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.


Audiences and Ensemble

September 20, 2010 at 9:14 am | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The second week of performances start today. Six shows in six days. A couple are sold out, a couple will be relatively quiet I suspect.

I wrote sometime ago on this blog about the role of improvisation in the performance, how I aspired to a production where each performance was different in tone, pace, intensity to every other performance. It was part of an idea that every performance should be a unique live event, bringing together the work we have created over the last months with the particular audience who have turned up to watch on a particular night. In other words, the performance is not a fixed thing that we ”do” regardless of who is watching, rather that the performance is a living entity that we create, live and un-repeatably, every time we do it. Of course this puts particular demands on the performers, for they can never ‘coast’, never do a show (god how I despise this phrase) ‘on automatic’.

One of the questions that came up at the symposium last week was whether the audience were, however temporarily, part of the ensemble. My answer is that they might be. For the duration of each performance, if that performance is being made uniquely for a specific audience, then the composition of that audience – both its size and the quality of attention each audience member pays, will alter the nature of the performance. As such the audience is contributing to the making of the unique event that is unfolding in front of them. The audience is not made up of consumers but of collaborators – co-creators even.

Does this make them part of the ensemble? It depends of course on how exactly you choose to define ensemble, but it does make them a significant factor in the work. If they are not part of the ensemble as such, then certainly the audience are part of the community that is forged within the theatre for the duration of the performance, and that community is underpinned by the same ethics, courtesies and languages that underpin communication within the performance ensemble. As such, perhaps we can see the audience as part of an extended-ensemble.

This became very clear in the performances at the end of last week. On Friday we had a tiny audience – only five people. I spend enough of my time making and watching experimental and unconventional art to know that it can be very uncomfortable for both audience and cast when the event seems to ‘fail’ because hardly anyone has turned up. This especially possible when there is an ensemble of nine working at high physical intenstiy to an audience of about half that number!

Yet Friday was a wonderful performance. The cast performed the show entirely appropriately – they did everything the show required of them but at a level of intensity and engagement that allowed the small (and therefore exposed and vulnerable) audience to  feel as if they were being talked with rather than shouted at. It did not feel as if the audience was too small, rather that the scale of the audience and the scale of the performance matched. In the moments after the show, the five members of the audience all began to talk with each other, to discuss, enthusiastically the experience they had just shared. They were comfortable being in the theatre and felt able to remain there, to own the space, after the performance had ended. Temporarily it was their home.

The next night we had a bigger audience. So the cast made the show bigger. It was more intense, more forceful. In the moments after the show, no one spoke. The audience sat in silence and experienced the performance space and the echoes in the room after what was an intense and powerful experience. They too felt that they belonged and were able to sit quietly until they were ready to leave.

Two audiences. Two different shows, underpinned by a common way of human individuals choosing to be with one another. The audience may or may not be part of the ensemble, but they are integral to the community that is forged by an ensemble performing. Not because we give TO them, not because they take FROM us, but because we pay attention to one another and find a way of sharing our stories. We work together.

Continuing the process, right to the end. Ethics & aesthetics.

September 13, 2010 at 9:02 am | Posted in creative process, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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I think of this summer’s work as breaking into three phases: ensemble development (which took place during the residency at Whitestone Arts); rehearsal (which took place in Huddersfield); performance (which starts this week).

Stage two, the rehearsal process, ended on Friday.

The show is ready for the public. The lighting is rigged, the studio tidied so it looks like a theatre space, the structure, energy, performance details,  all tweaked, re-tweaked, reorganised, reconsidered. Yes, we’re ready.

So is that it? Is the creative process complete? Is the product of our work ready for consumption by those interested enough to come along to see what we’ve been up to? Can I go home now and leave the show to look after itself?

It’s a thought I resist with every cell in my body, not because I want to hold onto what we have experienced this summer, but because I reject absolutely the thought that there is a ‘product’ for us to share and I reject the thought that the process of being with an audience should be a different process to the one we experienced in being with one another over the last few months.

It’s making me think about the relationship of aesthetics (the form that we use to communicate our art) and ethics (the behaviours that govern how we interact with one another).

Lev Dodin, director of The Maly Theatre, one of the world’s great ensembles, was asked about the work of Stanislavski.* He said of the actors of The Moscow Arts Theatre, where Stanislavski worked:  “(this theatre is) the place where people search for spiritual values and where the theatre production is a sort of by-product, but spiritual life, spiritual exploration and spiritual research are the main thing.”  I never really understood this until now. It felt a little abstract or rarefied to me, for my focus is on the practical details of developing individuals and ensembles and on the forging of those ensembles into public performances. But on Friday, as we met for the last session of the ‘rehearsal period’, suddenly it made sense. Deep and absolute sense.

What we have created, the aesthetics of “The Shattering Man’, are the concrete embodiment of how this particular ensemble have learned to behave, to co-exist. If the ensemble had developed different ways of being together – which inevitably would have happened had there been different individuals within the ensemble – then the ethics of our interactions would have been different and the work that emerged from those interactions would also have been different. The aesthetics of “The Shattering Man’ are intimately an expression of the bonds that bind the performers one to another. It that sense, ensemble theatre is profoundly a community theatre, the unique expression of a unique community, formed in a specific time and place.

Certainly the principles I introduce to underpin the development of the ensemble are a significant influence on the ethics and aesthetics that emerge from the process. However all of those principles are encountered, challenged and altered by each of the people who comprise the ensemble and in that process of personalising my initial principles, the unique identity of this unique ensemble is born.

What does this mean for us as we move from the rehearsal period to the performance season?

Strangely enough, my sense is that it means that nothing should alter. At the root of “The Shattering Man” is not a text, or a lighting plan or a story or a message or even a concept. At the heart of what we have made, what we offer to our audience, is the details of how we interact with one another. The rules governing human interaction are called ethics.

Our obligation, in full respect for our audience, is to behave ethically and to include the audience in that ethical behaviour. The show is not a ‘product’, it is something that emerges from the details of the interactions within the ensemble. It is a process that the ensemble engage in, live in front of the audience, every time they perform the show. If we lose the quality of the behaviours between ourselves, if we start treating the show as a product to be shown rather than a creative act to be undertaken, if we stop looking for the unique quality of every moment of every performance, if individual cast members allow their individual concerns to shatter the sensitivity of their connections with other cast members, or if the ensemble treats the audience not as collaborators but as consumers, then we have lost our ethical base and what we have made is so much noise and movement, signifying nothing.

I hope that each performance of “The Shattering Man’ will be a joyous ethical act.

Of course, none of this is fashionable, for it doesn’t leave much room for detachment or irony. Nor is it ‘conceptual’ or ideological. We treat the audience with the same ethical perspective as we treat one another. We are inviting them, for a brief while, to be as open to us as we are to each other and to them. We are neither flattering not seeking to distract our audience, we are inviting them, however briefly, to be part of our community.

* You can read this interview in “In Contact With The Gods: Directors Talk Theatre” ed. Delgado & Heritage, MUP (p.71)

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.


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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