Leonard ’16 explores devised performance in senior thesis

This past weekend, Brendan Leonard ’16 presented the performance of his Honors Thesis Project “Where You and I Becoming And.” The work was performed on Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30 in Strider Theater and was the culmination of an academic career spent as a double major in English and Theater and Dance.

Experimental in nature, the performance was a part of a larger body of research entitled “Devising Performance and Queer Futurity.” What was perhaps most surprising about the piece for those in attendance was the fact that the audience was included in and central to its performance. Of this unique aspect of the show, Leonard explained, “Devised performance is when a work is created through collaborative authorship, rather than by a single playwright/choreographer. I realized I wanted an audience to be a part of the creation of a devised performance.”

This idea came to fruition through Leonard’s invitation to attendees to join him on stage. As people arrived, he greeted them one by one and informed them that they would be performing alongside him. He said, “Most people were taken aback, but I assure them that so is everyone else. You have a choice of what you’d like to do, while I read a 35-poem collection I’ve written. You can draw a picture, make a dance, or write your own poem. Once you choose, I pull back the curtain and you enter what’s behind it.”

Behind the curtain there was a brightly lit space, with play dough, crayons, markers, toys, books, and even a kiddie pool. Violin music played loudly in the background while a live feed of the stage was projected on the back wall. Of this set up, Leonard explained, “In queer theory, there is a lot of discussion about the child, so I came to the idea of creating a space that would spark creativity in a familiar way, thus I create a quasi queer kindergarten classroom.”

The performance ended with attendees being invited to present the artwork they made. Those who chose to draw held up their poems while others danced and those who wrote poems simultaneously read their work. Leonard abruptly left the stage during this time while attendees were told he would not being returning.

As attendees began to engage in their chosen activity, Leonard read a collection of 35 original poems, which addressed everything from gay sex, to Kim Kardashian, to Walt Whitman. Written over the course of eight months, the poems explored “queer identity and subjectivity under late capitalism,” he said. Of them Leonard said, “Originally, I wanted someone else to read the poems, as I performed a solo dance of some kind. I started working on this, but the voice was so evidently mine and so personal that I realized the words needed to come from me.”

Leonard said that the performance was heavily influenced by his own experience as a gay man at Colby. He explained, “The piece is exploring performativity. For a long time, I felt like I was performing all the time here, especially as an out and visible gay man on a small campus. I’m creating a space in which the acknowledgment of the performance (as you’re drawing or writing, you’re blinded by purple stage lights) might allow for people to discover authenticity.”

He said that much of what made the work possible was an academic experience that was characterized by individualized attention within the Theater and Dance Department. Leonard said, “In my time here, I’ve acted, danced, choreographed, designed, served on tech crews, dramaturged, produced, stage managed, and directed several productions, including the musical Cabaret my sophomore year and two original devised pieces, Them And I  and PLAYBALLPLAY. This is all while engaged in a liberal arts environment, so I’m being exposed to knowledge in so many other disciplines.”

Much of Leonard’s artistic influence came during the fall of his junior year when he studied in Philadelphia at the Headlong Performance Institute (HPI). During this time he said his exposure to other experimental shows led him to think of himself as more of a scientist, “driven by the discovery of new things.”

Leonard’s show was simultaneously confusing, beautiful, and rich in its exploration of identity and the mechanisms of performance.