…because pages die….and zines should live on in constantly evolving forms.
I’m sharing a creative writing exercise we did today in a course called Writing With Communities…just because it is good fun!
Think about your hometown.
write down 5 locations that embody the city.
then write down 5 colours that come to mind when you think of your hometown.
now write down 5 objects you associate with the place, it can be animal, mineral or vegetable.
Finally write a poem with all 15 words, in alphabetical order
My poem is naturally about Singapore
Buah Keluak is Black
like Char Kuay Teow
but it is a peranakan stew made black from the buah keluak nut, not by black sauce in the supermart
best eaten with good rice and ended with Durian chendol
passed down by matriarchs who speak more english and malay than chinese
Saturdays skateboarding with the boys at East Coast Skate Park – it’s green interrupted by grey unlike the city.
it is only recently that we are allowed to protest at Hong Lim Park
against Marina Bay Sands, F1 and the 7million people on a tiny island by 2030
neoliberalism represented by Raffles Place skyscrapers
at the expense of people, who see Red.
we eat Roti Prata and fish curry with sugar with lots of Teh Aliah Tarik as we talk about the Toa Payoh that doesn’t feel like the heartlands anymore
we feel White-washed….when we want to be colorful, diverse and brilliant
How Does an Applied Theatre Playwright Subvert the Exoticisation of East Asian Women?
Reflections of “Performer’s Physicality in the Methods of Meyerhold, Chekhov and Stanislavsky “
Organised by International University Global Theatre
5 – 11 November 2009
Scuola di Recitazione Armata Brancaleone
“What we need is a new kind of theatre.. We need new forms…. I don’t want to show life how it is, or the way it should be, but the way it is in dreams.”
– Treplyov/Meyerhold, The Seagull (1898)
Detachment is a central concept in Zen Buddhist philosophy. One of the most important technical Chinese terms for detachment is “wu nian”, which literally means “no thought.”. This does not mean the absence of thought but rather the state of being “unstained” by thoughts, opinions and emotions that bind one’s focus to one particular object. Rather, in being “detached” one can be conscious of all things happening at the same time and act appropriately within the given situation.
Upon reflection of the whole workshop, this detachment was the most important thing that I learnt from my training in Italy.
Physical Action is Attention
Stanislavsky and his system are frequently misunderstood and is often confused with Method Acting. This is because Stanislavski modified his system to the needs of American psychology in the 1920s when Lee Strasberg studied at the American Laboratory Theatre. Stanislavsky’s emphasis on psychological realism, and “Emotion Memory” (recalling experienced personal emotions for use in performance) led to the “the Method”. However, this Emotion Memory was only one many techniques that Stanislavsky had developed for actors to access their emotions, depending on the situations and challenges presented from play to play.
Stanislavsky realised that Emotion Memory could lead an actor to histrionics, and so he developed other methods, such as The Method of Physical Action (hereafter, MPA), where one could be “in the moment” but always staying one step away from complete belief.
Stanislavsky felt that it was important that whilst the actor should experience and show the emotions of the character, it is very important the actor still stay detached and aware of everyone else onstage at any given moment.
We would start every morning’s training with breathing exercises that led to a series of 32 taiji movements. This in turn was taught to us as a “shorter” version of eighteen movements and the repetition of these movements helped us extract ourselves from the happenings of the world and focussed it on the present so that we would be open and ready for any new stimulus or teaching that was to happen later that day.
Then we would be asked to walk around the room and to move where there was open space. To be sensitive to open space on the stage and to move to fill this space. This trained our awareness to stage spaces.
We then followed by leading movements with our fingers, toes, head, shoulders, tailbone, knees – all of this forced us to think of new ways to use our bodies whilst placing certain limitations to play. This made us break out of our usual comfortable ways of moving to invent a new language with our body.
Finally our body would be freed from restraint and we were asked to just dance in the space.
The system that Stanislavsky had created was not “System” with a capital “s” but rather a “system?” with a question mark that describes a flexible structure, a thing that actors may use as much or as little as they please during rehearsals, and modified for the individual.
The Method of Physical Action (MPA) which was explored during these workshops, is based on the idea that “the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life is his body.”
Emotions may be remembered and brought up during emotional memory but this is imperfect technique and is usually considered as a “rehearsal tool” rather than an actual technique. One of Stanislavsky’s ideas was that “the only thing that the actor can rely on is the body, therefore the actor and the director must work hard to use the body “and bring to life a scene simultaneously addressing both the emotional as well as the aesthetic components of the scene.
One of the ideas that we were constantly taught was that “physical action is attention”. Whilst this does not mean that one cannot pay attention to another if one is still, it does highlight the importance of the physical “”sculpture” created onstage by all the actors, within the mise-en-scene, such that the audience’s attention is directed towards the desired subject within the scene. The only way in which the audience’s attention can be thus directed, is if all the actors themselves pay attention to the subject of concern. This is also seen in Poussin’s paintings, which were used as part of an exercise during this workshop. The lighting in the picture directs one ‘s gaze to the centre of the action. And all other characters give this player their attention through the posed bodies and gaze.
We were asked to direct each other to recreate exact scenes from Poussin’s paintings recreating the exact expression, mood and gesture from the paintings and a short transition between the scenes. All this would happen without a spoken direction to change. And at the end of the first day, the 10 scenes were presented to music.
One of our participants could not remember all the movements and poses and stopped his group’s performance halfway. That was a “teaching moment” as we call it as it was immediately pointed out that one must never stop the performance because in doing so, one betrays the trust of the whole group. So it is with acting. Whilst we are completely wrapped up in the emotions of a character at that given moment, one should not ignore the rest of the group and act inappropriately to “ruin” the actions of the following actors. To be more specific, it would be damaging to the other actors if we were to break a prop that was to be used by another actor later whilst “in a rage” as part of our character.
Later on, we were all asked to bring in a monologue, and the next day, the exercise of detachment was to be even more complicated.
We were asked to perform our monologue to different actions, being pushed at the stomach, chest, head, lower back and shoulders to develop our consciousness to projection of voice and the part of the body that we were using to push our voice. Later, we had to speak our monologue during the transitions, one at a time, with no break in between and no indication of who would speak first. This had to be done without losing the meaning of the monologue, and without losing the energy of the poses in the pictures and transitions. And the part that made it most difficult was not being allowed to relate the monologue to the painting poses. Then music was added to the jumble and we had three musical lines to focus on without losing intensity of music, transition, pose or monologue.
For this particular exercise, we were allowed to use our native languages. I could have chosen to speak in Mandarin as I had for an earlier exercise, but I chose to use English instead. By picking a language where everyone understood what I was saying, there was more pressure to take care with the monologue and make sure that the sincerity of the monologue was not lost amidst the action and music. This was particularly useful in practising detachment as I became aware of what all my group members were doing even though I was not looking at them and listening to every single one of them, not just with my ears, but with my body, my voice, and in fact my entire being.
Thinking and Acting
We also learnt about “Psychological Gesture” where we first had to find the action verb in a sentence like “I want to break this relationship,” or more accurately, “I want to break up with you.” By acting out an exaggerated literal breaking action at the word “break” then saying it to the partner after without the accompanying action, one’s voice and body remembers the action of “breaking” and that creates a deeper psychological resonance in the actor.
At this point of time in training, I started wondering, as Meyerhold probably did when he wrote to his wife, Hedda Gabler, and said:
“Are we as actors merely to act? Surely we should be thinking as well. We need to know why we are acting, what we are acting, and whom we are instructing or attacking through our performance. And to do that we need to know the psychological significance of the play, to establish whether a character is positive or negative, to understand which society or section of society the author is for or against.”
If I were to develop this exercise, I would not only literally act out the psychological gesture, but also ask my partner to act out the expected effect in this character’s mind. To act out the expected response from the character, because as people we often do anticipate the reactions of others and modify our approach based on these expected reactions.
I have always believed in the larger significance of the play, the message of the play, and how in performing one’s role one should aid the audience’s realisation of that larger message of the play. It is at this point where I desire more thinking from the actor – to think not just of himself and his own character and role, but also of how his or her character must balance in relation to the other characters onstage. To realise the role that he or she must play and to communicate that to the required degree. In fact, the actor should, as Stanislavsky later says, direct himself onstage:
“My dear actor! Don’t wait for your luck – learn directing to manage yourself in order to direct others – the public. That is what I do, when I direct shows – I direct my feelings and thoughts.
When I write plays, I use the same method — I become a character without forgetting myself. Of course, the character is “me” – and more. “Identification” is a long word, but the only ground for dramatic experience. It’s ME, who must be in the middle of action, I am on stage!” – Stanislavsky
Trust and Empathy
A large part of the “warm-up” to the major exercises involved taking turns to lead a “blind” partner around the stage. First with the palm of your hand, then with the elbow and finally the forehead. We learnt more and more to become hyper-sensitive to the movements of our partner. I could tell when she raised her arm and I would do the same. I could tell when she was tiptoeing, or swaying and I would follow her rhythms exactly. In fact, I managed to reach a point where I could run freely round the room to the very speed of my partner and not once open my eyes, knock into others or crash into a wall. Such was the level of trust built in those short and intense 7 days of our workshop. But we also learnt empathy as we always swapped and experienced what it was like to lead ourselves – and because we had been blind before, we knew how it felt and would take extra care with our blind partners.
After one of these exercises, we were asked to practise putting our weight on our partners and our partners would do the same on us. This also built empathy between us as we understood the effects of physical positions on the other and would take more care ourselves when it came to putting our weight on others. In a play, we not only have to act our part, but we also have to be aware of others trying to focus and act their part. And knowing how difficult it is for us to get into character and create the realism of that world, we too should be sensitive to others trying to create this reality and give them our all in creating this world of the play.
Towards Dead Ends
Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of our workshops was how we had to repeat the same exercises again and again, day after day before reaching a new exercise. This made me yearn for ways to amuse myself, to create new actions or discover new ways of moving with my fingers, toes and so on to keep myself interested so that I would not get bored with the exercise. Later, in one of our discussions, Ostrenko revealed that it was his intention to lead us to a Dead End because in doing so, we would hunger for creation and be motivated towards new creations. He said he often did “pretend to forget” when leading a class. He would say that he wanted them to work on this for 5 minutes, and start a conversation so that the students would think he had “forgotten” to remind them that time was up. Yet being disciplined students, they would persist in the exercise and in doing so, amuse themselves by inventing new ways to achieve the goals he had set for them. This is the basis of creation. That we must hunger for something new. We must reach our own Dead End and search for that new beginning.
The idea of detachment is not solely a Buddhist one. Most religions also teach that one should be “detached” from earthly desires and material possessions. Perhaps in acting, as in life, one must learn to be “detached”. To accomplish the task at hand, but avoid being so wrapped up in it that we lose balance of the bigger picture.
As Alain de Botton, in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, observes, “Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done. Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything but take it too seriously. To see ourselves at the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked “11 – 11.15am Coffee Break”, to behave heedlessly and greedily then to combust in battle – maybe all of this is in the end, working wisdom. It is paying death too much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions. Let death find us as we are building matchstick protests against its waves. Our work will at least have distracted us. It will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection. It will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.”
But there is so much more that we can do if we choose to be conscious of our actions and make them count for others. If we were aware of the bigger picture whilst being in the moment of our own lives, perhaps we would empathise more and seek to use others less. If all artists were more conscious the impact of their own work on the general public, perhaps they would seek to create works that bears a greater message – something that would benefit us all by revealing some deeper aspect of ourselves or helping someone in need. Perhaps they would yearn to create something with meaning.