Brain Ache

Today was a mountain of aching brain in many ways. Began with missing my train....getting to rehearsal late. My scene partner wasn't there....waited about 45 mins and then he came downstairs...we had been waiting for each other in separate rooms! So clearly no rehearsing accomplished.

Scene Study was good: We read and discussed Act 5 of The Duchess of Malfi, and then Tom spent some time directing short scenes in the play with different people. What really came out of this was how important the text is, and how slowing down and making sure the actors mean the words they are saying, without any "extras" of acting on top of it can really make the play come alive. It is remarkable just how little acting we need to understand the play. We then got to pitch our proposals for final Scene Study presentations on Duchess; my group's pitch was successful...hooray! More on this process later...tomorrow we meet to try to put together the script.

Then on to Theorizing. We spent the class looking at media in performance, and what theatre means in a mediated age. This included watching clips of performances from various companies who work with media in their practice...specifically several from the Wooster Group. I found these rather difficult to deal with; Wooster work in relation/response/interaction with classic or canonical texts, looking at the effect that media has on them. They use a lot of microphoned voices, really showing the mechanics of producing sound, and using the microphone's power to silence other actors who don't have the microphone. At the same time, they use various images, often many at once....simulating channel surfing as we do it on TV. There is a lot of ambient sound, screeches, enhanced voices from the microphones, videos, etc, simultaneously...which combine (in theory) to really make the audience aware of the work they are doing as audience members.

Now in theory, I agree with this idea...alienating the audience, really engaging them with the mechanics and not letting them be lulled in by emotion or character. In the video clips we watched, however, I wasn't able to get this. The onslaught, primarily the sound, made it impossible for me as a spectator to make a choice on where to focus; in fact, I tried to jump around, but soon just disengaged and stopped watching/listening. We debated in groups the means with which Wooster try to achieve this alienation, discussing the techniques above. Each on their own, or even in reasonable combination, I find these all to be exceptionally useful. I must say however that the combination, layering them all at once, just made me angry as a spectator. In all honestly, if the full show were like that, I would likely leave. Someone put forward that perhaps the point is just to agitate or provoke the audience. Maybe it is...but provoke them to what? for what? It seems to me this is likely just to end in resentment.

I think another area of frustration is that most of these, as I stated above, were attempting to interact with a canonical text...but the words of the text, even the ideas, felt lost in the pandemonium. What is the point of "interacting" with a text if the text is lost in the muddle? Why not just look at an abstract idea instead?

Now all this said, it is based on a few short video clips on the internet, which likely have the inherent sound engineering problems of videotaped theatre....and didn't show the full production. I am now rather curious to see a production by Wooster, just to see if in its entirety, live, it hangs together.

Right Now

We had a class/meeting with Tom on Saturday morning, during which he gave us feedback on how things are going for us from his perspective, and we had a chance to talk a bit about what we want to do after the course, how we feel it is going, etc.

This was a glorious 3 hrs. Everyone in the group is very open and willing to talk about how they are seeing things, which is great. It was interesting to learn how others are perceiving the class, and where areas of frustration have been, and also to see how Tom has perceived our path. What I also found interesting was hearing other students talk about one another's work, what inspires them, what they learn from.

Tom's assessment for me was that I generally am doing good work, and that I just need to trust myself. in a nutshell! Notably he commented that I sometimes have an excess of energy that I need to trust myself to use, otherwise it comes out too loud or too quiet. Another assessment was that I need to not be afraid of my opinions and ideas; I had stated that what I want to do is continue devising work, directing, performing if it works in the situation, from which I want to write about the theory of theatre and practice of theatre that is ruminating in my belly, but right now I am not sure of exactly how to articulate it. Tom's encouragement to just trust myself and my ideas/opinions was helpful. I don't know why I have an apprehension, really...I know that I can stand in front of groups and talk about or defend my ideas. I think that somehow committing them to paper (or heaven forbid publishing them!) makes them so much more concrete and intimidating. Need to work at getting over that.

Based on this I have made some minor adjustments to my portfolio approach, and also to my dissertation proposal idea; I am hoping that I can use these tools on the MA course to help crystallize my ideas about theatre and how to approach practice.

So simply....

Read some brilliant words today by Mr Martin Esslin:

Put in its simplest and most mundane terms, the basic task of anyone concerned with presenting any kind of drama to any audience consists in capturing their attention and holding it as long as required. Only when that fundamental objective has been achieved can the more lofty and ambitious intentions be fulfilled; the imparing of wisdom and insight, poetry and beauty, amusement and relaxation, illumination and purging of emotion. If you lose their attention, if you fail to make them concentrate on what is happening, on what is being said, all is lost.

Reading, Reading, Reading

I have been on a mission to read a ton, because....why the hell not, right?

So as a super-keener as I seem to be, rather than just reading the weekly assigned pages, I read all of Great Reckonings In Little Rooms: On The Phenomenology Of Theatre by Bert O. States. This is an interesting book. On the whole, I think it is useful, if only to give the audience and performer new ways of thinking about the theatrical experience, why we go, and what it does to us. I must say that some of the assertions had me a little uneasy...such as the one alluded to in a previous blog that when we see an actor, we also see all their previous roles peering out from inside this current performance, so Hamlet is Henry IV is Iago (for example). But other assertions and ideas got me thinking, and certainly made me want to read more.

Some ideas/phrases that got me thinking:
...altered our perception of reality. (p4)
...something of the realism of a sucession of dream images; it is an imagined actual experience that floats wherever the text leads. (p28)
...The actor is that unique creature who passes through a whole life in a few hours and in doing so carries the spectator vicariously with him. (p49)
...We know that human dramas do not unfold in one or two rooms. But when a play seduces us into believing that they do - that is, when the smoothness in the flow of events overtakes the artifice of the form - we have the spatial counterpart of the radical improbability that Fate performs in the temporal action. Space is Destiny, the visual proof that order lurks in human affairs. (p69)
...Once you have trapped your protagonist in one of these real rooms, leaving him (or her) in the posture of Munch's creature in The Cry, you take away the room - which is no longer real enough - and reconstruct it as the visible extension of his ravaged state of mind. (p84) almost atomic release of stylistic energy. (p86)
...In one way or another, the history of theatre can be viewed as a history of flirtation with the psychical distance between stage and audience. Styles are reborn in new conventional disguise and certain styles serve certain purposes better than others. (p96)
...what makes it so wrenching is that it contains no emotional reference to its own emotion. But the fact that it doesn't serve up our emotions for us does not mean that it isn't producing them. (p105)
...There is something about the imitation of another human being, about speaking in another's voice, that requires either a creatural naivete, a touch of madness, or an invited audience. (p158)
...we might think of the curtain call as a decompression chamber halfway between the depths of art and the think air of reality. (p198)

More reading...coming soon!
Tynan on Theatre - Kenneth Tynan
An Anatomy of Drama - Martin Esslin
Drama from Ibsen to Eliot - Raymond Williams
Birth of Tragedy - Frederich Nietzsche

All Over The Place

Today began with Scene Study; presented our work on Act 3 of Duchess. This went well; we found some nice moments and shifts in the text that I think showed a clear understanding of what Webster is getting at. I am still finding that we weave in and out of understanding in our presentations...likely because we move directors each week, so everyone gets a go. Next week we are off, the following week we have been assigned act 4. This time Tom took the two key scenes, and asked two groups to prepare each. We'll then discuss and compare the two interpretations for what did and did not work. This is rather exciting. My group have been given the madman scene, and all of us want to try for a non-naturalistic representation. We meet Thursday to sort this out. Our only limit is that we must stay true to the text.

Theorizing tonight was both good and bad for me. Good in our initial conversations about the ephemerality of theatre, and what remains afterward; reviews, photos, notes, criticism and essays....This sparked an interesting conversation about criticism, which led well into the latter half of our class, where we had two visitors - Dr Karen Fricker, and Andrew Dickson. Dr Fricker is a theatre critic, and lecturer at Royal Holloway. Andrew Dickson is the Theatre Editor for the Guardian (curator of what I think to be the most important source of information on theatre today, the Guardian Theatre Blog). The two talked about their path to their current positions, and then about the role of the critic, good critical writing, and the changing face of criticism with social media and blogs. Then they opened the floor to questions.

Here is my gripe: I have been observing the British tradition from the inside for two months now, including the opportunity to see the plays that are then reviewed by esteemed critics such as Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner. What I am finding is that the review is in many ways a review of the history of the play more than it is a review of the production itself. Similarly, the two revival productions I have seen (unfortunately couldn't make it to Marat/Sade) were entirely reverent to the original production in as many ways as possible. We talked a bit about the symbiotic relationship between reviewers and performers, about the need to get reviewed to be "legitimized" and Dr Fricker suggested that smaller fringe companies should make use of social media in this way. What I think she fails to understand is that to an arts council, blogged reviews don't count as legitimacy when you are writing a grant application.

I'm meandering a bit here...but another point of contention for me is the idea of authority in the critic's perspective; with blogs and comment trails, twitter reviews and facebook...where is the authority of the "published" professional critic? As Dr Fricker suggested, the value is found in the analysis of the production, not the mere reporting of person x playing part y, and a value judgement...but an actual critical analysis of what was shown and what it means. The response to my query on this was simply to read Lyn Gardner. Now I have the utmost respect for her...but heaven knows she isn't the only reviewer! What about the hundreds of thousands of non-theatre "people" who stumble into work as a critic? How are they performing a valuable function that serves the dialogue for furtherance of this thing we call theatre?

Anway, a bit of a rant, and some inconclusive ideas right now....but food for thought.

image: Jackson Pollock - Summertime


Wow. What a day. Began with a meeting about Ludus Danielis at King's College to learn some details about the production, budget, expectations, etc.

Then to rehearsal, and quickly after to scene study where we did our presentations. I was feeling anxious heading into today, as although I felt our group had a good idea and concept, I was nervous that we were under-rehearsed. We managed to pull it off though, with some nice comedy and a great pulling in of the facts. Our Current Affairs in 1613 discussion was framed as Question Time, including the epic long intro music, and fiery debate. This was well received by the class and by Tom which was great. I was also really rather impressed by the quality of research and creativity in presentation from my classmates. It was amazing to see creative individuals engage with historical research in a theatrical way to produce a product that would be informative and entertaining. I did leave the class feeling overwhelmed with information. Because of the performance based nature of the presentations, I almost felt like I had sat through 6 fringe plays in 3 hours, my mind agreeing to one reality after the next, which is mentally exhausting!

We've now divided Malfi Act 3, and begin rehearsals Thursday. As we continue to progress, I am increasingly interested in the techniques to dig into the text and find the best way to crystallize the message and images of the play in the performance.

Then on to Theorizing. This was an interesting class, focused on discussing the impact of architecture and structures in the theatrical performance. We discussed a lot of immersive theatre techniques, and site specific techniques, in many cases specifically related to Decade. What I really continue to come back on with this production is a feeling that they set me up, but then failed to deliver. The security entrance mirroring US Customs set the stage for post 9/11, then the restaurant positioned the audience in the building pre 9/11....and then the majority of the show was reflective, from a position once again post 9/11. Rather than having the impact that immersive theatre should, it just made me more aware of the artifice of the thing.

Have our first assignment in Theorizing due Nov 4 that I can get started on too; we are to write a questionnaire to engage with one of the plays we have seen for the course, to tease out specific questions on a theme. I find this assignment rather interesting, as it is preparing us for the practicality of essay preparation, but also in a way preparing us for the potentiality of teaching, and eliciting intellectual scholarship from others.I am rather excited to begin this.

Anonymous - Mankind

Everyman was on our reading for Theorizing, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to read a couple more morality plays (why not, right?). I grabbed an anthology with three; Everyman, Mankind, and Mundus Et Infans.

Mankind was up first. Despite being attributed to somewhere 1400-1600 England, I was struck by just how modern the evil characters come across. Nought, Newguise and Nowadays, along with Mischeif, are not at all unlike the "bad" characters we still see in movies today. I was also surprised, given the religious attachments of Moral Plays, at the vulgarity of their actions. They were no less crude than some of Shakespeare's base characters, with no lack of penis jokes. The other thing that sort of stood out was the shock factor of these characters; almost like pre-Artaud shock. I don't know a lot about his influence, but for some reason reading this I thought of him.

What do we know?

Today began with rehearsals for our Malfi scenes, followed by Scene Study class with Tom. Our group presented our scenes from act 2 to moderate success. Tom noted that the understanding of the text and ability to present the text was good, however the level of conversation was missing, as a result of the pace being too quick. Stepping back. I definitely see this as well. In addition he challenged some of the choices our director made, particularly as they related to the Duchess; these were actually things that I had questioned in rehearsal, but stepped back to honour our director's wishes. While I agree the choices were odd, I do think that good learning came of doing things this way; it really made evident the importance of establishing power and status in a scene, even if you want to break with some of the conventions of the style.

After the second group presented, and we talked through what Webster was doing with the play, Tom took a few minutes to direct an Act 1 scene for us. He played with the Duchess, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, in a more informal setting. What really stood out in his direction was the sibling dynamic; for the first time we saw them as siblings, each of whom has some power. I was able to believe that the Duchess from this place would rebel against her brothers. Tom's note, and I think it a very important one, was to make sure to establish what we know about the relationship of the characters. If we get caught up in staging, power struggles, etc too soon, we risk losing the very base of their relationship.

Next week are our presentations; my group will be presenting on Current Affairs in and around 1613 when Webster wrote this play. Looking forward to the result of everyone's research!

Theorizing the Contemporary tonight focused on understanding the actor as a symbol. We discussed this both in reference to actual performances (Fiona Shaw, Irish production of Hedda Gabler) and fictional performances (George Clooney as Hamlet). There was a significant focus on the role of celebrity in our understanding of a play in production; the expectations we bring to the theatre in the audience, and also the argument that we bring along the other characters this actor may have played. I am not sure I agree with this; while watching The King's Speech (for example) I wasn't seeing Mr Darcy. I want to work at clarifying my argument on this. I don't necessarily think that the actor isn't informed by previous roles; a large role like Hedda Gabler sits with you for life, and will inform how a performer approaches future roles, even subconsciously. But (for me anyway) I don't feel like that happens as an audience member. That said, I do think that we might bring previous performances from other actors...for example, I couldn't help but compare Shaw's Hedda with my personal favourite, Glenda Jackson.

Finally we split into two seminars to discuss this at length. My group focused on Othello, and two particular productions; first with Lenny Henry, and second with Laurence Olivier. In further depth we discussed the role of style, historical context, and celebrity in an audience's understanding of the play.

Adventures in the Park

Decided that today would be a good opportunity to take in another of this city's amazing parks. Since S has been itching to play with other kids, we decided upon Kensington, the home of the Diana Memorial Playground. This might well be the coolest playground I have ever seen; designed after Peter Pan's Neverland, the playground includes a giant wooden pirate ship (including ropes and masts!), a tipi village, a tree fort, and tropical looking trees and plants. Part of me wished it wasn't so busy so I could play too (without trampling a toddler here or there, that is).

Continued to walk around the park, took in the grounds of Kensington palace, and the flower walk. Also walked for a bit within the borough, and found a great sandwich shop. There isn't nearly enough food talk in this blog, so that was your tidbit.

All the while the massive amounts of reading continues. Some non-plays I have read on the course so far include Aristotle's poetics, Peter Brook's The Empty Stage, and Cecily Berry's The Actor and the Text.

Despite having read the Poetics countless times before, what really struck me this time was the hard emphasis on imitation. Perhaps it is because of distance from my last read, but this really struck a chord this time. As well, it made me really think of the basic tenets of Brecht and of the Absurdists, and even of physical theatre; representation is what we are doing, not living on stage. The play, actor and director cannot get caught up in what is real, for if they do they miss the opportunity to represent that which is universally true.

Brook's book was a great read, i found myself plowing right through it, and simultaneously wondering why I hadn't read it before. His harsh criticism of what he calls the Deadly Theatre is a reminder that so often it misses the mark, "as a whole, the theatre not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains" (pg 12). It really rang true with my feelings about so much theatre work that is created (and attended!) just for the sake of it, never really evaluating its goals or accomplishment to those goals. Brook's focus on the Berliner Ensemble's work in the middle part of the last century intrigues me; I am going to do some digging to look at reviews and accounts of performances from this time, and also from earlier Brook productions.

Berry's The Actor and the Text was a brilliant reminder of why I find voice work so important for actors. I came across some new exercises too, which I can't wait to try.

More reading....Othello for our Theorizing class, Hamlet for our Scene Study class....and some Ionesco for fun.

Scene Study (2) and Theorizing the Contemporary

Scene study today was our presentation of the first act scenes of Duchess of Malfi. We went in order of the play. The first group up had some challenges with the language specifically, watching you could see some need for more clarity in purpose. That said, good things did come out of watching the group. Tom's comments were quite forceful about the specifics of what he had seen. The expectation for clear intention and clear speaking of the verse was also made clear. Although this isn't an "acting" exercise it is a good opportunity to make clear the impact an actor has on our ability to understand the text (practically) and the role of the director in teasing this out of the script.

Our group was up next; our scene went reasonably well, there were moments that felt rushed and some of the detailed physicality was lost, but overally we conveyed the scene clearly. Tom commented that he was a little confused at times as a result of how we had to deal with double casting and limited bodies, but this rectified itself quickly. I agreed, that I would like to try staging this scene on the same ideas but with the full "body count" so to speak. One other thing I found interesting was the response a couple students had to the scene after Tom asked them to only listen; they noted that they could hear the sense of status from the characters vocally (yes!!) and also that the sense of using the space was clear, even if they couldn't see the performers. This made me quite happy.

The next group presented the final scene of the act; the image that stood out to me was the way the Duchess turned about during her monologue (they did a long column stage with audience on two sides). She seemed almost to be in a whirlpool, a metaphor for the choices she was making and their eventual impact on her in the spiraling out of the play..

We continued from here to discuss the play and what is going on. One piece of advice that stuck with me was when Tom advised us to always look back to what the playwright is giving you; what do they want you to see? Why have they given us these people at this moment?

We were divided into larger groups and assigned sections of act 2. Becaused I directed this week I'm acting for the new week, and will be playing the Duchess of Malfi. Rehearsals on Thursday.

After a break for dinner we moved on to our first actual class Theorizing The Contemporary with Dr Aiofe Monks. This class is intended for us to see theatre from the audience's perspective; why do we go to theatre? What impacts the way we experience the theatre? and then how do we talk about this? There was a great discussion about the effervescence of theatre and its immediacy. We also did an exercise in iconography and our experience relating to symbols, imbuing meaning in simple images created by two still objects. We moved from simple description (EG black chair, made of cloth and metal, one foot from a toy doll, etc) to imbuing meaning on this image (what does this make us think? What is the narrative??).

I don't know that I agreed with all of the assertions about us needing to understand certain images to understand theatre. I feel very strongly that a good play or performance will bring something for people with no "social" or intellectual references to compare and also for those who have a background of higher education. I will continue playing out this tension and my thoughts on this as we continue the course.

Practically, we also spent some time discussing our assignments for this class, of which there are two. More on those later.