Posted by: Janice | August 6, 2008

Final Creation: Smithfield Meat Market

Okay. I have finally sat down to write again, almost two months after my last post. The extended absence wasn’t intentional – it was just how things turned out in the last weeks of Term 4 at Lispa. If I thought the end of term for the last three terms were bad, well, this end of term totally kicked my ass. In reality, we only had classes up till week 4. But then, from week 5 on, we were pretty much in rehearsal 2-3 hours for our final Creation, our final end-of-year presentation – the theatrical exploration of an existing physical space in London.

Let me back up a bit. This whole year, teachers had given us new themes every week or every other week, and told us to devise something based on the provocation. Rehearsal time was scheduled into class time – we started with two hours a week, and by the end of the year we were at twelve hours a week. Every week, rain or shine, we would present the results on Mondays in front of the teachers and the entire class. Good, bad, finished, unfinished – it didn’t matter. It wasn’t so much about creating polished pieces as it was about experimenting with different ways to devise collaboratively. This process, entitled Autocours at the Lecoq school in Paris, is named Creation at Lispa. Creation, Creation, Creation. It is a huge part of the Lecoq pedagogy, and it is here that we learn how to make original theater as a group. To create something out of nothing. Democratically. At any given moment, one can play the role of director, performer, writer, or designer – and everyone has equal say in the project. This way of working is, of course, much harder than the traditional way with designated roles. Yelling, screaming, crying, fights, frustrations, silences, these were all par for the course. Egos would flare, language barriers got in the way, and there would be the occasional unexplained tardiness or absence. Time and again we’d get to the end of the week with hardly any material, then literally create everything in the last rehearsal session before presentation. Often the pieces presented would be less than ideal, and even if they were okay, would still be heavily critiqued by the teachers. They hardly ever complimented us on what was good, or what worked – they would only comment on things that we haven’t done, other directions that we could have taken the piece into, or ways that we could have made the piece better.

By the end of the year, I think we’d all gotten a little better at working collaboratively. Maybe it helped that we were allowed to choose who to work with in the last two creations. Anyway. At the beginning of Term 4, we were given the assignment of observing an actual physical space in London, and then creating a piece of theater based on our observations. Our group (Brad, Ben, Darragh, Diego, Heather, James, Julieta, Kathleen, Matteo, Naomi, me) chose to look at the Smithfield Meat Market, a huge historic meat market in the center of town that had been around since Victorian times

We spent the first couple of weeks just visiting the market and observing: taking pictures, talking to people, making notes of interesting conversations and interesting things. Though the place is now fairly sterile, clean and efficient, it used to be much bloodier, much rougher, and much more chaotic. It was a den of thieves, a place that had its own rules. It was, and still is, a man’s world. We took tours with the constabulary (market police) and were able to go behind the scenes to look at the actual cutting and packaging of carcasses. Ben brought along a dictaphone, and I brought my camera. Then, we claimed a wall back at Lispa and promptly started plastering our material all over the place. It was Brad’s idea, to have a place to refer to when we needed inspiration. It would also be a good place to keep track of material that we generated in rehearsals. Dozens of color photo printouts made their way onto the wall. Slowly, notebook pages, doodles, magazine tear-outs, leaflets and index cards joined in.

We got on our feet and started creating at week 3. At this point, we were just improvising really, trying to generate a bunch of material without stopping to censor ourselves. We made use of several exercises we’d learned in Michael’s classes, for example, each person creating a movement gesture from their first impression of the meat market, then people doing it one by one, with the rest of the group joining in as a moving tableau. Diego brought in pictures of art by Francis Bacon and Sarah Lucas, and we used them as points of departure for improvisations. We made little pieces based on the idea of waiting, and of extraordinary things happening in ordinary situations (such as people dragging in dead carcasses to cut while other people stand around drinking coffee).

As the weeks went on we tried to find our way to a theme, something that we could anchor ourselves with. We experimented with different ones: the giving of flesh and blood, the fabric of the body, dressing carnal experiences, etc. We created little scenes like Darragh sewing Heather, Diego and Julieta together with a needle and thread, or Kathleen, Matteo and I slowly transforming ourselves from normal people to botox babes. At some point, it struck us that we had all coalesced around the idea of packaging carnal experiences, of making something messy into something that can be consumed. Things such as sex, and animals, made pretty and tamed so that people would buy them. A week ago, a number of us had gone to a strip club near the meat market, inspired by the many calendars of naked women in the market, and the fact that some of the workers were actual patrons. That experience fed into and entwined with our experience of the meat market. We continued talking, working, and arguing.

Then, as we started showing our material to the teachers, they started telling us that we had become too abstract, that as an innocent audience they were lost as to where we are, and what it is that we are representing. Even something as simple as us posing as dead carcasses hanging off meat hooks, is already a high level of transposition. They say we have become too fantastical, too theatrical too early, and that we need to come back to earth, to what we had actually seen at the meat market. We had started creating art before understanding life. It is true – it is easier to make stuff up than to painstakingly reconstruct what we had actually seen. For example, it is easier to writhe like a piece of meat being cut, than to address any of the following questions: How does a butcher hold a knife? What exactly does he do when he is cutting a lamb carcass? How does a shopkeeper talk? What words does he use? How does a forklift move?

So, we started doing this thing (again inspired by Michael) where we wrote down lists of sights, sounds, gestures and smells from the place, tear them into separate bits of paper, then pick four randomly and make something from it in 10 minutes. When that still was criticized as being too abstract, we sat down, and thought really hard about what the essential elements were that defined the market. The great arches of the building. The plastic flaps. The busyness of the forklifts. The precision of the trucks backing up to unload their meat.

We set about recreating these things in space in detail. We used our bodies to create the architecture of the market. We made sounds of birds chirping, trucks beeping. We made human forklifts. We created trucks and the loading docks into which they backed into. Gradually though, we started getting stuck because it felt like we were going through a shopping list. Okay, lets make the building, okay, now lets make the forklift, okay, now lets come up with a transition from the building to the forklift. Everything made less and less sense, and people started getting visibly frustrated.

Things came to a head on the Friday before the presentation. Amy had come to watch us do bits and pieces that we have made. Afterwards, it was is if she was playing devil’s advocate. She basically challenged us to feel more about what we were doing. What is it about the meat market that struck us the most? What is it that we wanted to show people? Is there a way to make transitions more poetic, to have one thing flow to another, to incorporate rhythmic changes, instead of this clunky laborious step-by-step? How can we create something more organic, more passionate without sacrificing any of the truth we had observed?

Wait, weren’t they the ones telling us that we were getting too abstract in the first place? I was confused. And then, spurred by Amy’s comments, our whole group got into this very intense discussion about our working process, with Diego, Julieta and Naomi especially getting very upset about the fact that they were feeling their voices haven’t been heard enough, that they were being disconnected to what we have been doing, and how they feel decisions were often made without them. That we have been structuring too much and playing too little. This opened up a whole can of worms, like the reality of differing degrees of English fluency, different cultural backgrounds and communication styles, issues of leadership, the way creation rehearsals are run, and so on and so forth. The bottom line is, we all wanted to create a great piece, and none of us have ever acted out of malice. In the end, we manage to reach a kind of peace.

We decided to start again with Diego’s idea of an open space – where we would have a very tangible theme and then improvise together based on the theme. Themes like the ones we were working with before: architecture, forklifts, trucks backing up. People were free to enter and leave the space whenever they wanted, responding to other people in the space while they were in, then leaving when they ran out of ideas.

This was when things really started clicking. By this time, we had worked together enough to know how to listen to each other, so the open space sessions just flew. Without even knowing it, we had finally stumbled onto a balance between real life and abstract poetry. We came up with lots of exciting new material that we loved, ones that got our guts and that were also grounded in reality. By looking back through the tapes and notes we’d made, we found loads of text that showed who these people are, the men who work at the meat market. Both the crass, sexual nature (“Oh that one, his name’s doozy cunt!”) and the vulnerability and humanity (“you can’t show weakness here, if you do they’d give it to you, as much as you can take”). In the end, we came up with a piece that we owned fiercely, and that was what it was all about, the raw and rough, side by side with the heartbreakingly tender. The meat market is a hard place, with men lifting, pushing, pulling, cutting meat all day to make a living. Men who are strong, and who often have to pretend to be stronger than they are. A stripper from the nightclub told us that once, a man paid her eight hundred pounds to hug him for three hours. Eight hundred pounds, just to hug him.

Maybe that man worked at Smithfield Meat Market.


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Posted by: Janice | June 15, 2008

Expressive Masks

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about what it is that actors do, and how training feeds into the work. Of all the artistic disciplines, it seems to me that acting is the most vague, most mysterious, and one that people most often use the words “natural talent” to describe, instead of words like “craft”, or “practice”, or even “emotion”. Unlike dance, or painting, there is less of an idea of what it takes to be really good in the form. What are the actors’ equivalent of the daily ballet barre, the daily studio time in front of a canvas? What is the work that we need to do?

For the past eight months now, whenever we hit a barrier, or started struggling with something in class (usually something personal and private), Thomas’s response has always been “Now, this is where the work begins, for the next five years, ten years…don’t worry, theres plenty of time” I’ve always taken this statement to mean that we need to have time to get more life experiences, so that they may better inform our acting. After class with Thomas on Monday though, I think I was better able to understand what he meant.

We worked with the expressive masks with Thomas on Monday. These masks – very human, with eyes and noses and mouths, generous lines around the forehead and chin – are a lot more developed than the larval masks that we worked with last term. The faces are mostly asymmetrical, appearing at once world-weary and hopeful. Depending on how you play them, they can be extremely funny, or tragic. These masks don’t talk; they are incapable of speech. They either play in the moment before words, or the moment after everything has been said. Consequently, in our improvisations we have explored scenarios of everything from falling in love at first sight, to bitter unresolved farewells.

No mask is easy to play, but for some of us, this was especially challenging. Unlike the neutral mask or the larval mask, the expressive mask asks a lot more of us emotionally. The technicality of slowing things down and articulating everything is still there, but on top of that, you have to see and receive everything that is happening, let yourself feel what the events are doing to you, to your body, then let that emotional state charge the mask, and fill the space. And to trust that that is enough. It is like trying to let the body’s sub-conscious rhythms and natural responses take over. In some ways, I feel that this mask is like the music and paintings that we had in the second term – they were there to provoke a truthful, personal inner space from the performer. Unlike those earlier provocations however, in the mask you cannot let an emotional state overtake you and proceed to improvise in free form. There is a human situation that the mask is playing in, and the very existence of the mask itself imposes a structure and a demand for play. This need to both play finely and feel deeply at every moment was somewhat overwhelming to us, and after weeks of light-hearted character change last term, we were quite taken aback with the sudden depths to which we were asked to dive into again.

Thomas gave us a scenario of a son, or daughter, saying farewell to his/her family. It is not a peaceful farewell however, as the son is actually leaving the house to move in with his gay lover, which the family disapproves of. In the same vein, the daughter is saying goodbye in order to marry a person who does not come from the right racial and socio-economic background. Much has already been said and done between the family members, and at this moment, there is really nothing more to say. Yet tensions between family members and the departing child have hardly been resolved. It is into such a charged atmosphere that the child enters in order to say goodbye.

I went up there with the first group as the daughter saying farewell. Before I could enter the space however, Thomas spent some time working with the other people who were playing my family – the mother, the father, the brother, and the uncle. Thomas asked them to put their masks on, and first to arrange themselves in the space. Then they were to take a moment, and fill their bodies with a emotional state, in response to the situation and the other people’s presence. In subtle shifts of attitudes of the body or their places in the space, Thomas prodded them to play out their enmities and alliances, and collective apprehension of my arrival. Time and again, he reminded them to give themselves the time to feel what another actors’ action is doing to them, and to let that emotion flood the body. Then the reaction will happen. The reaction does not have to be big either – it just needs to sustain and build upon the level of tension in the room. The way the father looked at the mother, the way the mother sat down, the way the uncle turned and the rhythm with which he walked towards the brother, everything could be played to create the greatest imbalance for me to enter into. Thomas kept repeating this – if the space is too balanced, if the bodies are too balanced, then there is not enough tension to pull another performer into the space.

Finally, Thomas deemed the family set-up adequate, and asked me to enter. I walked in. I saw the sad figure of my father sitting in a chair beside my mother. I started walking towards him, then noticed my mother’s glance. I stopped. She stood up, then walked towards me. Then pulled her hands into fists and turned her face away. My brother came and put his hands on my shoulders. I looked at him briefly, then took a step towards my mother. I took her hand. She shook it off.

Here, Thomas stopped us, and asked Giuliana (the girl who was playing my mother) to really fling my hand away, to go with what she was feeling. “Just because you are wearing a mask doesn’t mean you have to make everything small….if you are really angry, what does that provoke in you? Go for it!”

He asked us to do it again from the moment where I take her hand. And again. And again. He told us it is important to know when to end a scene, either by someone exiting, or by someone starting to speak. If we carry a scene beyond the right length, then it will start to seem as if we are merely milking the emotions, like in one instance when Giuliana’s rage resulted in a stand-off between her and Brad, the guy who was playing my brother, someone who was on my side.

After about three or four times through, Thomas seemed satisfied, and asked us to try doing the scene again, but this time without masks. It was a strange sensation. With the faces of the other performers suddenly visible, the emotional reactions came on a lot stronger, and with it the urge make it big in the body. Afterwards, Thomas asked us to make note of when in the improvisation it felt genuine, and when it felt more like we were “hamming” it up.

At the end of the night, Thomas seemed quite inspired, more so than usual. He turned to us and said “An actor needs to become transparent, in order to bring his emotions into the space, to share with an audience” He continued “We train with masks not just so we can become great mask-performers, but so we can learn how to feel and play with those things deep inside…if someone can play the mask well, he or she can do anything.” As if on fire, he concluded “Don’t get bogged down by technique. The most important thing is to first train the imagination. To learn to feel. Then technique can come later”

Posted by: Janice | May 31, 2008

Budapest

Two weeks ago, I went to Budapest to visit my good friend Greg from Swarthmore. He had just finished his studies at the Institute for Dance Arts in Linz, Austria, and had been commissioned to create a dance piece in Budapest. He ended up collaborating with a local video artist for two months, creating an improvisation-based performance. Though I didn’t get to see the final showing, I did get to watch a run-through. A sort of meditation on gender as manifest in movement, childhood, the big issues that we are bombarded with from the media, and how it could very easily collude into a meaningless deluge unless we process it willfully, it was an interesting, and eclectic piece. Very Greg, in other words. It was wonderful to watch him dance, and to see what has changed in him after Swarthmore and his training at IDA.

Here are some photographs from the trip:

The courtyard of Greg’s apartment building

Greg!

One of the many pictures I took of the streets of Budapest

A beautiful day on the Danube

A secret garden

Fried sweet cheese balls

The Fisherman’s Bastion

View of the Danube from on high

Guardian angels in St. Mattius Church

The National Archive

A Wailing Mary

The Eagle overlooking Castle Hill

A view of the Parliament

Szechenyi Bridge

From the tower of the Basilica of St. Iztvan

Inside the Basilica

Szimpla Kert Bar

Buying spinach

Paprika!

Site of secret police in both Nazi and Stalinist Regimes

The Jewish Quarter

Great Synagogue

A view of the parliament from the river bank

The metro

Awesome green onions

A carousel built in 1906

The Applied Arts Museum

Underground

The National Opera House

Taking the train to the airport

Posted by: Janice | May 17, 2008

Scenes From a House, a Marriage…and a Fire

As promised, more on the farcical comedy that was our final presentation of the term. Rather than try to summarize the plot, I thought I’d show you guys the final script for our madcap, multi-character farce. We were working on this project for three weeks at about four hours of rehearsal time a week, and since time was so limited, it was a bit of a scramble and dash to the finish. Not only was time an issue, but space was even more so, with five groups jostling for studio room and black flats to rehearse with. During that last week, we ended up spending a lot of time rehearsing in parking lots and sidewalks outside the school!

I was in a group with all guys, and we had a great creative process. It was probably the best one I’ve been in all year, and I’m still not sure why. Maybe this creation theme in particular – which involves a great deal of structuring and problem-solving – jives especially with the male mind. Maybe it was just that we all have a similar way of working, and so sparks were able to fly. In any case, I often felt like I was in the middle of a regular theater rehearsal, with things getting done and ideas being moved forward, than the usual tug and grind of the creation process, where sometimes it takes half an hour just to decide on what idea to proceed with.

My group was Robin, Brad, James, Darragh, Ben, and I. Robin plays Sean, the head plumber; and Dave, the hippie Jacuzzi constructor. Brad plays Brown, the foreman; and Rufus, a nervous plumber. James plays Patrick, a flashy interior designer; and Melvin, the hapless owner of the house. Darragh plays Declan, a plumber; and Pascal, an assistant housing inspector. Ben plays Andy, an effeminate assistant designer, and Kemo, a sleazy head inspector. I play Cecilia, Melvin’s trophy wife, and Doris, the cleaning lady. Enjoy!

Scene 1

Melvin: Isn’t this fantastic, Cecilia? We’re going to have such an amazing bed and breakfast! Oh look at this kitchen!
Cecilia: Yea! I hope the guest rooms are done now. I really, really want them to look very nice
Melvin: Oh you just love your guests!
(Andy pops up behind screen)
Andy: Mr and Mrs Jinks, welcome to your new bed and breakfast! (descends the stairs) Patrick Montgomery is a bit busy today with the inspection, so I will be the one giving you the grand tour.
Cecilia: Who’s the inspector?
Andy: Oh its Mr. Kemo Samuels.
(Cecilia quickly looks at Andy)
Melvin: So shall we start upstairs? I can’t wait!
Cecilia: Why don’t you two go along first? I’m just going to go powder my nose. (goes into the guest room)
Melvin: Okay!

Scene 2

Dave: Hey are you the plumber? I’m doing the wires for the Jacuzzi. Keep the water off, yea?
Andy: I’ll make a note of that. Take a look at my carpets.

Scene 3

Sean: Alright boys, we need to test the sprinklers today.
Declan: Um, someone needs to turn on the water.
Rufus: I propose that I go turn on the water.
Declan: I second that motion.
Sean: All in favor say aye.
Declan: Aye.
Sean: Aye.
Rufus: Aye.
Sean: Motion carried.
(Rufus runs off)
Declan: Boss, how much do you know about sprinklers?
Sean: A lot. I read a book about it.

Scene 4

Patrick: Brown?
Brown: Yea.
Patrick: Is everything ready for the inspection?
Brown: Everything’s fine. Besides I know the inspector.
Patrick: Even the fire-proofing?
Brown: The fire-proofing will pass. We just need to…massage the specifications.

Scene 5

(Cecilia comes out to get candles form the kitchen)
Dave: Are you a plumber? Tell the plumber to the water off!
(Cecilia looks around, then disappears into guest room)

Scene 6

Rufus: Guys I’ve turned the water on! Just like we voted! Coming right up!

Scene 7

Pascal: Hello? Hello? Hello?
Doris: (entering) I always tell the boys to keep the place tidy for Mr. Melvin, but they never do.
Pascal: Hello, I’m the inspector
Doris: Oh hi, I am Doris. You’ll make sure that the house is ready for Mr. Melvin, right? Mr Melvin! The inspector is here!
Melvin: (running down the stairs) I just can’t get enough of this kitchen!
Doris: Mr. Melvin, this is the inspector. (goes off)
Melvin: Oh hi!
Pascal: I’m Pascal
Melvin: I’m Melvin Jinks
Pascal: Is your wife here as well?
Melvin: Oh, I don’t know where she went.
Pascal: So who’s the foreman on this job?
Melvin: Brown is the foreman, and Patrick Montgomery is the designer.
Pascal: Oh….
Melvin: Money’s no object! Anything for Cecilia and our dream bed and breakfast!
Pascal: I would imagine that’s the case, yea.
Melvin: Let me bring Patrick and Brown down right now!

Scene 8

Kemo: Bam bam bam! (mimes cowboy shooting at Pascal) Just came from the golf course! Three under spar (Pascal tells him how things are not looking good, including the double splitter on the t-bar) Kemo: Double splitter on the T-bar! I haven’t seen that since the Seventies. They’ll be lucky if this place doesn’t go up in flames!
Pascal: And over here…

Scene 9

(Cecilia enters. Locks gaze with Kemo. James’ head pops up singing “jungle boogie” as the others wave their hands above the flats. On the second “jungle boogie” Robin waves his feet. As they start singing “That’s the way, aha aha, I like it, aha aha” the chorus slowly sinks behind the screen, and Cecilia walks toward Kemo. The song finishes once Cecilia arrives in the kitchen)

Pascale: …you can see that the casing is exposed.
Cecilia: (turns to Pascale) Have you seen my husband Melvin?
Pascale: Oh he went that way (pointing to the living room)
Cecilia: Hmmm. (looks at Kemo meaningfully, then turns around, undos her hair, then sashays towards the guest room)
Kemo: (quickly following Cecilia) Don’t worry about the T-bar….I’m going to check out the plumbing in the guest room.

Scene 10

Dave: Hey are you a plumber? I’m working on the wiring for the Jacuzzi – so keep the water off!

Scene 11

Brown: Everything will be fine. Look, we’ve saved a bundle on fire proofing…. (Patrick and Brown see Pascal) Oh. Pascale.
Pascal: Its Pascal.
Brown: I thought Kemo was the one doing the inspection today.
Pascal: Kemo is here today, but I am the one with the clipboard. Lets take a look at this T-bar here….
(Andy pops up from behind the screen and gets Patrick’s attention. Pascal and Brown quiet as Andy and Patrick talk)
Andy: Have you seen the Jinkses? I’m supposed to be leading them on a tour
Patrick: Oh I know where he went, I’ll go get him (goes to the living room)
Brown: That’s the way they do it in Iowa
Patrick: Well we’re not in Iowa…
Brown: Let me show you the living room. (Exits)

Scene 12

Melvin: Hi!
Dave: Are you a plumber? Keep the water off, yea!
Melvin: Have you seen my wife? (Dave shakes his head)
Andy: She must be up here somewhere Mr Jinks, I’ll help you look for her.

Scene 13

Doris: Sorry, I’ll come back later. Double splitter on the T-bar!
(Behind the screen, the plumbers vote about turning the water on)
Sean: Who turned the water off?
Rufus: I propose I turn the water back on!
Declan: I second that motion.
Sean: All those in favor say aye.
Declan: Aye.
Sean: Aye.
Rufus: Aye.
Sean: Motion carried.

Scene 14

(Rufus runs out to turn water on. Says hi to Doris)

Scene 15

Melvin: Cecilia where are you? Oh hi Doris! Do you know where Cecilia is?
(Kemo sex noises)
Melvin: Whats that?
(Rufus runs back on)
Rufus: Oh that’s just the pipes. I turned the water back on! (runs up)
Doris: She’s…downstairs! Lets go find her? (goes down the stairs)
Melvin: Yea! (Cecilia sex noises) Wait what’s that? I think that’s my wife! (shhh….noises die down)
(Melvin walks toward guest room)

Scene 16

(Kemo sneaks out to get the wine and wine glasses)
Melvin: Who are you?
Kemo: Uhh, I’m the inspector.
Cecilia: (offstage) There should be some wine glasses.. (pokes her head out) Oh Melvin!
Melvin: What are you doing?
Cecilia: Mr. Samuels came in to check the guest room, and he got wet paint all over him. I’m just helping him get it off.
Melvin: (Pauses) Oh! I’ll go tell Andy that I found you. (runs upstairs)
(Kemo and Cecilia exit into guest room)
(Pascal and Brown come into kitchen)
Pascal: Its just not good enough Brown. Its going to take an awful lot of convincing for me to sign this form.
Brown: Well, how much it is gonna cost? I’m making a bundle.
(Brown looks at Patrick. Patrick hands Brown a wad of money)
Patrick: I haven’t seen any of this (goes up the stairs)
(Pascal and Brown go into living room for the pay-off)

Scene 17

Melvin: Hey, theres smoke coming through the floor!

Scene 18

Sean: (running down the stairs) This is really bad! Arghhh! Lads! Lads! (runs to get the fire extinguisher) (Declan and Rufus run down the stairs and arrive in the kitchen. Sean comes back with the fire extinguisher. All three stare at the fire extinguisher for two seconds)
Sean: (handing the fire extinguisher to Declan) I propose that Declan go put out the fire.
Rufus: I second that motion!
Sean: All in favor say aye.
Rufus: Aye!
Sean: Aye!
Declan: (handing the fire extinguisher to Rufus) I propose that Rufus goes to put out the fire!
Sean: All in favor say aye.
Declan: Aye!
Sean: Aye!
Melvin: (screaming from behind the screen) Ayyyyye!
Sean: Motion carried!
(Rufus looks terrified. All three run for the stairs)

Scene 19

Andy: (popping up from behind the screen) The fire sprinklers work!
Rufus: (popping up) I’d put that in.
Melvin: (popping up) I didn’t know we had a sprinkler system!
Dave: (running through the space) Keep the water off!
Andy: It’s ruining my rugs!
(The sprinklers stop)
Melvin: What happened to the magic?
(All three screams ahhhhhh and sinks down)
Doris: (pops up) That motherfucking T-bar!
(Patrick runs)
Andy: (pops up) My rugs are completely ruined!
(Rufus runs)
Sean: (pops up) Where is Rufus we need a Quorum!
(Doris runs)
Declan: (pops up) We can fix this boss, we can fix this!
(Andy runs)
Melvin: (pops up) Whats happening here? (runs down the stairs) Oh no! Oh no!

Scene 20

Plumbers Tableaux

(Centre flat falls down. Sean is flipping through a book, yelling to Declan “I’m sure its in here somewhere!” They freeze, then run, handing Melvin the fire extinguisher)

Scene 21

Pay-off Tableaux

(Stage Right flat falls down. Brown is in the middle of paying off Pascal. They freeze, then run offstage)

Scene 22

Sex Tableaux

(Stage Left flat falls down. Kemo and Cecilia are in a compromising position, in the middle of sex. They yell, and sprint offstage)

Scene 23

Melvin is left alone

*The End*

Posted by: Janice | April 29, 2008

Character Fun

Building on the work that we did on animals, we have moved onto character work for the second half of the term. The teachers asked us to bring in costumes two weeks ago, and since then we have had to dress up as our own original characters for class.

The Lispa approach to character is, as usual, a physical one. The place we have arrived at now comes directly from all the animal-based improvisations and physical explorations that we did in the first couple of weeks. Though we are proper walking and talking people at this point, the way we walk and talk is still very much inspired by animals. Instead of coming in prepared with answers to questions like “do-you-have-any-religious-beliefs/are-you-married/what-is-your-greatest-fear/what-kind-of- childhood-did-you-have”, we came in with little more than an outfit and a name. Then we started immediately on our feet.

The teachers gave us many provocations. How does our character stand? Does he/she stand with feet in parallel, or does he/she stand with her toes splayed out? Pigeon-toed? How does he/she hold her pelvis? Does it trail behind the feet, or does it jut forward in space? From there, scanning the whole body, we worked our way from the feet all the way to the top of the head, creating as it were a silhouette, an attitude of the body. Whenever we felt lost, we could always refer back to the animal inspiration to figure it out. For example, for my first character, the idea was this sheep-like little old lady in a nightgown and shower cap. So I would go back again and again to this image of a sheep, and try to embody its state. What is it about a sheep that is so appealing to me? What kinds of qualities do I want to use for my character?

After creating the physical structure of the characters, the teachers then took us through a series of exercises to help us figure out how they would move in the space. Whether they would push or pull the space, or be pushed or pulled by the space. Whether they would glide along, scuttle, waddle, float or stomp. From time to time in these experimentations, I found that the physical structure of my character (pigeon-toed, stooped back, craning neck) had become too inhibiting to normal movement. That meant the animal state had become too extreme, and subsequently, I had to lower the “dosage” to make it more natural.

In the first week, a number of us went for extreme characters such as psychopaths, drunks or transvestites. They are interesting in theory, and are easier to get into, but when put in situations with other characters, they become hard to play with, simply because they are such marginal people in regular society. Most people would ignore such people, and find every excuse to avoid interacting with them. So that would make improvisations like working together in an office, riding the tube, or having a tenant meeting in an apartment block hard to pull off. The ongoing challenge is to create a fully three-dimensional character that is interesting, real, and believable, but without falling into cliches and stereotypes. Also, how to hold on to the essence of your character, but still let it be loose and fluid enough so that it can change depending on the situation. After three weeks of doing this, I have to admit that I am still a bit lost, and am still not sure how to create a character that “works”. As they say often at Lispa though, I apparently have a lifetime to figure that out.

Here is a taste of the characters that people have come up with: a parrot-inspired, fashionably suited interior designer called Stjohn; a hamster-inspired lisping woman (complete with over-sized red fleece top and moccasins) called Cecile; a penguin-inspired man sporting a gelled center-part and pulled up jeans called John; a poodle-inspired beret-wearing French woman called Hortense; and a sloth-inspired conservative office lady called Irina. As for me, my two characters are Doris, the sheep-like little old lady in a shower cap, and Cecilia, a snake-like sexy secretary.

One of my favorite classes in this unit so far was one with Amy that dealt with counter-masks. The counter-mask, as I understand it, is the hidden side of your character that slips out in response to strong provocations from other people and the environment. To make that visible in the body, that meant switching from one animal to another according to the change in emotional state. When a bunch of people get stuck in a lift together for example, not everyone reacts in the same way – their states may change differently. The poodle-dog woman might get really pissed off at a shrieking, terrified mouse woman and become like a tiger in her anger. Or a parrot man may be reduced to a panting puppy in his fear.

Anyway, so in Amy’s class, we worked with the idea of each of our characters having a secret, and that secret being the counter-mask of our characters. To start with, Amy give us a hilarious scenario to improvise with individually. Our characters are at home alone, and suddenly, we hear our absolute favorite song come on in the radio. Slowly we start singing to it, we turn the song up, and then bit by bit, as we get more and more into it, we start dancing, until we work ourselves into a near frenzy. Then out of nowhere, the doorbell rings. Pause, We check ourselves abruptly, turning the music down, smoothing our hair, panicked that the visitor will discover us in such a state. Except that when we open the door, no one is there. We look around, no one. Oh. Relieved, we gradually go back to our singing and dancing. Then the doorbell rings again. And so on and so forth. The idea is to see how increasingly fast you can switch between your character’s “mask” and “counter-mask”. Afterwards, Amy actually made us get up there one by one, and sing and dance as our character in front of everyone!

For the final improvisation, each of us was to come up with a secret hobby that we are very enthusiastic about, but that we hide from other people. This hobby should be different from the general persona of your character, and when doing it, should reveal a hidden state. Like a hidden thirst for violence, intolerance of  imperfection, unexpected tenderness, or pent up sexual desire. For example, the conservative office lady Irina may secretly enjoy belly dancing, because the dancing provokes a sensuality in her that she doesn’t get to express in her general everyday life. The sensuality is the counter-mask, and it co-exists with tension with her character’s conservative mask.

Once we have each found our secret hobby, the improvisation then, is the encounter between two people, and the negotiation that happens when they both try to hide this secret part of themselves from each other. Then at one point the mask slips, and the counter-mask appears. Slowly, the moment of recognition, and then, the bonding of souls.

This improvisation was incredibly hard, because while you are playing your character, your counter-mask has to appear every now and then, and then it has to build and come out more and more, upping the tension, until you build to the moment of exposure and recognition with your stage partner. It is highly rhythmic, technical in execution – one of those exercises that is easier to figure out from the outside, but easy to get lost in on the inside. Amy would keep stopping and starting us just to help structure the improv, in almost a play-by-play sort of way.

For example, the girl playing Irina was improvising with a girl playing a very timid mouse-like woman named Zoe. Both of them work in a dull office environment, but secretly, they both love to belly dance. So the scene opens with Zoe alone, cleaning the office window. Then as she watches her reflection, she slowly starts to do a few dance moves. Irina walks in at this point, and Zoe abruptly reverts back to her window washing duties. Zoe leaves to use the bathroom. Then Irina spots the gleaming window. The first time around, she immediately goes over and starts dancing. Amy stops them, and says that it is too much too soon – there needs to be more of a struggle with the sensual belly dancing counter-mask before it surfaces completely. So in the next try, Irina first checks to make sure Zoe is gone. Then slowly, she inches towards the window. Hesitantly, she starts to dance, still peeking around her shoulder to see if Zoe has come back, then gradually, she completely forgets herself, and just as she is at the climax of all this sensual dancing and singing, Zoe comes back, and Irina is caught red-handed. The first-time around, the girls just stared at each other, then went back to their work as if nothing had happened. Amy stopped them again, and said that Irina should try to cover up her dancing (like pretending she was practicing a speech) while she makes her way back to her desk, but in the glances between the two, we can see that the seeds of recognition have already been sown. Afterwards, then, the pace can pick up, and when Irina looks up from her desk later and catches Zoe dancing, it would not be long before she joins in, and they are both completely revealed to one another.

Where does all this mask, counter-mask work leave us? The ability to play with who are characters are, I think, and also, the ability to change states quickly from one moment to the next, which is helpful for the work we doing right now for our final presentation – a farcical comedy involving six actors and twelve characters. Think Fawlty Towers. Think Charlie Chaplin. Think virtuosic costume changes. Curious? Stay tuned.

Posted by: Janice | April 10, 2008

Animals

This week, we’ve moved on to actual character work (as in, prepare a costume and dress up in class kind of character work – but more about that next week). The two weeks before that though, we were all about animals. Chickens, lizards, horses, cows, jungle cats, mosquitoes, sheep, moles – you name it, we’ve probably tried it. Now you’re probably wondering – what does this have to do with characters?

I was a bit sceptical at first as well. Not that I thought the work was a digression, it was just that I had trouble seeing beyond the fun and games that being animals proposed. In the first week, we worked with the idea of becoming 100% animal. That meant transposing everything from the way they walk, to their particular facial expressions, so that we can see the animal in every part of our body. As usual, Lispa was not interested in us decorating or giving personalities to the animals we’re doing yet. They urged us to observe live animals, or watch videos on the internet, to pick out detailed characteristics which we can then put into our portrayals. Like for example – where are the eyes on a sheep’s head, and how does it affect the way they look at things? What happens when a deer is startled by a loud noise? What are the particular rhythms of a lizard? The danger is that we fall into cliches, especially with the animals that we know best, like cats and dogs, so the more details we can put in, the more the animals will be able to come to life.

Once we’ve all had the opportunity to “try on” different animals then, of course, the teachers immediately gave us situations to improvise with. With Michael, we had “Mating and Dating”. The location was a bar, and was about (what else?) guys and girls trying to get with each other. Except as animals. So we had two roosters fighting over a chicken, three stags cowering in front of a lioness, and a snake flirting with a goat. Oh, and two crabs who were trying to feel up some tigers. Needless to say, it was pretty hilarious. With Amy a couple of days later however, we went into darker themes of fear and aggression, in the context of food chains and hierarchies in the animal kingdom. We explored various animals while Amy provoked us with questions: What is it like to be an animal that is always hunted? How does it affect its state? What about animals that are highest in the food chain? How do they hunt and kill their prey?

In her class, Amy talked a lot about state, by which she meant emotional state. She talked about how embodying different animals will provoke very different emotional states, depending on their physicality and status. For example, mice might induce feelings of nervousness and fear, but chickens may bring a sense of pride instead. As performers, we need to recognize what animals provoke the highest level of states in ourselves, because often, they will be the animals that resonate the most, and will be the ones that we play best. These animal types are, of course, foreshadowing of the character types that we will work with later in the term.

With Amy, we also had the first glimpse of what it could be like when we take an animal situation and transpose it to a more human level. Take a stock exchange, and the frenzy of the stock brokers during trading. We were told to re-create this scenario as a pack of wild cats, but somehow it wasn’t very successful. I don’t think many of us knew what we were doing. After we performed it, Amy paused, and then reversed it, telling one group to imagine instead that they were a pack of lions in a zoo, and they were being fed, but not enough. Instantly, the hierarchies, the aggression, the fighting, and the dissatisfactions at the end of an unfulfiling market day in a stock exchange became vividly clear. What was also clear was how we can take advantage of certain scenarios in the animal world, and transpose them to create simple, clear, dramatic situations in the human world.

In the second week of this work, we started to become more human in our representations, getting to the point of being half human, and half animal. We were still fairly animalistic in the way we moved, but we could gesture now, and we could talk. The improvisation scenarios that week became more complex, as our humanness gave us infinite more possibilities for interaction. There was the teenage wolf students with their rabbit substitute teacher; a panther wife who discovers that her goat husband has misplaced a winning lottery ticket; a wild boar wife who tells her chipmunk husband that she is pregnant; and a group of animals waiting for a train that never comes. Working with words for the first time as animals was difficult – most of us had trouble finding the animals’ particular voices, and further, how much an animal can say, and what words they would use. For example, one can imagine that the way a lizard talks would be very different than the way a sheep would talk.

Before we could even wrap our minds around all this talking, Steph put in a gear shift, and introduced the idea of changing animals. As in, starting with one animal, then circumstances provoke a change in emotional state, which then results in you changing into a different animal. We had several scenarios: a chicken coming out of the hairdressers feeling pretty good about herself, until she looked in a shop window, upon which she discovers how horrible she looks, and turns into a mouse in embarrassment; a goat who has had a bad day at work, then hears whistles from some attractive sheep on his way home, spurring him to turn into a giddy penguin; and a duck who was eager to tuck into an elaborate dinner, but then discovers that it is missing from the fridge, and turns into a wild cat in fury.

Too often during the course of these two animal weeks, I had the feeling that I was receiving a ton of information, but they were all going through me without being properly digested. Maybe this was due to the vastness of the topic of study. I had an idea of what I was being taught, yet it was difficult for me to see the whole picture, and I was unsure of the relationship between all this animal stuff and theater. So it really helped me to have Amy on Friday to finish off this unit, because she is very specific in her class assignments, and what she wants you to learn from them. She likes to give you little pearls of wisdom to wrap your thoughts around.

In her last animal class, she gave us the task of first, improvising in a group with two animals that have a relationship to each other, like cats and mice, wolves and deer, etc. Then, after we’ve played out this interaction, she sets about transforming it into a human situation in front of the class. My group did a scene with shepherd dogs herding sheep. She watched intently, then after a brief moment, said “Okay, now why don’t we try transposing this? What could this be? (looks around at the class) Mmm….I think I see a tragic theme here. Why don’t you do it again, this time as a group of elderly people with alzheimer’s. They’ve wandered off from the nursing home and gotten lost, and now the care workers have come to bring them back.” Just like that, she made something that was almost banal – dogs herding sheep – into a very poignant human interaction. She performed the same magic on all the groups, always pushing beyond the obvious. For example, turning an encounter between snakes and mice into a high school dance party, transforming the ecstasy of death into the ecstasy of teenage sexuality, or, creating a parallel between spiders catching flies, with dressmakers fitting bridesmaids into tight dresses.

Always, always when we played the animals, Amy reminded us not to do the “Disney-ified” version. Disney humanizes animals to make them act like us and talk like us, but for us it needs be the other way around – we should strive to be as faithful to the particular qualities of the animals as possible, even when we’re acting human. It is like when we were working with everyday objects. The more we can uncover the biological truth of animals, the more we will be able illuminate parallel truths in human interaction. Amy said “We work with animals, because animals have strong clear reactions to everything, and we humans don’t. We often do a lot of extraneous things when we relate to one another. Studying animals help us pare away the fluff, and magnify the essence of what is left”. The she added “Watch one of those nature channels, and find a way to transpose the most riveting things you see there into human situations. That’s when you get the beginnings of theater”.

Posted by: Janice | March 29, 2008

Larval Masks

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We started school again about two weeks ago, on March 17. In this term, we will be working on characters, developing them through the use of different physicalities and different articulations of the body. Unlike last term, where the teachers kept provoking us to dive deeper within, this time around, the work feels a lot more technical, more outside-in. Instead of the darkness of our psyches, we take up the lightness of play.

In week one, Thomas introduced us to the larval masks (above). Inspired by carnival masks from Basel, Switzerland, these masks take on many different shapes and sizes (http://www.themaskery.com/Basel.html). Many of the masks we worked with had no holes for eyes – we were essentially blind when we put them on. Even those with holes sometimes left us with reduced vision. Why would the teachers want us to work with masks that didn’t let us see? Is it some sort of stage trick we’re learning?

As Thomas explains it, when we put the mask on, we become blind, but the mask that the audience sees is not blind, so, as actors we have to play them as seeing creatures. To avoid stumbling around the stage then, we have to take things slowly. Do things one at a time. Instead of turning your head while walking, you turn your head, then walk. Even something as simple as sitting on a chair can be broken down into ten different steps. The mask forces us to stop relying on our faces and our eyes to communicate, and to start tuning into the sensation of seeing with our entire bodies. Not only can we connect better with our stage partners – we also have a much stronger physical presence. The masks are the limitations within which we can find physical freedom.

With these masks, we did several improvisations during the course of the week: being otherworldly creatures that came out of boxes stored at Terminal 5 at Heathrow; interacting with different objects like yo-yos, cards, and slinkies; folding the laundry with a group; breaking into a house as a band of bored teenagers. Though the situations were different, the basic principles were always the same: slow down, articulate, one thing at a time. Big and simple. Even though the masks have recognizable facial features, they are still simple creatures without a great deal of intelligence, so as performers, it is almost as if we need to have a running inner monologue, and play it one line at a time, both action and reaction, so that the audience is able to register everything that the mask is thinking and feeling at the appropriate speed. For example, walking into a room and seeing a chair might go something like this: I enter the room. I stop. I look around. I see a chair. I did not expect to see a chair. I am startled. I look left to see if there is anyone. I look right to check the same. No one. A pause. Slowly I turn my head to look at the chair again.

When put down in writing, this all seems a bit dry and technical, more thinking than feeling. This is true, and further more, we often fall into the trap of either becoming robotic, or becoming a generalized mess. But when done well, trust me, the larval masks are so surprising, so delightful, so gloriously funny, that I felt I had reverted back to the age when I believed stuffed animals could talk. I could probably spend hours watching these masks interact – and still I would believe that they were real.

Posted by: Janice | March 26, 2008

The White Trash/ Mad Hatter Party

With love, from Lispa!

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Baguettes and bean dip and cheese and vodka

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Svetlana from Sweden

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Easter duckie!

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Alices in Wonderland

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Louise as White Trash

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Heather+ Laura + Louise = White Trash #1,# 2, #3

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Funny faces: Elayse, Laura, and James

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Svetlana and Robin

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Robin as Cookie Monster, with Laura

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Our lovely hosts for this evening: Teresa, Marc, Svetlana

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Louise then turned Marc from a Gentleman of Leisure into White Trash #4

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WWJD indeed

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The Chesire Kat

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The Queen of Hearts: Susanna, Teresa

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La petite Marie, and Laura

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Drinking that special “punch”

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Nao!

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Nao gets ambushed

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Robin, looking slightly more normal here, with Joanna

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Mr Martin “Ace” Ventura, with lurking Matteo

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James and Diego

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I swear, Laura and her red hair was everywhere…

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Even if its Brad we’re looking at

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Aniko!

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The fabulous Agnes

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Daniella

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Ooh la la…..

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Arghhhhh!!

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Aww….

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Cathleen and Susanna

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Matteo – looking oh-so-studiously apathetic

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Steve!

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A bit tipsy, a bit happy

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Viva Lispa!!!

Posted by: Janice | March 16, 2008

The Vagina Monologues

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Last weekend I performed in the Vagina Monologues. Yes, that play. It wasn’t a school assignment, or some extra-curricular vanity project. Rather, it was part of an initiative called “Sexual Violence, Justice and War: Saving Survivors of Comfort Women in China”, headed by the Shams Development Organization, a non-profit that my friend works for in London. The initiative was dreamed up by a Chinese woman, Yan, who came to London to study international relations, and ended up writting her MA thesis on the comfort women system during WWII. While doing research in China, she saw first hand how the surviving comfort women, now in their 70s and 80s, were slowly dying off, and how there has been a lack of dialogue and discussion about this war crime in the general Chinese society. Compared with Korea, who has seen the publication and release of interviews, documentaries, and memoirs, China seemed shamefully silent. Through a benefit performance of the Vagina Monologues, Yan hopes to raise awareness about this bit of history, to help the surviving comfort women get an official apology from the Japanese government, to raise funds for a documentary, and ultimately, to start a dialogue about this topic in a society where feminist discourse is still nascent.

When I first agreed to do this play, and to recruit fellow Lispa students for the show, I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. Not really. I was moved to do this initially because I cared a lot about the subject, and I wanted to help these women. Somehow, I had not thought about the fact that this will be the first time I am performing with such a large amount of text. I had danced/moved in, directed, and choreographed a lot of shows before, but I had scarcely ever acted with a script. The fact that I will be doing three-page monologue about being a dominatrix for women (“The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy) in front of paying strangers didn’t really strike home until about a week before opening night, when we entered into our week of daily rehearsals and race against time to put the show together.

Memorizing lines were not that difficult; I already had my monologue in my head by Monday. Yet I kept feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. I could say the words but this dominatrix character remained somehow elusive, it was hard to reconcile being both her and myself at the same time. When I first worked on the monologue with Louise (another actress in the show), we found out that playing it sexy felt flat. I was trying too hard to put on this act of speaking as a dominatrix, when in fact the words became much more effective when I said them naturally. The difference was enormous. When I played up being the dominatrix I didn’t get affected by the words, but I ended up blushing and stammering when I tried to say the text more as myself. That was my first revelation, and I relaxed a bit more into the text.

Then I hit a wall. I started performing the monologue in a much more natural way, but I was doing it as my shy and reserved self – which stifles the text as it is a matter-of-fact account from a confident sex worker. On the suggestion of my fellow performers, I acquired a whip and a S&M body suit, which I wore beneath a demure pantsuit. The props helped, yet I still found myself struggling with the monologue. I became absolutely terrified, panicked that I will be doing this in a room full of strangers, wondering how I had gotten into this in the first place, thinking about I would pull it off.

The bigger issue here, I realize, is a reluctance to own my sexuality in public. I am afraid to be sexy. I am afraid to exude sexual confidence. It was like a flashback to that class with Thomas again, when I was moving Jackson Pollock and he was talking to me about sharing my sensuality with an audience. How this sensuality was such a true part of me, that it became absolutely riveting to watch when I did so. As Louise said, this sensual nature is there, all I have to do is bring it out with confidence. In this way the monologue became to me like an necessary challenge. It dared me to become a woman on stage. It dared me to find the dominatrix within myself. I just have to rise up to the occasion and respond to the provocation.
The night before the show, I put on the S&M bodysuit, and spent half an hour in the bathroom looking at myself. I just sat there on the toilet, looking at my reflection in the full length mirror. I played with my whip – grabbed it, fondled it, stroked it, kissed it. I took my suit jacket on and off, on and off. I don’t know if that was the thing that ultimately helped me, but when people watched the performance, they saw a confident dominatrix who loves women, who is proud of her ability to make them moan and who, at a stroke of her whip, can make them come. They saw the dominatrix, and they also saw me, Janice, the performer. We were one.

Posted by: Janice | March 11, 2008

Lispa People

To make up for not posting for a long time, I’m putting up some pictures of people in my program – so you get to see who I spend all my time with here in London. The pictures were taken during the space lab presentation during the last week of Term 2, on February 26. In this term, we had worked on two projects in space lab – using clay to sculpt the “Mars” from “The Planets” by Holst, and also, using cardboard to make sculptures of our own bodies.

We started break ten days ago, on March 1. I spent the first week of break rehearsing and performing in a production of the Vagina Monologues (will write more about it in another post). Now I am in Salzburg, visiting my friend Ania who is studying at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance. I am taking dance classes, taking walks around the old town, drinking coffee, watching my friend perform, and in general, just chilling and trying to relax a bit before the start of Term 3 next week. Compared to London, Salzburg is like a village – you can see the Alps from town, and the air is amazingly refreshing.

And now, for the Lispa people series –
Introducing:

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From left to right: Daniella (Switzerland), Robin (UK), Joanna (Brazil)

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Elayse (UK)

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Heather (US)

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Inigo (Basque Country)

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James (US)

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Joanna (Brazil)

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Giuliana (Italy)

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Kallirroe (Greece)

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Katerina (Greece)

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Katharine (UK)

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Laura (US)

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Libby (Australia)

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Louise (New Zealand)

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Naomi (Puerto Rico)

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Orina (Poland)

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Steve (UK)

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