The Watchface style was based on a series of techniques that were developed by The Frankenstein
Collective between 1976 and 1978 in Long Beach, California. Headed by Craig Fenner, it consisted mostly of his fellow recent graduates from the Theater Department at California State University Long Beach, among them Iris Rose.
By the time Iris arrived in New York City in the spring of 1982, she had already created two
performances at galleries in downtown Los Angeles using specific tools for turning words into actions that she had learned in The Frankenstein Collective. That set of techniques formed the foundation of Watchface.
Below is the basic set of tools that were employed, singly or in combination, in all of Watchface’s shows.
In a Frankenstein, one performer is a blank canvas on which four other participants paint a portrait. For a word or short phrase (carefully chosen to represent the essence of an idea to be explored) each of the givers tries to create the clearest, richest, and most accurate expression of that word, but for only one limited aspect of the performer: face, voice, arms, or body. When he feels he is ready, each giver teaches what he created to the performer who tries to faithfully reproduce it exactly as taught. The giver should continue to observe until the performer has reproduced it to the giver’s satisfaction.
Once all four parts can be successfully reproduced, it is then the performer’s task to combine the four aspects into a single presentation, performing as many of the parts simultaneously as possible. Once the performer has blended the finished Frankenstein and can repeat it identically over and over, she makes detailed notes of the elements so that it can be reproduced at a later time. The careful notation of individual movement units resulting from all of the Watchface techniques described here was an
essential part of the process. Months sometimes passed between a movement’s creation and its
Example: New York New York from Septaphonic
The Frankenstein was a unique creation of The Frankenstein Collective and perhaps the most powerful tool in the Watchface toolbox since it is a densely packed condensation of four visions of a given
concept filtered through the sensibility of the performer. It is the perfect expression of the collective method because the performer selflessly synthesizes the work of others without contributing anything of his own, other than the desire to accurately represent their contributions.
The performer creating an Emblem, just like the givers in a Frankenstein, should attempt to create the clearest, richest, and most accurate physical – and often vocal – expression of a given word, phrase, or idea. However, in this case the performer is often the same as the creator and is not limited to a single part of the body for expression.
Example: ”Cowboy Country” from House of Jahnke
Obviously, because it is created by an individual rather than a group, it is much faster to create an Emblem than a Frankenstein, and for that reason it became the basic building block of much of what Watchface created. Some of the other Watchface tools, like Abstractions and Bodies in Space, used Emblems as their point of departure.
The idea of condensing something down to an emblem originally came from the work and writings of Joseph Chaikin, director of the Open Theater, who was an important influence on The Frankenstein
The name Remblem is a contraction of Rhythmic Emblem. A Remblem is created like an Emblem, but to a specific rhythm, generally to a 4-beat or 8-beat textual phrase. The original Remblems were simply rhythmic Emblems, with the vocal component created as part of the Emblem, but the process evolved so that the first step was the writing of a series of rhythmic phrases and the actions were later created to illustrate them.
Example: Religion from Stereotype in Quad
The first Remblems were created for the section A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste in 1984: The Future Repeats Itself, performed by James Siena and Chazz Dean. Later, when James and Chazz were
working on the two-man Boys Will Be Men, they used the rhythmic style of Emblems to create a section about fathers. In both cases, audiences responded strongly to the rhythmic style. Chazz and James capitalized on that popularity by creating Stereotype in which all the sections were routines comprised entirely of rhythmic emblems representing different types of people. The resulting piece, which was performed many times in many venues, including many nightclubs, was often compared to rapping, cheerleading, dance, or poetry.
An Abstraction begins with an Emblem. One performer shares an Emblem, and another performer
repeats the Emblem but changes something about it. The next performer repeats the process but
proceeding from the new, altered Abstraction that has been created rather than the original. The
process is usually repeated so that the final Abstraction used is at least two steps removed from the original source.
Example: Decay 2 from Case
The power of Abstractions is their ambiguity and mystery. Unlike a Walter Kendall Five or an Emblem, which may be easily recognizable as representing a specific action or idea, an Abstraction contains the germ of that idea but in disguise. It can therefore be more evocative than a simple Emblem.
The concept of Jamming came from jazz, where musicians sometimes improvise together, creating the music as they play it and picking up ideas from each other as they do. In Watchface, Jamming was done with words instead of music.
Performers sit close to each other near a recording device with a list of words or phrases in front of them. A recording is made as they repeat the words until they evolve and transform as the jammers pick up bits and pieces of each other’s improvisations.
Example: “Lunch Counter Memories” from Woolworth’s
It is important for the participants to suspend judgment and tap into their unconscious. Since the
recording is only raw material, and will later be edited and shaped into a text by the director, anything that emerges in a Jam session is valid. Because of this element of freedom and play, when done
without self-consciousness, Jamming can be a lot of fun.
Bodies in Space
Bodies in Space is the physical equivalent of the verbal Jamming. Bodies in Space in its pure state is completely free physical improvisation.
The members of The Frankenstein Collective often improvised for hours on end with no goal other than the exploration of the possibilities of free movement. Since Watchface most often used Bodies in Space as a tool for exploring material, the improvisation generally was not completely formless but was
generated by a list of words or a text that was read aloud, or by Emblems that had already been
created from a list or text.
Example: Our Town from Sodomite Warriors
Walter Kendall Fives
Named for a brand of dog biscuits that came in five delicious flavors (including cheese and charcoal), Walter Kendall Fives is a fancy name for a very simple tool – basically physical actions derived from verbs. In the Frankenstein Collective, leader Craig Fenner would often ask performers to repeat a series of ordinary actions, which he referred to as “5 Given.” This bland descriptive phrase did not have enough pizzazz for Iris Rose, and she re-dubbed them Walter Kendall Fives. As they were later employed, Fives in the name had no connection to the number of actions to be performed.
What distinguishes Walter Kendall Fives from mime, at least in the minds of the members of Watchface, is that instead of trying to create the most complete expression of an action, the goal is to create the most minimal expression of that action that nevertheless clearly communicates the idea of the word. WK5’s, as they were abbreviated, need to be brief and concise. Unlike Emblems (ex: mother, desire, religious devotion, democracy), WK5’s (ex: walk, look, jig, squat) do not represent ideas; they are simply actions. The movements for Remblems were similarily action orientated, and this “anti-mime” conceit was also used in thier creation.
Example: Cleaning from Of Little Women
Watchface’s Concept of Structure
The Watchface style grew out of a combination of the Frankenstein Collective’s tools with Iris Rose’s own concept of organizational structure: take an idea, deconstruct it into its parts, deconstruct those parts further into subparts, use those subparts to make units of performance, then use those units to rebuild the deconstructed idea. The finished product packed an enormous amount of information into a short amount of time, was portable and could be performed anywhere, moved fast, and engaged the
audience on multiple levels simultaneously.
The creation of a Watchface show usually followed a specific procedure:
1. Identification of a fruitful subject, preferably an obsession.
2. Research and collection of material, either by the director or as a group.
3. The creation of a master list of the essential aspects of the subject. These became the sections of
4. The assignment of specific tools to each section based on the desired style of the scene and its
purpose within the structure of the piece as a whole. These ranged from the simplest, Walter
Kendall Fives of simple actions, to the most complex, Bodies in Space based on multiple Emblems.
5. Within each section, the creation of more lists and texts based on the research.
6. Generation of physical and verbal material based on those lists using the tools described above.
This was an enormously time-consuming process, which is why Watchface performances often took
many months to produce. The writing of the script usually occurred during the same period.
7. The selection and organization of all material into a final script, including choreography of the
generated and recorded physical actions.
Why Use These Techniques?
Besides the practical advantages mentioned above, concerning portability and the capacity to pack a lot of information into a short amount of time, there were other things that made these techniques
desirable. One was the power of collective creation, symbolized by the Frankenstein exercise. When things are created collectively, the group has the benefit of drawing on the combined experience, knowledge, and inspiration of all the creators involved. A Frankenstein, being the work of five people, was more complex and layered than anything the individual performer would have come up with on their own. Often the performers’ physical vocabulary was expanded because the actions given by others demanded of them things that were outside of their habitual style. In such a process, individual egos, which can be such a challenging part of collaboration, are minimized.
Another powerful feature, especially of the exercises that required improvisation, was the ability to access the unconscious mind. When Jamming or executing a Bodies in Space, participants were free to completely lose themselves, to suspend self-criticism, and tap directly into the source of their
creativity in its raw form. Even in less improvisational techniques, such as the Frankenstein or
Abstraction, a great deal of spontaneity was required because the volume of movements required for each show dictated that contributions be created quickly. This necessitated participants’ trust in their own instincts and impulses and directors’ willingness to accept the creations of others.
This complex, abstract style also necessitated a trust in the audience and its willingness to accept the discomfort of ambiguity. Often words being spoken were in contrast to the motions being performed; multiple performers would speak different texts and do different movements simultaneously, so that no single audience member could see and hear everything; words and actions were often layers of
abstraction away from the original idea, of which they still carried the germ.
But the reward on the audience’s part for the ability to accept this ambiguity was the chance to be yet another collaborator in the process. As with a modern dance performance or an abstract painting, the result was open to interpretation and therefore actively engaged the audience’s intelligence.