Author: Pilar

Action Theatre: The Improvisation of Presence

I am delighted to introduce this guest post by María Ferrara, a performer, yoga teacher and gestalt therapist who uses her three lines of work to enable her to explore human nature and being in the moment. In this post, she discusses the importance of awareness, how improvisation has helped her to find freedom in performance once again and she recommends a book on improvisation.

ACTION THEATER – THE IMPROVISATION OF PRESENCE

This is the title of Ruth Zaporah’s first book. An absolute gem. It offers her approach to improvisation in bite-size pieces:  a sequence of exercises to do individually, in pairs or in ensemble.

My first surprise was to find a theatre approach to improvisation of this kind. Improvisation in the context of theatre tends to happen in devising processes, or in small sections of a fixed show or within frames such as Theatre Sports. The open-ended, more lyrical, more abstract improvisation seemed to belong to the field of dance.

The most visible current in this sense came from dancers in New York in the 50’s and 60’s, who started to question the rigid format of dance in many ways. One of them was improvisation. Many of them, like Trisha Brown, also experimented with their voices and even text, which blurred the boundary between dance and theatre.

What is what? Is it really that important when what we’re interested in is opening up our expressive possibilities to create a performative event in a given  space and time?

Action Theater has offered me the tools to bring together body and voice, movement and speech

I encountered improvisation as something that could be performed per se through dance. And there seemed to me to be a gap between what I was doing when I improvised in dance contexts and what I was doing as an “actress”. Action Theater has offered me the tools to bring together body and voice, movement and speech. The wealth of possibilities has increased my awareness about the power and connotations of each of them.

Regular practice makes me discover new depths all the time. At one time, improvising meant following my impulse. As my palette becomes more diverse, I find choice moment by moment. I am no longer riding a wave of energy that takes me wherever it fancies, but composing. Gradually, I’m noticing how my awareness of what there is (inside and outside of me) in a given moment is increasing. The material that the input inspires is becoming more subtle and varied. I am gaining freedom so that I respond rather than react, so that I subordinate my choice not to my personal fancy, but to the aim of “creating states in which others have the possibility of creating other states” (Carlos Osatinsky and Fernando Nicolás Pellicccioli).

I have used and am using “Action Theater: The Improvisation of Theatre” extensively. It is absolutely practical and also includes plenty of material for thought. I welcomed this too, as I find improvising is putting me in touch with plenty of conceptual and philosophical issues. A welcome manual to explore one’s personal creative material in the here and now.

The 2ND INTERNATIONAL ACTION THEATER AND PHYSICAL IMPROVISATION FESTIVAL will take place in BERLIN between 6TH AND 12TH MAY 2013. María Ferrara is organising accommodation with Berlin hosts or for the cheapest possible price to encourage international participation. If you are interested in improvisation and instant composition, this is an extraordinary opportunity: a whole week of workshops, performances, jams and exchange in Berlin, an inspiring city for anybody involved with the arts. For more information visit www.actiontheaterberlin.com or get in touch with Maria: kontakt[at]mariaferrara.net

Creating a Theatre Piece from Fairy Tales

Yesterday, Jake posted a question on the Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre’s Facebook page, asking for tips on creating a physical theatre piece based on fairy tales. The answer is far too long to be posted on a Facebook page, so I thought I’d write a post instead. Jake: thanks for the inspiration.

GmimmTheFrogPrince
Frog Prince

Fairy tales are a wonderful stimulus to devise from: they have strong stories, well defined characters and you can set them wherever and whenever you want. They are usually set in interesting locations that will give you a lot to play with: a forest, a castle, a hut, a cottage, a tower… all locations which you will not be able to create literally and so, you HAVE to use your imagination and stimulate the audience’s to take them where you want to.

So, your first questions should be:

– When are we setting the piece?

– Where are we setting it?

– What style shall we use?

The term “physical theatre” is very broad – will you use masks, still images, will your characters have stylised physicalities, will you have one or more narrators, how will you move between scenes? What visual experience will the audience have: A black and white one, a colourful one or a mixture of both?

Will you be telling the story linearly or start at the end, for example, your story could begin with a woman who obsessively cuts her hair. When somebody suggests that she try growing it, just to “see how it looks”, she tells them the story of how she hates her long her: she grew up in a tower, enduring her mother climbing up her hair constantly. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Rapunzel.)

Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

Working with more than one fairy tale – do your research.

If you are working on more than one fairy tale, just pick three. Three is a nice number to give you enough variety. See whether you can link them in some way: by theme, location or character. Or decide to make them completely different.

When Forbidden Theatre Company created Spell, the story began with Frog Prince, where a Prince was so annoying he was turned into a Frog by a witch. The woman in question did not know that she was a witch, but her rage at being ignored by the arrogant prince turned into magic powers. This was the first time that she realised she had magic powers and she decided to use them for good. But after helping the King and Queen conceive, they neglected to invite her to the child’s party and she began to use her powers in an evil way (Sleeping Beauty).

In order to link a few fairy tales together, you will have to read plenty of them, to spot the possible connections.

Don’t just take the story that you all know as your starting point. Look at poems, ballets, films, paintings and illustrations that have been inspired by the tales and all the different versions  that have been created.

Split personalities

Fairy tales are beautifully crafted stories. There will therefore be a moment in the hero/heroine’s journey when they have to make a decision that moves the story along. What would have happened if they had made a different decision? If you are working on one tale, this can be the moment where you can change the story, by showing a different resolution or by presenting more than one story.

Use improvisation to try this out – it will be hard, as the well known decision will be on everyone’s mind, but it’s worth seeing where your instinct takes you.

Arthur Rackman's illustrations can be used as inspiration
Arthur Rackman’s illustrations can be used as inspirationing where your instincts take you.

Create new characters

Make the stories your own. Don’t just create your characters around the obvious protagonists (and definitely stay away from using the Disney versions as a base, look for the Grimm/Andersen /Perrault which will be darker and hence, more interesting). Create characters from inanimate objects. Going back to Spell, the Spell Book became the Witch’s sidekick and was able to provide a different perspective and energy on stage.

Use music and movement

There is no faster way to take an audience somewhere else than through the use of music. Look for instrumental pieces that are rarely heard, to avoid the audience making connections to their own memories. Search the Foreign Film Soundtrack catalogues, they’re a great source of inspiration.

Use movement sequences to show us what a character is thinking, to accentuate an important moment in the piece and to move the audience.

This is by no means a guide on how to create a theatre piece from fairy tales, but I hope it can inspire you or start you off. Do leave your comments and questions below, maybe we can come up with more tips together.

Why I Loved My!Laika or Why Your Characters Should be Strong

MyLaika6-mime2013Yesterday I watched Popcorn Machine by French company My!Laika, as part of the London International Mime Festival. Ironically the ensemble does not have any French performers: they come from Argentina, Germany, Holland and Italy, something they use to add to the chaos on stage as each performer speaks their language at some point.

Don’t get me wrong, the “chaos” is highly orchestrated to add to the “domestic apocalypse” in which the piece is set. As most theatre incorporating text, visuals, music, circus, movement etc, it’s difficult to decide which genre it sits in but this (luckily!) has become less and less important – who cares!

The piece is a mega-mix of highly-skilled acrobatics sprinkled with live music and flooded with dark humour. What holds it together is not a plot or a story but very well-defined characters, almost archetypes. We get to know the performers (he’s great at this, she’s great at that) and also the characters, who never cease to amuse us.

I loved the piece. It has stayed with me and got me thinking. What is it that holds our attention at the theatre? It’s not always a plot. Not always a “story” as we’ve come to expect it. Nothing much happens to the people in Popcorn Machine; they don’t really have a moment of realisation or of change. As characters, they probably leave the piece in the same way as they started. Maybe the characters are not much different from the performers themselves. Who cares? They still make us care for them – even if it’s just because we know we are going to love and admire what they do.

If you are creating a piece, be bold with your character choices. Start with an archetype. Start with someone who seems one-dimensional: the crazy one; the strong one; the lazy one; the studious one. Allow the audience to know where they are with your character so that then you can play with a more abstract performance style or work with a very simple storyline.

Stories keep us hooked – but that’s because they are about people. It’s the people that hook us. They allow us to project onto them our wishes and aspirations, even our own problems. They allow us to experience what we don’t dare to do ourselves. They allow us to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Theatre is great fun to make but it also has the power to inspire; don’t forget that when you are creating your own work.

Popcorn Machine, with its dangerous acrobatics (which I could never even imagine myself doing), its dark humour (which touched the darker side of myself) and its absurdity did exactly that. Thank you.

Popcorn Machine is on at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London from Sat 12 – Tues 15 January 2013.

Physical Theatre Bites

I am cleaning up my computer and found this video from our Freestlye Performances, days when we got to experiment with physical theatre by trying out our own work in front of an audience.

Key to this was giving the audience food during the intervals – watch the video, you’ll see all their happy faces! I suppose it was a bit like bribing the audience. But hey, no-one else was doing this: an Ensemble of young professionals getting together for the day to present short pieces written by themselves. The day was full of the spirit of collaboration, as different people took on different roles (writer/director/performers) during the day, supporting each other along the way. All put together brilliantly by our wonderful stage manager Tracey.

Here it is, enjoy!

Freestyle Performances from Pilar Orti on Vimeo.

Working with Masks

I had such a great time the week before last working with a group of drama students for a week, as part of a Forbidden Theatre Company project.

Masks are liberating – having something physical to “hide behind” can really free the actor or the student. That’s why they are such great training tools. Jacques Copeau used masks during rehearsal the first time when one of his actresses seemed completely unconnected to her body. During an emotional scene, her physical expression just seemed… well, wrong. Copeau threw a sheet over her head and, voilá, her performance improved and the first use of the theatre mask in training was born.

Working with the students reminded me how much performers often rely on words to express themselves and convey meaning. This is not at all a bad thing – but it’s difficult to know how to create a new language when words are removed. Somebody asked me if mask work involved a lot of “mime” – it depends on how you define mime, but if you mean replacing words with gestures which depict objects and actions, no. If, however, you mean, using the body to communicate with other performers and the audience, then yes.

It is difficult. The instinct of many performers when they first try to communicate wearing a mask is to find a direct substitute for words. Watching it is fascinating, and I found myself coaching from the sides saying “Don’t try to speak, don’t try to speak.” I think many of them understood what I was going on about as by the end of the week, many of them found an ease to communicate which involved a different way of thinking. A less literal way, a simpler way, as they let the mask find a language of their own.

Devising Theatre: Are You Stuck?

Don’t know where to start with your piece?

The stimuli you have is not inspiring you anymore?

Are you stuck?

Here, try something different. Don’t worry about whether it fits in with your piece or not, just see where it takes you. Answer the questions below.

What are they saying?

Who are they talking about?

Are they women… or witches?

What kind of world do they live in?

Who are their neighbours?

What sounds can they hear around them?

If they were talking about your story, what would they say?

If they were talking about your characters, what would they say? Who would be their favourite? Who would they hate?

(Remember, talk about the story and the characters, not you as performers and your piece as creation.)

Devising Theatre Stimulus: Goya’s Caprichos

If you are creating your own piece, why not make sure it is set in a different world?

In a distant place, full of grotesque characters who make us just that little bit uneasy to keep us intrigued.

Change your physicality;
Then let it affect your voice;
Find different ways of relating to others.

Using the same stimulus for all characters will give your piece a sense of Ensemble, a sense that you are all working in the same style, embodying the same space.

Here, try these.

 

For more, visit Goya’s Caprichos Wikipedia page.

Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012

I saw this show today in Edinburgh and loved it.

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

You could write a thesis about this play.

It’s about dependency, working in an office, job satisfaction, vocation vs profession, friendship, rivalry and office furniture!

The most exciting thing about the piece for me was the style, reminding me a bit of Frantic Assembly’s Tiny Dynamite. Fluid movement merged with text, literal and abstract fused into one. And plenty of humour.

Tom and Broderick work in an office. They’ve been told to “work as a team” (chuckle, chuckle) but they can’t even decide the best way for them to both make use of a chair. My favourite bit of the play was this scene – imaginative, punchy, slick…

I don’t want to give much away – the story is simple but engaging, the characters are so well defined. There’s even some interaction with the audience. My boyfriend was a bit reluctant to sit on the front row, in case “they talked to you”. “Don’t worry, not in this one.” Bingo! Famous last words. However, this was the least cringe-worthy audience-interaction moment ever and my boyfriend didn’t mind one bit. Like my friend (who was sitting to other side of me and also got asked a few questions) said: Broderick genuinely listened and conversed with you. Not a small achievement when you consider that his fellow performer Tom crawled up his back.

The show is the perfect length (about an hour) but I could have sat there for longer. I loved the script – subtle, simple and actually took a direction that I didn’t expect. I laughed a lot, loved the choreography and physical moments and was moved.

What more can you ask from the Fringe!

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

The link below takes you to the photos from their Manchester production.

Work Songs at Contact, Manchester.

via Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012.

Why I Love The Edinburgh Fringe

I can’t wait.

Next week I’ll be going up to Edinburgh for a few days. It will be my tenth time up there. Or maybe I’ve been up more times.

My first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe was in 1991, when I went up with the Imperial College Dramatic Society, as part of the team running a venue on Prince’s Street. Ah…. Those were the days.

It was my first time in the festival and my first time performing in a show every day for three weeks. I was hoping that would kill the “acting bug” for me. It didn’t. On the contrary. I didn’t mind getting up at 9am to perform at eleven in the morning after going to bed at 4am. And at the end of the three week run, I wanted more.

That’s it. If it weren’t for the Edinburgh Fringe, this blog wouldn’t exist.

Be Prepared to Sweat

I imagine that if you are reading this, you are either someone involved in a creative process or someone helping others through that process.

In any case, it’s worth remembering (or reminding others) that the only thing we can be sure of is that devising will be hard work. We watch a great piece, a great performance and we want to emulate it. But are we prepared to put in all that hard work? Going over scenes, ditching material, rehearsing over and over and over again…

Well, we have no choice. Art isn’t magic, just the result of a lot of hard work.

Don’t take my word for it, instead, here are some words from Milton Glaser, the designer of the often plagiarised I ♥ NY logo.

There’s no such thing as creativity. As if creative people just show up and make stuff up. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.

from Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine.