Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Performance as an academic discipline. A dialogue with Ashley Steed.

Below is an essay I wrote in response to a prompt for my Performance Research class. The class is unassessed (meaning it doesn't matter) and so this is how not to take an assignment seriously and write whatever you feel like (in 750 words). I decided to write a dialogue based on conversations I've had with people about my MA programme.


‘Ashley is going to London.’
‘Ah’ [in approval].
‘Yeah, to get her Masters.’
‘Ahhhh’ [even more approval].
‘In theatre!’
‘Oh’ [disappointed].

My best friend recounted this scene he had with his father, which makes me laugh because it is actually a common response. There is a stigma around theatre, especially in Los Angeles where someone studying theatre is synonymous with someone wanting to break into the ‘business,’ i.e. the film/TV industry. Even I shared in the stigmatization of theatre studies. I started out as an architecture major, something ‘practical.’ When I switched into theatre I went from responses of ‘wow, architecture! That is really intense’ to, ‘oh, theatre. That must be fun.’ [Defensively] Yeah it is fun, because I love what I do.

Then I decided to get a Masters in theatre and performance. Which has brought on even more confounding inquires. Like the following conversation I had with a guy at a pub.

So you are studying acting?
No, not really. I mean I guess acting is what brought me here and I am an actor, but no that’s not really what I’m studying.

Oh, so it’s directing?
Uh, no. I mean, I do want to and have done directing but that’s not it. It’s more academic-y. A theoretical look at theatre and performance. But there’s also practical application too.

What do you mean?
Well, for instance, in my performance lab class, last week we had to watch this visually stunning and completely crazy film by Fellini called Satyricon and recreate a scene or image. Well, there’s this one scene where this woman is cursed for making fun a magician so he takes away all the fire in the town and when villagers need fire they have to come get it from her, well, va-jay. So I basically recreated a fire crotch. With a can of hairspray and a lighter. And that prompted all these questions about fire and the way different things burn; different special effects with fire; the different burning sounds things make, etc. It also brought up the different things fire evokes and stories of fire societies, and buildings and cities catching on fire. And the destruction fire can make. There’s also a deep history of theatres catching on fire. Basically my assignment for the next two weeks is to play with fire.

That sounds awesome, and then what?
I’m going to create a performance from the research and different fire experiments I do.

Like a play?
Like… a… performance. [Silence].
I’m also interested in architecture in relation to performance.

Oh, like set design?
No. As in, how a site or place impacts a performance and vice versa. I’m also interested in site-specific and site-generic pieces and would like to create some sort of walking piece for a project. I’m also interested in the performance of the everyday. And observing, then mimicking behaviour.

It sounds like your programme is all over the place.
That’s the nature of performance, though, isn’t it. For instance, a play can be about anything, and for that matter even a theatre (building) or stage can be anything. There’s this famous director and drama theorist Peter Brook, who in the opening of his book The Empty Space says, ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’ And if we look at the root of performance, which is basically the carrying out an act, then performance can literally be anything and also take place anywhere.

Hmm, I feel like performance is so abstract compared to science.
I’m really glad you just made that comparison because I believe that the study of science and the arts (to use a general overarching term) are both rooted in a fundamental commonality. They’re both grounded in what was (as in, what came before), and explore what is at this present moment, and both project or hypothesize the possibility of what can be. The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, ‘Imagination can often carry us into worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.’ Imagination is fundamental to both science and performance. But where science is reliant on the laws of the universe, or the defining of facts, performance is basically reliant on suspension of disbelief, or the mutual willingness to participate. I think it’s just as exciting, and dare I say important, to study the laws of physics, evolution, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc. as it is to study performance. There is an apparently inherent need to perform, pretend, imagine within the human condition. Today we are constantly bombarded by performance with TV, films, ads, the internet, the news, sporting events, concerts, and, of course, galleries and performance spaces; as well as adopting performative behaviours of certain customs or cultures, etc. Which poses the question, why? Why does every culture have some mode of oral or storytelling tradition? Why do we adopt certain performative behaviours over others? Why do we willingly suspend our disbelief? Why do we participate in and perpetuate fantasy?

Sounds like you have more questions than answers.
Yeah, learning would be obsolete if I already knew everything.

So let me know what you think! Also, stay tuned. I saw Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act the musical last night so you know I've got to blog about that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I visited The Country, went to Hell's Half Acre and ended up at T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.

This post is a little late as I've been very busy being lazy and procrastinating so now I've had to catch up on school work. Sometimes I forget that I'm in London to get my masters, not to just see shows.

Last week Monday two of my classmates and I saw The Country by Martin Crimp playing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney. It went off to a smashing start as Joe and I got lost - thankfully I was able to call Jane and have her give us directions. Then we sped-walked to the theatre.

The Arcola is a wonderful space. As we walked into the theatre there were trees and pebbles all over the floor; the seating set up in the round. As we walked in, I said to my friends, "I like this already." Set up in the round the design is both simplistic and infused with symbolism. Anna Bliss Scully’s design with it's deteriorating layers of wood flooring, a stove, telephone, bench, and table an chair - and the trees surrounding the audience, magnifies the isolation of the country.

The play chronicles the relationship of Richard, a doctor, and his wife Corinne after he brings home a strange woman, Rebecca, whom he claims to have found passed out on the side of the road. Crimp's use of language is evocative and eerily unsettling. It took me some time to settle in to the repetitive and quizzical dialogue - but once I did, I was absolutely transfixed. That is until the character Rebecca comes out. Crimp has written the character as an American (why, I don't know) and I have to say that the accent was terrible. I took me completely out of the experience. Although Naomi Wattis had great characterization and physicalization - and it was apparent she understood the text - her accent was quite baffling. That being said, overall I found the production to be well done with Amelia Nicholson's to-the-point direction and smart staging. Simon Thorp as the doctor with too many secrets does especially well portraying a man struggling to keep control and has pitch-perfect black-comedic timing. Amanda Root, however, shines as the exasperated, albeit controlled, wife. Her big eyes somehow manage to simultaneously hide and reveal everything.

This being my first exposure to Crimp - I'd love to read and see more of his work.

Here's a teaser trailor of the play:

Friday night I went to see an art installation called Hell's Half Acre in the Old Vic Tunnels by Lazarides galleries with my fellow American, Rachel. The installation is based on Dante's Inferno. There were some wickedly awesome paintings, sculptures, videos and photos.

Here are some pics:

Sunday I saw T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.  by the Polish company TR Warszawa at the Barbican. This stunning production inspired by Italian poet, writer and activist Pier Paolo Pasolini and his film Teorema is grippingly absurd as it depicts five family members and their sexual interaction with a young man who comes to stay with them. Although there were points where I was wondering what the hell was happening, the visual styling and sensual acting were superb. The play begins with the patriarch at center stage behind a desk who is questioned by members of the audience. The last question being, "Do you believe in God?" His reply, "I don't understand the question."

Then the style and pace changes dramatically. The large stage is fully utilized as each member occupies their given space. The patriarch at his desk, working; the mother at her boudoir delecatley putting on her makes up; the son and daughter the the mirror getting ready for the day; and the maid going about her duties. The daily routine is played slowly and deliberately - and they do variations of this three times. The rest of the scenes pick up the pace with the introduction of the stranger who seduces each member and then departs just a quickly as he arrived.

Superbly acted, along with a viscerally stunning score, this experimental mode of story telling makes me long to see more work by this evocative company.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A giant Margaret Thatcher and a rotund Falstaff.

This week I saw two shows: One a West End musical, the other a Shakespeare history play.

Tuesday I saw Billy Elliot with the USC kids. The musical lacks the charm and sincerity of the 2000 film. Does being a big musical mean that you have to be cheesy? I don't think so. Granted when I think musical, I automatically think spectacle - which, I suppose, could be good or bad. Here it was both.

The story takes place during the 1984-85 coal miners' strike in Durham (that's North East England for all my American friends) and tell the story of 11-year-old Billy who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes. Overall I'm hugely disappointed in the music (by Sir Elton John) and lyrics (by the original screenplay writer Lee Hall). And really - this may be obvious - it's the music that makes or breaks a musical. I can see why this show has been hugely popular but at the same time that really doesn't mean anything - the last time I was here Lord of the Rings:  The Musical was here soo....

Overall the direction is ok -- there's a lot of having the coal miners and the kids overlapping in the songs/choreography which sometimes works. Sometimes. There was one moment where the miners were talking and also acting as dancing partners to the little girls - all whilst acting like everything was normal. I'm one who gives a giant margin for suspension of disbelief - but this part was laughable - and it wasn't a funny part.

For a moment in the film that was barely a blip - where Billy goes to see his friend Michael, who is dressing up in his sister's clothes - turns into a huge musical number that feels like it comes out of nowhere. Although I love love love both Billy and Michael and it was great watching these young boys totally kill it in the dance number - I was completely perplexed by the song itself Expressing Yourself (a song about, uh, expressing yourself but 2 minutes before Michael told Billy that he shouldn't be a ballet dancer) and to make the bad side of spectacle worse, there were giant dancing dresses. Why are the giant dancing f*cking dresses!?

The opening of the second act was even more confounding. After the brother and father yell at Billy for wanting to be a ballet dancer - the second act begins with a Christmas party where the brother is dressed up like an elf and is acting pretty gay. Billy can't be a dancer but you can act like a twat? But this isn't the real problem here -- the problem is the song "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher" in which a GIANT MARGARET THATCHER comes barreling out on stage. Why?!

So that's the bad first -- now on to the good. The kids. Seriously, so many talented kids - they really carry the show. In fact the show opens up with the most adorable little boy (who looked like the little boy on Jerry Maguire) The boy playing Billy was absolutely fantastic. He was doing some seriously hard and advanced dancing. At the end of the first act it's basically him running round dancing out his anger and he was simply marvelous. I can only imagine how amazing of a dancer he'll be when he's older. Speaking of which -- there's a scene where he dances with his older self which is definitely a spectacle good -- although there's a moment when he's flying and is just spinning and it looked a little lame but other than that the dance was lovely.

Overall I found the musical to be disappointing. Maybe I was going in with high expectations because of the film. There were just too many ridiculous moments that seemed out of place in what should be a charming show about a little boy who wants to dance in midst of economic hardship.

Wednesday I saw Henry IV, part one at the Globe which was amazing. I was exhausted (and slightly tipsy) so that fact that I was able to stand all the way through it is amazing. Falstaff and Henry (in the picture) were absolutely amazing. This was a very straight forward, top-notch production, exactly what I would expect from a Globe production. Not much else to say at this moment. It seems I like to write a lot when I don't like something. So glad I was able to see this show before the Globe closes for the season.

Sir John Fallstaff (played to perfection by Roger Allam) is one of the most loved baffoons in Shakespeare's plays - he's a liar, gluttonous and a braggart - but he's also so lovable, funny and it's easy to see why Henry keeps him around. Prince Hal played by Jaime Parker foreshadows the charismatic leader to come in Henry V all while being wonderfully drunk through most of the play. Dominic Dromgoole masterful and seamless direction never drags and keeps true to the spirit of Shakespearean theatre.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I entered the machine and never left. And then I got "Scorched" and didn't like it.

So I've been in London for over two weeks now. In my last post I talked about Shunt and how I asked if they needed any volunteers. Well that Saturday I volunteered for their bar night at the warehouse. It was a lot of fun as I became and impromptu bartender.

Last week I volunteered as a stage hand for Money. This comprises of me getting dressed up as a guard and directing audience to where they need to go. It also includes scene changes - so those moments when I was wondering "wow, how'd they change the scenes!?" I now know. Because I'm one a few who's running around in the dark and smoke. Everyone I've met thus far have been pretty awesome and I've enjoyed hanging out at the machine. Nigel keeps encouraging me to use the Shunt performances on the weekends as an opportunity to show workshops of things I'm creating for my performance lab class. And I think I just might take him up on that.

I also saw Money again last Friday - and, yep, I still love it!

Someone had recommend Scorched by Majdi Mouawad playing at the Old Vic Tunnels. Hmm, a play in tunnels underneath the Underground? Sounds right up my alley. Unfortunately it wasn't. First off, I really like the concept of having a theatre underground and I really like what the Old Vic has done down with the space -- for the most part. However, the space it much too narrow to have that many seats (I'm guessing around 100 seats - I'd suggest half that.)  I was so far back that it was difficult to see the stage, especially because some guy who was about a foot taller than anyone else was right in my line of vision. So I had to constantly maneuver around his head to see the action.

Now on the the actual play. Scorched depicts the quest that twins, Janine and Simon, are sent on posthumously by their Lebanese mother Nawal, who had been silent for five years prior to her death. The quest is to find their father and brother - one they thought was dead and they other they didn't know existed. The story jumps back and forth from the mother's past, in search of her child given away by her family, to the twin's present search of the reason behind their mother's silence.

The play has a lot of potential but falls flat. The supposed humor or lighthearted parts aren't funny...at all. There is too much exposition in the first act, making the second act convoluted and and contrived. There were some lines that made me laugh - not because they were funny (I've already covered that) but because of their overt earnestness. It's short-comings are made even more apparent in some of Patricia Benecke's over-compensation in direction. There were, however, some wonderfully fluid and striking transitions. But when the sprinkler came out, I was completely taken out of the story. That moment where Nawal talks about witnessing a massacre on the bus could have been much more powerful with a simple, raw and honest delivery. The need for theatrics (and this is coming from someone who LOVES theatrics) was unnecessary. Also, the big reveal at the end wasn't that shocking - I had already guessed it as the moments leading up to it had been so over-dramatized that the play had given itself away.

For me the saving grace of this production is Jennie Stoller who plays the Nawal in her last years (the character is played by two other women - one for the young Nawal and one for the middle-aged Nawal.) Her performance is haunting and engrossing. She doesn't overact, nor does she hold back. She is the fully realized embodiment of a woman with too many secrets whose horrific past had made her stubborn and impenetrable.

I did like the setting of the tunnels - the sounds of the trains added to the sound scape of the play. The rumbling of trains overhead evoked the rumbling of the war-torn Lebanon as well as the inner-turmoil of the twins. However, I'm not sure how I would feel about it for other plays because it can be quite distracting.

The few lovely and poetic moments are overshadowed by the overall lack of focus in writing, direction, and acting.