Vision, inspiration … and enchantment

Vision and inspiration first

As a theatre-maker in my ‘prime’ (as the Irish Theatre Institute would have it), it is almost impossible to comment in a succinct way on the myriad places I have found inspiration and that have influenced my work. 

Recently, in my diary, I wrote a list of fifty people who had a positive impact on me. Many of the people I named had fed my creative life and awareness: from the teachers who loved the literature we studied (Irish, French, English), the nun who encouraged us as six-year olds to write our own Christmas play, or those teachers who took on the Christmas play every year, giving me a chance to perform, both in Primary School and then the school musicals in Secondary School, not to mention Mrs Nolan, the revered drama teacher. As a teacher myself, I later came to realise the effort involved. What a gift to schoolchildren: the collaboration, the camraderie and the enchantment!

The highlight of the school year for me in Convent of Mercy Secondary School, Clonakilty.

And what about all the writers of my impressionable years?––the Frank O’Connors and Edna O’Briens, John B Keane and Brian Friel; writers whose voices reflected our lives and told stories that we could identify with as well as the writing of Shakespeare or Guy de Maupassant that brought us to different, harsher situations, but which also resonated.

And what about growing up in a community like Clonakilty, in west Cork, where involvement in plays, musicals, attending and performing in Kilmeen Drama Festivals, choirs, an orchestra. and street performances were commonplace; not to mention taking it in turns with my two sisters to go to the opera season in Cork with our parents, all dressed up and looking at the dress suits and frocks in the Grand Circle of the Opera House!

All of it creates the tapestry of influence and vision.

In this blog, I set out the places where I find inspiration for my work in more recent times as a theatre-maker; from a practical point of view as well as a more esoteric, creative perspective. I also point our what it is that appeals to me or resonates with my learning. 

One concept weaves through it all––the idea of reflecting society as it is now, to hold a mirror to our contemporary life.

I cannot include all the sources of inspiration. I am thinking here especially of the unscheduled conversations I have with other artists which result in a refining and developing of my thinking as I write or create, or the essential support from the groups of writers that I have been lucky to be a part of for many years, or those I meet on a weekly basis whose conversations provide direction and clarity.

For these generous friends and for west Cork where this society abounds, I am very grateful.

THE ESSENTIALS 

There are a few books that I carry with me all the time through the rehearsal process of a play or when teaching. They have provided practical games and a key to unlocking an emotional journey through drama classes and theatre rehearsals.

The bibles.

1 For a focus on group work, with games to bring a group together and techniques to create images. These enable a deeper enquiry into dramatic situations or themes.

AUGUSTO BOAL   GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS

theatre should be happiness, it should help us learn about ourselves and our times.

AUGUST BOAL, GAMES FOR ACTORS AND NON-ACTORS, SECOND EDITION, p16

Augusto Boal’s approach, as evidenced in this book, was egalitarian and collective. There was a constant enquiry by the group into the work in hand and empowerment of the participants occurs as a natural consequence of this approach. His interest in addressing politics and situations of oppression, and creating images to explain and elucidate the points of discussion, is incredibly effective.

Hence his development of a way of working in theatre called The Theatre of the Oppressed, a system and means of communicating and exploring issues and themes through performance has been used and developed worldwide. And which also has the intention of empowering the participants.

The variety of games / exercises / activities are helpful in any group work. In particular, his use of Image Theatre, where a tableau is developed by the group and then animated in a small way by each individual member––this results in a powerful dynamic energy within this collective creation. And the reduction of ideas or themes into intimate images / statues / tableaux, by an individual or a group is wonderful and incredibly effective. 

As an example of this work, I took a Transition Year group in the 2010s. It was a fluid group and very challenging for drama, which blossoms on consistency and trust, built on a continuing and developing relationship within the group. This class were lively and only a few only had experienced drama. I asked the students to create an image of the ‘Junior Cert Results Night’,  no talking about the image or preparation of it, just a movement into position, one after the other, to create a group picture. It included drinking groups, Guards, a vomiting teenager, concerned friends. Immediately after this image, I asked them to create a picture of the ideal ‘Results Night’. This image was of groups of friends together, celebrating, some drinking, sharing the celebrations. 

2 A focus on the practice of the individual, understanding and developing sensitivity to oneself and to others, leading to greater sensate awareness. 

DAVID ZINDER BODY VOICE IMAGINATION Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique

Each section in Zinder’s Body Voice Imagination Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique uses exercises that move in sequence, one into the next. The self-awareness and reflection that they bring are very appealing to me and aid my analysis of theatre particularly in relating to the actor and the movement of performers. I use them in combination with other work, particularly when working towards an intense focus and connection between the partipcants. 

Zinder not only provides a clear line of exercises to follow, he provides insight and an explanation of the intentions behind the work and that of Chekhov, whose path he follows. 

For example, he describes states of being such as ’The Feeling of Ease’, which must follow and inform the ‘Feeling of Beauty’:

In his address to the students on the opening day of the Chekhov Theatre Studio of Darlington Halll, on October 1, 1936, Michael Chekhov said, “It is very important that during the whole lesson you must be very active at all times. Your figure (body) must be beautiful during the whole lesson. In whatever you are doing, you must feel yourself full of power, full of energy.” This is not only a wonderful concept on its own merits, but it is also an important one in terms of training the performer. The three crucial elements here are: (a) accepting the idea of living the life of a performing artist, whose body is his artifact, and therefore must be at all times beautiful; (b) understanding that every gesture, every move the actor makes, in workshop, rehearsal, or performance, is an integral part of his craft, and should––through the conscious effort of the actor––be imbued with a Feeling of Beauty, as it aspires to the condition of art; and (c) taking the greatest possible pleasure in having a body that moves and creates aesthetic forms in space. 

Zinder, Body Voice Imagination Imagework Training and the Chekhov Technique, p 134

These ideas and thoughts coincide with ideas that I have found in other classes involving movement, like yoga or somatic movement. All of this experience combines to extend the learning in relation to the body and how it can be developed in giving and creating expression.  Later in this series, I intend to look at movement and the body in the creation of theatre.

For now, I would just say that I believe, ultimately, all of these methods and practices search for the truth; how we can best portray it––whatever truth means––at the particular stage we are in our careers or development as theatre-makers.

THE THINKING

Other perspectives on the art of theatre have been interesting to read and experience in live performance. It is always a pleasure to find a coincidence of ideas or thoughts on your practice in the words of others.

3 A sense of space, the actor in it and the interaction with the audience

PETER BROOK

….to share with you a fundamental idea: that theatre has no categories, it is about life. This is the only starting point, and there is nothing else truly fundamental. Theatre is life.

Peter Brook, The Slyness of Boredom, (from There Are No Secrets) p 8

I love Brook’s ideas around the acting space and the definition of it, and his analysis and exploration of the concept over many years. Theatre students and interested people have followed his analysis of making theatre for decades: travelling through Africa, engaging with local people in an exploration of storytelling and engagement with an audience; his work with actors, constantly seeking truth and the best possible way of communicating to others.

Sometimes he frames the performance space with carpet or, when I attended his theatre in Paris, the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, the central acting area––a large rectangle––was delineated with tape. Minimal props were used, the bare essentials for telling the story in ‘The Suit’ by Can Thembe. It is the actors that are his focus, in their performance and their engagement with the audience, with the stage area reaching into the auditorium. 

I love too his focus on performance, and seeking to constantly work to hone and fine-tune the actor; in their physicality, sensitivity and in the space. 

It is in fact very easy to be sensitive on language or the face, or in the fingers, but what is not given by nature and must be developed through work is the same sensitivity in the rest of the body, in the back, the legs, the rear. Sensitive means that the actor is at all times in contact with his entire body. When he initiates a movement, he knows the exact place of every limb.

Peter Brook, The Slyness of Boredom, (from There Are No Secrets) p 19

One of the moments that stood out for me that evening that I attended Les Théâtres des Bouffes du Nord in 2015 came at the end of the performance. When the actors came to receive the applause from the audience they didn’t bow to them, the cast stood and looked at the audience. Then they moved around the stage to see another part of the audience and, again, they looked directly at them, and received the response consciously.

Brook speaks often of the interaction of the actors and the audience, they are together in the performance, and that’s what it seemed to me at that moment. The lighting had been brightened at this point to ensure that there was a direct connection and ‘seeing’, one group to the other.

Always, the play is performed in relation to the audience, the flow of energy from the actors on the stage to them, each bound to the other.

4 Theatre reflecting social and political issues, through collective and collaborative practices, creating an entire experience

ARIANE MNOUCHKINE

A theatre company is not an artistic entity cut off from life. A company is a group. A group is always a maternal structure. At the beginning I didn’t know that, but I’ve discovered it. I discovered that it is not enough for actors to be good creators. 

It is also necessary for them to be free and happy. And that’s not easy. Because there is constantly amongst us all a strange mixture of generosity and selfishness, of availability and reserve. There is an explosive which has to be handled delicately. It is passion in its pure state, It is life. It is restricting, certainly, but it is also wonderful.

Ariane Mnouchkine interveiwed by Jean-Paul Liégeois, ‘Ariane Mnouchkine: “Je mets Shakespeare devant tous les autres, même Molière”’,  Le Nouveau F. Magazine,  no 1, February 1982.

Mnouchkine’s vision of theatre is based on the ideal of a collective company of equals working closely together over a long period of time, collaborating jointly on the creation of performances. It may take many months for a performance to emerge in this process, as, step by step, all of the people involved research the theme and play with the material together. 

In Paris, she has created a place, la Cartoucherie, in the Bois de Vincennes in an old, large, munitions factory for the group, Théâtre du Soleil. When you attend, you take part in the food prepared, sit at long, or round shared tables to eat, and we were served by the members of the theatre group, some of whom had just come off the stage. Food that is wholesome and good. On the way in, we even passed some small wooden houses where, I assumed, the cast lived.

Actors and musicians as well as the production team are involved in the improvisation and experimentation that takes place in the development of any production, before casting is done, with everyone involved in that process. Music plays an important role in their work also.

On the evening, the productions were not directed by Mnouchkine herself but were by companies that she had worked with. There is a singular atmosphere in this theatre, it is raw and authentic, in my opinion. The two productions we saw that night dealt with the stories of immigrants. I wouldn’t describe the event as ‘immersive theatre’ but the entire experience from the moment we arrived felt like real life was overlapping with the theatrical experience and made it all the more enriching for that feeling. It settled the theatre into real life, rather than it being somehow removed, or elitist.

Because of my particular interest in collective work, I seek to find out what that means in practice to different theatre-makers or creative practitioners.  The collectivity evidenced in this group is really interesting, as it takes on the idea of collective living absolutely. And then, it is intriguing to consider how I can imbue my productions with some of the atmosphere and values that I observe, and to calculate how they impact on theatre-making and the participation of the entire team.

Adrian Kiernander, when researching Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil, spent one year in the company of the Troupe, in particular as they developed one project, L’Histoire terrible inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Combodge. It is from this book of his experience that these quotations come.

 ‘Collective’ means that everybody is concerned with everything….I do not evade any of my responsibilities. I assume, and I have never denied it, the direction of the troupe and the suction of stage director (metteur en scène). But that does not mean that I make decisions alone. Everything which involves the future of the company, all the choices, to produce Shakespeare or not, for example, are taken collectively in general meetings. I only have the job afterwards of executing the decisions. And the principles….So we have to do all we can to make the production good:respecting the audience by preparing two hours before the performance has become one of our rules. The ethic of the company includes several other elementary principles: punctuality, equality of salaries, no smoking during rehearsals, sobriety…’

Ariane Mnouchkine interviewed by Jean-Paul Liégeois, ‘Ariane Mnouchkine: “Je mets Shakespeare devant tous les autres, même Molière”’,  Le Nouveau F. Magazine,  no 1, February 1982.
p12

THE ENCHANTMENT

Always, the enchantment of theatre is a fundamental element.

Enchanting images from the 2019 production of Amadeus: Lighting on the two Salieris, picking up the lines of the costume, their colours and specially-made brooches; Salieiri with Orsini Rosenberg––lighting picks up the back wall gold set paint; Confectionery made of builders’ filling and decorated deliciously, sit on a painted tile-effect floor of the walk-way. Photos of the performance by Jack Zagar.

I think this enchantment has to do with being in the presence of other people, bought together for this ritual, and being transported in your mind into a more creative space; to be moved emotionally, however that impacts on you as an individual.

Sometimes, it may be the use of light on a stage, or the impact of colours on a set. I’m not really thinking of spectacle here, which can transport you with the sheer scale of scenery, or use of film for example.

I am more taken with humbler offerings, where there is nowhere to hide, and you rely on the impact of the drama. Often, it is to do with the actor / performer being what they call ‘in the moment’. Then any subject matter touches us as an audience and we are utterly in that moment with them.

It may reveals itself as a smile––where you find yourself smiling and have no conscious part in doing that act.

Once, I attended a production of Othello by the RSC in Stratford. On leaving the theatre, I found I couldn’t speak about the play, it had moved me so much. I was utterly taken by whatever alchemy had taken place that evening, between those on the stage and those in the auditorium. Presumably, it had to do also with the months of rehearsal process and direction, and the production team and the particular connection between those people.

That is enchantment, in my opinion.

Then again, for me, it can also come down to the smell of the backstage of a theatre… Let’s move on from that thought!!

4 thoughts on “Vision, inspiration … and enchantment

  1. In a recent reunion with school friends we fell to talking, once again, about the fifth year theatrical production we were all involved in. You capture so well what it is about such experiences that make them profound and memorable. I loved your description of the ‘raw and authentic’ Mnouchkine event.

  2. Thanks Finola, that’s so lovely. One of my teacher friends, with whom I collaborated in school productions (where she created magical, wondrous costumes) often spoke of her belief that students always remembered the school play–-how it made them feel and brought them together––but rarely maths class! While harsh on the maths teachers, the group activity, the hard work and the success of putting on a performance that moves and charms an audience is a special thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s