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!”



  1. Good luck with the second year! It sounds exciting and extremely difficult.

    Miss you!

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