Madness

August 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We ran the first two-thirds of the script on Friday morning – about 40 minutes worth of material. I thought it was great – and enormously exciting. The style is awkward and confrontational, nothing settles for very long before something very different comes along and blows it away. High energy and wild movement mutates into tight choreography. Silence is slaughtered by an onslaught of noise. The grotesque and the introspective challenge each other for primacy. Everything is continually shattering – as is only appropriate in a piece about a shattering man who shatters his universe.

Some of the material is a little over-sombre and reflective at the moment – I need to rough it up and inject more grotesque humour into the structure and the performance. But there’s plenty of time yet.

There are sections throughout the piece that are – and will remain – improvised. this is not a simple ‘style’ choice, it is designed to alter the entire feel of the piece each time the cast run any or all of it. If we are TRULY to be live, then if one thing in the piece is different to how it has been before, then everything, in subtle ways, will be altered. So to push this ‘idea’ to its logical conclusion, I want to integrate the essence of unpredictability – improvisation – into the core of the dramatic journey. Not only are some small sections improvised, but I am asking the cast that all sections, however tightly directed, are performed AS IF improvised. So if an improvised section is particularly energetic in one show, what follows, however tightly structured, will contain echoes and will be influenced by the energy of what preceded it.

There is a kind of madness here – we spend months generating material and then aspire to make it appear as if we are making it up as we go along. It is not the only perversity at work in the process. I ask performers always to aspire to appear absolutely effortless. However complex, challenging or frightening a move or a moment, I ask that it appears to the audience as if it is effortlessly achieved. So we work incredibly hard so that the audience thinks that what we are doing is easy…..

This coming week I will try to create, with the ensemble, the final third of the material. It is a descent into madness. Macbeth is King and is worshipped. Banquo is dangerous and must die. There will be a feast at which corpses will dance. Macbeth will choose to fight the fabric of the world, and will be destroyed in that fight. Lad Macbeth will try to hold it all together and will find that, at her core, is an emptiness into which she will collapse. Her end is silence. Conquerers, no better than those they conquer, will take control and slaughter all those who stand between them and safety. Our protagonist, the invisible Porter who opens gates for those more famous than him, will slip away from a burning castle and become an outcast in an unforgiving world.

Everything will shatter.

In the midst of all this madness we, the artists, must be sane. In the midst of the danger, we must be safe. In the midst of the horror, the slaughter, the shattering despair, we, the artists, must find joy, community and coherence.

Think of us – for this week we go to the heart of madness.

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Excitement. Work. Fear.

August 26, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We’re deep in the heart of the rehearsal process. The work is developing rapidly – both in terms of the scenes and number of pages we are covering and in terms of my/our understanding of the style or aesthetic that is emerging. It is a time of rich excitement, of very hard, disciplined work and of fear.

The excitement manifests in many ways. It is extraordinary to see the developmental work we did in Whitestone (a time that feels so long ago now), underpinning the rehearsal of scenes. Two, three pages of complex work can be rehearsed in half an hour because the ensemble can work quickly, wordlessly and in full trust to discover how to make a piece of text, an image, a sound world come to life. There is deep excitement in seeing individuals in the ensemble making personal breakthroughs, suddenly seeing weeks of disciplined, painstaking self-exploration coalesce into moments of practical realisation – not realisation in the mind, but embodied realisation, when an individual suddenly experiences themselves as being able to do things they never thought would be possible for them. There is deep excitement in collectively finding solutions to seemingly intractable script problems. There is – always – the deep excitement of improvisation when I get to watch (and the performers get to experience) the spontaneous eruption of extraordinary moments of collective or individual expression – moments that erupt and evaporate in the blink of an eye.

Yes, there is excitement in every hour of the long rehearsal day.

Hard work? People arrive between 9.00 and 9.30 to start personal warm-up. We work collectively from 10.00 until around 5.30pm.   Usually I leave the building at 6.00 to go home and prepare for the next day’s rehearsal. The performers are still there, working with full attention on their personal physical scores. During the long working day we train, physically and vocally, we improvise, we sing, we develop complex physical images, we rehearse scenes, we develop personal elements of performance, we work on physical characterisation, we dance wildly….. . In the evenings there is always line-learning or remembering the details of physical scores. It is gruelling work, requiring the full attention of the self on every aspect of our psychic and physical being. It is emotionally tough, physically tough and gloriously relentless. How did actors get the reputation of being somehow lazy or self-indulgent?

And fear? Yes there is fear. Each of us has our own fears and only some of them do we share with one another. I find myself up against old and ingrained habits which I desperately want and need to break. Though my work as a director is generally ‘experimental’ (unless I’m working to a specific directorial brief), nonetheless I have a strong desire to ‘please’ my audience. Often that comes at the expense of ‘pleasing’ myself – or rather I should say, at the expense of following my vision or instinct. Perhaps I do not trust my instinct enough. Perhaps I am afraid that I am too strange, too idiosyncratic and so instead of making the work that I really want to, I make work that I think the audience wants to see. Generally that’s successful enough as a strategy – people mainly like the work I make. But….. What if I really follow my vision through to it’s logical conclusions? What if I did not seek the approval of the audience but instead do what I really admire in others – pursue a vision and allow those who like it to like it, and those who don’t, not to. What if I really work as an artist (pursuing a vision), not as an entertainer (seeking approval from an audience)? There is no value judgement implicit in those two terms – both artist and entertainer are to be respected for both do difficult jobs – but they are, sometimes, different jobs. So my fear is of risking disapproval from my audience by pursuing my vision rather than second-guessing what I think those who will come to see the show will want to see.

Excitement. Disicplined work. Fear.

In training performers I ask that they boldly confront, embrace and work through their fears to realise the untapped potential they possess as artists. As we enter the crucial stage of development of “The Shattering Man’ do I have the courage to do that too?

Change and Continuity

August 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Well, we left Whitestone. We had a couple of days rest aand then reconvened in Studio 2 of The Milton Building, University of Huddersfield where, next month, ‘The Shattering Man’ will be performed. The shift of space – indeed the complete change of environment  that was involved in leaving Whitestone – raises questions for me about the relationship between change and continuity.

This Duende ensemble met, made preliminary contact, grew and flourished, in a beautiful, small converted barn in a rural setting. Our soundscape was the wind, the birds, the sheep. Our rehearsals were book-ended with a shared breakfast and a shared evening meal. We were our own community. The ensemble comfortably filled the space we worked in. If we chose to be loud or highly energetic, we could dominate, almost threaten the space. We were free  to take the work outside the studio and into the natural world, where we could not dominate but we could be part of the landscape and the soundscape.

Here, in Milton, there is a different rhythm. Our days are bookended with ‘real’ life – travel to and from rehearsal surrounded by people who have nothing to do with ‘The Shattering Man’. Breakfast and evenings are spent in our permanent (or temporary) homes. Though the University campus is quiet, as is the building we are working in, it is inhabited. We are a small part of a bigger community. The studio is a beautiful converted, huge, nineteenth century church hall – immensely high and with a huge window at one end. The set is already constructed and so the space is assymetirical. We have to bend our training round the performance space.

Training exercises that had one flavour in Whitestone have quite another one here. Here we can fill the space – aurally and physically – but we do not dominate it. Here we cannot take the work outside – it becomes a constrained experience, more theatrical and less environmental. The feeling is different.

So what remains? What have we brought with us from the first part of the process into this second part? As so much of what I ask of an ensemble is to do with responsiveness, about being able,  in the moment, to respond to changes in the performance environment, it is inevitable that the experience of the work changes here. That’s necessary. If things felt the same here we would not be responding to the changed circumstances we find ourselves in. Paradoxically, if we were to try to hold onto how the ensemble was in Whitestone, we would be betraying the very essence of the ensemble we constructed there  – an ensemble of open and responsive, interconnected individuals. It is only by letting go of what we had there that we can preserve the spirit of what we made there.

Yet some qualities remain constant. The connection between the ensemble is pretty much intact. The nature of people’s individual struggles changes but has continuity. When the group improvises, certain languages and energies that have become familiar between us re-emerge, though often in new and unexpected ways. We still listen and respond.

When things change, when fantastic periods of time are over, we want, naturally, to preserve what we made and experienced. We want to keep the past and continually relive it. But we are making live theatre here. Live theatre does not exist in the past, it must vibrantly and boldly exist in the present, otherwise it is no longer live. So at the heart of what remains of the experience of being at Whitestone, the very essence of the ensemble we formed there, is our willingness to change, to grow, to build.

Things change, and the only continuity is our willingess to change with them.

Yet more pictures and video

August 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Snapshots of the final week of the Whitestone Residency are now posted on DUENDE’s facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/DUENDE/134620846559110?v=photos&ref=ts

and a video of moments can be found on Youtube:

Fundamentals, spirals, endings, beginnings

August 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The residency has ended. Though this is only the conclusion of the first part of the creative process, it feels like a significant (and quite painful) milestone.

The work really peaked a few days ago so I focussed the last couple of days on consolidating, reflecting and revisiting experiences. Often this involved going back to exercises or explorations the ensemble had undertaken earlier in the residency, revisiting fundamentals. As there is such a rich process of individual and collective growth going on through the residential process, the act of revisiting is powerful and revealing.

I often think of learning, or ensemble development, as a spiral rather than a linear process. Neither individuals nor the group simply learn one thing, then the next, then the next, with each discovery building on top of the previous one. It simply doesn’t work like that. Any process of training or ensemble development requires elements of repetition. In my training approach, there are only four or five core exercises, each with an infinite number of variations that serve the particular needs of the ensemble at specific stages of its development.

Sometimes the most useful way to run an exercise is to return to its most basic form, to touch base once again with its fundamentals. If people think of their development as linear, this might seem like going back to the beginning. However, if people think of their learning as spiral, then although going back to basic forms of an exercise means returning where the training started, it acknowledges that people have changed. We have improved, deepened, unlearned some bad habits. So we cannot go back to the beginning, we can only spiral back to somewhere close to the start, and, in doing that, notice how much we have been changed by the experiences we have undertaken.

So the last few days of the residency involved some spiralling back to the start, both as a way to reflect on the enormity of the journey we have each undertaken and to prepare us for relocating to the rehearsal studio in Huddersfield next week where work starts in earnest on the creation of the show.

This is the first time I have run such a prolonged residency. I have run longer training processes (up to 3 months on the MA course I teach) and I have run rural residential workshops before (particularly at Au Brana Cultural Centre in Southern France). However this has been a new experience for me. There is much to reflect on and I want to chart how the experiences of these three weeks blossom in the rehearsal studio. However, standing on the step of Whitestone this morning as people left, even though we are to reconvene in only four days, I experienced a sense of loss and knew that something extraordinary had happened. In and out of the studio, in front of the living room fire together (or last night in the hot tub in the garden) or searching for moments of solitude on the moors, eating together, training together, singing, laughing, walking, chatting together, we forged a community.

Though we live in a cynical age, where such sentiments are unfashionable, I feel proud and honoured to have spent three weeks in a community utterly and passionately committed to making art. It was a community of rigorous, disciplined, generous and excellent performers willing to push themselves beyond their limits in pursuit of the development of themselves in relationship with others. We became an ensemble.

The act of stopping.(by Aliki)

August 9, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Walk/Stop/Run exercise.

During the exercise of choosing whether to walk, stop or run according to your impulse towards to what the room needs you to be doing, I discovered the notion of the ‘continuous stopping’.  Being aware of the transformation of the energy between running, walking or stopping, feeling present and active in the stop as well as maintaining the inner and outer focus while keeping space and group awareness are the main characteristics of my experience of that exercise. However, this time I felt the continuous activity of stopping. Not just as a one decided action but as the prolongation of the action of stopping while being stopped. As if you ‘stop all the time when you are in the stilleness of the stop’.  Being active without being physically active. The brain seemed to be involved in a kind of triggering of the decision of of stopping continuously while having already stopped. There was a constant movement in the stillness a pulsation and also a strong connection with what had existed before the stop and what would follow the stop. However, without conscious thinking but as a line of pulsing energy between the states. So, time was working on a completely different plane.

letting go

August 8, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The couple of days during which I broke some of the bonds that have established in the ensemble – which I wrote about in the last post – were difficult. People felt separated, exposed, confused. Yesterday we spent a training session in which we went right back to basics. We ran the core training exercises focussing on the fundamental principles – detail of task, flow of impulse, attention to the shifting energetics of each moment of each exercise and, above all, pursuit of personal pleasure within each and every moment of each and every task.

It was a great training session during which the ensemble reconfigured in deeper and hugely exciting ways. It ended up, after three hours of training with one of the best group physical improvisations I have even seen.

It has made me consider the process of forming and breaking habits. Whenever an individual encounters an exercise for the first time, she works out how to manage it. She develops strategies for working at the level necessary for her to be able to survive within the exercise. Often these strategies have strengths and weaknesses in them. As she improves in the exercise, she becomes better and pursuing her strategies, but still they contain the same strengths and weaknesses that were there in the first place. Eventually the strategy that has enabled her to get to a certain level in an exercise becomes exactly the same strategy, or habit, that is preventing her from getting any further.

An example: As anyone who has worked with me knows, I spend a lot of time standing in a circle throwing  juggling bags. When a performer first encounters the exercise she usually grabs and holds the bags before passing them on, ensuring that she catches more bags than she drops. It is her way of controlling the apparent chaos of the exercise. Eventually, as there are more bags being thrown in the circle, and they are flying faster and harder, it is no longer sustainable to grab and hold each bag. The initial strategy she developed has reached the end of its usefulness and she needs to learn another. So she gives herself to the flow of the exercise. She develops fluidity of motion and her reaction to impulses improves. But still, often, at some level, she attempts to control the exercise and when she is faced with several bags flying at  her at once, she will revert to snatching at them, or batting them away. The weakness of her first strategy – the desire to exert control over the exercise – is still embedded in her work.

So this is when we need to practice letting go. We need to let go of control and give ourself to reaction. We need to let go of our competence, and give ourselves to reaction. We need to let go of our strength and power and give ourselves to reaction. We need to give away the security of having ANY strategy and trust ourselves to be able to react appropriately to any and all situations. In the end that is the only ‘strategy’ that always works – to know that we will be able to react well whatever is thrown at us. It is the strategy that allows us to stay ‘live’ as performers because it is one based on paying attention to whatever is real in an exercise rather than attempting to exert control over that exercise.

This letting go of the ‘controlling self’ requires deep levels of self confidence and even then is not easy, for it requires the confidence to trust to reaction rather than to planning. This reservoir of confidence that a performer needs if she is to penetrate to deep levels of ‘liveness’ is one of many reasons why I insist on the pursuit of personal pleasure within each action. Performers will let go only because and when they want to.

breaking and mending

August 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Once a group has been working together for a while, it begins to find its groove. Initial reservations dissolve, people come to trust and delight in each other. The mutual respect that is generated encourages people to venture from their safe places into areas that are more challenging to them. People take risks. People even learn to like taking risks. As people learn to dare to face up to their personal struggles, they also learn that fear will not kill them and that even when something breaks, what emerges is usually stronger that what it is replacing.

In the main training exercises – the ones we do pretty much every day – people find  now that they can daily achieve, without thinking or undue effort, things that initially seemed impossible to them. In group improvisations, certain vocal and physical languages repeat, certain rhythms or types of inter-relationship or energies reoccur.

The ensemble begins to find a collective identity. It finds its groove.

Around that point, the groove needs to be smashed. What we have made requires breaking so that it can reconfigure and then reform in new, more sophisticated forms. Otherwise the groove, the ensemble identity, becomes not a creative but a complacent place. Exercises are undertaken without real attention because individuals can work at a high level while paying more attention to their distractions than to the details that make the exercise a unique experience every time it is undertaken. Improvisations become familiar – enjoyable certainly – but undemanding.

Today I messed around with our core exercise, which involves throwing juggling bags in a circle (those who have never worked with me might, at this point, wonder how that most common of exercises can be seen as a core training exercise, as an exercise that we do for at least 90 minutes each day, but that’s a topic for another post, though you can get some idea here: http://www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.com/John_Britton/Blog/Entries/2009/8/16_The_Bag_Game.html)

We have spent two intensive weeks achieving a very high level of competence and concentration in this exercise and today I deliberately broke everything, all the ways of concentrating we have built up, the embodied actions we have learned. It can lead people to frustration, anger, insecurity, but will also, when we start again tomorrow, allow people to experience this exercise as if for the first time, having to relearn its basics and recommit themselves to its process.  Similarly in group improvisations, the ensemble needs to learn to recognise when it is in a groove. Sometimes that groove is yielding fruit (in which case they should keep doing what they are doing), and sometimes the ensemble is stuck in their groove (in which case someone needs to be bold enough to smash the groove and see what emerges from the rubble)

This process of development and dismantling is at the heart of growing an ensemble. It is also the model for the development of the self. We learn how to work at a certain level then we must confront and shatter our habits. We risk chaos, we experience failure, we make ourselves vulnerable, so that as our competencies reform, they do so in richer, more sophisticated and more resilient forms. Without the breaking, there is no growth. Without the failure, no success.

More video and pictures

August 3, 2010 at 10:38 am | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | 2 Comments
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There’s a new short video on Youtube with some snippets of the second week of the residency. You can access it at:

There’s also another album of photos on DUENDE’s facebook page for those that want to see some images:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/DUENDE/134620846559110?v=photos

I’ll put a few pictures on http://www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.com as well for those who do not use facebook.

a small crack

August 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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I had left the ensemble to work on developing some small performance pieces and was working in the house which stands next to the studio. I heard someone calling my name, with urgency, and went downstairs to hear of an injury.

In the studio, two of the three groups were working, though in a subdued fashion, while the third group sat and comforted a friend, a colleague, a-whatever-we-have-become-to each-other, who lay crying on the floor. She had felt something ‘go’ in her back and everything in there felt wrong. Perhaps she’d not be able to carry on. Perhaps she’d not be able to become the sort of performer she wanted to become. Perhaps her dreams would simply slip away from her.

When the back feels ‘wrong’ everything feels ‘wrong’.

The ensemble worked on. I sat and talked with her, trying to see through her panic to the reality of the injury itself. She lay still and breathed deeply. Then we left the studio and walked gently while she talked to me of what she experienced in her back. Gradually the panic receeded and the back proved not so bad.

Inside the studio, the ensemble faced a choice – to work on or to stop for the day. They sang a song together and worked on. In that decision lay one of the tough strengths of ensemble – for though it my appear uncaring and unsympathetic to work on while a colleague is in distress, it was the best decision. The shaken ensemble members refocussed on a creative and complex task. The injured individual could focus on herself, taking all the time she needed without feeling that she was obstructing others or impeding the progress of the work.

She rested, relaxed, shared supper with us, bathed, slept and woke with a back that was clearly not right, but nor was it so terribly wrong. She’ll monitor herself for a day or two and we’ll do whatever she needs. But the ensemble carried on working. It worked in the studio when she was in crisis. It worked at dinner when we ate together and laughed. It was there when she woke this morning, and, during a beautiful and gentle morning’s work, it was there to absorb, support and offer her the chance to work at the level she today felt able to. At the moment of possible crisis the ensemble had a choice –  survive or fail. It is in the interests of the broken individual that the ensemble survives so that it will be there to offer her the support she needs.

I feel a terrible weight of responsibility, of course. If I did not set up environments where people are tested and push themselves to their limits, there would be no chance of people hurting themselves, of breaking down. Yet if those environments are not there, how are we ever to grow?

This is a central paradox – and it is the risk we take, as artists, all the time. We pursue dreams of individual and collective excellence. To achieve those dreams – of excellence and transcendence – we test the fabrics of our bodies. minds and souls. And in that testing is the possibility that we break the very tools we rely on to achieve our dreams. Sometimes we experience a little ‘crack’ and it is as if we have lost our place in the universe.

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