Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Shakespeare and the Contextual Jigsaw

Shakespeare wrote plays to be performed, and their meanings cannot be revealed in all their subtlety and drama unless they are explored on a stage by actors and directors who wish above all, to hold the mirror up to nature.It is no good looking to academics for the meaning of the text or analysis of characters. The plays do not respond to mere study in a study, no matter how erudite and donnish the reader. To successfully stage a Shakespeare play, a director and actors must engage in putting together a contextual jigsaw. The text demands an interplay between textual analysis, strong and accurate characterisation, and actors in the rehearsal room really speaking the lines to each other as they would in real life. These elements continually inform each other in creating a scene that is authentic to the script. Like a jigsaw, the pieces don’t all go in at once. You understand how they fit together gradually, sometimes by seeing what other pieces have created when joined together. However much an actor or director sieves the script for clues to character and subtextual meaning, some things will only become apparent in rehearsal. When one or more of the above elements goes awry, so does the play. How often have I seen a Shakespeare play that I know well and have struggled to follow a single line that the actors are saying? Too often for the comfort of my behind.

Accuracy in the portrayal of Shakespearean characters is essential to get at what is really going on, and present the drama and theatricality of his work. Get it wrong and the other characters in the play will be diminished or won’t work either. Fail to bring out Costard’s cunning and chicanery in Love’s Labour’s Lost for instance, and the letter scenes will become inexplicable and the play will seem a bewildering mess.

In some part the work an actor does in building a character is sieving the script for clues as to whom and what they are to portray. There are obvious difficulties in this with a Shakespearean play – the archaic language and vast changes in social mores over the course of four-hundred years can render certain characters difficult to grasp. Some roles are burdened with the weight of history. Characters such as Juliet or Hamlet have been performed so many times in a certain way, it can be hard to see them any differently. For me, it’s clear that Juliet is feisty, not soppy. Hamlet is clearly wrestling with cowardice, not madness.

But more of a problem, I think, is that Shakespeare’s characters are big. They demand a courageous approach and many actors are reluctant to meet this challenge because they dislike changing themselves to the extent required. You’d think changing oneself would be a first base for those entering the acting profession. Actors are, after all, rarely going to play themselves. A young woman who doesn’t like sounding gruff, frowning and strutting assertively about, isn’t going to make much of a fist of Rosalind from As You Like It. Because Rosalind loves the cross dressing. But most Rosalind's seem to duck a serious attempt at masculinity. If the actress can’t easily go there, and if the actor playing Orlando doesn’t on some level believe she’s a bloke, much of the subtext will remain hidden. There will be far less meaning to play with. The stronger and more accurate the characterisation, the more the subtext will be laid bare.

But perhaps the strongest reason that there is such a fumbling in Shakespearean characterisation is that many of the clues as to who and what the character are, are buried deep in-between the lines. In the interplay between the dramatis personae that only becomes apparent when acted out. In As You Like It, for instance, the character of Touchstone is actually formed from what Rosalind and Celia say and do as much as by what the clown himself says. This is hard to pick up from a mere reading. Almost impossible in fact. It is only in trying to make the lines and characters add up as a whole that Touchstone’s complicated and very touchy status problems and the relationship with his employers and court, become clear, thereby setting up his trajectory through the play and the comedy he is to act out in the forest of Arden – where he lives out his dream of being a Lord and Gentleman. This is what makes him funny. This is why he is a clown. The ability of the actors playing Celia and Rosalind to get an accurate handle on their roles is therefore essential for the actor playing Touchstone to achieve an understanding of who the clown is and what he is about.

Hamlet’s terrified dithering over stabbing Claudius between the shoulder blades as the King kneels in prayer is not overtly apparent in the script at that point. The reasons he lists for not killing Claudius are nearly always played straight. But they are nothing of the sort. The real reason Hamlet dare not kill Claudius is he is too scared of him. He knows he should do it, but doesn’t want to admit the real reason for not doing it: that he is a young man, not given to violence, attempting to kill the large psychotic warrior hulk of his Uncle. If Claudius hears him approach in that bloody game of Grandmother’s footsteps, with a sword drawn, then Hamlet’s question of To be or not to be will be answered quite likely with a very painful NOT. All the clues for this are laid much earlier in the script, and are most likely to be uncovered by a good actor really believing in the ghost and the likely reactions of a young man in Hamlet’s predicament.

Meaning what you say,
In modern plays, a director might get away with actors offering technical performances – ie: which are repeated, but not re-lived. Purely technical actors are often marvellous at performing and re-performing an exact replica of a show. It means that whilst the first time they enacted a certain motivation, it worked, because they meant it, in re-creating a copy of this night after night, they stop meaning it very quickly and are left with a shell that feels stagey, acted and unreal. This holds up the mirror to the unnatural, but an audience may not notice, as an actor can appear natural alot more easily when they are speaking in a modern idiom. Discoveries about the text will be harder to come by once the actor has set their performance in this thespianic quick-drying cement, but few modern plays have the subtectual complexity of Hamlet or King Lear, so perhaps not so much will be lost. Shakespeare however, sorts the players from those who are merely playing. What do I mean by meaning what you say? I would tell an actor: simply, deliver lines as you would say them in real life, given the character and context of the scene. You’re not going to say: Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George in conversational English. The actor has to believe they really are a medieval King besieging a castle in France, and stirring troops to storm the walls. Then shout the words just as they would in the real situation and really mean them. Believe the situation, mean what you say. And always mean it. Don’t copy what you did on the performance of the previous evening, because it worked then. The motivation: that you are trying to stir troops to attack a breach in a wall, will always be the same, but the way that comes out will, if you mean it, be different every time. For instance, I enter the door of my house just about every day. My motivation as I take out the key is often, christ, let’s get inside and sit down with a cup of tea! Yet I bet I have never entered my door the same way twice. To always mean what you say, an actor must continually throw away the manner in which they have previously said something. If they don’t, they will stop meaning what they say. They’ll probably do different actions as well. This throwing away of previous performances is an act of courage, and demands that the actors knows the lines very well.

Meaning what you say, is a cornerstone of the actor’s craft. I used to call this truth. But truth is more ambiguous than the phrase: mean what you say. The actor must, in the moment of delivery (the NOW), absolutely believe in what is happening to find a real motivation for the line so that it will come out with authenticity and meaning.

Playing opposite another person it is important, when trying to build a character and fathom the subtext of a scene, that an actor really speaks to the other characters from inside their own. Really mean it, and the other actor is more likely to authentically respond. How this is received will, in turn, shape the meaning of the reply. Follow this process through and it will inform the characters, each scene (and ultimately the entire play). Meaning what you say unravels meaning and character in an exciting and fluid exploration that brings the text to life in a way that is compelling to the audience.

It is vital in this process that actors take their time. In Shakespeare especially, an actor needs time to motivate; for to mean what you say, you must first find a genuine motivation to say it. Say a line before you have the motivation and you might just as well have not said it. Your mouth has whizzed off on a motor bike but left the sidecar of meaning behind.

This notion may seem to go against the modern orthodoxy of Pace! Pace! Pace! But audiences are usually transfixed when an actor means every utterance. When there is authenticity to an actor’s performance, pace becomes an irrelevance. Moreover, an audience cannot be with and experience what is happening onstage if the actor is rattling through scenes like an express train through a tunnel. When actors don’t have time to motivate what they are saying, their performances become gobbledegook. Attempting to build up false intensity by Pace! Pace! Pace! is the sign that the director and performers have not taken the time to uncover a real intensity inherent in the script.

For the same reason, I would dispense with blocking when performing Shakespeare, except perhaps in a large group scene. Actors must be free to move and do what they would do in the given situation to assist the director and fellow actors in working out what the text means. How can an actor live and explore the text if they are being pushed around like chess pieces and told ‘pick up the flagon of ale on this line,’ or ‘stand over there and frown when the King enters.’ A director filling the stage with pretty pictures, will be creating an unnatural scene, often set before the meaning of what is going on has been worked through. If an actor is really living the role and wanting to share what they are doing with the audience, they will adopt the spatial awareness we all use in life, and fill the stage with a natural fluidity.

Adding up the subtext and context
The directors and actors in exploring the text and building characters through action and interaction, will be constantly looking at the lines and asking why does my character say this? Even more pertinently, they will ask: given what the character seems to be like, what would they do in this situation? What would their response be to a line said in this way, or another character behaving like this to them. It is sometimes helpful to wonder what you yourself would do in a given situation, if you can be honest about it.

As the characters emerge, and actors try things out and interact truthfully, the director must be continually asking themselves, does this add up as a scene and as a whole. It’s a jigsaw, is it making a coherent picture? Even the smallest piece might have a great bearing on the whole. Let us take, for instance, the character of Starveling in A Midsummer night’s Dream – one of mechanicals (artisans) who wish to stage a play to celebrate Theseus’ nuptials, Starveling doesn’t have a lot to do. It’s a small role in which, ironically, we see Starveling cast in a small role for the play-within-a-play: Pyramus and Thisbe in the first scene that he appears.

Robin Starveling, the tailor.
Here, Peter Quince.
Robin Starveling, you must play Thisby's mother.

So, we discover Starveling’s a tailor and probably a thin one by his name, and he’s playing Thisbe’s mother. Not a young role, one suspects. Nor a glamorous one. In fact, Thisbe’s Mother never appears. The remaining scenes are similarly thrifty when it comes to padding out Starveling’s character. In Act Three, his next two lines appear.

Peter Quince,--
What sayest thou, bully Bottom?
There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and
Thisby that will never please. First, Pyramus must
draw a sword to kill himself; which the ladies
cannot abide. How answer you that?
By'r lakin, a parlous fear.
I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done.

Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?
I fear it, I promise you.

From these exchanges we might draw that Starveling is the sidekick of Snout the Tinker. He backs up Snout’s fears about the play they hope to present to Theseus. Neither of the two men would appear to be devil-may-care. They are exaggeratedly cautious. It might be tempting to play Starveling as a hand-wringing pusillanimous nitwit, were it not for the final scene in which he appears as Moonshine in the play within a play.

THESEUS .......let us listen to the moon.
STARVELING as Moonshine
This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;
He should have worn the horns on his head.
He is no crescent, and his horns are
invisible within the circumference.
STARVELING as Moonshine
This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;
Myself the man i' the moon do seem to be.
This is the greatest error of all the rest: the man
should be put into the lanthorn. How is it else the
man i' the moon?
He dares not come there for the candle; for, you
see, it is already in snuff.
I am aweary of this moon: would he would change!
It appears, by his small light of discretion, that
he is in the wane; but yet, in courtesy, in all
reason, we must stay the time.
Proceed, Moon.
STARVELING as Moonshine
All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the
lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this
thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.
Why, all these should be in the lanthorn; for all
these are in the moon. But, silence! here comes Thisbe.

Starveling, aggrieved at all the mocking interruptions, and having perhaps seen Snout ridiculed before him, loses his rag. Demetrius’ line alludes to Starveling’s temper fraying.

He dares not come there for the candle; for, you
see, it is already in snuff.

Starveling’s repetition of his lines, could be uttered as a yokel simpleton.

All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the
lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this
thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.

But this would not make sense of the ensuing exchanges, in which Theseus’ party are a little chastened by the Tailor’s outburst.

Well roared, Lion.
Well run, Thisbe.
Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a
good grace.

They realise they have overstepped the mark, and don’t want a sour note to intrude upon the wedding celebrations. Crucially, Starveling’s hissy fit wins over Hippolyta, who up until that point had been graceless in consenting to watch a play by simple workmen. It is part of the context of her role. The softening of Hippolyta along with the rest of the party leads to a sweetness in a conclusion of the play-within-a-play and its aftermath. Miss that Starveling has flipped, and the contrition of the wedding party won't work, and the play within a play will fizzle out and dampen the upbeat ending of the dream itself.

That Starveling has it in him to boil over at a VERY important event, says something about his personality. An actor playing him, would have to go back to the earlier scenes and incorporate this into their characterisation. The tailor might seem a bit conservative but he has a short fuse. This will enrich the earlier scenes and give them added context for other characters to work off. For instance, do the other mechanicals know Starveling has a temper? It might lead Quince to cast him in a small role on purpose and perhaps a little nervously.

This flexibility in building characters, examining subtext and context and speaking truthfully, demands a creative collaboration between the actors and director. Actors, if they are really living through the text, are often good at picking up where something doesn’t feel quite right and turning a piece round until it fits. This approach, where everything gradually informs everything else, is perhaps scary for some, because nothing is tied down except a character’s motivations, and in rehearsals and performance a good deal of elasticity and emotional honesty is required. The box lid to check this contextual jigsaw against is whether the play makes sense as a whole. Always, the bigger picture. It makes for living theatre, holds the mirror up to nature, and delivers Shakespeare’s plays to the audience in a manner that is accessible and true to the text.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Devising Plays

Devising Plays. 
(These are guidelines not golden rules.)

Stage one: characterisation
First of all, I get actors to create a character. There is no one way into this. However, I am looking for the sort of character who will be so different than the actor playing them, that they will appear to be another person. When this happens the effect for the actor is similar to wearing a half-face mask. A sort of (non dangerous) possession occurs and the actor just knows what to do and say without thinking. For this reason, the type of characterisation I encourage is (in shorthand) outside/in characterisation. Change the actor from the outside and they will change inside as well. This is the nearest form of characterisation to mask work. Even so, there's no hard and fast rules. I suggest a way of working which normally helps, but I'm flexible and prepared to follow what seems to work on the day. Whilst it often happens that a character is instantly inhabited, some emerge and grow over hours/days/weeks, and nearly all change over the course of devising the play. So flexibility and patience are an important part of the process.

Initially though, I provide a range of costumes to the actors, including wigs and props. I ask them to change themselves physically as well. Facially, by pulling a face and freezing it, using a mirror. Then making noises through this frozen face, and speaking from the noise, so that the actor gets different speech patterns to that of normal voice. I ask the actors to let any feelings or physical intuitions to percolate down from the face and voice through the body and inform how the character might move. The character's walk might arrive in this way. New body language. Gestures. I try to get them to change themselves so that they would be almost unrecognisable to anybody who knew them. I ask the characters to walk about, and find a name for themselves. Perhaps discover who they are, what they do in life and where they live etc.

Stage two. Non-neutral space
I get the actors to pair up. They tell their partner who their character is and some of the few details they know about their character. They must then decide on a place to meet. It is normally disasterous for characters to meet in a neutral space. A park bench, a doctor's waiting room, a bus stop etc. It's not impossible to improvise and devise from such places, but people do not normally strike up and develop relationships from such places. In such places, people normally try and avoid things happening. So the actors must discuss who they are, what their character does and where they live, so they can decide on a place where both might conceivably meet. Of course the characters could be related or married. If we have a zoo keeper and a car salesman, perhaps the zoo keeper goes to buy a trailer to move a hippopotamus. The meeting of the two characters in a non-neutral space will suggest a starting point for the improvisation and the actors can then just see what happens.

Stage three. Something must happen.
I say to the actors that they should improvise until something happens. What does that mean? What is something happening? Two people on a date decide to eat a romantic meal and one tips wine all over the other. In a library, a person slips a book up their jumper and the librarian notices. Somebody finds a 100 euro note. Something happening is an incident, perhaps not an everyday incident, but something that could happen in the universe the characters inhabit. It might be something going wrong. It's something we'd like to watch. When something happens, we want to know what happens next. It's what makes us turn a page in a book we're reading. Something happening will make the audience feel incredibly curious about what is going to happen next. So much so, that they will feel disappointed if the actors don't go further and enact the next bit of the scenario. When this happens a dynamic has been created. The actors – or more precisely, their characters – are in a situation.

Don't underestimate the resistance people have to letting something happen. Despite the fact that this is all the audience craves. And that the audience will be delighted if they get it. I've noticed that writers in creative writing workshops are incredibly resistant to writing down something that happens. An event that we'd like to read about in a narrative. The reason War and Peace is so renowned is that it is full of stuff happening. Tolstoy wasn't afraid of it. Why would we want to read or see a narrative in which nothing happens? We might as well stare at a blank wall. So one of the things that can go amiss in devising through improvisation is the actors refusing to allow something to occur.

It's best to start the process of devising with just two characters. Every additional character multiplies the responses hugely. Three people in an improvisation means six possible responses are going on rather than just (in a scene with two people) two responses. Every additional character makes for many more responses to track honestly, to keep the narrative free of false responses.

Stage Four. The Situation.
Once a dynamic has revealed itself, I then get the characters to do exactly what they would do in that situation. I want the character who has spilt wine on their date to react exactly as they would in real life. If the actors are properly inhabiting a character they will find this easy. Doing what the character would do naturally is simple if the character is inhabited. If not, its a nightmare. At every moment, you have to stop and ask, what would he or she do here? That is a very slow way to proceed. If the character is properly inhabited, you almost never have to ask. Stuff just happens naturally. The process is then incredibly quick, and it is not unusual to act through an entire play in a day. Sometimes, the end of a scene is reached. You have to ask then, where each character is at the end of the scene. What would they do next. That sometimes leads to a long (but essential) discussion with several actors and maybe any actors or students who are watching. It can take an hour or more sometimes to discover where the next scene would in all likelihood begin. Then we're off again. Improvise, and do what you would do next. Stop the action if there's any false notes. I'm looking for authenticity all the time. No cheap laughs. No searching for comedy – or anything else! Just, what is true and what is real in improvising what happens next.

Another challenge for the actors in this, as they vainly strive to control what is an uncontrollable situation, is thinking ahead. I want people not to have ideas, conceptual or otherwise, about what might happen in the next scene or the end. Jot these down by all means, but the important work is inching forward with what would really happen next. I can't stress enough how destructive 'ideas' can be to the process, and how poor they are as a means of constructing narratives. Yet never a play goes by without people having sudden lightbulb moments – hey I know what could happen in the end! Actually, I don't want to have to manipulate the story so that it fits a great end. The play will end itself when it is ready. Trust in that.
Promises to the audience.
One thing to be aware of in devising a narrative is cancelling out action that has already happened. I'm very reluctant to allow actors to cancel out a situation that they've previously set up. Audiences hate this. When you set up a situation, I call it a promise to the audience. You can't break that promise. You can rewrite the beginning if necessary to alter the promise or premise (they're not necessarily the same), but I'd sooner not have all the work. To give an example: a man works on his allotment and a younger man comes along and steals one of his cabbages. The reason given is that the thief believes the cabbages are magical. At this point, it is probably going to be very deflationary for the audience if we do not see the thief doing something with the cabbage that is either magical, or has the thief behaving as if the cabbage is magical. The audience would want to see it. To continue the story with no further reference to the magicality of the cabbage would vastly disappoint the audience and cancel out a place that the character has suggested they would go. It's a broken promise. The solution is to explore it or cut out the bit about magical cabbages. But cutting backwards in this way is normally difficult. Better to let the characters do what they would do – explore the magicality of the cabbage! If this is not dealt with, the audience will be unconsciously or consciously disappointed. Sometimes a bit of elasticity is needed in devising around this issue. I want the characters to do what they would do. I also want the story to keep it's promises – if that can be done without ideas.

I proceed with the actors, encouraging them to keep doing what their characters would do, all in response to the initial situation. I let it grow organically. It is like a oak growing from an acorn. Normally, the ending just arrives, unprompted. Of it's own accord. In fact, much of the process is like this. Things just happen. They can't be planned. So it feels unnervingly uncontrollable for all involved including me. When I'm working on a play, I'm playing it all by ear. Following a basic set of principles that any moment may have to be broken - because all characters and plays are different. It's a recipe in which the ingredients are always changing. So sometimes I intervene sometimes I don't. Sometimes my intervention works, other times my interventions fail. It's an inexact shambles of a methodology, and actors have to be prepared for feelings of dissatisfied raggedness. Of not knowing what is happening or where they are. Or where to go next. That is the nature of art. It's not maths where things are tied down exactly. Its the opposite. It's an interplay of intuition, guesswork, ingenuity, inspiration, common-sense, logic and illogicality. There's no real right or wrong. There's only, this works, this doesn't. It's great practice for developing theatre intuition. I'm looking for authenticity. Not realism necessarily. I want a play to be true to its own universe, which might be surreal or fanciful. Each play brings its own challenges to keep and break the very rules I am setting down. The therapist Tara Brach said in a podcast, that every time she works with a client it seems new and like she almost doesn't know what she's doing. This struck a chord with me, because very often I feel, as the play goes forward, I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Elasticity is my guiding principal. Flexibility. Stretching this and that to accommodate the actors needs and the needs of the narrative. In the devised play Bikeover, the situation/dynamic arrived in what turned out to be a scene from the middle of the play. We had to extrapolate a backstory from this one scene that arose from two characters. This is what I mean about each play being different and writing its own rules around the guiding principles.

Sometimes, rules have to be broken. In another play, Everybody Wants To Be a Cat, I felt the audience wouldn't want to see the very thing that the characters would probably do next, because it seemed obvious and theatrically weak. I needed something dramatic that the audience would be thrilled to see that did not cancel any promises and fitted with what we knew of the characters. In other words, I needed the very thing I had been resisting for months –
an idea. Sometimes, to help the narrative flow, I might change a character. I don't do this lightly. Almost as a last resort. Because every little back-change has a massive knock-on effect through the story. But it is part of the elasticity that is sometimes needed to achieve a strong narrative. In Faindakipa, we changed the location and nationality of a principal character. It really helped. But it was a bit of a job repairing all the subsequent tears in the script. I'm also on the lookout for the obvious or the dull. I don't want either. A useful guide in a place where two or three things might happen in one situation, is what would the audience really want?

Throughout the entire process, I have cameras rolling to film what happens. Because otherwise the actors and myself will forget key parts of the action or dialogue. Once the play has reached an end, we transcribe the film footage. Rewrite the bits which are scrappy or lacking in theatricality. Then the actors can learn the lines and act it all out. A devised play needs less direction if played by the original cast (this is highly desirable), as they already understand much of the subtext.

To cook a character
Sometimes an actor feels like their improvising isn't going anywhere. Often that is because their character isn't ready. It isn't actually different enough to their own character. The person who's playing the character needs to do more work on changing who they are. So when I see a character in this half finished state, I say the character is undercooked and I set about trying to help the actor finish the character they have created. I get a character to stand out on the stage and tell us a bit about themselves and I ask the rest of the group what they feel isn't finished about the character, and what would help to make the character feel more like a real person. And in this way we make a number of changes to the character. It might be that the actor needs to change the costume. Some actors throw on a load of silly clothes that don't fit together. This is unlikely to help them look like a real character. I won't be particularly happy to see an actor don a bowler hat, a tutu and a leopardskin waistcoat. It might lead to something amazing, but generally the best characters are the ones that look like they are a real character. I'm happy to see an eccentric character. They are real too and potentially rich in possibilities. Sherlock Holmes is a great eccentric character. Doyle's books would be a lot poorer without his oddness. In the case of Sherlock Holmes (sic) the eccentricity adds up. Characters must add up. The actor needs to wear a viable plausible costume that fits together. I don't mind if the character is ludicrous or eccentric, providing the costume makes sense within that eccentricity. I might work on the voice of the character. Make it higher, lower, sillier, graver, slower, faster or try an accent. The watching group and I gradually change more and more of the character until it feels like it is a plausible person, quite different from the actor who is inhabiting it. We might get a wig, or prop, change the actor's gestures or body language or all these things. It's important to have the character that convinces the audience. The reason for bothering with all of this is that a character that is properly inhabited/cooked will just
know what to do within an improvisation. Without having to think, the actor beneath the character will, in an improvisation, do exactly what that character would do. This is extremely helpful for the devising actor. Without any conceptual thinking, the actor can live on instinct, pretty muuch as one does normally in real life. A properly cooked character will know what to do in virtually any situation.

Some people seem to have a natural ability to pretend to be someone else. Others learn this skill. But some people just don't seem to like creating a character. Perhaps they can't see the point because they're not interested in that sort of acting. They might be more interested in the sort of film acting (does it actually exist?) where they assume they won't have to change themselves - like Hugh Grant, I suppose. Perhaps for some they don't want to mess around with a human identity they feel safe with. In that case, who can blame them? Some people don't want to look ugly.

Making a plausible character is one challenge. Then the student has to hold it. Those people who don't like characterisation often find this hardest of all. They complain that they can't hold the character because the changing of the face or body is hurting their muscles. I tell them they can hold the shape and soften the muscles and then it won't hurt. It sometimes helps. Some are frightened of failing – no matter how safe you make the space. In these cases, an actor will sometimes plainly not even try to change. It sometimes helps such people to think of characterisation as a disguise.

Having said all of this, it is sometimes possible to create narratives without characterisation, if the actors have sufficient belief in what is happening in the narrative. Belief, ie believing that what is happening onstage is real(ish), is essential to get the narrative flowing. Without it, we are back to stopping every five seconds. Belief is needed in all forms of acting. One might say, don't go onstage without it. If it's a problem, make sure you give yourself time to believe in what is happening in the scene. Don't rush things. One helpful quality of a properly inhabited character is that they have a natural and complete belief in the narrative. So for those who do want to cook a character the rewards are great. I'd reference Charlie Chaplin's description of how he created the Tramp. This is quoted at length in Keith Johnson's book Impro. Also in the same section of that book, Johnstone gives the example of Stanislavski's critic, a similar type of character, one so different from the actor that the actor doesn't have to think about what the character is going to say or do. They just ARE. This form of characterisation is strong and overwhelming as an experience. It makes for great narratives and great theatre.

What to do when you are stuck.
First of all, don't give up. Maybe take a rest and give the unconscious some time to work, but don't be critical of yourself or blame others that you are working with. Check the process has been followed. That all the characters are defined enough. Are they properly cooked? Go back over what you've done and see if you have followed the process closely. Remember that having any material is better than having nothing. If you have some material, however ragged, you have something that can be amended changed or embellished. If you have nothing, you have nothing. Have you done what a character really would have done at a key moment? Or did you have them do what you wanted them to do? Are there other things the characters might plausibly have done in responding to their situation that might work better?

Beware the judge hectoring the actor at this point. The judge cannot bear something which is open ended and seemingly chaotic. The judge wants a black and white situation where it is clear and obvious whether the actor has 'failed' or 'succeeded.' Improvisation and devising by improvisation does not lend itself to judgement in this way. It is a messy, chaotic business. Every narrative and improvisation throws up fresh challenges and challenges that have not been met before. This is the most educational and productive thing about the process. It is advanced problem-solving. Useful in every walk of life. Learning what to do when you don't know what to do is wonderfully liberating. To be able to live with chaos and gradually sift through it and sort it out is a life skill. Not much of worth in life is black and white. So learn to live with the insecurities that the process brings: the challenge of needing to be elastic and patient to get results. By elasticity I mean actors must not get too obsessed with one idea and must be prepared to let things go and to consider that if things are not working out immediately their work is not necessarily a failure. Things not working out is an essential part of a working out how to fix things that don't seem to be working out. So by elasticity I mean, can the actor try different things when they are stuck? A lot of the learning in this sort of situation comes from finding a problem (help, I don't know what to do or say here!) and trying to find a way round the problem with the tools at hand. Or maybe even tools you fashion yourself. Then seeing what happens. Being critical of oneself or one's fellow actors will get you nowhere in this situation. So if you don't know what to do and seem stuck, gag the parrot (the judge) and then be as elastic as you can. Try out lots of different things. Check you have been following the process closely. A judge in the room when you're trying to be creative is a one-way street to failure. Any kind of negativity is a positive hindrance to the process.

Once the story is progressing
  • What happens next?
  • What would I do next?
  • What would they do next?
  • What would they do next that I wouldn’t want them to do?
  • Is there anything I can reincorporate from earlier in the story?
  • How is this going to impact on the other characters?
  • Does it all add up and make sense? If it doesn’t do I have to go back and alter previously written material to make it all fit together. Flexibility.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Just Reward

                                                       Rehearsal with Preston Community Arts

A Cure For Light Fingers

Between the ages of six to fifteen, I stole many things. It started with pilfering money from my mother’s purse and concealing it in piles around the house, in the hope that when bankruptcy arrived (it was imminent if conversations between my parents were to be believed), I would be able to save the family by producing a hoard of blackened pennies and threepenny bits. That I was impoverishing the family by stealing from my mother did not occur to me. Also, I quickly forgot where I had stashed my hoards, possibly because the acts were so deeply instinctive. I had no awareness of what I was doing on a conscious level. I’m not even sure if I had a conscious level. When my squirrel stockpiles were discovered, I was punished and disgraced, but my light fingers grew only lighter.
Next, aged seven, I stole a roll of sellotape from a corner shop. Why? I didn’t need to stick anything so far as I can remember. I was caught and the shopkeeper said sternly that he would send the police round that evening to arrest me. Terrified, I confessed the misdeed to my parents, who punished me with the loss of various privileges. Yet again, despite the scolding and the frightening nature of what had happened, I strayed only further onto the path of the crooked and wide.
But on reaching secondary modern – I effortlessly failed my 11 Plus – I became aware that I was not alone. The secondary school I landed in on the outskirts of Manchester was a hotbed of petty crime. Most of the boys I sat beside in class, practised stealing and general lawbreaking on a daily basis. Hazel Grove County High was then (I hope it has reformed itself), a sort of penitentiary for working-class failures. Give or take a few sadists, the teachers were a well-meaning, decent bunch, but were pitted against a thousand or so lads who hated school in general and HGCH in particular. The child inmates had already suffered a good deal of violence, authoritarianism, boredom and coercion from their parents and in primary school. By the age of eleven they were in more or less open rebellion against the adult world – a sort of juvenile jihad against the adult brutalisation of their souls. So anything that adults didn’t like or forbade was good. Delinquency and thieving were therefore practised and enjoyed by the majority of my class – well over three quarters of the boys would have been on the wrong side of the law. Any boy who didn’t steal, smoke, wreck phone boxes, or scrawl graffiti in public places was considered an adult sycophant and creep.
Stealing then, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, became a regular event. I got much better at it. It was one of the few things I actually learned at school. I was rarely caught, and when I was, no punishment, remonstrance or reasoning stopped me re-offending. I could fill a book with larcenous tales of my childhood, and maybe one day I will! Stealing cigarettes and Mars Bars whenever a shopkeeper’s back was turned; shoving Enid Blyton books up my jumper in Smiths; ransacking beer from beneath caravans on a school holiday in Belgium; sneaking clubs from unattended golf bags on the local links and selling the irons to a second- hand shop. The list could go on and on. I’d be horrified if I ever felt the urge to steal now. Yet also, I can’t help looking back on those young lads and their escapades with a certain empathy and fondness. Sure, it was probably annoying and unpleasant for the people we stole off. Yet, for the most part, these Bugsy Malone’s of a Seventies Secondary Modern, really were angels with dirty faces. Petit petty criminals who were nevertheless often kind, decent, and honourable – even the ones who ended up in jail or institutions for armed robbery, arson and in one sad case, axing his parent’s while they slept. They were deeply traumatised children with family problems that would sink a battleship. And for the most part they were likeable. Unable to voice our pain and anger, we allowed it to surface in symbolic acts that spoke of a haunting isolation. Looking back forty years, I feel moved by the defiance and disobedience of those children in the face of a brutal adult world.
Around the age of fifteen, things stepped up a gear, quite literally, in the light-fingered circles that I frequented. My friends began stealing motorbikes and cars. I don’t know why I didn’t join in. I’ve never been interested in the Top Gear side of life. A few of my mates did house robberies. I had no interest in that either. I’m frustrated by not actually being able to recall if there was some reason for abandoning the crooked and wide. Maybe I had developed a greater awareness of the trouble that such acts could bring down on my head and decided to steer clear of larger misdeeds. Then again, the smaller misdeeds stopped too. I know the shoplifting and vandalism that enlivened my school years were manifestations of massive trauma I suffered in early childhood. But I still can’t really account for my fingers getting heavier. It wasn’t that I was doing much else as a distraction. I failed my O levels as completely as the 11 Plus and did not one jot of work to pass them. Music, art and literature, which were to become a vehicle for expressing my anger and trauma were still a year away. Something happened. I guess I must have developed an adult consciousness that could override my unconscious.
On leaving school, it was my great good fortune to go to an FE college in Northwich to study art. I didn’t know at the time, but it was staffed by renegades, revolutionaries and bohemians who were interested in helping little hooligans like myself. After a couple of years under their anarchic ministrations (another wonderful book), I decided to resit my exams. It was while studying a sociology A level, that I came across AS Neill and Homer Lane. I read about how they dealt with troubled delinquents, my eyes getting bigger and rounder with every turning page. They rewarded criminals! Assisted vandals in their vandalism! So shocking and yet it seemed so right. Though I did not consider myself to be a criminal – and oddly, never had! – I knew their methodology would have stopped me in my tracks.
I went on to university, stumbling across John Holt on the way, and eventually became a community artist in Preston around 1984. There I was, devising community plays with, people from the local tower blocks, with the theories of Homer Lane and AS Neill bubbling away in my soul. Many of the lads attending the drama workshops could have stepped out of my old secondary mod. So I wasn’t surprised to find, after a drama workshop of no little mayhem, that someone had been in the office and snaffled the cash box and with it £120. My colleague Mick and I were annoyed, mostly because our management committee had just slapped our wrists with regard to being more careful with our spending. I had a fair idea of who had taken the box and its contents. A boy called Alan who had left early. When he didn’t return to the next couple of drama workshops, I was certain that he was the light-fingered culprit. However, I didn’t report it, feeling, perhaps because of my own history, that accusing him, even if we got the money back, wouldn’t be very productive for him or us. Not least, I didn’t want the drama group interviewed or interrogated, and I decided merely to be more careful in future. I knew where Alan lived, but I said to Mick jokingly, that if I went round to the lad’s house, I’d probably only end up rewarding him.
Well, there must have been some sort of synchronicity or fate at work, for the very next day, I turned a corner onto Preston’s main street and almost bumped into Alan. I was surprised, but said hello, while he looked uncomfortable and confused. I asked chattily, why he hadn’t been back to the drama workshop. He made a couple of plausible excuses. Again, I felt a little angry, but then remembered what I’d said to my colleague the day before, and on the spur of the moment, took ten pounds out of my wallet and handed it to him.
What’s that for?” he asked, taken aback.
For stealing the cash box.” I replied.
He looked very nonplussed, but before anything else could happen, especially a denial, I said goodbye and walked on. I have to admit, I was suddenly worried about what I had done. I’d just rewarded somebody for thieving! Would he now go out and steal more cashboxes? Would he now think crime was acceptable and go and brick the nearest jeweller’s shop window? Of course not. The next day, I went into work and the cashbox was on the office table. There was £130 inside. My colleague had found the box outside the workshop door that morning. I never saw the boy again.
For quite a few years after that, working in very heavy areas of Northwest England as a community artist and drama worker, I found myself having to pluck up the courage to reward criminals or join in with vandals to get them to stop. It always worked. I think back to my childhood, to that school full of disturbed and troubled boys, on whom punishments were heaped over the years in thousands, to no avail. Even when, in retrospect, it was glaringly obvious that the harsh and violent penalties were not working. Why did nobody listen to Neill and Homer Lane? Rewarding crime may seem counterintuitive, yet to my mind, most criminals are traumatised children and their acts are unconscious speech, symbolic acts of communication with a world they have long ceased to trust – usually with good reason. They can only really be reached by symbolic acts of trust. The sad thing is, it doesn’t take much, incredibly little in fact, to reach such people. I go back to two friends of mine who were put away for holding up a post office with a sawn off shotgun. They were nice lads. Their criminal spiral could have been stopped years earlier by adults showing their trust instead of doling out angry condemnation and violent smacks round the head. It seems that no matter how much evidence there is to support a liberal methodology to deal with antisocial behaviour in young people, there is a very stubborn desire not to learn lessons taught a hundred years ago by a couple of Victorian eccentrics.

Friday, 18 September 2015

We Have The Technology

There’s a reason sport and politics shouldn’t mix. Take the Rugby World Cup for instance. It seems that by loafing in front of a plasma TV to watch thirty incredible hulks wrestle what looks like an alien’s head over a white line, I’m able to conveniently forget about innumerable worrying events cropping up all over the globe. Amazing! In fact by navigating a path through various sporting tournaments throughout the year, it’s almost possible for me to blank out that some people still believe in stoning and nuclear power. My guess is that if ornithologists actually peered into an ostrich’s hole in the ground, they’d find a tiny plasma TV showing avian Olympics on Sky.
Anyhow, there I was a few days ago, head stuck in the sands of sport, cheering a try and forgetting entirely about the March of Regress, when a slow motion camera showed that I’d been cheering a referee’s mistake. The player had slid into touch just before the ball crossed the line and the ref didn’t call for a review when he should have.
Christ,” some feller says beside me, “we have the technology, use it!”
At which point, inexplicably, sport and politics mixed in my mind. Even before a conversion sailed between the giant H of the posts, I realised we could eradicate the world’s problems by applying technology to politics and in particular – politicians. And we wouldn’t need to watch rugby ever again.
Now I sense here, heads of state spluttering in rage:
President Sarkosy choking on his croissant as he reads this column in the Élysèe Palace … Putin in the Kremlin giving his Southern Star a contemptuous smack of the hand …Interpreters in Beijing trying desperately to calm Hu Jintao as, having got through the Clonakilty notes, they read these words aloud to the communist central committee.
Why apply technology to us?” I hear them wail in a rake of languages: “Tis not our fault that people believe in stoning and nuclear power.”
But my point is this: these folk with the combed hair and fine dentistry get up on their soapboxes at election time promising us the moon and stars if we tighten the stringy belts on our trousers and then ten years later nothing’s been done. In fact, things have only got worse. Don’t tell me its all down to the intractable nature of the planet’s predicament – a dearth of probity in politicians has blighted civilisation since the Ancient Greeks first cast a vote. The fact is, the kind of people who shin to the top of the greasy pole in search of power are often interested in nothing more than telling us one thing and doing another. Often as not they tell us the very opposite of what they know to be true. By the time we kick them out, the earth’s problems have snowballed.
Which brings me back to the rugby. Now I’m not suggesting we send out national politicians fifteen a side and watch them scrummage and maul across a rugby pitch as an answer to our social and economic problems. However symbolically apt it might seem to have opposing parties wrestling in the mud and kicking each other in the teeth, and however diverting as a spectacle, (let’s be honest, it would be more absorbing to watch than any current political programme and you might find out who was really up to putting in 80 minutes for their country) it wouldn’t stop rainforests being felled. No, I’m talking about the way that rugby uses cutting-edge technology to establish the truth of whether the alien’s head actually went over the line. In the past, we only had the ref’s word for it. Now, we can go over it frame by frame in slow motion from any number of angles and get a pretty good approximation of the truth.
Why not do the same with our politicians? Where would the difficulty be in say, strapping lie detectors to those who hold high office? These contraptions needn’t be huge. Nowadays they can be micro devices no bigger than a tiepin. Politicians would be required to wear a fib detector at all times – it could even be implanted under the skin. A noisy alarm would be set off whenever the politician told a whopper. One can imagine transcriptions from Hansard in the UK:
“My Right honourable gentlemen, beep beeeeeep beeeep”.
“On the contrary, if the Right Honourable beeeep beep.”
I know your Sarkozys and Putins and Jintaos might find all manner of excuses for refusing to wear the contraption. But surely it’s the same argument that they always give with regard to street surveillance cameras in cities. As they say, if you’ve nothing to hide, why would it bother you?
The advantages for us all are obvious. A question that might have been put to President Bush such as “Are prisoners being tortured in Guatanomo Bay,” would be answered “No. Beeep beeeeeeep beeeeeep!”
Or perhaps, aware that we could see their noses growing, our political Pinocchios would never transgress in the first place. They might start acting on world problems instead of filling fertilizer sacks with cash confetti. All I’m saying is, the technology is there. We should use it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Status and Learning.

Impro is a book written by Keith Johnstone in the 1970’s. It’s fairly well-known in theatre circles and has been a bible for theatre practitioners (and scriptwriters too) for many a year. A number of original ideas are contained within its covers which are a boon to improvisers and indeed to any creative person. It’s a funny book and instantly accessible to the reader. The exercises which Johnstone describes were dreamed up during a spell at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where he presided over script writing classes and decided the best way to test whether a play was working was get it on the floor and act it out. He devised Status games as a method to help improvisers generate stories for the stage. These were very simple and effective. He split human transactions into a sort of game of one-up-manship (and one-down-manship!) in which characters were forever trying to get a bit lower or higher than the person they were acting with. Characters do this in two ways – by what they say and by their body language. I guess we are all familiar with the sort of person who trumps every sentence we say in a manner which somehow belittles us.

A: I bought some new shoes yesterday.
B: Those are new?
A: I seem to be lost.
B: Haven’t much of a sense of direction have you?
A: I can’t do long division.
B: (Breezily) Oh, it’s simple enough.

Johnstone set out the physical characteristics of the high and low status character thus: high status characters hold eye contact and won’t break it. They have an open body posture, stillness, don’t um and ah. They speak slowly and project the voice. Low status, is the opposite. A low status character can’t hold eye contact long, their posture in its extremes might include pigeon toes, knock knees, slumped shoulders. Their voice is meek and their gestures, fidgety. As Johnstone says in a later book, Status is really about attitudes of dominance in human behaviour. He got actors to play different status’ to develop scenes, with hilarious results.

As an actor and director, I did alot of work when I was in my twenties around the concepts and exercises in Impro. At the same time, I was going on a journey into alternative education through the works of John Holt and AS Neill. (There is an interesting cross-over in Impro when Johnstone describes teaching at a primary school and how his work was influenced by John Holt’s ideas.) With the two interests – impro and alternative education - running side by side, I began to notice how adults routinely played high status to children, especially in educational institutions. Having been belittled and humiliated myself in school for many years by adults, I found myself watching the body language of teachers and educators. I was fascinated by their continual attempts to guard and maintain their status before the young people they were teaching. I could see clearly that the high status teacher (however ‘nice’ they might be) is continually attacking the status of the class. In other words lowering their status and making them feel small. This is incredibly destructive. The teacher, often terrified of chaos and a class running riot, keeps the young people down by frightening and subtly belittling them – ie making them feel less ‘clever’ than the teacher. I suppose, in schools, as children are forced to go there and forced to learn things they are largely uninterested in, teachers ultimately have no choice but to use this methodology. But these continual attacks on a child’s status and feelings of self-worth (attacks that go on for ten years of their childhood) have a devastating affect on their ability to learn – and live. They probably are the cause of all the anxiety related ‘learning difficulties’.

It is well documented that an important component of learning is confidence, not least having the confidence to keep trying when you don’t initially succeed at something. To play a musical instrument, you must fail to play it well for a few months before you begin to make sounds that another person might want to hear. The ability to try again when your last attempt at the Moonlight Sonata sounded like the Devils Mass, fingers bashing all the wrong notes, is essential. Trudging up the steep learning curve of a musical instrument, the learner must have the self-confidence and self-esteem to pick themselves up when they fall over. This mental and emotional approach to learning demands that the learner has something of an adventurer about them, it demands a small amount of indomitability. Good learners don’t care if they fail, they know they’ll get there eventually. But this is not an attitude that can easily develop if the status of a learner is being continually diminished,

Being in the company of somebody who can already do what you are trying to learn and who is belittling you (often unintentionally, or unconsciously) or testing you as you do it, erodes confidence in many people and destroys a learner’s morale. Going back to John Holt, he tells a story of two musical instruments he took into a primary school class. One day, he brought out a flute and played it to the children. He was fairly good on the instrument and was a little surprised when he offered the instrument to the children and none of them were interested in attempting to play it. He realised belatedly, that they were worried about failing to play it. They knew their playing would seem hopeless in comparison to what they had just heard. In a school class, even a humane one run by John Holt, they probably already felt small enough. Some time later, he took a trumpet into the class. He couldn’t play this, and this was obvious from the terrible noises he made. This time, the children leapt to their feet and clamoured to try it out.

Being around an expert can be handy at times when you really, really want to do something, but if they are always there, judging you, marking you, correcting, the learners status can plummet irretrievably and they will give up, or not even attempt to learn things. It is often better for a learner if they are not around somebody who knows it all.

I’m not suggesting here that adults should falsely bolster a child’s self esteem with lots of well done, or you can do it. If you think about it, that still leaves an adult in a position of high status encouragement, offering rewards and incentives. I’m suggesting that adults get out of the way and that they don’t elevate themselves or bolster their own prestige around young people or learners. There is a large temptation to do this. Many a teacher feels that they won’t be taken seriously by a learner unless they look really impressive and come across as an expert. Maybe so. But it will also whittle away at the learners belief that they can ever be so good. And that temptation to elevate oneself, is usually more about the teachers need to be taken seriously, to be esteemed, to feel BIG, than it is about helping someone to learn. It is more about a teacher’s fear of not being thought worthwhile by those they are teaching. It is about the teacher’s own insecurity. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is the best shot in town, but he never tells his son and his son doesn’t know. Atticus doesn’t need to elevate his status over his son because Atticus is already big inside. I’m suggesting teachers do as little as possible around those who are learning, and intervene when asked and then not for too long. And also in a way that doesn’t elevate themselves into some wonderful high status expert. Dropping one’s status around other people, especially children, when they are learning is nearly always helpful to them. (By this I mean quite literally changing our body language and watching that we are not always raising ourselves above them by what we say.) It might not be so gratifying to that part of us that feels small ourselves and wants to be esteemed, but I think it leads those we help to learn, to have a different form of respect for us: that which we always feel towards those who treat us with the dignity that every human being deserves, no matter how young or old or insignificant they may seem.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro is widely available. It’s the only book about creativity I have ever read that is genuinely useful. It also has in it, many games that are great to play, for young and old, which foster the imagination, spontaneity, storytelling, and above all laughter.