Close connection and understanding … and the text

CLOSE CONNECTION IN COLLABORATION

‘Birds’ from Amour, where Terri Leiber and Ben Townsend worked to create bird characters. (See the trailer for PlayActing Theatre’s Amour featuring the birds with Camilla Griehsel, Singer and Justin Grounds, violinist.)
Photo credit: Julia Zagar

It is intimacy and close connection, actor to actor, that I focus on in Blog 3, something that I am aware of creating and cultivating when I am working as an actor myself, as well as when I am a director encouraging this between actors. At the beginning it is about the actor herself in relation to the other actor(s) and then, it moves to the actor in relation to the audience, in my view.

Yoshi Oida is a Japanese actor who went to Paris and worked for many years with Peter Brook. His descriptions capture the connections and sensitivity that I seek to describe.

…Eventually we became silent, and then on a signal, we all opened our eyes. There were about twenty five of us sitting on the carpet together. It felt as if we had known each other for years, and yet we had only communicated through our hands and voices. (…) This communication was not ‘actor-to-actor’ but ‘human being-to-human being’. Later, I realised that this level of communication was central to theatre.

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 8.

This layer of involvement in the work of theatre and drama comes along with all of the work one does on voice, movement, text. And for me, it has become increasingly important––this extraneous focus on the ‘human-to-human’ connection through practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais. The self-awareness and being present that is central to these Eastern practices is the aid to bringing the theatre mantra of ‘being in the moment’ to fruition. All of this too feeds into this notion of collaboration and collective creativity I speak about. (For further reading, you might like to check out The Amadeus Project blog which I completed in 2019.)

Then the question, How does this collaboration and collective creativity impact on a play or performance … on text? You’ll see in The Amadeus Project blog that, after 38 posts, I hadn’t quite reached the end of the investigation process. Please read on to see the point where I position myself now, in October 2020. In another blog, I would also love to consider the difference between Performance Art and Theatre. What overlap is there with performance art in Peter Brook’s work

Understanding

In creating performances, as a writer first and then as an actor, you are constantly checking the movement of the piece of writing (could it be best described as an energy?)––to figure out how best to shape performances for an audience. Rereading the writing constantly for this purpose––by reading aloud to yourself, by reading aloud to an audience, by having another actor reading your writing––all of these enable you, as a writer, to consider this flow and shape of the piece. Cue the actor then, where you consider the tone and the texture of the words (as well as the physicality), moving and fine-tuning it constantly, to create the best possible performance for an audience.

An Aside: What that will mean––the best possible performance––will surely have different meanings to each person involved. It may be the telling of the story is enough, or the reaching of the audience with pathos, making an audience laugh. Personally, I like it when an audience is moved to tears… Though, being sick from laughing comes a close second!

An Aside: I cannot recall the person who said this but I agree, that in working on our artistic practice, we are (simply?) seeking to be better at it, always working towards creating a piece of art that was better than before and then on to perfection!

This idea doesn’t take economics into account, the putting of bread on the table … nor does it take into account the scheduled date of an opening night!

In working on your own as a writer and solo performer, it is tricky in that you don’t have anybody else to rely on in that relationship with the audience. You learn to critique yourself … with a perspective that is separated in your mind from the part of you that is performing. I recall the moment in a theatre workshop when playing the role of a bereaved mother seeing her son during the Scottish clearances that, despite being very upset as the character I was playing, I realised that Karen, the actor, was not distraught, but playing a role. 

A director, or ‘outside eye’ will give you feedback during rehearsal on the structure, the presentation, and of course, in discussion on the audience reaction. But, it can be a lonely place.

Ri-ken no Ken’ literally means ‘outside view’. It is the opposite of ‘Ga-ken’, meaning the performer’s own subjective view of himself and his actions. To have ‘Ri-ken no Ken’ means that the actor is able to see his performance from the outside, as if through the eyes of the audience, and can accommodate his work to their perceptions.

I initially considered that this was a viewpoint from within the audience but then realised that ‘…this viewpoint is situated behind me. I watch myself acting from somewhere behind my head.’ 

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 40.

I often think of the work of theatre as a kind of sculpting … a shaving away of any excess of emotion or physicality that doesn’t serve the particular message you wish to make; or, on occasion, a putting on of extra pieces of clay, moulding it into the shape of the whole.

So, in the ‘Eileen’ Monologue (2014/15), I worked constantly to balance the humour of the central character, Eileen, in ordinary everyday life, with the intense pain of the loss of a baby, and coming to terms with childlessness. She coped with it through cleaning and being obsessively organised in running her Tupperware empire. Crucially, there needed to be a 50 : 50 balance of both humour and pathos. Otherwise, it was just too sad.

This insight came to me near the end of the rehearsal process when working with a friend. She brought it to my attention that the story for the character was too hard to bear and had thought it would be funnier. It led me into an acute consideration of what I was trying to convey. Being aware of managing that balance was very interesting and a constant challenge throughout all of the performances. 

‘Eileen’ and her Tupperware. Photo credit: Patricia Coogan O’Dell

Understanding and close connection in co-creation

Working with another actor brings a comfort in sharing the responsibility for the performance and the pleasure of the audience. The person that I have worked most closely with in this regard is Terri Leiber, actor and writer. She and I have worked together in various capacities: where I was her director, then the co-adaptor and director of her Monologue, ‘May the Force…’, and then, for six different shows from 2011 with a co-written and co-directed comedy / cabaret.

I had been invited to a writers’ party and had gone as the character, Eileen. There Eileen met Marilyn and a certain chemistry developed. We brought this to life the following Christmas and after that ‘The Eileen and Marilyn Experience’ was born, with six different theatre shows, plus some story writing, some short films, and a TV series. 

Through that long length of time, the connection built up between us as creatives; slowly, through hard work and laughing! All of the elements that I set out in Blog 1 are there (openness, sensitivity, fun, all 12 words that I set out) in relation to that relationship as writers, directors and joint performers; Plus, the elements relate to the enquiry in relation to the audience: how they respond to the story, to the characters.

I have said before that collaboration means something different to every person. For Terri and I, our collaboration was intertwined every step of the way. On occasion we would work separately and add one on top of the other, but we always connected in together regularly, to ensure we moved the story or ideas along. And from about half-way through the process of completing a project, the bounce came from the twosome together. If we couldn’t find an answer to a question ourselves, we moved into ‘Eileen and Marilyn’ mode and that shifted the creative energy.

What took some time for me to realise, and not just in collaboration with Terri, was the necessity of the moments of uncertainty, discomfort and feeling of disempowerment that is utterly part of this process. Little by little as a person, I have come to accept the slow unwinding of ideas that come about by openness, acceptance, confidence in my own creativity and continual working on the communication between us. Plus, there had to be fun included … a lot of laughing!

Eileen & Marilyn selfie at Electric Picnic, 2018. For fun from the duo see: The Wonders of West Cork @ Twig Clonakilty

We found for our work, there must be heart in the story, the satire on the social situations or the community reflection or the fun between ourselves or with the audience wasn’t enough on its own. Although, in one of our shows, we did see how far we could go in doing something really boring … in this case, we got the audience to compare 4 different types of tissues and comment on them. We were never disappointed with the enthusiasm the audience put into this comparison!

One other thing that was odd for me, was that the Eileen character had two different sides, one larger and moving towards caricature and the other, from where the stories stemmed, who was more serious and thoughtful … more realistic, though still communicating through humour and the comedy that arises from situations. Don’t ask me how this makes sense to me!!

Back to connection

Ultimately, the relationship between actors / characters on stage is the connection between them. And Oida’s description of ‘human being-to-human being’ encapsulates that connection for me.

On the stage… Just remain open to the other actors. Don’t fix your attention on any one aspect of the performance. Allow yourself to respond to your fellow performers, and then you will discover how your character reacts.

An Actor Adrift, Yoshi Oida with Lorna Marshall, 2011, p 40.

This is something that recurs for me. This following extract from the second of the Monologues about the same character ‘Eileen’ has the same quality of intensity and connection that I am trying to clarify.  Mammy has had a ‘turn’ and this is Eileen’s response.

Extract from Mammy Through the Post Box.

And, looking at her and she so frail, it straight away reminded me of Daddy, that day in the hospital. It was one of his bad days when he wasn’t in good form. The staff would have been chivvying him along, getting him out of the bed and dressed so that he had some semblance of living a normal life. In another way, it seemed to be an unkindness too, because he was so low in his spirits he seemed like a scarecrow version of Daddy, dressed in his clothes but leaning a bit sideways and sagging like the stuffing was askew. 

I bent down on my hunkers to catch his eye, ’coz Daddy’s head was facing down. And then I thought, To hell with it, I’m just going to have to wash these trousers again, and I knelt down properly on the floor of the ward. 

And do you know what I wondered for years after, if I had been wearing a skirt that day would I have chanced the cold floor with bare knees?  Would I have taken that moment at all? And I’d never have realised that you have to make it your business to look your loved ones straight in the eye, forget about what people might think or how it looks or your good trousers, it’s looking the person in the eye and seeing them and them seeing you and hopefully knowing, if only for that brief moment, that you are there with them.

And what about the impact on the text?

At the very least, all of this practice will bring awareness to any play or performance, and can only benefit it. I believe that the more comfortable an actor is with themselves and, following on, with the other actors, then the better the performance will be.

In the analysis of the rehearsal process of Amadeus in 2019, the part of the rehearsal where the play had to be put on the stage became more formal than I wished for. The difficulties that arose because of character changes were partly to do with that, the anxiety of bringing the performance to fruition––after 10 months, with a cast of 18 and a production team of 38. You can check out the Reflections post (The Amadeus Project blog) on the process written in October, 2019, shortly after the run.

There is more exploration I have to do on the impact of collaboration and collective creativity on a text. I know that the impact of the work on the actors that I perceive is appreciable. I also know that the ability of the creative team around PlayActing Theatre, after nearly twenty years of working together, to improvise, be playful, join in, offer their artistry and wisdom, adds amazing richness to a rehearsal process and creates some of that collective theatre atmosphere of the Theatre Du Soleil that I spoke about in Blog 1.

Certainly, I think we need to do another play for further research purposes!

6 thoughts on “Close connection and understanding … and the text

  1. Nice one!

    Just a tiny thing really, would you not use another term than “blog 3” would “Chapter 3” “Issue 3” or even “Post 3” …. Not sure what the done thing is…are you writing a blog post, the blog is the whole thing isn’t it? (https://slate.com/culture/2013/05/blog-post-vs-blog-this-blog-post-is-not-a-blog.html ) In your text refer to Chapter/Post/Issue 3 or the title of the post? And link it

    I don’t know how you fill it in on WordPress….but I would go

    Take a Chair: talking theatre and creativity Chapter/Post/Issue 3

    Close Connection and Understanding

    Nit picking I know….

    Well done on all the photo credits….. jxx

    >

  2. “In working on your own as a writer and solo performer, it is tricky in that you don’t have anybody else to rely on in that relationship with the audience. You learn to critique yourself … with a perspective that is separated in your mind from the part of you that is performing. I recall the moment in a theatre workshop when playing the role of a bereaved mother seeing her son during the Scottish clearances that, despite being very upset as the character I was playing, I realised that Karen, the actor, was not distraught, but playing a role.”
    That sounds like two different things to me – the first far more difficult than the second. Is it really possible to be your own critic/editor, given how wedded we can be to whatever version we are, or we are playing at the time?

  3. Thanks for the question Finola. What I am trying to get at with the reference to the performance is that one’s brain can do two things at the same time. You are immersed in a performance and yet separated because you must remember your lines, cues, place on the stage and most importantly, to embrace the audience! Regarding the critic, I think you do some critiquing as a performer. I imagine you can identify with this as a lecturer, where you are giving out your information, yet you are aware of the impact on the audience also … speeding up if necessary, slowing down if there’s something they love, adding energy if the listeners are fading. But, I agree, it’s impossible to be a dispassionate critic in toto. Part of being a director is seeing the physical impact of the actor as they perform their role and pulling out subtleties of movement and character that enhance that role. One can’t do that as actor / director–-although filming is useful these days. Where all these roles interlock might need more teasing out between us!

  4. I think writing is a good analogy – it is very difficult for me to edit my own writing. I don’t mean proofreading (although that can be tricky too) but editing for flow, ordering ideas properly, expressing ideas optimally, and most importantly cutting, all benefit from an outside eye.

  5. Yes, I agree, especially when a deadline approaches! Many analytical skills run out the window in my case. I listened to a talk recently by a great editor. In the case of a book, he reckoned an author should set it aside for six months before starting an edit. One could find the appropriate fraction for a blogpost (mine being 1,300 words or so), 1/70th perhaps?? It’s 2.17 days… Mmmmm, will have to work on that!

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