A journey ends and a journey starts…

May 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Posted in arts council, arts funding, arts promotion, creative process, creativity, culture, Ensemble, flow, improvisation, performance, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment

I hope one day to revive “The Shattering Man’ in some form and I continue to have conversations with people about how that might be possible. Still, there’s no denying it’s a tough time to be trying to do non-commercial performance…

DUENDE’s next project will be a solo show and, rather than confuse the long journey outlined in this blog, I’ve started a new one. you can find it at http://ensembleduende.wordpress.com Please drop in and have a look, leave a comment….

I’ll not write on this blog again until there is a further stage to report on in the wonderful, fearsome and beautiful journey of ‘The Shattering Man’

Thanks for your reading of these musings.

John.15.5.11

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Was there any point…?

October 1, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in arts council, arts funding, arts promotion, creative process, creativity, culture, Ensemble, flow, improvisation, performance, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | 3 Comments
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The decision to set up DUENDE and stage the “The Shattering Man” was one I took last November. I was spending a holiday alone in a cottage on the side of a mountain in Cumbria. Nothing but lots of books, walking, quiet, endless heavy rain (it was the time of the floods in Cockermouth) and a wood burning stove. I did a lot of thinking. In that thinking, watching the flames flicker and listening to the rain fall, I decided. The decision was a coming together of thoughts that had been floating for a while but which, in that moment, found their shape. The project grew from a place of deep personal desire, need and belief.

Ten months later, Eilon closed the show with the line “my flame is flickering still” and the beautiful, wordless, ethereal singing of the ensemble fell to silence and the stage sank to darkness.

Some of the journey from start to finish is charted in this blog.

Now, nearly a week after the show closed, the ensemble dispersed to the edges of the world, the inevitable sense of loss starting to lose its sharpness, I wonder, what was the point of it all? What was the need that spoke to me in front of the fire that wet autumn evening?

Certainly it was not for the sake of fame or fortune that I set up the project. It has cost a lot of money, both for me and for all of the other participants. Not many people saw the show, and while I hope that those who did will recognise the huge skill of the performers, I fear that they are likely to see in me someone who is committed to working in uneconomic ways on uncommercial product. As such, the funds I have put into the project are not an investment for they are unlikely to yield any return.

Pointless then?

Of course I don’t think so. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to have spent my time and money.

There are all sorts of ‘justifications’ advanced for the making of theatre. Most of them talk about theatre’s ‘use’ or ‘function’. Theatre is seen as being valuable when it conveys a ‘message’ (though the value of the product to any individual depends on whether they agree with, or are convinced by that message). Theatre is seen as valuable when it allows one community to speak of itself to another. Theatre is seen as valuable when it enhances the self-esteem or educational achievement of those who participate in it or attend its performances. Theatre is seen as valuable when it allows a society to present its official version of its ‘cultured-ness’ to itself and to the outside world. Theatre is seen as valuable when it is a vehicle for ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ debate. Theatre is seen as valuable as entertainment or as therapy (through ‘personal growth’ for participants or catharsis for audiences.)

All of these ‘functions’ of theatre seem perfectly valuable to me. I’ve worked in many types of theatre and find fascination and challenge in all of them. I accept and value the rich ecology of theatre and think that every ‘type’ of performance enriches every other type – if only by providing something for people to react against.

But is theatre worth anything in and of itself? Is the experience of an audience and live performers being together in a room one that has intrinsic worth, regardless of the ‘content’ of the work? Is the fact of sharing communication between people who did not, prior to the performance, know one another, a worthwhile end in itself?

I believe it is. In fact I believe it is the single most important justification for engaging in the process of making theatre. All the other ‘functions’ of theatre can be effected through other means – perhaps not as neatly, but they can still be effected. If you need to communicate an ideological perspective, you can write a manifesto. If you want to tell your community’s story, you can blog or record music. If you want to engage in conceptual speculation, you can work through any aesthetic structure, or write learned or incendiary articles in appropriate places.

But if you want human beings to be in a room with other human beings, sharing an experience at the moment that it happens, then you need to bring those people together at one place and time and craft an experience for them to share. That’s the heart of theatre. It may involve sharing outrage, realisation, emotion, laughter, bewilderment, intellectual stimulation. But it must involve sharing, communication, collective experience.

So what was the point? The point was to create an experience for myself, for my collaborators and for audiences – an experience of collective communication. Of course I take full responsibility for WHAT was communicated, for the content of a script I wrote and a performance I directed, but, underneath those ‘meanings’ I see something of even greater importance – the very act of shared experience that is the root of theatre. I believe in the intrinsic worth – indeed the crucial importance – of the act of making and performing theatre.

This is an old argument, one that’s been raging for centuries. Often characterised as being for or against the idea of ‘art for  art’s sake’. A similar debate rages in the educational world – is education worthwhile in itself, whatever is being learned, or is it only worthwhile as an aid to the student getting employment? Unsurprisingly, I believe in the intrinsic worth of education as well. What we learn, what we experience, what we share, what we understand (both intellectually and on non-verbal levels) IS who we are. Activities that enable individuals, groups, communities and entire societies to experience the complex glory of the world in more depth, with more appreciation and more sense of their own ability to interact with and affect that world (or at least affect how they react to that world) are intrinsically worthwhile.

So, that’s why I do what I do. I believe in theatre.

The genesis of this particular project was in a primitive place – sat in front of the fire being warm while storms raged on the other side of a thin piece of glass. In that place I identified a deep need in myself. That’s how it should be, for the need that theatre answers is a primitive need. However sophisticated we think we have become, if we lose the ability to sit, attentively with others and share experience with them, we have lost something central to our humanity.

Making it up as we go along.

September 5, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We ran the show for the first time on Saturday morning.

It’s always exciting for director and cast to experience, for the first time, the journey from start to finish. The flowing sections, the bits that feel right, are evident. So are the bits where scenes or moments rub against each other in awkward, clumsy, inappropriate ways.

First runs can be painful, but this one wasn’t. Quite the reverse – it was exhilarating. Though it’s over a week until we open, I would not be particularly worried if we had to open this week. There are things that need looking at and much that will benefit from being taken to pieces and put back together differently. But nothing is bad, nothing fell to pieces, nothing looked or sounded as if we were lost and bewildered. Everything can use more detail and every action, every sound, needs more detailed embodiment by the performers. But, already, there are moments of real power, madness, weirdness, some moments that are highly theatrical, some are very moving. Undeniably there is a sense of a coherent journey, an arc, a crafted shape.

For me, one of the most exciting results of watching the first run was seeing how the ‘idea’ we have been working on of an aesthetic, a style of performance, has found concrete form. I am trying to direct in a different way to how I have directed in the past. Though I am building on my experience of working in a huge range of styles and contexts, and though I am developing the work from the physical training processes that I know well, I am trying to let this show find a new form, a new style.

Essentially I am working to integrate improvisation much more deeply into the fabric of the performance than I ever have in the past. There are improvised sections dotted through the structure of the show, ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. The ensemble have a ‘score’, a physical language, but no fixed structure or movements. I ask that, each time they come to one of these sections, they pay deep attention to each other at the very moment the improvised section begins and that they build the section from what they find in paying attention, rather than simply recreating what they made the last time they did that particular improvisation. This puts huge demands on a performer as she has to move from paying precise attention to the details of fixed movements and relationships to suddenly having to find her material from reacting to an almost limitless set of impulses.

It also means that the section following an improvisation, however short that improvisation was, will start from a different place each time – even if that section is itself tightly choreographed or directed. In other words, as soon as you integrate improvisation into the structure of the piece, it demands that the performers are flexible about how they approach the non-improvised sections. While in non-improvised sections WHAT the performer does may be fixed, HOW she does it will be affected by the energy and material that she invented, spontaneously in the improvisation that preceded it.

If a show is truly live, one moment of improvisation in it means that the whole show, at some level, becomes improvised.

The reason I am doing this is quite straight forward in theory. I want the entire show, notwithstanding the fact we are working in huge detail on every element of what we are doing, to feel as if it is being made up as we go along. The best way I know of giving the sense that the show is being created spontaneously is to make sure that it is in fact being created spontaneously.

Although much of what is in the show is ‘abstract’ and ‘experimental’ and nothing is ‘realistic’, the show itself is absolutely real. What you see is what you get. The audience will see nine highly skilled, utterly connected performers creating the journey through the script, live and differently every night. Some parts they will be making up WHAT they are doing, always they will be inventing HOW they are doing it.

Will the audience like it? Those who are excited by live performance and live performers will. Those who are open to going on a journey with the cast will. Those who have strong ideas of what theatre ‘ought’ to be might not. Those who think theatre should be safely caged behind a fourth wall will not.

But I do. Absolutely.

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.

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.

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