand each other. But I also think there were aspirational qualities to it. And as Maya mentioned, it was taught in public schools and, or taught at least to teachers who taught public schools and then they likely use it. But the, the one place that has held onto it longer than anything else is the American theater.
GS: But you know, as a voice teacher myself, I’m not, I’m not a fan of standardization. Because I think as soon as you say something is the standard, then anyone who doesn’t have that accent is below the standard, or off the standard. And as Maya pointed out, it was completely invented. So [laughs] what’s the point? You know, I think a lot of folks have sort of chased their tail for years trying to live up to this invented standard. Especially for classical text. And most, a lot of people in the theater are letting it go now and there’s still some people that see some virtue to it.
PH: Well, I appreciate that because it really speaks to me as someone who grew up in like a tobacco farming town of North Carolina. And was always told that you weren’t saying it quite right or something. Yeah, that’s awesome. So I have one more question, if that’s okay?
PH: And this is a question we ask all our guests. What’s a book that changed your life?
MG: That’s not fair.
MG: There are so many.
PH: Yeah, well remember, it’s not the book. It’s a book.
GS: So while you’re thinking I can, I can-
PH: Yeah, that’s great.
GS: I can think of a number of them. And this is maybe a predictable answer, but one is Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater-
GS: who was my teacher. Who was one of a handful of people that really revolutionized voice and speech training away from this, there’s a right way to do it, into a more personal imagistic free — as she says in the title of the book — freeing your own natural voice instead of adopting some kind of outside standard. And another book that changed my life was The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. I said his name wrong, Timothy Gallwey. It’s just, it’s just a remarkable book about the differences between awareness and judgment which is so essential for any performer, I think.
PH: Oh yeah?
MG: So I thought of one. First of all, I would like to say… so when I was 16 and I spent the summer working at the La Jolla Playhouse, which is this big regional repertory theater in San Diego where I grew up. One of the MFA actors, as a sort of end of the season gift, gave me a copy of The Inner Game of Tennis.
PH: Oh, nice.
MG: The best acting book that exists. But the book that, that I’m going to talk about is called New World Borders. And it’s by Guillermo Gómez-Peña who’s a performance artist. And there was a way that he was using performance, to… so in the book, he talks about how borders are just arbitrarily drawn. There’s no such thing as a border. And it’s a book that gets into all of these performance pieces that are the ways in which he challenges, undermines, rewrites ideas of border. And it’s sort of a biography of his work. And when I read it… the sort of ways that he was using performance to do these conceptual acts – like he has this one piece that he did for a while that was about, he would cross the border in all of these crazy performance persona. And if they didn’t let him cross the border in that persona, he’d get rid of it. Like he was trying to create these series of persona that were like border warriors, that were border crossers. And I mean, it doesn’t surprise me that like, that appealed to me so much, this idea that art was this place and performance was a place where the performance is the act. It’s the conceptual act in doing it, you’re actually getting to this idea. And yeah, after that, I’m amazed that I kept doing plays for as long as I did. I should have known like, it was clear that that was like, Oh, that just lit me up so much.
PH: That’s great. Well, thanks for sharing that. And Gwendolyn and Maya thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. It was really, it was a joy to hear, hear about what you’re working on and what inspires you to do your thing.
MG: Great. Thank you so much for having us.
GS: You’re really welcome Philip. Thank you.
PH: Once again, Work in Progress showing of The Endurance Project will be open to the public on Saturday, February 26 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Joan Gillings Center for the Dramatic Arts, Room 102 on UNC’s campus. People are invited to arrive as early as 4:30 to listen to the audio installation. Check back at iah.unc.edu for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can also find all our episodes of the podcast on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at iah_unc.
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