The Sensational Facts

In 2014, I wrote an article in which I explored the role of vision in solo, unaccompanied, un-scored improvisational dance performance. The paper proposed and situated a mode of solo ‘direct looking’ that can be practised as a means of training for solo dances which are improvised in performance. This calibration of solo ‘direct looking’ as a pragmatic training tool for the generation of choreographic material was positioned and contextualised through analysis of the aesthetic and socio-cultural values of the global training/performance practice of Contact Improvisation as well as various articulations of ‘direct looking’ that have also developed in post-1960s Western solo/duet/ensemble dance training models (Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 5 (1). pp. 31-44).

This Comeback relates to one small part of my original article – the reflections I made on Contact Improvisation’s inward orientation, which is intricately entwined with the use of vision – and my current interest in approaching the form as a mode of actor training in which an embodied appreciation of the energetic dynamics of give and take and an ability to maintain an open awareness that does not depend on vision may be cultivated. I will briefly relate an experimental teaching session that I ran in February this year, in which year 2 students on our BA (Hons) in Drama were introduced to the pragmatics and socio-cultural valences of Contact Improvisation through a tripartite structure of lecture, practical session and reflective writing.

The session took place in what is traditionally a 3-hour ‘lecture’ slot, but I wanted to challenge this theory-oriented, lecture and discussion format by implementing a more fluid tripartite structure; one that would segue from lecture, to practical experimentation to reflective writing and in doing so embrace and embody different modes of learning and knowing. I wanted the students to appreciate the socio-political dimensions of the form so that they could grasp the link between the desire for social change and questioning of the ideological principles that ruled over social, political and artistic fields that was characteristic of 1970s (and 1960s) American society and the invention of a form of movement that adheres to philosophies of socio-sexual equality and challenges stereotypical behavioural norms. Contact Improvisation was thus introduced as carrying particular socio-political values; this understanding reinforced by showing a clip of a performance which the students were asked to analyse in terms of markers such as the informality of presentation style.

I also needed the students to experience the form from inside; to attune to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges that are at the heart of the doing of it. I wanted to see if the students could make experiential sense of what Steve Paxton meant when he said that contact improvisers should concentrate on ‘the sensational facts’ (Paxton quoted in Novack, 1990, p.82).[1] This statement – pointing to both pragmatic and ideological indices – was introduced in the lecture, and I was interested in then discovering whether any of the students would be able to consciously attune to their ‘sensational facts’ – to the feeling of the body as it gave and received weight, followed a point of contact, rolled, fell or found itself upside down. Once the session moved from lecture into practice, I therefore led the students through a warm-up which began by adopting the idea that the floor is a ‘partner’ so the students could initially work alone, concentrating on rolling, sliding and pushing movements before developing into slow falls into the floor and rolls back to standing. Students then transitioned to working with a partner, learning how to support and take weight, slide and fall through a series of simple structures. Further work on resisting or yielding to one’s partner was explored before the students were invited to improvise a longer duet, drawing on their understanding of the foundational principles of the physical laws of momentum and gravity that govern and generate their movement.

At this point in the session, I drew on Viola Spolin’s technique of ‘sidecoaching’, in which I called out ‘just that word, that phrase, or that sentence’ that would keep the students ‘on focus’ (Spolin, 1986, p.5). Phrases or questions were designed to encourage the students to attune to their ‘sensational facts’ as they improvised (also making an explicit connection between the lecture and practical component of the session). Questions such as ‘which parts of you feel soft or fluid, which hard or dense?’ and statements such as ‘notice your breathing pattern’, ‘sense your weight’ and ‘let your weight settle and accept support’, functioned as prompts for the students to consciously focus attention on the stirrings of somatic, bodily knowing. At times I asked the students to deliberately slow down as a radical shift in speed invites an even more heightened sensitivity to the tactile-kinesthetic exchanges. Encouraging the students to move with this kind of conscious attention to the subtleties of what Sondra Fraleigh calls ‘our body-self’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.57) laid the foundations for the reflective writing that was to follow. The students were beginning to register the immediate moment of experience and were operating as active participants in the process.

I was aware of the challenge of the final reflective writing part of the experiment and curious about how the students might capture in words aspects of their experience of encountering Contact Improvisation for the first time. Fraleigh notes that ‘finding the direct and intuitive way to describe movement, affect, and our sensate proximity to others is at first daunting’ and the process of describing one’s immediate experience requires the student ‘to voice what is not initially discursive, but kinesthetic in nature’ (Fraleigh, 2015, p.21). In asking them to reflect on their experience and bring it to language, I encouraged them to write quickly and intuitively, ‘not listening to their internal critics’ (Fraleigh, 2000, p.56). The period of reflection also included a more speculative piece of writing, in which the students were asked to note down some initial ideas on how they might transfer what they learnt in the session to their work as actors and directors on other modules. This was to enable me to gauge further whether, and how, this movement form might be appreciated as a mode of actor training. David Zinder notes that the form ‘is one of the best ways…for actors to keep up improvisation/creative skills’ and that the form ‘is a must for anyone interested in any aspect of the physical approach to theater’ (Zinder, 2002, p.95, original italics). The more recent Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being (Ewan and Green, 2015) outlines some of the ways in which Contact Improvisation fosters ‘freedom through movement’ and confidence for the drama student (Ewan and Green, 2015, p.24). The reflective writing component of my experiment would hopefully add the students’ own views on how Contact Improvisation might be able to be applied to their studies in acting and directing.

The tripartite structure is one I would like to pursue further, as there were clearly useful links between aspects of the lecture – including viewing and discussing footage – and the students’ own practical experiments. There was a palpable sense of play, experimentation and enjoyment in the practical work, with a few students choosing to work in quite a dynamic register in following momentum and falling. Given that these students had never encountered Contact Improvisation before, nor had they had any significant grounding in physical training or exposure to touch as a medium of learning, I was impressed by their openness and curiosity. Additionally, the writings have given me some useful insight into the students’ responses to their introductory encounter with this form and the ways in which they were able to begin to transition from bodily to linguistic knowing.

Sample student responses

Calm – a bodily calm rather than my mind, I felt I had to be quite focused mentally

Heavy – I was surprised at how much weight my body could give over to my partner

Relaxed, open, spacious, released

Flowing & fluid – when we came to improvise the duet, I was surprised and impressed by how much myself and my partner flowed into and around each other

I felt very relaxed. Yet physically challenged. Basically it felt like a good workout

From a directing standpoint, I find the idea of experimenting with CI during my rehearsals interesting. I would be intrigued to find out whether it would open up my actors’ physicality and make them more fluid (especially in their interactions with the other actors) as I suspect.

References

Ewan, Vanessa and Green, Debbie. (2015). Actor Movement: Expression of the Physical Being. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

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

Fraleigh, Sondra. (2015). ‘Why Consciousness Matters’. In: Fraleigh, Susan. (Ed.) Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Novack, Cynthia, J. (1990). Sharing The Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Spolin, Viola. (1986). Theater Games For the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Zinder, David. (2002). Body Voice Imagination: A Training For The Actor. Routledge: London and NY.

[1] Contact Improvisation is widely credited as having been ‘invented’ by Steve Paxton in 1972. As part of a residency at Oberlin College in Ohio, America, Paxton did a showing of some work he had been doing in a men’s class. The showing was called ‘Magnesium’ and explored how two bodies could negotiate the sharing of weight around an ongoing point of contact.

Report on Conference at the University of West London: “Making the Impossible Possible”: The Feldenkrais Method in Music, Dance, Movement and the Creative Practice

On 30 April 2016, Marcia Carr and I organised a conference at the University of West London entitled Making the Impossible Possible”: The Feldenkrais Method in Music, Dance, Movement and the Creative Practice. Speakers came from around the world: from North and South America, Australia, Europe as well as some homegrown talent. This in itself was testament to the spread of Feldenkrais’s thought, but what was most pleasing, and what in many ways represents a great continuity of Feldenkraisian thought, was the welcome unorthodoxy of the approaches on show. This I think shows something profoundly potent about Feldenkrais’s thought: it is intellectually malleable, durable and that it is a hinge towards the advancement of thought and practice for the mutual benefit of these arenas.

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Still Pursuing Pleasure

For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1).  It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice.  Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight.  We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome.  Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience.  It is useful to acknowledge that.

When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield.  Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.

The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.

The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive.  This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.

The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre.  The School offers a ten-week intensive training.  It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation.  We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum.  This means fees are as low as we can make them.  Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher.  I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.

As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.

A few thoughts:

1.  Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system.  Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’.  Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.

2.  Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure.  People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices.  Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria.  I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.

3.  The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes.  In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices.  We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to.  In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role.  This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis.  Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training.  Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable.  The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.

4.  Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’.  It ends up feeling twee and reductive.  The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying.  People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’  This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it.  I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’

5.  The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work.  We are not working, we are laughing and playing.  I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others.  This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality.  Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened.  It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.

6.  The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer.  I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important.  Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves.  If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn.  I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.

The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results.  The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’.  Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’.  It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment.  As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure.  I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again.  After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…

The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’.  That’s important.  Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy.  The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research.  The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…

In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure.  Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex.  The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity.  Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler.  The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be.  The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.

 

Variations on a theme: Active Analysis at the “S-Word” symposium

The following post was written by David Jackson but due to IT issues was posted by the current Comeback curator Bryan Brown.

I intended to blog about The S-Word: Stanislavski and the future of Acting symposium soon after the event was held at Rose Bruford College on 18-20 March. I’m shocked to see we are already well into May and I’m only just sitting down to do it. I blame a blizzard of assessments, timetabling problems, teaching commitments and research events at the beginning of the summer term. Clearly, it couldn’t possibly have been my fault. So before memory fades any further, I put fingers to keyboard. At a symposium where three sessions run simultaneously (two panels and one work demonstration) delegates construct their own programme by picking from the menu of papers and workshops. Naturally, we follow a thread according to our own obsessions. So one of the key themes of ‘my’ S-Word was Active Analysis. I was originally taught Active Analysis by the late Albert Filozov, the celebrated Theatre and Film actor who trained under Michael Kedrov at the Moscow Art Theatre School. Filozov led the ‘Russian School of Acting’ summer schools that took place in Birmingham in the mid-90s. If it resonates with you, there is something about Active Analysis that fills practitioners with a missionary zeal, and I certainly went on to make full use of it as a professional actor and subsequently as a teacher in the conservatoire. My first article for Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, published in 2:2 (2011), documents my experiments with the technique in training and rehearsal at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I frequently use it in my current job as an acting tutor at the Birmingham School of Acting (BSA). The symposium was a rare opportunity to gain an insight into how other scholars and practitioners use Active Analysis.

The S-Word attracted an extremely high calibre of scholars in the field. Arguably all the leading Stanislavski experts in the English-speaking world were present, including Sharon Marie Carnicke (University of Southern California), Rose Whyman (University of Birmingham), Jonathan Pitches (Leeds University), Bella Merlin (University of California, Riverside), Maria Shevtsova (Goldsmith’s University) and Sergei Tcherkassky (St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy). Delegates came from all over the world, including Australia, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Canada and the US, in addition to several European countries.

The programme for the first evening consisted of two keynote speeches, the first by Stefan Aquilina and Jonathan Pitches. Their topic was the transmission of Stanislavskian practice, not just to the obvious destinations of Russia itself, the US and Europe, but to additional territories in Australasia, Asia and Africa. They argued that practice is necessarily inflected by the individuals who engage with it and that this process is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Stanislavski ‘system’, since it is not and never was fixed or unitary. They concluded that it is a living thing that will continue to spread and develop in response to local conditions. The second address was delivered by Sharon Marie Carnicke, one of the most influential Stanislavski scholars in the world, a Russian speaker and expert in Active Analysis. She spoke eloquently of the importance of separating the principles of the system from the historical contingencies of the time. In her own practice, she has applied Active Analysis to situations undreamt of in Stanislavski’s era, including a motion-capture experiment designed to generate a digitised method of reading emotional expression and a performance of a post-dramatic text written by contemporary Russian playwright, Ivan Vyrypaev. 

The whole of Saturday and Sunday morning were devoted to a series of papers and practical demonstrations, with two panels and one demonstration running concurrently. The presentations I saw nearly always illuminated some area of the field in a stimulating and useful way. Stephane Poliakov’s paper was devoted to Stanislavski’s rich use of painting and drawing to generate the ‘obrazi’ or images that informed his set designs and ‘inner images’ of characterizations. Maria Kapsali and Sreenath Nair debated the strong influence of yoga on the development of the system. Two of the less obvious perspectives on Stanislavski dealt with the application of acting techniques in the classroom. Tamara Guenoun’s paper dealt with the use of drama therapy with troubled teenagers. Petronilla Whitfiled introduced new strategies for teaching verse-speaking to dyslexic students. My own paper proposed a novel way of understanding acted emotion, by linking the Stanislavski-Vakhtangov concept of ‘affective emotion’ with Antonio Damasio’s hypothesis of the ‘as-if’ body loop.

Active Analysis was addressed in both formal presentations and workshops. Jay Skelton’s work demonstration explored the integration of Active Analysis with Viewpoints. Knowing little or nothing about Viewpoints, I was curious to see how it might merge with a method that is one of my areas of expertise. Skelton’s session bore little resemblance to anything I would recognise as Active Analysis – which I hasten to add is simply an indication of how the same or similar practice can develop in completely different directions. John Gillett’s popular workshop posed the question, is Active Analysis relevant to Shakespeare? Although I couldn’t attend Gillett’s session, I was intrigued by his research question, as I regularly use Active Analysis in the rehearsal of classical text. The final plenary session was introduced by a documentary made at the University of California, Riverside, about Bella Merlin’s use of Active Analysis. After the screening, an informal conversation with Sharon Marie Carnicke made it clear that her use of Active Analysis was different from all of these models. So my closing reflections were dominated by the thought that an apparently simple technique in the hands of a relatively small cross-section of practitioners can generate very diverse practices and performance outcomes. This observation corresponded with some of the themes that emerged during the weekend. Throughout the symposium, three ‘witnesses’ were stationed in each of the three conference spaces and reported back to delegates at the plenary event. The principal issues they identified were:

  • The transmission of practice and its assimilation into a wide range of cultures
  • Separating the durable principles of acting from ephemeral theatre fashion
  • An appreciation of flexibility and diversity rather than a dogmatic view of the Stanislavskian tradition
  • Cognitive perspectives are often interesting, but how will they affect practice?

The system is now well over one hundred years old. If Stanislavskian practice is to continue to survive and develop into the 21st century, it is essential that it is subjected to a continual process of review and renewal, at conferences, in the studio and through the literature. As I post, two new S-Word events have just been announced: “Translating the Art/The Art of Translation” will be held in June in London and a Spring 2017 Conference will be held at DAMU Theatre Academy in Prague. It’s too soon to tell but as the “S Word: Merging Methodologies” Conference grew out of the conversations had at this future of acting symposium, it may just be the future event needed to specifically address variations on the theme of Active Analysis – there’s plenty more debate to be had on that topic.

David Jackson, 26.05.15

Verbatim practices, the acoustics of training, and giving voice: a voice studies afterthought

Coming out of the 2016 TaPRA Interim Event of the Performer Training Working Group, ‘Training to Give Evidence,’ gracefully organised by Kate Craddock and hosted by Northumbria University, certain provocations around the ethics of verbatim, documentary, and auto/biographical performance still resonate with me. To navigate such a rich landscape, I would briefly like to outline some thoughts in relation to voice.

Voice and vocal practices were, implicitly or explicitly, a recurrent trope in many of the papers and practical demonstrations. As part of his opening provocation on mimicry and impersonation in verbatim theatre, Tom Cantrell shared interviews with actors that have engaged with the genre. Ken Drury, in an attempt to distance his approach to acting from impersonation and the creation of exact copies, stated that he was mainly interested in the (real-life) person’s behaviour. By contrast, Jason Watkins started accessing his character through locating the accent and was mainly preoccupied with rhythm – not necessarily of words, he hastened to footnote, but rhythm of thinking. There is an intriguing underlying assumption perhaps emerging here; acting has to do with behaviours, actions, feelings and thoughts, but the role of vocality in training and performance is at best acknowledged when recast in the shadow of the above, or, at worst, implicitly equated with mimicry.

As a voice studies practitioner-scholar, I constantly come across deeply embedded assumptions about voice, and, when interacting with scholarly environments more closely affiliated with performance studies, sometimes these assumptions transform into a certain type of polemics. Bodies speak the truth; voices can hide it. Actors are trained into speaking classical/mainstream/canonical texts; performers/artists honour their own voice or prefer to work with the untrained or the amateur. Body-first approaches to text are (ideologically) valued more, and the trained actor as a ‘talking head’ has been criticised consistently by a lineage of influential practitioners and makers in the UK.[1]

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A digest of the TaPRA PT interim event: Training to Give Evidence

Hi Everyone!

Here’s my (inevitably flawed and holey) summary of the fascinating day dedicated to training in verbatim practices, hosted by Kate Craddock as part of a TaPRA Performer Training interim event at Northumbria. Any confusions are all my own.

First Provocation from Tom Cantrell

Where does imitating end and performing begin? “Imitating is a less noble art than acting” But nevertheless close observation and mimicry is part of the craft of verbatim work and of faction. What terminology do we need to capture this strand of the work? And how do we manage the bias towards emotional, empathic acting (from Stanislavsky). What is our ‘craft terminology’ Cantrell asks?

Second Provocation from Lexi Strauss

Developing a growing discomfort about some of the ethical approaches in verbatim work. So how to use the same techniques in paint and fine art? A life time body of work might be the closest to a definitive self portrait? What’s the problem with recorded delivery verbatim then? Perhaps because the original ‘darkness’ of the material might not translate and might be reinterpreted by an audience. Perhaps because its claim to objectivity is specious. Lexi only interviews people with whom she has ‘a specific connection’.  The result is a hybrid of the subject and the interviewer/artist.  How would you describe your verbatim practice, Lexi asks, is it closer to the journalistic or the immersive – or something entirely different?  Either way it needs to acknowledge its hybridity.

Third Provocation from Richard Gregory

How to show our hands? Questions from the work of  Quarantine:

No such thing   Buying people a free lunch in exchange for a conversation. (No documentation of any part of the conversation, no evaluation, no  public airing). Monthly themes: on hope, on risk, on utopia, on what’s new. The work retains the ‘considered rigour’ of the more formal work of the company but invisibly.  Dramaturgy based on Starters, Mains, Afters, Today’s special.

Wallflower: Can you remember all the dances you’ve ever danced? How do you develop the facility to be responsible for the dramaturgy and the whole mise-en-scene? All that is possible is to set ‘a delicate architecture’ and be alert to what the possibilities are. One of the biggest questions about training and preparation is ‘How do we know how we are being seen’ [by an audience]?

Summer, Autumn Winter, Spring: 7 hours, (Part 1 – Summer – 40 people on stage from across the age range, without experience, responding to questions and a projected score). As the questions are unseen how do you rehearse the performers?  Feed them, make them familiar with the idea of responding to a structure – training for ‘becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable’ Continue reading

‘Fearless Hearts and Peaceful minds’ – Internalizing tradition and incorporating myself Reflections on the session of the International Platform for Performer Training, Wroclaw 2016

My journey into theatre traditions started early. An intriguing new drama teacher arrived at my school at the age of eleven. She brought with her a dynamic and challenging way of creating theatre and I began to pay attention. I was subsequently a founder and for eight years a member of a most peculiar youth theatre. Our teacher turned director, Carran Waterfield, had been trained by Roberta Carreri of Odin Teatret and in the years that followed, I began to research the history and methodology of this now almost mythical theatre troupe and became fascinated by the writings of its director and founder, Eugenio Barba and by default, his mentor, Jerzy Grotowski. This early exposure to such an intense tradition created many difficulties and exhilarations for me in my youth. When other children were watching ‘Neighbours’ on TV in the 1990s, I was trying to do ‘training’ on a concrete floor in a cold church hall in Coventry.

Wroclaw has always been synonymous with the name of Grotowski. His Teatr Laboratorium 13 Rzędów (13 Row Laboratory Theatre) relocated here from Opole in 1965. The last time I visited Wroclaw was in October 2001 as an actor in the Polish premiere of Millennium Mysteries, a co-production by Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Poznan’s Teatr Biuro Podrozy, directed by Pawel Szkotak. It was also the year that I left life in the UK behind and joined Teatr Biuro Podrozy where I remained as an actor for three years.

So I found myself in Wroclaw (now the European City of Culture 2016) again, 15 years later and the location for the third session of the International Platform for Performer Training (IPPT). The IPPT was launched in Helsinki in 2014, its aim being to develop performer training on an international platform. It is a forum for theatre makers, pedagogues and academics involved in performer training within institutions offering higher education in the fields of performing arts. In Zurich last year the forum focused on the themes of Curriculum, Voice and Speech. This year, the subject of the session was Practicing Tradition in Performer Training. I have been out of theatre and academic circles for several years due to maternity leave, so the anticipation of witnessing presentations by and conversing with such an esteemed group of professionals from within my field, was immense.

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Contact Improvisation and actor training

 

My article “Contact Improvisation to Scene Study: Authenticity in Word and Deed” (2012) explored the use of C.I. (contact improvisation) in actor training. The following one minute video shows an example of a CI session between actors Jacob Dresch and Claire Edmunds during a training session concentrating on the use of counter balance.

Drawing on mime, modern dance and dance/theater explorations and expanding through 30 years of studio work with actors, this use of C.I. in actor training releases the physical/emotional honesty of actors. This is a training of energy and weight exchange in which the ultimate goal is kinetic and intimate responsiveness to a partner. The playful, dynamic and exhilarating shifts of counter-balance that characterize this work are reached through the practice of contact improvisation. Basic tumbling, energy exchange exercises and partnering dance lifts are its fundamental building blocks. Text may also be used in a contact session and this allows the spontaneous physical language of the actors’ bodies to parallel the spoken dialogue. Without consciously imposing objectives actors inter-relate spontaneously, dynamically and elegantly; and the outcome is an imprinted ability to deliver emotional and physical honesty in a scene. Counter-balance Theater (my physical theater company) uses this technique to train performers within the company, in classes at UCI, and in workshops for the wider public. The physical techniques in leveraging, complicit interchange and trajectory of motion, are used to create the imagery scored in the Counter-Balance scripts.

 

 

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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‘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.