POINTS OF VIEW: Multi-Roling Performance in Ireland in the 1990s, Part 2 (Characterisation)

The 1990s in Ireland saw a series of highly successful theatre productions in which actors played a multiplicity of roles. This has often been attributed to the economic exigencies of the times, but it also depended on the availability of flexible actors with the physical and psychological capacity to embody a wide range of identifiable characters within the one production.

This second of two posts considers the acting techniques required for this style of performance in relation to the differentiation of one character from another. The discussion will focus primarily on my own empirical exploration of the demands multi-roling places on an actor through the direction of recent revivals of Mojo Mickybo for Belfast’s Chatterbox Theatre Company (2013) and Bedlam Productions (2015).

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Pilates and Voice Training for the Actor

By implementing core stability exercises in voice training, the actor not only obtains more awareness of their own bodies, they develop the important muscles needed for breath control and stability. Pilates has been embraced by dancers for many years, and, like the Alexander technique, Suzuki Actor Training Method and Feldenkrais, has been incorporated in many performing arts programs. Pilates has also been incorporated with other methods in movement training for the actor in order to ‘improve posture [and alignment, to] gain strength and avoid injury’. (Smith, Kelly & Monks 2004, p. 51) However, core stability training has been ignored in voice training. The method was created by Joseph Pilates (1880 – 1967), and since his death, many teachers have modified the 34 exercises and made them more accessible. It is now commonplace in most gymnasiums and health and fitness centres, and is now as popular as ever as an exercise method to tone and lengthen muscle, increase flexibility and improve general well being. The other crucial factor of Pilates work is breathing. ‘The most active part of the body as we vocalise is the breath system’ (Rodenburg 1997, p. 6) and without breath, we do not have the power to carry the sound through.

Pilates and other core stability exercises are usually taught in movement classes in a performing arts curriculum and are generally ignored in voice classes. Joan Melton, renowned practitioner of voice and movement integration and the Director of the One Voice Centre, believes that ‘communication among voice and movement specialists can be a critical factor is the success of [a] program’ (Melton 2001, p.2). The lack of communication creates confusion amongst the students’ as the specific technical methods of each discipline are in fact, contradictory. In relation to movement, order for the actor to maintain their alignment actors need to activate their ‘postural muscles, such as the deep abdominal muscle…the transverse abdominis’ (Smith, Kelly & Monks 2004, p.53) to support their lumbar and sacral spine in order to maintain stability. This core stability is crucial for basic movements such as running, throwing, bending down and walking. In voice work, this notion is dismissed. For example, in self breath observation when the actor is in a standing position, they may be encouraged to release the abdominal area and solely rely on the spine for alignment. If this is the notion, what is supporting the spine?

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“Yoga and Actor Training: Movement Improvisation”, by Maria Kapsali from the DVD/Booklet “Yoga and Actor Training” by Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali (Routledge 2016), DVD filmed and edited by Arts Archives.

This series of video clips offer glimpses of the six Workshop Approaches documented in Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali’s Yoga and Actor Training (Routledge 2015) DVD/booklet that focusses on ways in which the practice of yoga may be applied towards actor training purposes. Six Workshop Approaches are proposed, and contextualised with a historical overview of the use of yoga in the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, Jerzy Grotowski and Joseph Chaikin.
Within the six videos, as well as the publication as a whole, two key perspectives are proposed as being directly, or indirectly, helpful to actor training: the first is an understanding of yoga in relation to actor training that does not prioritise, or pit, ‘interior’ against ‘exterior’, ‘mind’ against ‘body’, ‘mental’ against ‘physical’, but recognises their interdependence and interconnections. The second is an understanding that the ‘internalization’ of attention, which may be perceived in aspects of yoga, is not inimical to the creative processes of a contemporary actor, but can contribute to the cultivation of an attitude of ‘alert receptivity’ that is particularly relevant to processes within actor training.

The second video clip derives from Workshop Approach 2 which explores ways in which yoga can be combined with movement improvisation activities in order to train the student actor’s kinetic and spatial sensibility, and proposes that such combinations can facilitate both areas. The approach views possible combinations of yoga postures and movement improvisation as part of a continuum consisting of three frameworks.

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POINTS OF VIEW: Multi-Roling Performance in Ireland in the 1990s, Part 1 (Layering)

The 1990s in Ireland saw a series of highly successful theatre productions in which actors played a multiplicity of roles. This has often been attributed to the economic exigencies of the times, but it also depended on the availability of flexible actors with the physical and psychological capacity to embody a wide range of identifiable characters within the one production. The collaborative work of dramatist Tom MacIntyre, director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey (most notably their non-verbal stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem, The Great Hunger) had established, in Ireland during the 1980s,  an appetite among both artists and audiences for an increasingly physical style of theatre performance. But it was the emergence of a new generation of performers from the burgeoning youth theatre movement, bolstered by the return to Ireland of the first wave of young actors to have experienced a more physical theatre training in Paris , that created the conditions for a new genre of Irish theatre performance.

This series of posts will consider the acting techniques required for this style of performance with reference to four productions from the 1990s in which two actors took on multiple roles: Frank Pig Says Hello (1992), Co-Motion’s stage adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel; The Butcher Boy, Corca Dorca’s production of Disco Pigs (1996) by Enda Walsh; DubbleJoint’s production of Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones (1996) and its subsequent award-winning revival which I produced at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 1999; and Kabosh’s production of Mojo Mickybo by Owen McCafferty (1998). The discussion will focus primarily on my own empirical exploration of the demands multi-roling places on an actor through the direction of recent revivals of Mojo Mickybo for Belfast’s Chatterbox Theatre Company (2013) and Bedlam Productions (2015).

This first post will identify the precise nature of multi-roling in these productions, and the psychological demands this places on an actor. The second post, due to appear next week, will look at the physical requirements of distinguishing role from role.

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Welcome

Featured

Welcome to the Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Journal blog! Our online, interactive presence is designed to encourage a growing community of artists, academics, practitioners and researchers to share practice and debate issues that are currently alive within the disciplines of theatre, dance and performance training. Our blog engages a new audience for the TDPT journal, creating an online space that promotes spontaneous and productive conversation and debate. As we grow further it it will represent a productive and discursive teaching ‘tool’ – or forum – within all levels of education and training preoccupied with dance, performance and theatre.  Please explore our site. “The Studio” space is specifically designed for sharing of audiovisual training materials while our “Comeback” section invites previous contributors to return or “comeback” to an idea they discussed in a TDPT article and new contributors to respond to an idea. “My Training” is a space where individuals can reflect on their own personal experiences of training. The “Home” blog page publishes any other contributions that people wish to offer. Please share the blog link with anyone you feel may find it useful as we continue to develop an engaged and active community over the next months and years. We hope you enjoy the blog and many thanks to the artists, academics, and practitioners who have contributed their work already in the first year of its life. We appreciate your willingness to be at the forefront of TDPT’s digital emergence. We post material at regular intervals so please do register with us on the blog and check our social media apps for regular updates.

Performance. An ontological analysis

‘Performance’ is a ubiquitous term commandeered by and used in a range of academic disciplines and practical fields of human activity. It operates, more or less, as a semiotic tag within a set of conceptualisations that is part of a specific discipline and field of discourse, and functions as an epistemological frame within particular discursive practices. This tagging is discussed in six examples below, through the breadth of usage is far greater than is suggested in my exemplars.

First, in the academic discipline of performance studies, ‘performance’ is generally seen as a descriptive term encompassing complex representational embodiments that signify a range of meanings for observers or audiences, who become both interpretive aesthetic readers of such meaning and also engage with performance work affectively. These representational embodiments may refer to artistic endeavours, from music, dance and drama to installations, photography and art works; but the term’s usage can be broader than even these sets of specific creative phenomena, extending to everyday acts of social engagement, cultural exchange and sporting endeavour. As such, performance is constituted in what might be viewed as ordinariness as much as it is in specialisations of human activity and communication. Arguably, however, in this academic field the tag is especially, but not exclusively, about creative representation and embodied performance practices, as reflected in the work of scholars such as Richard Schechner and Victor Turner

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“Sequence of Four Exercise-Actions” (physical training led by Ben Spatz)

“Sequence of Four Exercise-Actions” is a dense linear video document based on an extract from a session of physical training held at the Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research, University of Huddersfield (12 August 2015). The session was led by Ben Spatz, Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance, and is based on a form of physical training developed by Massimiliano Balduzzi, which Spatz previously documented and analyzed in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5:3. This training can be used to enhance a performer’s physical precision and sense of musicality as well as the ability to integrate dynamic movement with interpersonal awareness and imaginative associations. Also participating in the training session are Sobhia Jones (undergraduate alumna) and Chris Lomax (second year undergraduate).

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“Yoga and Actor Training: Four Body Mind Dialogues”, by Dorinda Hulton from the DVD/Booklet “Yoga and Actor Training” by Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali (Routledge 2016), DVD filmed and edited by Arts Archives.

This series of video clips offer glimpses of the six Workshop Approaches documented in Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali’s Yoga and Actor Training (Routledge 2015) DVD/booklet that focusses on ways in which the practice of yoga may be applied towards actor training purposes. Six Workshop Approaches are proposed, and contextualised with a historical overview of the use of yoga in the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, Jerzy Grotowski and Joseph Chaikin.
Within the six videos, as well as the publication as a whole, two key perspectives are proposed as being directly, or indirectly, helpful to actor training: the first is an understanding of yoga in relation to actor training that does not prioritise, or pit, ‘interior’ against ‘exterior’, ‘mind’ against ‘body’, ‘mental’ against ‘physical’, but recognises their interdependence and interconnections. The second is an understanding that the ‘internalization’ of attention, which may be perceived in aspects of yoga, is not inimical to the creative processes of a contemporary actor, but can contribute to the cultivation of an attitude of ‘alert receptivity’ that is particularly relevant to processes within actor training.

The first video clip derives from Workshop Approach 1, led by Dorinda Hulton and filmed by Arts Archives, and  focuses on four body-mind dialogues inherent in the safe practice of the yoga postures and proposes correspondences between these and processes relevant to first steps in actor training. Continue reading

The Stranger by Baudelaire: Embodied Techniques in Youth Theatre Training

In this video clip I seek to show how young non-professional actors make use of embodied techniques by minimizing the expressive vocabulary in the performance but still retaining traces or echoes of extensive training techniques that preceded the rehearsals and shooting of the act. The video was filmed during a series of training sessions that aimed at studying how certain training ideas – developed within the research project Actor’s Art in Modern Times at the Theatre Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki – could be applied in the context of youth theatre training. This work has also been presented at the TaPRA conference 2014. The project did not involve any public performances .

The two actors, Victoria Godden and Jarkko Lehtiranta, had been training with me using a set of embodied techniques, mainly working with ‘states of being’ and transitions between them. The actors were offered signposts for the creation of these states of being in the form of ‘frames’, such as ‘the carrying/being carried’ frame (that establishes the contact between the actors and “embodies” the ethics of care during training), ‘the network’ frame(that highlights the actor’s awareness of the outer world) and ‘the somatic’ frame (that focuses on subtle movements of the body, the ‘feel’ in the body that makes a movement meaningful for the actor). The extensive movement training the actors had had before the rehearsals was organised around the above mentioned frames (that tended to appear simultaneously, as a mixture). For example, the actors were resting on each other’s arms (carrying/being carried frame) but were still very aware of any changes in the situation (network frame), and sensing the subtle feel in the upper torso when making changes in breathing patterns, for example, as if taking a cold shower (somatic frame). The actors used certain techniques at certain points in the text, for example, at the line “Gold?” Victoria “strikes” Jarkko and Jarkko strikes back, immediately, by saying “I hate it”. When rehearsing these lines they actually hit each other with an invisible bat (network frame). In the end, when Victoria asks, “What then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” Jarkko uses the technique of in-between-ness, hence saying, “I love the clouds” as if he were on his way to some specific thought but not quite there yet. In the video performance the use of these techniques were almost entirely hidden, leaving only traces or echoes to be perceived.

The text used is The Stranger, a poem by Charles Baudelaire.

Video: Otto Färm

 

Body Weather Manipulations No. 1 & 2

The Manipulations were developed in the late 1970s by a group of young artists under the leadership of Japanese dancer/choreographer Min Tanaka. They are one of the main elements of Body Weather performance training practice, frequently (but not always) placed between what is called the M/B (‘mind/body’, ‘muscles/bones’), a rigorous physical work out, and a third section that is variously referred to as ‘workshop’, ‘laboratory’, or ‘groundwork’. This latter part consists of a broad range of exercises and scores that explore the body’s capacity to move with an altered perception in relation to itself and to other (imagined or real) non-/human objects and phenomena.
This video registration captures the beginning of the practice, Manipulations No. 1 & 2. The complete series consists of approximately 90 touch-based hands-on operations structured into a fixed sequence from 1 to 7 during which the roles of giver and receiver alternate. Most of the touch-operations are conducted by the ‘giver’ directing body weight through the hands into and through the body of the receiving partner while audibly exhaling. Usually, the whole practice takes between one and a half to two hours to be accomplished.
As a whole, the Manipulations can be construed as a technology to alter the mental and physical configuration of the body in order to enhance its performability and affectability. Thus, the practice may not only function as a tool for preparing the performer’s body for artistic performance, but, from a research perspective, it can also provide a frame for studying and observing the effect of performance training on the performer’s process of perception and modes of knowing.
This recording was taken in 2008 at Studio Overtoom 301 (Amsterdam/NL) with Ema Nik Thomas and Joa Hug.

We must embrace the digital: Massive Open Online Courses as performer training tools.

I’d like with my first ever blog entry to offer a challenge to the field of performer training. Let’s face it the current state of secondary drama education is in crisis. Much quoted figures include a drop of 23% in GCSE numbers in Drama from 2003-13, an 8% drop in Drama teachers in schools since 2010 and a 23% drop where an arts subject has been withdrawn. All of us will have anecdotal evidence from our colleagues of falling numbers at A Level and of systematic closures of (very successful) courses. How are we to arrest what many have called an ideological attack on the creative arts through changes to education? How are we to respond to the assessment of the Chair of the Warwick commission’s report on cultural value, that: “not enough is being done to stimulate or realise the creative potential of individuals, or to maximise their cultural and economic value to society. Improvement requires a greater degree of investment, participation, education and digital access’ (2015: 9)?

In this context, my assessment is stark:

Performer training will not survive in any guise of inclusiveness unless it diversifies its infrastructure and fully embraces the rise of digital culture.

Let’s consider this statement by considering the development of Massive Open Online Course, and specifically, one I have recently run on Meyerhold’s Biomechanics.

Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs – short, free-to-access, learning modules, delivered entirely online – are particularly interesting in terms of their organisation of ‘studio’ time. MOOCS are first and foremost ‘an EVENT’ and yet they also endure in perpetuity, contributing to students’ lifelong learning.   This interesting mixture of momentary eventness and longitudinal impact is one of a number of temporal idiosyncrasies associated with Massive Open Online learning or what I have called elsewhere digital training [1]. These include

  1. Time as it is constructed within the MOOC platform (e.g. FutureLearn).
  2. Time as it is designed by the educator (including the improvement of user engagement using learner analytics).
  3. Time as it experienced by the teacher during the MOOC.
  4. Time as it experienced by the participants during the MOOC, within and beyond the MOOC itself.
  5. Differing time zones of the participants.
  6. Differing ages, backgrounds and trainings of the participants.
  7. Time as it is experienced after the MOOC finishes.
  8. Time as historical content in the MOOC itself.

For now, let’s focus on points 3-6.

The eventness of MOOCS is created by the time-limited delivery of the courses – normally anywhere between 2 and 8 weeks, with specific content associated with each week. In some platforms this content is no longer available after the the course has concluded; in others, including the FutureLearn platform I used, the materials are available indefinitely – to review, download, rehash and reuse without restriction. The time-limited delivery of the course, allows for students to have a level of parallel experience, building to the same goals at the end of each week and opening up conversations about the same learning materials in the comment threads alongside materials:

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Closed Laboratory to Open Laboratory: Examining the Process of Making Training Public

My own practice is influenced by laboratory traditions, informed by contemporary performance and ‘devising’ methods. I am working with an emergent performance ensemble using task-based methods of training and performance.

An underlying dilemma that faces my practice is the process of taking work that has been formed in a closed environment into a wider and open context: making the private public.

Within my own practice I have been, as a member of the ensemble, working in a closed environment for an extended period of time. Until we held a participatory work demonstration, open to the public to enter and interact with both us and our work.

Within our closed environment we use objects such as paper, string and balloons. These objects are then utilised to create task-based fragments of performance, these tasks are detailed with complex and meticulous rules and sub-rules. One such task involved the use of homemade paper aeroplanes.

The ensemble are in the closed laboratory throwing the paper aeroplanes from one end of the room to the other whilst following complex and unnecessary rules and sub-rules detailed here:

https://movementstillness.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/layering-planes-week-18/

When this task took place in the closed laboratory the ensemble became immersed in the task, following the rules and sub-rules. The ensemble were working interdependently, mutually dependent on each other to complete the overall task, whilst independently moving through their own stages of the task.  During this task the ensemble demonstrated an intense and focused state, as their body(ies) repeatedly moved through the task concentrating on the task in the present moment. As a member of the ensemble, I was able to observe them loop though the repetition, continually throwing, aiming and repeating.

However, when this task was demonstrated in the open environment the ensemble’s approach and method for completing the task shifted unexpectedly.

It was noticeable that the ensemble were now individually driven to show their own skills, they were no longer moving through the task, they were performing rather than doing the task. Even breaking away from the task to explain the rules to the public, this direct interaction created a distinct division between the public and the ensemble and suggested that the rules and sub-rules had become fixed rather than remaining open.

This highlights that when in the closed environment, for me, the focus is on the functional actions, enabling the focus of the task to be on doing. The emphasis in the closed laboratory is on the process not the product and the act of creating one singular participatory work demonstration resulted in the process becoming a product. In order to make the sharing of work part of the process, we might be led to believe that this sharing should not take place in one go but use multiple platforms for continual sharing, never fully closing the laboratory (door?).

Jennifer Willett

‘Crisis’ Revisited: Re-entering Dark Voices in Revolt

In 2013, an article that I wrote called Dark Voices in Revolt was published in the TDPT Journal (vol. 4(3), 2013, 360-380). The article discussed the application of existing Oriental and Occidental voice and movement methods (the term Physio-Vocal, to me, captures the exact essence of voice/movement integration practice and theory) in order to ‘discover’ an alternate to the multifaceted area of the voice in performance pertaining to the notion of ‘crisis’. Simply put, ‘crisis’ may be defined as an emotionally significant event (which possibly has negative connotations attached to it), an unstable situation, and so on. Throughout our investigations, training, performance practice and research, we came to the conclusion our work was categorised into three forms of ‘crisis’: physical crisis, conceptual crisis and vocal crisis.

Physical crisis is a situation where the body is engaged in a challenging position, for example, it may be off balance in a moving or static state, moving dynamically through the space or placed in a position where the abdominal muscles are engaged to keep the body upright or in a stable position. Through these physical states, the performer must engage in various voice work. Conceptual crisis is a term (and practice) that is largely influenced by  the philosophies and practice of Butoh dance, for example, exploring the illogical, absurd with the underpinning notion of ‘revolting’ against the convention. Of course, Butoh means one thing to one practitioner, and another thing to the other. It is not a method, which makes it quite difficult to pin down. Vocal crisis is a term given to when the use and semantics of the voice is extended, amplified, enlarged beyond recognition to depict the primordial, preverbal and representational significance of the inner contained energies expressed through sound.

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Comfort: The first step towards an intercultural and bespoke training regime

In my article ‘Dance training in Bali: intercultural and globalised encounters’ [5 ( 3), pp. 291-303] I discussed the changing approaches to the traditional world of Balinese topeng, which refers to the masked, dance –drama of Bali that is performed within a ceremonial context. (My short film gives a degree of context to the genre).

In contrast to a purely ethnographic documentation of this training which the article fully details, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond and ‘come back’ with a more personal and embodied perspective which centers on the challenges, obstacles and difficulties that I have faced in learning topeng and how I have overcome them by devising a more bespoke training suitable to my body, cultural understanding and abilities.

Whilst I can technically ‘do it’ however much I can theoretically understand and appreciate the qualities of energy in the dance, as articulated by the Balinese, as a non-Balinese person I am unlikely to realise the potential of full embodiment and achieve something akin to taksu, the divine charisma that artists aspire to.

On a less culturally ambitious level I am unlikely to achieve great success as I am following a training regime designed for a younger, nubile, pre-teen boy body which is somewhat difficult to follow.

The challenge is to configure an appropriate training that can re-situate a specific performance technique within a wider intercultural analysis. This integrated training may enable a richer, deeper, more comfortable approach to dancing the traditional choreography of topeng. By seeking comfort in the gesture, being ‘in dialogue’ with the choreography means I can actively visualise the (dis)comfort, stop –pause- change and reassess as necessary. In this discussion of comfort, there is a paradox because Balinese dance is by nature difficult and virtuosity is the aim. Therefore comfort is never to be replaced or confused by making the gesture ‘easy’, however easefulness can be sought so that the dance ceases to be painful. Seeking comfort during training may compromise one’s gestural or expressive potential in performance, but it does promote actual enjoyment of the choreography, which in turn expels delight in the dance. I therefore experience on occasion what Fraleigh calls ‘intrinsic dance’ which she describes as a state of ‘pleasure we feel in our bodies when we are in our own flow of being, moving for the dance and not to please others’ (Fraleigh 2000: 58).  Enjoyment and delight, is indicative and closer to the higher qualities of ceremonial performance as described by the various Balinese levels of attainment (Ruben and Sedana 2007: 125-126).

This one, simple change in perspective has developed into a far more process driven approach to my topeng training which is based on somatics; and beyond the scope of what I have space to write here. All I can say is that this has enabled a shift from the Balinese pre-occupation with the spirit of the mask with a renewed interest into the potential ‘life force’ of my body.

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000) ‘Consciousness Matters’, Dance Research Journal, 32 (1), pp. 54 – 62.

Rubin, Leon and Sedana, I Nyoman. (2007) Performance in Bali. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.