Writing the Body with Davey Calderon


It seems like only yesterday that Kathleen Flaherty interviewed (then Intern now Dramaturg, Public Engagement) Davey Calderon about the processes he uses to develop his own physically focused work.  Since then, Kathleen has largely stepped away from the day-to-day to allow her to dig into the philosophy and theory of dramaturgy. One of Kathleen’s latest curiosities concerns methods of documenting all types of theatrical experiments, particularly when they are improvised, and a few chance words from Davey sparked this conversation about how he keeps track of what his body does as he devises new work through exercises and improvisations.


KF:  I know there are systems to record choreography and to record blocking, but what are some of the ways that you document improvisation and devising work?

DC:  When I first started doing a lot of devised experimentation work, the documentation of it was not even secondary, it was literally an afterthought, it was like, “Oh this would be interesting to document later.” After a couple of sessions of journaling after sessions, [I decided] it was not really effective – there was too much space between the experimentation and the reflection on it. I think it was about the time I started getting tools through doing clowning work with David McMurray Smith. His clowning is all about embodied kinesthetic work, which not only builds your somatic responses but also expands your overall spatial and imaginary awareness. I was trying to figure out a way, besides journaling, to document that. I was thinking, “I have a lot of tools. How do I adapt them to make them mine?” And I think it’s actually through the internship at PTC that I decided to try and videotape myself doing these experiments with tight parameters – I call them “parameter questions”. I would video myself; I would watch the tape; I would transcribe it. The next step, because it was part of [the] creation process, was parsing out what was actually useful into a script and allowing that to be how the play unfolded. So, I did a lot of that using video and audio recording, (because sometimes the video failed) (laughs) and then I would transcribe it… oh, it was a lot of work!  It was actually through Melanie’s [Yeats] help, it became Big Queer Filipino Karaoke Night in 2018 when I got a grant and took those transcription notes and merged them with karaoke and a drag idea. Melanie helped me through my residency and, with support from Neworld Theatre, we would record me, play back, and record it again making it more succinct. Just to have all those files and to see what was the first impulse, the raw thing, and then how it was being edited in my body is a mad science, I find, but it’s been working for me.

KF:  One of the biggest challenges in this are the discipline of actually transcribing it (laughs). What do you think are the biggest challenges in deciding what’s good and what isn’t good?

DC:  The challenges I find are, first, separating my own personal attachments to something. Once that’s been… not cleared out because that’s always going to be there…, trying to figure out, in the case of BQFKN, what served the story. Certain details I would describe weren’t relevant, they weren’t worth building on. But there were other details I would describe that I would hear from inside myself, “Oh, there’s actually some symbolism to this moment.” Say, a mango tree I saw. In other stories I was tracking, the mango tree kept popping up. So I realized there was a significant arc to that tree. That’s just an example – I didn’t find that. But I would see something and “oh, right!” I’d just start mapping out how it happened. It was mostly sticky notes and writing down the details in the story that were salient points of a scene, very important in order to move the scene overall and the show overall.

KF:  You have talked about how you annotated the physicality of your performance on the page. Can you describe that?

DC: It was closer to annotating dance, particularly from the Judson Church era in NY, the 60s and 70s. I use a lot of physical action to support the narrative. One of the things that Melanie reminded me of was this idea of connecting the story with gesture. It’s coming from Grotowski’s work that says emotion lives in the body and, through the movement of the body, something gets released. It’s only if you catch it, track it, that you can use it to transform what’s being told. It’s hard doing that alone. (laughs) Having either or both Melanie and the camera as the outside eye allowed me to catch the physicality that I naturally was doing. It was my body responding to what I was saying. I was able to write things like, “My hands opened up symmetrically to a point when I talked about my grandmother being the best host in the world.” I would note those things down in the journaling and we would do it again, keeping the gesture because there’s something in it, while making the details of the story more succinct. It was basically trying to connect the text to what the body was actually doing. A lot of my training is debunking the very cerebral space acting that divorces your body from what is being said. Documenting those gestures from the beginning was really important to the end product. It’s also how I work with other artists, helping them track the physical gestures that are happening naturally and seeing if there is additional material in them for the show they are creating. Both experimental physical theatre and the most naturalistic theatre have elements of this choreography that normally isn’t written down.

KF: How do you actually write it down?  Have you been developing any shorthand for writing down these gestures so you can repeat them?

DC:  I think I naturally did this. Even in the era of experimentation in dance, artists like Merce Cunningham created notation that was visual. There was some shorthand like Laban. [and Benesh Movement Notation]. Honestly, I just abbreviate things. Hand, arm, moving through space. I do adopt sometimes horribly drawn stick figures. I use a combination of the written description and the figures in the documentation. Just to remind myself.

Merce Cunningham annotation photo depicting handwritten notes and gestures with stick figures to document the theatre creation process

A Merce Cunningham annotation


KF:  Have you considered developing your shorthand into a repeatable notation? 

DC:  Honestly, I haven’t thought about that. I just thought it was a useful tool for me and for my collaborators.

KF:   I’m wondering if there is potential for exploration of something systematic.

DC:  Many different performing art forms have created their own languages and systems for evoking the forms. For example, a lot of my training comes from Grotowski, who has very specific language for the forms being used. As does yoga. No one in theatre really has created the systems of how that gets documented. And because I come from such an eclectic background of training; it’s been a bit of a fusion of those things for me. The closest thing I’ve experienced that I have incorporated to a certain extent is what I’ve learned from contemporary dance history. That kind of stick figure line work that [Merce] Cunningham did. It’s just to prompt me.

KF:  “What did I do? Can I do it again?”

DC:  Exactly. And I have better technology that Cunningham didn’t have as much access to. It was expensive to develop the film [back then]. Besides the films that were made of performances, the choreography was all on paper. His annotations were the only way he could describe the choreography as quickly as possible.

KF:  So you reach out your right arm and spread your fingers, is it at the level of your chest or your head? Does it make a difference? I assume so.

DC:  A lot of my training in Grotowski, it’s very specific how the forms are expressed. For example, by doing that, you create a concave with your chest, which is a part of [what’s called ]the Vulnerable Diamonds, [physical forms from Grotowski teacher, Linda Putnam] evoking vulnerability. Same with, say, exposing your palms or exposing your elbows, two more vulnerabilities. In the mechanics of doing that form, you open up your sternum, it opens up your shoulder, your palms, in that full exposure moment, you’ve created a form of vulnerability. I’ve been through the type of training where you mentally track those things, almost like an oral history; I’ve been taught how to track that and how to replicate it and be rigorous about it, because it’s very important. For example, there’s a lot of rigour in yoga. The modernized theatricality of yoga, as Grotowski was attempting, hasn’t been well documented. I think the only thing that’s come closest is what Stephen Wangh did in Acrobat of the Heart. And through another American artist who learned from Grotowski, Linda Putnam, and her fusion of that and Sufiism.  It’s been interesting to learn from them but even from the texts that they’ve imparted to us there still isn’t much of a vocabulary.

Movement annotations for dramaturgy of another artist, from Davey’s notebook.

KF:  Do you think these gestures sometimes are culturally specific in terms of their interpretation?

DC:  I do acknowledge that a lot of the training that I’ve received is Eurocentric. Jerzy Grotowski is an artist from Poland who explored Asia and India quite extensively. A lot of what we call whole body movements, corporal, and specific movements called pastiques, have come from yoga and other art forms everywhere. I think a lot of these forms have transformed through cultures. Cultures have developed physical forms to express the self – dance, movement, ritual – but because of the range of the human body, although it may have come from culturally specific work, truly it’s all evoking a lot of the same emotionality. That said, I’ve been listening to a podcast on Invisibilia talking with an anthropologist who worked with a small nation of indigenous Filipinos who have ideas of an emotion that haven’t been developed anywhere else. It’s been generally translated as “overwhelming rage”. This emotion is true to this culture, and it’s not our idea of rage, it’s more than that. The point is, there are shapes, gestures that express emotionality in us, and what that emotionality depends on so many factors. It’s all this wholistic thing to consider – those things are affected by your environment, your nurturing, all those things.

KF:  All the more important, I would think, to be very specific about your notation of your own gesture so you can repeat it and find out what it’s about.

DC:  Oh yeah. That’s been very important to me in my theatre making, to track what’s coming from inside my body. Sometimes I will write “this character opens up their heart/sternum”. Again, culturally specific or not, it’s evoking something for the person seeing it. Maybe it’s “that person is vulnerable” Maybe for one person who has had a trauma in their past, it’s “that person is deceiving”. We’re very complex people. Recording and repeating that specific gesture is important because it allows other people to witness and make their own connections with it. For me, writing down the body is as important as writing down the words.

KF:  Thanks, Davey.