James Donlon

James Donlon
James Donlon

Southern Oregon University’s production of “The White Fugue” is devised and directed by James Donlon, a member of the Theatre Arts faculty. Donlon is an internationally celebrated theater artist and teacher of physical theater. We met in his office on the SOU campus.

EH: What attracts you to the field of mime?

JD: As a mime, your purpose is to transform time and space with only your body. Mime is a poetic form to condense and economize themes into an essential place, and to put commentary on it. It can be silent, or it can be verbal. Language becomes a gesture, maybe just sounds, gibberish or vocal effects. In today’s American culture, people don’t really understand the world of mime. The term “mime” is usually the butt of jokes, such as “the birthday mime” or “Let’s kill the mime.”

EH: What is a theater artist?

JD: I’ve always believed that a theater artist should be an artist like a painter, poet or writer. You don’t interpret like an actor interprets; they put their artistry into their point of view about someone else’s idea. In theater, a director will take a play and bring that writer’s work into three dimensions, into life. It almost becomes like they’re serving somebody else.

My work has always been (people would say) “created” or “original.” Now the new word is “devised.” You create, you direct, you write, you act, you can even produce what you do. If you are successful, there is no greater feeling because, like a great painter or composer, you’ve created this work and it’s your point of view. And if you fail, you’re the one that failed. There’s a little pressure there, but it’s a wonderful experience.

EH: What is your process in devising “The White Fugue”?

JD: There is the scenario, I call it the guide. It’s almost like a film script or pitch. You describe the action. When you go into rehearsal, you have the ensemble create the puzzle pieces. Then, when you get all the material, you, as director or writer, put these pieces together. It’s a great experience.

The piece is about memory, which lends itself to the dreamscape or the dream state. So, we’re talking about surrealism and poetry of action and movement. There’s use of masks and music. It tends to be very visual.

With this idea of memory, the mind itself is our nerve center. “What are memories? Did they really happen?” That’s surreal. A lot of the memories were cultivated out of the students’ own memories. They all hit universal themes. Because you’re drawing from the memories and the crafts of the ensemble, they feel that they’re part of the play, that they have a hand in writing it.

The fugue is a musical structure. There is a theme of voices that continue, and then there are riffs off of the different themes. It’s very much like a play. White is the color of ritual, weddings and preparations for some great event. So if you put those two words together, you have “The White Fugue.” There is a dance base of this fugue. There are very elegant dancers in white. This theme keeps continuing. Along the way, we use some interesting techniques to tell the story. It’s very cinematic. Hopefully this is the beginning of a great addition to the cultural landscape.

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