Reflections on a Distinction Project from Actor and Director

Phil Watson is a senior in Theater Studies at Duke who recently presented his senior distinction project, An Iliad, in Shaeffer Theater. It was directed by Kevin Poole, a 1998 graduate of Duke’s theater studies program. Below are their thoughts on the project.

Struggle and Understanding

by Phil Watson

The experience of preparing and performing a distinction project in physical acting (An Iliad), with an emphasis on movement and voice, was taxing. Projects like mine are explorations; they are adventures. I set out to understand more about my art and myself, and I blinked and found myself shuffling home after midnight day after day, exhausted both physically and emotionally, only to do it all over again the next day, but even more.

But the series of breakthroughs I made in those explorations made all that work worth it. Suddenly, my body and mind connected in a new way, and I began seeing things in a different light. I understood.

That’s what Duke is to me. Studying classics, or mechanical engineering, or anything, is a process of struggle and understanding, repeated over and over again. You work hard in the library or in the studio, and you learn. You grasp a little more, and then a little more, and then even more. You learn something about yourself and your abilities and about the world at large.

Distinction allowed me to see something that is quintessentially “Duke”: understanding will shake you to your core. You will go to places you never thought you could go. You may even be shattered and made new again. But understanding of this kind can only be gained through work, through fighting, through seeing your limits and raging against them (or being dragged kicking and screaming, as I was from time to time).

And that is Duke, and you look back over your time in this place and realize it was worth it. From the red days to the blue; from days with almost no light to those that threaten to blind you, make you burst at the seams with life and love; from the work to the play—it was worth it.

It gives the classic image of students slaving away in the library something of a new color, doesn’t it?

Creator and Listener

by Kevin Poole

Studying and practicing theater at Duke enriched my college experience immensely. A thread within the fabric of my overall liberal arts education, theater provided a means to actively explore social issues by more deeply comprehending the complex relationships between individuals and systems within which those individuals operate; sometimes knowingly, often times not. Balancing practice with theory is a challenge within the field of theater in higher education and that tension played out well for me at Duke and also in graduate school.

A strong element of my graduate program, the MFA Theater: Contemporary Performance Program at Naropa University, was bringing awareness to my body-mind alignment. Before attending graduate school I felt disconnected from my body, which was problematic as a performer where my body was my instrument. Naropa gave me space to become a dancer, a mover, a composer of space and time. Inherent in the curriculum was the expectation to be a collaborative creator, not merely a follower, which required attuning my senses and thoughts to acute listening.

My foray into directing with ‘An Iliad’ derived from the interplay between the creator and the listener within. My theater company in Colorado, Band of Toughs, consisted of a collaborative ensemble of creators and listeners. We challenged each other with our work to remain open, aware, and clear with our intention toward the audience.

Based on the ways in which I like to work stemming from early group collaborations at Duke, followed by working with numerous companies in Durham, graduate study at Naropa, and then most recently with my company, I found an approach with Phil that felt organic and productive. I saw us as fellow collaborators.

We began discussing the project over email in August, sharing thoughts, images, songs, and poems. Then in October we began rehearsing once a week until December when we slowly increased the number of rehearsals. The ‘slow burn’ of the process permitted us space to explore without judgment and delve into heavy subject matter.I was excited to share my experiences in physical-based theater techniques, which Phil was interested in utilizing in the piece. By having a much longer than usual rehearsal period I was able to lead Phil in specific training methods and exercises so he could become familiar enough with the mechanics in order to create within them. We talked a lot about theater, and this play specifically, as a sporting event and the actor as the athlete. The physical training was an important component of how the show was built.

Looking back at myself as a senior undergrad, I was a lot less ambitious and confident than Phil is. He selected the play, committed throughout the creative process, and brought great ideas, design images, and intentions into the room daily. He gave me a lot to work off of, as a listener, from which we could then create and shape the piece.

While I can’t speak for what other universities provide for senior majors, I’m impressed and proud of the support Duke, and specifically the Theater Studies Department, gave to Phil for this project. Hiring a director and presenting in Sheafer for a project bridging theater and classical studies is a testament to the student-centered, research initiatives that make Duke a leader in undergraduate education.