Posted by: Janice | April 5, 2009

Term 2, Tragedy

After Melodrama, we went straight through to Tragedy. Yes, in the coldest time of the year, we dove from high drama to grand despair. We looked at tragedy through the lens of several Greek tragic texts, as well as the role of the hero versus the chorus.

Both Melodrama and Tragedy have heroes and choruses, so it can seem a bit confusing. In Melodrama, the hero is a regular citizen caught in a human struggle, forced to choose between two things that are equally dear to him, without knowing which is the right choice. The chorus is merely support players in the action of the play. Whereas in Tragedy, the hero is the leader of a crowd, one above many, and he is the one who takes action, setting events in play. The chorus bears witness. He can sacrifice himself for his people, but he can also bring them death and untold suffering.

Melodrama keeps you guessing till the very end, carving out the dilemma stroke by stroke, until the moment when the hero is pushed to make his final choice. This could be anything from choosing between saving a wife or saving a child, to choosing between loyalty to a country or loyalty to the family. Tragedy, on the other hand, carries an air of inevitability. Everything is a part of fate, and events are doomed to repeating themselves over and over. The hero acts, and the crowd/chorus reacts to events that transpire, the reaction being so big that words virtually explode out of them.

In the first week, we worked with the idea of the hero. What is it like to stand in front of a crowd and say what you believe in? How do you move a crowd with words? How does one rouse people, stir them into action or revolution? How can you speak with your entire body? For Steph and Amy’s classes, we brought in short speeches in our native languages. The idea is that we get up one by one to deliver them to the class, while the teachers pushed and pulled us in different ways. Steph opted for more oratorial experiments, telling people to speed up, slow down, emphasize certain words, add gestures, or even sing whole passages.

Amy, on the other hand, played in a more theatrical way. First, the person would say the speech once. Then, depending on what the person is trying to do to the crowd – move to action, console, bring together – she will ask the speaker to physically do it to a group of people while he/she says the speech. For example, Orina did a speech by Pope John Paul II, which was intended to raise people’s spirits. In action then, she had pick up people falling all around her, and keep them from reaching the floor. The physical action brought a new urgency to her words, which remained when she did the speech again by herself. Similarly, Cecilia did a speech by Eva Peron, in which she speaks to a crowd that deserts her. In the space, the group listens to her speak, then in the middle of her speech, suddenly turns and walks away. This action triggered fresh grief, which was then also felt in her words.

I did a speech from Mao, from the beginning of his regime, which was about getting rid of the old culture and building a new China. After I did it once, Amy asked me to say it again, but this time with extreme joy, letting the “laughter bubble up from within”. At the same time, she asked several men in the class to come and raise me up as I started to speak. What happened next was wonderful. It was a pure, ecstatic “We are the champions” moment, coupled with fist pumps, screams, running around, and roaring laughter. It was hysterical. I was on a complete adrenaline high, running laps around the room, while the audience was rolling on the floor. It got to the point where Amy started asking the guys to tickle me, just to see what would happen! Afterwards, when I started thinking about it, I realized just what I had been saying, and it gave me chills. How excited the class’s response was. They had no idea what the words meant, yet they were ready to follow me into a revolution. I understand a bit now what it was like in the early days of Chinese Communism, when everything was exciting and new, and it all seemed so hopeful. If you believe enough in what you are say, people will follow you, just as people followed Mao.

For the rest of the term, we explored tragic choruses. We went back to the balancing the platform game with Thomas, and Viewpoints with Michael. With Steph, we embodied materials. She brought us back to Year One with eggs, cardboard, sugar cubes and water. Yay! We all got unbelievably excited when we saw the props.

First she melted a sugarcube into a glass of water, then asked us to embody it, individually. Then, she smashed some eggs into a bowl, and asked us to find that action’s dynamic in our own body, Finally, she gave us all pieces of cardboard, and asked us to experiment with different ways of tearing it apart, then, to put them in the body.

After we did that, we split into our chorus creation groups, and played around. We tried clustering and doing our own egg-breaking individually, one person doing it while everyone held still, doing it in a wave, with separate body parts, and with starting/ending at the same time. The idea is that we get a sense of what we like as a group, what our aesthetic is, and how things work on twelve bodies in the space, so we can use it in creation. It was really interesting to see how little we can get away with doing, and still have a huge impact as twelve bodies. Also, with the embodiment of materials, everyone in the group can have a similar dynamic, without necessarily needing to do the same physical actions, which can look too choreographed at times.

Amy, the wordsmith, worked with us primarily on finding the essence of our individual texts, asking us to move the text one by one, then picking out certain dynamics that might be useful for our creations. Our text, a passage from “Antigone”, was challenging in that it was metaphorical rather than direct reaction, so we had lots of difficulties agreeing on what the dynamic was, and how to make it visceral in the space. In the end, we worked with the idea of a group of women saying these words in response to an invading army of plundering and raping soldiers, but we still felt like we were imposing action on the text, which is quiet and reflective in nature. What do you think?

“Many are the wonders, none is more wonderful than what is man. This it is that crosses the sea, with the south winds storming and the waves swelling, breaking around him in roaring surf. He it is again, who wears away the earth, oldest of gods, immortal, unwearied, as the plows wind across her from year to year, when he works her with the breeds that come from horses.

The tribe of light-hearted birds he snares, and makes prisoner the races of savage beasts and the brood of the fish of the sea, with his close-spun web of nets. A cunning fellow is man. His contrivances make him master of the beasts of the field, and those that move in the mountains. So he brings the horse with the shaggy neck, to bend underneath the yoke. And also the untamed mountain bull. And speech, and windswift thought, and the tempers that go with city living that he has taught himself. And how to avoid the sharp frost, when lodging is cold under the open sky, with pelting strokes of rain. He was a way against everything, and he faces nothing that is to come without contrivance. Only against death, can he call on no means of escape.

If he honors the laws of earth, and the justice of the gods that he has confirmed by oath. High is his city”

Posted by: Janice | March 29, 2009

Term 2, Melodrama

I’m back! No, I’m not dead. I’m still alive and kicking, having a great time at Lispa, getting into all sorts of creative pickles, as usual. Very sorry for disappearing from my blog for the last three months. I’m not sure how it happened. It seemed like one minute I was just starting Term 2, and then before I knew it , I was already well into Term 3. Yikes!

Moving on from Commedia, Term 2 was the realm of Melodrama and Tragedy. This was also the term when we moved from our Latimer Road studio to our new space in the 3 Mills Studios, on the other side of town. Not only was it a location switch, it was also a major schedule change, with classes starting much earlier on most days. Optional offers such as Space Lab, Company Development, and Choir began at 12:30pm, and then we had regular classes until 9:30pm. In addition, two of the actual studios weren’t yet ready because of bureaucratic delays, so we had to spend the first four weeks of classes in another temporary space, before we could move into the real thing. And also, this was the term where we mixed and integrated together with the former morning group! We still split into two groups A & B for classes, but the composition of the groups would change from week to week based on who you are in creation with. This meant also that you could have different class schedules from week to week depending on whether you were in A or B. So, suddenly I found myself spending 2-3 more hours a day at school, running back and forth between temporary spaces, changing schedule from week to week, getting to know/working with new people, and plunging into the world of melodrama and tragedy. Plus, dealing with a very cold London winter.  I found myself tired and disoriented for most of the term, and it wasn’t til the end of term 2 that I felt more settled in.

In a way, I felt that the instability and off-balance caused by the move also affected the classes teachers were giving. They were still great classes, it just felt less coherent and more pick-n-mix. Maybe they were also experimenting with the pedagogy? Unlike Commedia, at the end of term we still felt like we hadn’t quite grasped what Melodrama or Tragedy was all about. At least, I still feel like I don’t.

Thomas spent the first class working with us on articulating our beliefs, how to express that belief with your entire body, and how to argue and move it in the space with an opponent. His second class was an introduction into the format of the melodrama, with the roles of narrator, musicians, hero/heroine, and chorus, and some work with the expressive mask to highlight the state before words, and the state after. It was also a good chance to push the “masked” level of the body needed for melodrama. The theme he chose was classic: the return of the soldier after years of being away, to find his lover remarried, with a new husband and children. What can one say or do at this point? What else is left? Love, or just anger and regret?

Thomas’s third class tied in with Amy’s to focus on balancing the platform. What is this? Well, the work comes from a game in which you imagine that the floor is perched on the tip of a needle, and that people need to move around to keep the floor balanced. We integrate that game with the idea of a hero/heroine, and a chorus. First one person enters, steps into the center, and makes contact with everyone framing the space. Then, when he or she senses that the time is right, he or she will step away and create an off-balance. At that point, another person will come in to re-balance the space. The new person leads the game, creating off-balances, while the first person tries to re-balance the space. When the first person feels that this has gone on long enough, and that something needs to change, he/she will stop re-balancing, and it will be up to the entry of a third person to restore balance. At this moment, the first two people will have to come together to face the third. And so on and so forth, until we have one person facing a crowd, a hero/heroine facing a chorus. The rhythm with which you change places, the spatial dynamics of balance and off-balance, the time between responses, and the ways a chorus can move all serve to create melodramatic spaces, which came in handy later for our melodrama creations.

Michael’s three Melodrama classes focused on the use of music to highlight character, to accentuate dramatic shifts, or to create leaps in time and memory. This was mostly done through mini-creations, in which we presented scenes with music and discovered what worked and what didn’t. In one class, we had to figure out how to go from A) Cradling a dead lover/friend’s body and singing a song to – B)  A happy memory with that lover/friend involving that song to – C) Back to harsh reality with the dead lover/friend in your arms. Heavy stuff, but unexpected hilarity when the switch didn’t quite work.

Steph adopted a more experimental arc for her Melodrama journey. In the first class, she sat us down and read a story that was based on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Then she told us that she was going to repeat it several more times, and each time, we were to furnish it with more and more elements, first with a soundscape, then with the appearance of characters, then with dialogue, and finally, she was going to stop reading altogether and let us improvise our way through the story with the found elements. For her second class, we took a scene from the story, when the child was entrusted in desperation by the peasant woman to another villager, and broke it down to see how the melodrama can be played purely by playing the rhythm. Walk, look, stop, look, reach, retreat, reach again, stop, run. Steph’s idea is that we don’t necessarily need to “act” the drama – we can simply break the action down and play it step-by-step rhythmically, interspersed with stops. If we invest in that fully, than the drama should be able to come to life in front of an audience. In her third class, she gave us the classic theme of the departure (in which a child is disowned and told to leave home), and asked us to improvise with the idea of materials in mind. If one actor is embodying the dynamic of steel, what can you counter with so the scene stays alive and dynamic? How little can you get away with doing, and trust that something will come in the moment?

Amy, bless her, gave us a superbly memorable class in which we explored the role of the narrator. At that point in time, we were all feeling a bit stuck about what to do with our narrators in creations. It turns out that, unlike the stereotype we have in mind, a narrator does not have to be objective, and give us all the necessary facts. In fact, the more opinionated and biased the narrator, the better.

First, we did some mini-creations and came up with some dramatic scenes of domestic abuse, crimes of passion, and child neglect. Then, each time we did it, a narrator would jump up and improvise, providing a different angle to the story. In the domestic abuse scene, for example, a narrator provided the inner voice of the small child as she watched her mother kill her abusive father. The simple language opened up a poetic space which was previously absent, and made the scene that much more poignant. Alternatively, the scholarly, academic tone of a narrator accompanying the crime of passion scene made it startingly bone-chilling. As we see the jealous husband strike his wife’s lover, we hear the narrator’s detached tone, talking about the incident as if it were just another statistic, another two lines he will read in tomorrow’s paper, then throw away. Somehow, the nonchalance of the narration highlighted the horror of the crime , and we felt like witnesses to something that was truly terrible.

I’d wanted to wrap up with tragedy, but this is already getting quite long so I’ll save it for tomorrow. Stay tuned, then, for “Term 2, Tragedy”. Onwards and upwards!

Posted by: Janice | December 19, 2008

The World of Commedia: Part 2

This year at Lispa, Creation occupies a much bigger space in the curriculum. We spend five hours during the week on Creation, plus at least another five hours on Saturdays. Unlike last year, the themes given are a lot more concrete, and tied to the forms that we’ve been working on in classes. Put it another way – a lot more attention has to be paid to the construction of the pieces, the development of characters, etc. Gone is the abstract group atmospherics of last year. Now we are expected to craft our pieces from moment to moment: make a nice beginning, set up the story, weave a dramatic build, and finish with a bang. As we’ve been studying Commedia for most of November, that is what we’ve been struggling with in Creation.

We were given two themes to work on. First it was “You Desire Something That is Just Out of Reach”. And then it was “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. For the first theme, my group came up with the scenario of a family at the grandfather’s funeral, and everyone desiring the priceless family ring that is about to be buried along with his body. The presentation was a bit of a disaster – my group got stopped. In fact, all the groups presenting got stopped. This had never happened before, so we were a bit stunned.

Thankfully, the teachers were kind in their feedback. They told us that they had stopped us simply because the pieces weren’t working. It was as if they had expected us to fail – they said it was already nice to see that the masks were playing and that we were being playful with one another. The plotting and structure and build can come later. In retrospect what they did was quite merciful – I appreciate that they didn’t let us slog through dead material on stage for ten minutes when they knew full well that it wasn’t working.

The teachers said that a number of the pieces have veered off course into something that wasn’t Commedia: some became abstract, some became tragic (like the one where a group of homeless people started dreaming about food), and some became too complicated to follow. Since the teachers often only tell us what isn’t working, it can be hard to figure out just what it is that works. If no group succeeds (like this time), then it is up to us to get back in there and and have another go. Luckily, in the week that followed, the teachers worked with us

Based on what I saw and what the teachers were saying, it seems that a Commedia piece has to be dead simple. The audience needs to know who the characters are, what they want, and what the obstacle is in the first ten seconds. There can’t be too much preamble. Also, the desires need to be fairly straightforward, along the likes of money, food, sex, or power (the masks are these to expose our baser drives, after all), and the characters have to engage in some form of action in order to get the desired object – what the teachers call a theme of action. Plus, the action has to build until it gets to a fever pitch. That is what makes Commedia funny! As a character tries to get what he/she wants, the obstacles become more and more impossible, so he/she is reduced to ever more desperate and extreme attempts to get at the coveted object. Until in the end, nobody is ultimately able to get what he or she wants.

Another thing. Even though the masks are half-masks and you can talk in them, the language spoken has to be super-essentialised, or else there is the danger of the play devolving into psychological drama. Once a mask piece turns into a bunch of people standing around and talking, you might as well take the masks off and act without it. There is psychological time, and there is mask time, and while mask time doesn’t necessarily make sense to the performer, it is what makes Commedia work. I have discovered that even if you engage in nonsensical action, as long as you do it rhythmically, it will work and it will be funny. An example is a piece a group made from the second theme “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. A group of robbers decide to steal a diamond necklace, and at one point the robbers and the guard get caught up in a game of ever more creative ways to flick the birdie at each other. Completely hilarious, yet a total non-sequiter.

Mask play at heart is rhythmic play, and incorporated into that is the active presentation of the mask to the audience as well – the takes. Example: seeing an apple; look at the audience in surprise; look at apple again; look at audience; show extreme hunger; look at the apple hungrily; look at audience; show decision made; walk towards apple; look at audience one last time; grab apple. In addition to the takes, there is also the separation of text and movement, the creation of silhouettes in the body, and holding still while action is happening in another part of the stage.

So. After that first crack at Commedia we were sent back to the rehearsal room to work on a second theme “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. This time around we had a bit more success, coming up with stuff such asfasting nuns lusting after a cream cake, the aforementioned robbers trying to trick a guard and steal a diamond necklace, and daughters plotting to trick their inheritance from their father’s new wife. My group came up with the idea of getting grandma to jump off a cliff so we could claim her life insurance. We ended up spending two weeks on this theme, by which time the teachers had started putting word out of the in-house presentation at the end of term, and of selecting pieces to go in the presentation.

This raised the stakes considerably. Now it was not only “Lets make a piece that works” but it was “Lets make a piece that works that can be presented to the first-years”. For all of week 7, we didn’t have any classes except for alexander technique, acrobatics and voice, so it all became creation, creation, creation – we had about five more hours of rehearsal a day. The teachers watched our work at the end of the week, on Friday, cut several pieces, then told us to work on all the remaining Commedia pieces, plus a few of the platform movies, and present them again on Monday. This totaled thirteen pieces. At that point the two Commedia pieces I was in, the funeral and the cliff, was still in contention, so I had to put in an eight-hour rehearsal day on sunday.

The presentation was on Thursday, so anxieties were running high around Lispa. Unfortunately, maybe because we had all focused too much on plotting and structuring that week, the presentation on Monday was a bit of a catastrophe, with all the mask pieces becoming long and ponderous, sacrificing the playfulness that was just there a week ago. One of my pieces (the granny and cliff one) didn’t even present because we had run into a rut over the weekend. Sensing that we had hit a trough, the teachers advised us all to keep working on them, and said they will take a look again on Thursday before the presentation to see which ones are fit for show. Whoa.

I was dreading a bit the following two days, fearing the stress and anxiety of the last push and concerted effort to make good pieces. In the end though, it turned out to be fairly civilized, and my cliff piece actually came up with something completely different and fun (three grandchildren fighting for granny’s gold medallion, and in their attempts to kill granny, all end up falling out the window to their deaths. In increasingly hilarious ways, of course). Due to the lack of scheduling conflicts, this piece also had more rehearsal time, which definitely helped. The funeral piece on the other hand, had only half the rehearsal time, but it had always been strong, and after adding the different ways that we were thwarted by the corpse in getting the ring (think rigor mortis), we definitely had a screamer in our hands. With Melissa, Steve, Giuli, Brad, and Inigo in this group, there was never going to be a shortage of ideas, but the presence of such strong personalities also meant that we were just as likely to disagree on ideas, and that sometimes hindered our progress and made things stressful.

Presentation went as well as we could have hoped. The first-years were enthusiastic about our performances, and under our encouragement, gave us very useful feedback. It was interesting to see that while they warmed readily to the platform movies, they were a bit more hesitant about the mask pieces. One girl said “The Commedia pieces felt a bit distant to me… Am I supposed to laugh at those people? Or am I supposed to see myself in these characters and empathise with them? Are these situations supposed to be from real life?”

Commedia Dell’Arte were traveling improvisational theatres in the 16-18th century that played to the common people. The stories and characters they play come from real life. If we haven’t managed to do that yet, well, that means we still have a lot of work to do. And as Thomas always says, we have a lifetime.

“Our job is – in keeping with the exhortation of the great Italian poet Savinio – “to tell our own story”. Our task as intellectuals, as persons who mount the pulpit or the stage, and who, most importantly, address to young people, our task is not just to teach them method, like how to use the arms, how to control breathing, how to use the stomach, the voice, the falsetto, the contracampo. It’s not enough to teach a technique or a style: we have to show them what is happening around us. They have to be able to tell their own story. A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance” – Dario Fo, Nobel Lecture

Posted by: Janice | December 6, 2008

The World of Commedia: Part 1


It is now almost the end of Term 1. For more than a month, we’ve been hurtling through the world of commedia dell’arte. The ride has been long, and occasionally, quite rough and tumble. I never expected to take to commedia, but I’ve been surprised at how much it has brought out of me, both in terms of what I am capable of as a performer, and also in terms of what I love doing onstage.

In the first two weeks, the school provided us with existing character masks from the classical tradition – Pantalone, Harlequin, Capitano, etc. We were not so much informed about how to play the masks, than asked to figure them out ourselves. Much like the rest of the Lispa pedagogy, the teachers are more interested in you discovering your own version of Capitano, for example, rather than telling you the “right way” to play Capitano.

Capitano (see above) is a veteran sailor or soldier who pretends to be strong and brave, though in reality, he is actually a coward. Steph was the teacher who worked with us on the Capitano mask, and she led us through a series of investigations in which we explored the dynamics of an inflating and deflating balloon. The inflation of self-importance and the deflation of macho bravado. How can one switch quickly between the most over-the-top bravery and the most pitiful cowardice? By embodying the dynamics of the balloon, we were able to figure out what it is physically without over-analyzing it intellectually. When it came time for one Capitano to meet another Capitano, Steph harked back to the animal work we had done last year and asked us to embody competitive chickens/roosters. When fear kicked in, we swiftly turned into mice or lizards. In addition to the ability to switch back and forth quickly between the two states (which is where the comedy lies), there is now the question of build. If two roosters meet in the farmyard, how might they attempt to out-rooster one another, and how can that competition escalate?

I had a Lispa breakthrough moment during one of Steph’s Capitano classes. The improv for this class is “The meeting of two love rivals”. The meeting of two Capitanos. One of you has discovered that your lover cheated on you, so you have arranged to meet this love rival at night to duke it out. I went up with Marcell. “Ahha – not only has your lover cheated on you, but he did it with someone of the same sex!” said Steph.

I made my entrance first, but before  I got any further Steph made me enter again. “Attack the space when you come on! There is no warm-up time for these masks!” I entered again. This time when I stepped out into the space I managed to stay, but I felt totally lost – I had no idea what I was doing out there. I tried to inflate and feel important, Capitano-esque, but I wasn’t really finding the situation. My rival had yet to arrive, and I was just left standing there, waiting for him. “What are you planning to do when he gets here? Will you fight him? Maybe you’ll need to warm-up. Go on, do some push-ups.” I hesitated. “Go on, these masks have to be in action! Really do some push-ups! Stretch, jump – clap your hands between the push-ups! You’re going to kick his ass when he comes in, won’t you?”. By this time, I was sweating profusely and simply struggling to keep up with the string of provocations that Steph was volleying at me. I stood back up. “What are you going to do to him when he comes? Come on, what are you going to do to him?” “I am going to punch him in the face!!” I shouted in Chinese as I threw my fist out. “And then what?” “I’m going to punch him in the face again, and then I’m going to kick him, and then I’m going to karate-chop him left and right.” The audience started laughing. I kicked and shouted and looked at Steph. “Thats right, find us with the mask. Look at us. Now speak quickly and punch slowly at the same time. What are you going to do to him?” “I’m going to punch him, and kick him, and pick him up and throw him down. I’m going to cut him into pieces, I’m going to…” I rambled on in Chinese. The audience was in absolute hysterics “Keep moving! Punch slowwwly, but speak really really really fast.” Steph’s arms went punching slow-mo Tai Chi-esque as she talked. “Turn your head, look at us, speak, punch. Now punch again. ” She paused “Now good, make your entrance again. Use the stuff that you’ve found” I turned, disappeared behind the black screen, and came on again. Silence. “Mehh. Do it again!”. I turned around and entered “Come on, you can be bigger than that!” I tried again. “Nope, still not good enough. You’re the warrior from the far east! This is the day when you show us what a mighty fighter you are! Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon! Take the space!” I left, took a deep breath…and jumped out with a flourish, like the heroine from a martial arts epic. I glared at the audience. I surveyed my kingdom. There was a collective sigh from the audience. Steph nodded “Ahhh. Now, thats more like it.” She turned “Okay Marcell,  you can enter.”

When I sat back down again, I was completely drenched in sweat. My face was flushed, my eyes were bright, and I was radiating heat waves. I felt completely exhilirated. It was one of those moments where I felt I had just broken through a personal barrier. I had tried to do something out of my natural forte and touched something deeper.

All last year, the teachers kept saying how I have a natural fluidity in the way I move, how I have this innate stillness and calm. They said that the things I need to work on is the attack, the aggression, and the chaos, my counter-mask. As it turned out, commedia has been extremely good at pushing me to work on these things. In that improvisation, I really felt that I touched on something different when I took on the role of a Chinese fighter. Even my classmates said that I became unrecognizable when I performed in Chinese. I was so much more grounded, so much more powerful.

Unexpectedly, the Chinese language gave me access to a rhythm and cultural body that I have been unfamiliar with for most of my life. I feel so proud and excited about this discovery.  Though I grew up in Hong Kong, the years of English language education and theatrical endeavors abroad have distanced me from my roots. Now, just like that, it is as if commedia had tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed me to the beginning of a lifetime’s investigation. Commedia is earthy comedy, and the earth is where my ancestors lie. My heritage does matter. It is time to dig deeper into the lives of those that have come before me. To learn about their stories, their myths, and how they relate to me.

Posted by: Janice | November 18, 2008

Madness and Folly

And……we’re back! Its been awhile since I last posted on here. Lispa has been in session for a month, and at some point, I have to acknowledge that I will probably have even less time to blog this year than the last. It seems like the second year will be a wild ride.

Classes have been going at us fast and furious – in just the last two weeks alone, we got a taste of Commedia dell’arte, working with the masks of Arlecchino, Capitano, Pantalone and Dottore. Before Commedia though, we got to start the school year by going back to the platform storytelling that we began last year.

Platform storytelling? Basically, you have a wooden platform that is about the size of a single mattress. This small space then becomes the stage where you tell big stories. Think of superheros. The frame to frame layout of a comic book. The key to vitality here is clear images, poetic transitions, and dynamic changes of perspectives. Last year, we experimented with recreating the sinking of the Titanic, a Tour de France race, and the first woman landing on the moon, with just a few images. The provocation then becomes: how can a group of performers tell an epic story in such a limited space?

Steph got us started by asking us to improvise a chase, in pairs. We had lovers chasing one another, victims chasing robbers, people climbing up buildings, people jumping off buildings, etc. Because the time and space that we create on the platform does not necessarily correspond to a realistic time and space (think comic book timing and imaging), we can pretty much get the audience to accept anything that we imagine. An example was Steve and Matteo’s improv, where at one point they split the stage, with both people facing out. One is on the edge of a building hovering frantically, while the other is holding an umbrella, as if floating in mid-air, escaping from his grasp.

In one class, Michael bought in a bunch of magazine ads. In groups of three or four, we had to choose an ad, then bring it to life on the platform. When you think about it, ads are basically just narratives that grab your attention with striking imagery and tag-lines. Though ads in general are not that epic, the idea is that storytelling on a platform has to be as essentialized, the images made as striking, as those we encounter in print ads. Our group got an Hermes ad with the image of a beautiful model in a luxurious wool coat. What was she doing? Pulling a yak up the snowy mountains of the Himalayas. The tagline? Hermes: An Indian Winter.

We created our own story. First, we “drew” a mountain range into the air, and then one by one, created snowflakes with the tips of our fingers, letting them fall and swirl. While all this was happening, we made sounds of wind blowing. Then all of a sudden, three of us transformed into a yak (complete with horns), and another girl became the beautiful woman in the ad. Facing front, she pulled at an imaginary leash, and the “yak” bucked and snarled. The more she pulled, the more the animal struggled. Finally, she reached out, and slowly, pulled on a billowing coat. Immediately, the animal stilled. This time, when she turned and walked, the yak followed. She looked over at the audience and whispered “Hermes: An Indian Winter”.

The week after this whirlwind encounter with the platform, Thomas opened up the space, and provoked us with the improvisation of free-form storytelling with a partner. After spending two weeks experimenting with different ways to create images with our bodies, like drawing them with our hands, embodying them, reacting to them, making sound effects, etc, now we are to get into the space and tell the audience a story with a partner, without knowing in advance, of course, what story it is that you are telling.

This was probably the most open-ended improvisation we have had at Lispa for awhile, and it reminded me of what we need to do all the time as good improvisers – listen to your partner, be responsive, stay playful, always saying “yes, and…”, and maintain contact with the audience.

I did the improvisation with Brad, and it was very challenging. For some reason, it was very difficult for me to continually come up with new proposals to move the story along. I think my brain just works in a more abstract way. Or maybe I am just slow. Brad, on the other hand, was a lean mean idea machine. I constantly ended up following his proposals, and completing his images rather than ping-ponging my ideas back and forth. I got the feeling that he was also filling in for me in the times when I got stuck and stood frozen on the spot. I was also doing the improv in Chinese, so it took me even longer than usual to figure out what I wanted to say. On top of that, Brad was speaking in English, so the English speaking part of my brain was engaged while i was trying to do something in Chinese simultaneously. Disaster. Arghhh.

We did manage to come up with some pretty interesting stuff in the end (from what I remember, something about sharks and pirates and green birds that laid eggs…), but the story-telling was quite frantic, and Thomas said that at times it seemed as if we were having more fun than the audience, meaning that the story stayed between the two of us, and didn’t quite make it to connect with the audience. In the best of worlds, our imaginations would simply fly, and we would be able to take the audience on our journey of madness and folly. If we can play fast and hard, while being both precise and articulate, we can make the audience believe in anything. There may be life on Mars afterall.

From Steph. Again, by Rilke:

“For there is a boundary to looking                                                                                                   And the world that is looked at so deeply,                                                                                         now wants to flourish in love.

Go now and do the work of the heart                                                                                                   on all the images imprisoned                                                                                                          within you.

Empower them!”

Posted by: Janice | October 6, 2008

The Pleasure Principle

Seeing as that I spent a year in physical theatre school, its perhaps not so surprising that I now spend a fair amount of time thinking about my body. My relationship with my body. I hate to label it “my relationship with my body” because that automatically seems to separate my sense of self with a blood-and-guts reality, but I supposed that will have to do. How I feel about my body, how I relate to it, how I use it. Those are just some of the things that I contemplate on a daily basis.

I had a major paradigm shift two weeks ago when I did a workshop with Lorna Marshall, author of the book “The Body Speaks”. Instead of the usual warm-up exercises, she told us to have some playtime with our hips, rolling, squirming, and bouncing around on the floor in ways that will make our hips feel good. Mmhmm. Same thing for the shoulders. What we do is completely up to us, as along as it gives us pleasure. She explicitly said that she does not want to see anything that we’ve learned from other teachers, stretches that we may have picked up in dance class for example, or exercises from Lispa. Nope. None.

Lorna was most emphatic about this, this thing of not doing what we’ve been taught, and why? Because she feels that as performers, we need to own our bodies, and if we are merely slaves to technique passed along by our teachers, then they are the ones who truly own our bodies, not us. Technical ability is a place that you can always go back to. Dare to go somewhere different, she says. Technique is just a way to train the body – a body has much more potential, is infinitely more expressive, than any kind of systemic training. Furthermore, she continued, training is often geared towards a standardized body type, so it can never fully adapt to individual physical needs. Every body is different – from differing flexibility to imbalances between left and right sides – and you are the only one who knows your body best. Think of the body as one great puzzle, and techniques as different ways of decoding it. Add together the millions of ways we have of training bodies, and we still wouldn’t have the full picture. An example: most techniques treat torsos as two-dimensional slabs, whereas in reality, they are three-dimensional organs of flesh and bone that can twist and contort. And bend. And stretch. Every which way. Rolling and turning on the floor there like some amoeba, my spine felt really good. And most liberating of all, I did not care how I looked.

It is not that Lorna is against technique – it is just that she feels we need to have our own personal relationship with our bodies outside of what we learn from our teachers.

The thing that struck me most about her whole spiel was her take on pleasure. The whole “playtime with hips” thing? It sounds a bit daff, but for her its about listening to your body and having more pleasurable experiences with it outside of food and sex – the way most people do. It also matters what kind of language we use to talk about the body, whether we scold it like an unruly child, or chat with it like a friend. It feels a bit silly, sitting there, calling your belly “darling, but then thats exactly why we need to do it. Usually, we fear our bodies, or, we treat them like objects that needs to be controlled and disciplined. Especially when it comes to food and sex. Blame this on societal attitudes. Better yet, blame it on Christianity and Descartes. In any case, if we don’t learn to have a good time with our bodies outside of eating and having sex, the argument goes, it will be hard for us to learn to trust it (why trust something that makes us fearful and anxious?), and that in turn will make it extremely difficult for us to be fully engaged with it during performance. I wouldn’t perform with a stage partner that I don’t trust, so why would I perform with a body that I don’t trust myself?

After that workshop I started thinking a lot about the way I relate to my own body. Like many people, I have trouble letting my body have pleasure on a daily basis (it even feels dirty just saying it). I blame this on my all-powerful Christian and Chinese upbringing. No wonder people in Hong Kong love food so much – we get so little pleasure from our bodies on a day to day basis. There is no culture of social hugging or kissing (except among the expats), and even children, once they get beyond the age of seven, get very little physical affection. Hugging just isn’t big in Hong Kong. Add to this an exam/achievement/money oriented culture, a high pressure work environment, and a mostly concrete urban landscape, and you’d get a fairly physically inactive people.

I wasn’t even aware that I usually only get direct physical enjoyment either out of food or sex. Sure, I get a lot of pleasure out of dancing and doing alexander-technique type bodywork too, but the pleasure connection just isn’t as strong. I guess dancing isn’t as necessary for survival, afterall. From there, it also makes complete sense why so many of us have hang-ups about food and sex, the whole having pleasure and being guilty about having pleasure at the same time thing. Fear and anxiety. Hmm. If we can learn to have a less combative attitude towards our bodies, perhaps our relationship with food and sex will not be so out of balance.

I’m off to make some food now, and perhaps spend some time squirming around on the floor. Think of it as reward for my body for a hard days work, making sure I stay upright, supporting me through life.

Posted by: Janice | September 15, 2008

Scenes From Hong Kong: Last Edition

Posted by: Janice | September 5, 2008

Scenes From Hong Kong: 2nd Edition

Posted by: Janice | August 22, 2008

Scenes From Hong Kong – 1st Edition

Posted by: Janice | August 7, 2008

Smithfield Meat Market Photographs

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