UNCA students create a Black Mountain College-inspired production

WHAT'S HAPPENING?: UNC Asheville students, from left, Lea Gilbert, Rebecca Boyce and Dakota Mann, rehearse for 'Nothing's Happening.' The students will perform the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer. Photo courtesy of TheatreUNCA at UNC Asheville

UNC Asheville students are planning “a happening” — in the form of a theatrical performance titled Nothing’s Happening. Every traditional expectation of theater is up for reconsideration in this homage to the history and legacy of Black Mountain College, the experimental, interdisciplinary school that operated 1933-57 in Western North Carolina.

Stagings of the production will run Thursday-Saturday, April 18-20, in the university’s Carol Belk Theatre. It will also be performed in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

Recently, 15 drama, music, mass communications and new media students gathered to practice with Leon Ingulsrud, UNCA’s current Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow. Since January, Ingulsrud, co-artistic director of SITI Company, has traveled back and forth from New York City to work with the students. According to Lise Kloeppel, associate professor of drama at UNCA, members of the SITI Company “consider themselves the artistic grandchildren of Black Mountain College.”

Ingulsrud also took the local students to the Black Mountain College archives to learn more about artists, such as composer John Cage, whose work informs Nothing’s Happening.

In fact, the frame for the UNCA production is Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” first delivered in 1949 or ’50 as a piece of experimental literature and oratory, and later published in his 1961 book, Silence. It begins with the lines, “I am here, and there is nothing to say. Those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.” According to a press release, the performance will develop “as the students, working in small groups, come up with gestures and changes of tone and volume to add meaning and drama as they discover it, or bring it to the mysterious text. As the work continues, some of these gestures may grow into character sketches, short scenes, songs or who knows?”

The theatrical event defies labels like “play” or “musical.” The term “happening” frees the collaboration from expectations. It will occur in a traditional theater space, but, beyond that, the students and Ingulsrud will craft, through nontraditional methods, an interpretation of Cage’s words and composition. They are making something almost entirely new.

Dakota Mann, a junior at UNCA, says he learned about Black Mountain College only a couple of years ago. “It’s surprising to me that this school isn’t often taught as a significant part of our history,” he says by email. “As a native of Buncombe County, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the cultural impact left by Black Mountain College.”

“Now I see the legacy of Black Mountain College through their eyes,” says Ingulsrud, who describes himself as an artistic guide — more of a collaborator than a director. “My view was limited to its accomplishments. [The UNCA students] see the people. They see them as peers in the past.”

The defunct experimental school’s artistic and philosophical emphasis on the avant-garde inspires the UNCA students’ practice with Ingulsrud. As part of the preparation for the show, the student ensemble uses two training modalities — the Suzuki method (inspired by Japanese music training for violin) and Viewpoints (improvisational, postmodern dance techniques). Unlike professional actors, Ingulsrud says students are more open to different ways of thinking. They’re not set on a process. “We are trying to train the whole actor,” he says.

Following the Belk Theatre performances, the production will travel to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — the largest arts festival in the world, according to the World Fringe Alliance.  All the students will attend the festival as an 11-day study abroad, says Kloeppel. Each student is paying for part of the trip, with additional support from university-endowed funds and a major gift from an anonymous donor. The department is also working to raise $40,000 to help cover some of the costs. But the group will travel light: “Everything we need for the show needs to fit in our checked or carry-on luggage,” Kloeppel says.

Mann and senior Grace Siplon find Black Mountain College’s legacy inspiring. “I was shocked to see how a small, local school became a global phenomenon even with its short-lived tenure,” Mann says. “Everyone seemed to be lured to this obscure school hidden in the Appalachian Mountains, including guest lecturers who were titans in their fields, such as Albert Einstein and Aldous Huxley.”

The UNCA student ensemble, with Ingulsrud as a guide, is ready to share its regionally inspired creation with peers across the pond. “Black Mountain College was a little slice of history,” Siplon says, “but its legacy spread across the world.”

WHAT: Nothing’s Happening: A Black Mountain Project
WHERE: Carol Belk Theatre, 1 University Heights, drama.unca.edu
WHEN: Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 20, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $7-$12

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About Patricia Furnish
Patricia Furnish is a North Carolina native who loves history, Spanish, and the visual arts. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Follow me @drpatriqua

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