A few years ago, we went to visit friends in Brussels for a weekend. They had booked tickets for a dance performance, and I went to see the show without knowing anything about piece, the choreographer or the company. It was a beautiful, mesmerizing and wholly uplifting experience! I really felt I had witnessed something extraordinary!*
This made me think about what it feels like physically to encounter inspiring performances. It gives me this wonderfully warm and glowing feeling all over the body, coupled with a slight flutter in the stomach. The whole body is flooded with wonder and pleasure. There’s a sense of being completely enthralled, of falling in love, maybe even of some sort of erotic attraction! Sometimes I fall a bit in love with one of the performers/director/designer and seek out to be in their ‘presence’ by reading their words, watching them on video, etc. This fades away quite quickly, but what stays is a memory of a significant moment/experience, in which there was a sense of a profound encounter – or dare I say communion - with the performers, the production team and the audience. This memory becomes food for the soul, a moment of happiness, something uplifting that cannot be easily put into words.
Inspiring performance has this impact – something that can’t (yet) be measured and quantified, but creates a deep sense of wellbeing.
* The show I saw in Brussels was Co. Käfig’s Pixel. Enjoy the trailer!
When you create a piece of theatre, there is always research and performance material that’s really interesting, but for one reason or another doesn’t make it into the show. I call these ‘scraps’. Sometimes ‘scraps’ become the starting point for a new project.
This is one of my favourite ‘scraps’ from Sandman:
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Sandman is all about the eyes, the fear of losing sight (literally and metaphorically) and whether what we see is real or what we believe to see. In the story Nathaniel recounts an episode from his childhood when Coppelius (the Sandman) tried to take his eyes but, when Nathaniel’s father intervened, he unscrewed his hands and feet instead and put them back on the wrong way round. It is unclear whether this actually happened or whether it was some kind of hallucination on Nathaniel’s part.
In the very early stages of workshopping ideas for the show I listened to Radio4’s documentary Hallucination: Through the Doors of Perceptions by chance. Hallucinations are mostly associated with people with mental illness; however, it is little known that many mentally healthy people experience hallucinations, either as visions or voices. Now this made me startle: visions occur in people WHO ARE IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING THEIR SIGHT, i.e. are going blind, the so-called Charles Bonnet Syndrom. The visual hallucinations often consist of objects, faces, people standing or sitting in a room and of bodies that are incomplete, i.e. the bottom half is missing.
I’m not quite sure why I got so excited about this! It seemed to offer an explanation of Nathaniel’s ‘hallucination’. Maybe he is so scared of the Sandman taking his eyes, because he has this premonition that he is going to lose his sight (literally and metaphorically). But within the world of the story the threat of the Sandman turns out to be real, not just a fantasy. So I guess that my discovery of Charles Bonnet Syndrome not only resonated with the themes of the story but unsettled assumptions fundamental to our sense of self: that we are rational beings, that we can see what’s real, that we can securely know and explain ‘reality’ and that somehow we are in control of ourselves and the world. But often we aren’t. … And that’s uncanny, isn’t it?
I love the simplicity of Marina Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present as well as its profundity. Members of the public were invited to sit opposite Abramovic across a table and look into her eyes. To me The Artist is Present captures the essence of performance: an encounter between spectator and performer, live human contact. And although we encounter people on a daily basis, performance can create human contact of a different quality. It’s hard to describe this quality; it’s almost elusive, but I know that it has to do with the attitude - or call it ethics - of the performer: how inviting they are, what they are willing to give, how they are thinking about the audience, their intentions, and how they connect. And most importantly, that they are doing something that their audience possibly wouldn’t do or consider doing before joining the performance. (Apparently Abramovic sat at the table, static and silent, for 736 hours and 30 minutes in total.) And to me it doesn’t matter whether this happens in live art, spoken word, dance or theatre. What counts is the quality of the encounter…
PS I wish they hadn't used that sentimental music in the video below. It clearly wasn't needed!
It’s time to get ready for the upcoming fringe performances and I finally watch the video of the Premiere of Sandman. It’s like facing your own demons. There is the obvious cringe factor when looking at myself: Do I really look, move, speak like that? Yuk! Then, there is the little voice in my head, constantly nagging: too much movement here, that transition is too slow, you didn’t hit the right pitch there, etc. And then I feel a little disheartened, because the amazing and brilliant performance I had created in my head, doesn’t quite look the way I imagined it and maybe isn’t that brilliant after all??? And the little voice keeps nagging, despite the fact that many, many people told me otherwise.
Through the fog and mist of all these thoughts and emotions, I finally manage to arrive at a more objective point of view, asking myself What do I see when I watch the performance? How can I use it constructively? And suddenly I feel free to really engage with my own work in a constructive way.
It’s only a certain degree of distance from what you have created that allows you to see clearly. I feel I am now at a point where I understand the performance better and can make it better. I suppose that’s the pleasure of being in control of your work and developing it until the day it’s being performed for the last time.
I am sure we all face our own demons when we are forced to really look at our work and see it for what it is. But that’s the only way forward.
Some years ago, I listened to a talk with theatre maker Daniel Bye, and there was something he said that struck a chord with me: Isn’t it odd that we invite large groups of people into a theatre space, dim the lights and then completely ignore them for a couple of hours? This made me think about ways of acknowledging the audience in forms of theatre that do not claim to be participatory or interactive in any obvious way. At the end of the day, theatre is for the audience, something that’s easy to forget.
In Sandman we put this into practice in various ways. First of all, the house lights remain on, though dimmed, so that I can see the audience. Second, I maintain an awareness of the audience watching me in everything I do; in fact, I do it for the audience, all of them, the entire auditorium. Third, the woman who appears on stage, visibly nervous and full of trepidation, looks at spectators, silently pleading for them to be sympathetic, supportive, help her. Fourth, the characters that emerge from her body cast the audience in the role of another character, a confidante, someone to whom these characters tell something about themselves, what happened, what they thought and felt. All spectators become that ‘other’, listening character.
But most importantly, I use direct audience address, make eye contact and extend body and voice towards spectators. The Jewish-Hungarian playwright and theatre director George Tabori called theatre an act of love, whilst acknowledging how embarrassing it was to talk about love. I feel embarrassment as I’m writing this, but ultimately to me acting/performing is an act of love, an act of giving yourself to the audience in the hope that they will accept your invitation to share this moment with you…
When I started learning the Suzuki Actor’s Training Method, one of the first principles I was introduced to was the idea that actors must never give away what they were going to do next. We learned to keep the body aligned (head over chest over centre over feet). Leaning forward or sideward, we were told, indicated to the audience that you were going to move forward or sideward. Inevitably, spectators were going to disengage with what you were doing, because it had become predictable.
This very simple principle can be applied to the idea of an entire performance. Sometimes we go to the theatre, see the first ten minutes of a show and get the very uneasy feeling that nothing new, exciting or unpredictable is going to happen for the rest of the evening. This can feel very disheartening, particularly when the performance is not very good for one reason or another…
When we started working on Sandman, my first ever solo performance, my biggest worry was not to bore my audience. So this became a bit of a thing in the rehearsal process: we didn’t want spectators to know what was going to happen, literally from moment to moment. Of course, this is impossible, but aspiring to it became a key driving force in the exploration of the story on stage.
So when you go to the theatre next time, ask yourself the question: Do you or don’t you know where the actors are going to take you next? And if you come and see a performance of Sandman, let me know if it worked.
Not long ago I presented extracts from Sandman at Thrust's fabulous Scratch Night 'No Storm' in London. Because I wanted to try out some scenes half way into the show, I felt compelled to tell the audience a few things about the piece, so that they have a better understanding of what was going on. At the end of the evening an audience member (she said she was a dramaturg) took me aside, looked me firmly in the eyes and said: "Never explain your work! Let it speak for itself! Let the audience make sense of it." This idea has since stayed with me. I agree in principle. I am very grateful for her advice; it brought back into focus an idea explored in the making of Sandman. When we decided to break up the chronology of the story, and create fragments that jump forward and backward in time, we wanted each fragment to be connected to all the other fragments, so that the audience can constantly make connections between them and put them together like pieces in a puzzle. We wanted the audience to be active, not passive. So thank you for reminding me that I don't need to explain, the audience can work it out for themselves!
PS Come and see the show on March, 25th at The Place, and let me know whether it works!
This month saw the release of Ex-Machina, a film featuring a female robot called Ava. Similar territory had been explored in Spike Jonzie's movie Her not long ago. Of course, the theme of man creating human-like creatures is quite old: the Prague Golem, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the robot double in Fritz Lang's silent movie classic Metropolis or the androids of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner to name but a few. In some of these examples men create artificial (attractive) women to provide companionship and/or to manipulate other men. Of course, there are some quite astounding developments in robotics, particularly in Japan; and if you do a search on "robot girlfriends" you can find some interesting, but also disturbing links to latest developments in robotics and their commercial applications.
Of course, the encounter with human-like, but not quite human machine, may evoke uncanny sensations, a strong feeling of unease and repulsion, a phenomenon that the Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mato referred to as 'The Uncanny Valley'. If you find all this stuff interesting, you should definitely come and see Sandman. I won't give away more than that. Just have a look HRP-4C; not quite uncanny, but getting close.
On a recent visit to the cinema I watched the trailer for Whiplash, a movie about a young jazz drummer and his tyrannical, bullying teacher. The film is asking the question how much 'pushing' or even bullying is justifiable to get an outstanding performance out of someone.
I once participated in a theatre workshop with an internationally renowned avant-garde theatre director. There was a sense of the teacher having absolute authority and of students having to put up with some degree of unkindness, such as being mocked or being ignored. It bugged me a lot; I did not get why it was necessary. I certainly didn't learn more because of it.
In my heydays of physical theatre training I sometimes had my teachers yelling at me to push me just that extra bit. I didn't mind, because I really benefited from it and it was done by someone who I knew was generous and supportive towards me.
So I suppose the question whether the end justifies the means all depends on the context? Or does it? When is being pushed in training or rehearsal a good thing? When isn't it?