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Virginie Magnat

January 2010

In theatre, the voice and the body are the actor’s most important tools. This is what UBC Okanagan theatre professor, Dr. Virginie Magnat, tells her students; these are the concepts she most wishes to impart in her studio classes. According to Dr. Magnat, the importance of the actor’s voice and body is stressed in the branch of theatre studies known as ‘poor theatre,’ a concept coined by Jerzy Grotowski suggesting that if you strip everything away all that remains is the actor and the work of the actor.

Dr. Magnat is trained in a branch of experimental theatre which comes out of Europe, but which is very intercultural in nature as it is derived from multiple cultures. This diversity appeals to Dr. Magnat, herself an import from France.

Virginie Magnat
Photo by Francesco Galli

One of her original post-secondary education experiences occurred at Vancouver Island’s Pearson College. It was at Pearson that she first became interested in experimental theatre, largely because it involved studying and participating in intercultural performance. Such intercultural knowledge and experience is what Dr. Magnat feels she brings to both her research and her classroom.

She also brings the perspective of one whose first language is not English. Performance in one’s native tongue is very different from performing in a different language, according to Dr. Magnat:

There are some personal associations you have with language that have to do with your mental processes that are really strong and will never go away. But then as you learn another language and you live in another language, the associations you have in that language you don’t have in your native language. When I was in France, I translated into French a paper I had originally written in English. I had to take a dictionary; I’d been thinking in English and there was no equivalent in French, so I had to work it out for myself. It is the same with performance. It is so personal to use text and language that if you work in different languages you are going to do something in a completely different way.

This multi-lingual association may be why Dr. Magnat loves the work of Samuel Beckett. That he chose to limit himself by writing outside his native language, then also chose to write in a minimalist fashion impresses her. Dr. Magnat finds this quality in his work both innovative and provocative.

Dr. Magnat’s responsibilities at UBC Okanagan involve both teaching and research. In her teaching, Professor Magnat seeks to impart that which she has learned, while in her research she is very focused on looking at women from different cultures and generations who work in the experimental theatre tradition. Her background in anthropology and specifically the anthropology of performance likely contribute to Dr. Magnat’s interest in the intercultural nature of performance; her teaching and research feed and reflect upon each other.

Women are rarely in the forefront of theatre for reasons ranging from a lack of leading lady roles to cultural and societal expectations regarding female conduct; therefore, Dr. Magnat questions how such work benefits women, what it might have to teach women and why women would chose to do work which more highly esteems and prioritizes men.

Her research aims to challenge the traditional idea that performance be associated only with men. Dr. Magnat suggests that men, rather than women, are associated with physicality. Since performance is visual by nature, when people see bodies on stage, they see gender. Experimental theatre, according to Dr. Magnat makes it possible for women to challenge some of the ways they are represented where realistic theatre does not provide such a space. Rather than simply acting roles they would already be living in real life, the experimental stage offers women a venue for breaking through limitations and transforming and behaving in ways that could not happen in real life. Opening to new possibilities on the stage often carries over into an actor’s life. Dr. Magnat feels this occurs because whenever you commit to anything with your whole body – your imagination, your senses, desires and needs – the moment bleeds into your life; it has become a lived experience, and as such, becomes part of your accumulated knowledge. Professor Magnat feels experimental theatre can be transformative for students and performers. This is what she believes, also what she hopes.

In her teaching, Dr. Magnat uses Asian traditions to assist her students in transcending the stereotypes of gender. In Asian performance, gender is thought of in terms of energies. However, there are no masculine and female energies, rather, the energies are soft or vigorous. When Professor Magnat works with her students, she asks them to experiment with using soft or vigorous energy. She asks students to see how that changes their experience of the world without being limited by their daily physical reality.

Dr. Magnat has an educational background in anthropology and this affects her ideas about theatre. Teaching, in her opinion, is very much part of a transmission that is connected to participation. Professor Magnat does not sit at the front of a room and lecture, but rather joins with the class in the exercise they are performing. She believes there are many practitioners who are also teachers, since you learn as you teach. This mutually beneficial process created a curiosity in Dr. Magnat about the theoretical and anthropological context for performance. For her, theory and practice must always be linked – otherwise she quickly loses interest: “Pure theory without practice doesn’t make much sense. And sometimes practice without context, without idea and thought, can also be limiting.” Dr. Magnat also realizes that her personal experience of theatre has nothing to do with what it means for those who don’t come from the same tradition or culture. Other cultures can teach us the limits of our own cultural uses and understandings of performance and how to open ourselves to alternative viewpoints.

In fact, UBC Okanagan is specifically interested in developing a theatre program that is both intercultural and interdisciplinary in nature. The Interdisciplinary Performance program has been developed in part by Dr. Magnat. Students specialize in performance and also train in two other disciplines. The program is designed specifically for students who are interested in creating their own work as performers and who want to know more than just mainstream techniques. Dr. Magnat feels that as there are no jobs for actors in this world, performers must become creators of their own jobs if they are going to survive.

In her classes, Dr. Magnat also works with students to develop their voice. She uses traditional songs since these are very ancient and are connected to people’s ancestry, even when the people themselves no longer are. The songs become a means of connecting with one another, since the power of voice really happens through vibration. It is possible to feel these vibrations very palpably, even if you do not understand the language or the meaning of the words, since people feel the difference in the air through the power of sound. Such a participatory approach to classes allows the students to enjoy themselves regardless of whether they are majoring in theatre or not. Professor Magnat feels her classes challenge traditional ways of learning and working together. Her classes are, in a sense, looking back at the past for a new way of looking forward into the future.

With her classes full of people from different backgrounds and generations, Dr. Magnat has learned there is no right way or wrong way of thinking, and diversity adds richness to a setting. This concept is, for Dr. Magnat, the point at UBC Okanagan; embodied learning and intercultural knowledge is what the theatre program is aiming to promote.

Article by Leigh Macfarlane

Last reviewed shim11/14/2014 3:55:33 PM