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!



  1. Wonderful to see you back, Janice. I really missed your thoughts and reflections in such beautifully written English, but can fully understand how it could be difficult for you to settle down to write such pieces in the unsettled situation in which you found yourself. I shall, as you suggest, ‘stay tuned’ for your next piece!

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