2019 WGI Perc/Winds World Championships

Taking A Moment For Reflection In The Final Stretch Of WGI 2019

Taking A Moment For Reflection In The Final Stretch Of WGI 2019

Dan Schack shares his takeaways from the 2019 season designing for GMU Indoor and observing trends in all facets of WGI.

Apr 10, 2019 by Dan Schack
Taking A Moment For Reflection In The Final Stretch Of WGI 2019
It is day one of the 2019 WGI Percussion World Championships.

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It is day one of the 2019 WGI Percussion World Championships.

Take a breath.

This is the time of year that performers look forward to experiencing their productions take its final form in the arena. What was once distant and hypothetical becomes entirely real. This is also a time that designers look backward at the 2019 season, assessing what went well, what went wrong, and how to improve going forward.

As my season with George Mason University and our 2019 program "Fringe" comes to a close, I wanted to take this space to reflect on my experiences, share my thoughts on and with the pageantry community, and forge a concrete list of ideas that I, and others, may use to grow and learn from.

Design a Show That the Students Love Rehearsing and Performing

I feel like it is a common perception that rehearsal is “grind time,” when the nitty-gritty details are excavated and put into monotonous repetition. Performances, on the other hand, are the “pay off,” where we can forget all those gritty details in lieu of bared teeth and overplayed gock shots (just kidding...mostly).

But what if rehearsal could actually be just like the performance? We preach this to our students, yet it’s difficult to cultivate. I think it is possible.

Making rehearsal more performative starts with designing a show that is purely just fun to be in. While I do think WGI has a need for artistic, intellectual, cerebral, and interpretive shows, these types of shows can be harder for the students to perform. 

If the show is purely fun at all turns, rehearsal will be turned into the "pay off," and therefore the students will achieve more consistently between a rehearsal and performance. It is clear to me through "Fringe" that the style and accessibility of the show make it awesome to rehearse and watch, even in small segments and high repetition.

Take your Students’ Feedback

The way your students react to parts of your show are very telling of how well they can, and will be willing to perform. We call the show the “vehicle,” while in truth the students are the ones making the show come to life through their performances. They must not only intellectually understand the concept, but also connect to it emotionally through how the show evokes their own live, real-time energy.

The nuts and bolts of the show must bring the students to life, and subsequently, the students will bring the show to life. This is a homeostatic relationship that must be kept in mind at the very beginning stages of designing and implementing the show. The show cannot leave the students conceptually confused, or worse, feeling silly and overly-engineered—or even worse, bored. If the students react negatively, or flatly, to the design,  you can imagine how audiences and judges will react as observers and critics with even less context and insight than the students.

Rely on your students’ knowledge and feelings about the elements of your show. They are the performers; they are the vehicle for your art. While every program doesn’t need to be a run-and-gun explosion, the students need to feel empowered and autonomous as performers throughout the entire program. This is a non-negotiable for me now.

Design a Show that Audiences Connect and React To

It cannot be understated how important audience reception is. WGI is about education. Yes, definitely. WGI is competitive. OK, agreed. But situated within both the education and the competition is the audience reaction—or simply put, entertainment.

Being clear about where and how audiences respond will inevitably craft how you teach the students. Audience awareness should and must be considered throughout the design implementation and educational processes. If you are not addressing audience needs with your students, they will likely fall flat and be disconnected from the goals of the show, which will hurt your clarity of intent and the overall communication of the concept.

From a competitive standpoint,  audience response is never bad. The judges evaluating your shows are not robots and they do not exist outside the context of the performance. They are sitting among the audience members and are themselves part of the audience. They can feel the energy of the room and a strong, responsive energy will undoubtedly influence the judges positively. 

Rather than attempting to check boxes on the effect sheet, designers should be thinking about how to cultivate a strong audience response and how that relates to the judges’ experience watching and adjudicating. If the audience claps, the judges too will be compelled to clap. These are basic tenets of experiencing a live performance.

With GMU this season, introducing our show to a live audience really secured our students’ belief and personal connection to the program. The audiences welcoming response signaled to our students that what they were doing was something awesome and worth working for.

Designers and teachers who attend to audience response will both enhance the educational experience and add points to your score.

Trust Your Instincts with Effect

This point is definitely wrapped up in the above discussion about audience. You, as the designer, the teacher, the administrator, the volunteer, are also part of the audience. While it is super important to remain objective, that is only but one hat you must wear when assessing your own group and product. 

You must also be able to shift into the subjective mode, in which you are yourself as an audience member who has a strong opinion and a need for entertainment and engagement.

We need to always keep in mind what the primary goals of these shows are. Do we want to artistically and intellectually fulfill the bullet points set out through the sheets? On one hand, yes. But it’s important to keep in mind that the verbiage provided by the sheets are only meant to set guidelines and create a vocabulary we can rely on in order to have a conversation.

But, regardless of what the sheets say, these shows need to entertain. This means making viewers feel something. This means spectators stay engaged throughout the entire program. This means spectators don’t always need to ask “why?” but instead are left feeling irrevocably changed. 

We are all participants in this activity: designers, performers, and audience. Moreso, many of us have inhabited all of these various positions. It is not only safe, but recommended, to trust your perspective as a viewer and a critic.

Find a Style and Stay with It (but not TOO Much)

In order for the performers and audience to have a strong sense of what a show is about, the show must have a distinct style that feels connected to reality and threaded throughout the production. This does not necessarily mean shows need to attend to current social issues, but rather shows that require us to suspend disbelief must be rooted in an emotion that audiences and performers can connect with.

For "Fringe," an atmospheric hip-hop style emerged out of Frank Ocean’s song "Seigfried." The style from this song came to permeate every corner of the show, from how the performers put their equipment on, to the costuming choices we made, to the tangible events that became possible within the frame of the song. 

Picking a song that was generative and specific, but not too confining, was critical to how style trickled throughout the course of the production process.

I believe it is imperative that designers can encapsulate their show within a homogenous style that feels thematically intact, but also not suppressing and reductive. I always want to strike a balance between predictable conventions and surprising turns and twists. 

Picking a flexible but defined style can lead to these kinds of successes, idiosyncrasies, and believable turns.

Look (Backwards and Forwards) at Trends

I think it is imperative that designers (and really anyone) should do their research and understand the field that they work in. 

What are the big teams doing that set them apart? What design choices do they make to center their talents? What artistic choices are being made that are rewarded by the judges? What design choices are made that audiences and judges don’t like?

Similarly, it is important that we think ahead to what comes next. The only inevitable thing about this activity is that it will change. Attempting to understand “now” is merely a matter of attempting to understand an actual past and a projected future. This is not a blind nostalgia nor an idealistic yearning. 

This is doing the grunt work of knowing where this activity has been so that we may figure out, and motivate, where it goes next.