Physical theatre workshop with Anitha Santhanam
When I started training for Re-play in London, I worked with a movement practitioner called Emma Grace. Before this, I was not really paying attention to the way I moved, but focussed on moving. Infact, most of my performances have been movement heavy, but I have never paid great attention to movement as a specific way of working. However, this time, I was keen on incorporating this within my practice.
I started work in the studio with Emma Grace. Emma's first instruction to me was to try and move my hands engaging my core. I spent a good while trying to engage my core and come to terms with its existence. I was glad I managed it and when I used my core to move my hands, I discovered a sense of buoyant movement. My hands were moving in an almost effortless fashion. I dint feel like my shoulder muscles or my biceps were doing any work. It was all coming from my core. It was just the first 5 minutes into the session and I had realised the power of movement based training for performance. Right from the way I breathed, to the way I moved in the space changed over the course of my movement based training with Emma. I am ever thankful to her for those wonderful one on one training sessions.
Then it occurred to me that it was important for performers who were going to work in Re-play to also go through this kind of an experience. So I immediately began looking to bring down movement trainers from London to India and also looked up movement trainers in India. That's when I came across Anitha Santhanam and her work in this space. I immediately wrote to her and what a co incidence, she was in London. We met up that very weekend and plans were made to host a workshop in physical theatre in Chennai in July. I was excited.
A weekend workshop
Plans were made and we were set. 10 theatre practitioners in the city were invited to be part of the workshop.
One of the first things the participants were made to experience was to be present in the space. Applying soft focus, what does it mean to be in a space with your body. Is there a way that we can create a sense of awareness for ourselves through our bodies.
Where does bodily movement originate from ? How can we, as performers get into a state of awareness where we are conscious of our various movements. Using this how can we create distinct character based movements that make a character unique and distinct. Anitha also introduced the participants to the concept of 7 levels of tension, based on the learning methodologies of Jacques Lecoq. This enabled participants to understand different body states and how each of them could distinctly communicate certain traits. The amount of effort one needs to put into each of these states were also realised by the participants.
The next day, the participants were introduced the concept of elasticity in movement. This enabled a heightened sense of awareness to the way they were moving as well as in being able to exert a push and pull using their bodies. The body also learn to react and embody an imaginary force and create an illusion for the audience. We then extended this into an interactive embodiment with fellow practitioners where different tensions in the body communicated with one another. This way we were talking to each other through our bodies. We also added another layer of voice that created an aural experience to the visual embodiment.
My engagement with theatre practitioner Vasudev Menon was in exploring the concept of push and pull at various levels. While Dev exercised his elasticity on a vertical plane, I played it on a horizontal plane. This also introduced the idea of depth and dimension through the body. We also used some minimal sounds to foster an exchange between two bodies that were at varying physical proximities.
We then moved to embodying textures and movement of objects. What does it take to create an illusion of a flying plastic bag or a swaying curtain ? What state must the body be in and what are those details one should focus on to bring those objects alive. We then also discussed possible areas of play with such boy movements and how that can be fit into an overall performance scheme.
At the end of the day, there was joy, learning and some pain. With our muscles being flexed in new ways, we had something to complain about and sleep a bit more the next morning. Thanks to Anitha for her time and thought.
A couple of lines from the participants who attended the workshop:
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Every single moment of it, dying though I was, of pain. The one thing that made a lot of sense is the neutrality aspect that Anitha touched upon. I think I will keep it with me and consciously apply it too. - Vaishnavi Sundararajan
I sometimes don't feel actors are comfortable enough in their bodies to be comfortable in an entirely created space. It certainly initiated a different kind of awareness for me, which I hope will translate into better acting - Susan Abraham
A shot from Gossamer - Creating co-presence
Performance has always been an outcome of preparation. Traditionally, this preparation would involve rehearsal, where text was written and parts were rehearsed with the chorus, along with singing and dancing, staging dramatic text in its entirety. In the early nineteenth century, the introduction of the term mise en scène suggested that something is given physical appearance onstage that can otherwise only exist in the readers imagination. References to the term accumulated thereon and the meaning of the verb was 'to stage' and 'to transform into a stage performance'.
At the turn of the last century, where literary text ceased to be the sole basis of performance, Edward Gordon Craig noted that
"…the Art of the Theatre is neither acting nor the play, it is not scene nor dance, but it consists of all the elements of which these things are composed: action, which is the very spirit of acting; words, which are the body of the play; line and colour, which are at the very heart of the scene; rhythm, which is the very essence of dance" (Craig 1911: 138 in Fischer 2008: 185)
This introduced the concept of performance being a collage of its smallest constitutive elements - action, words, line, colour, and rhythm. The staging of these elements was then a matter of choice exercised by the director and this would create the performance artwork.
Jacques Copeau considers the text a pre existent 'mental' entity to be transformed into sensual presence through the process of mise en scène. He defines directing and staging as
"the sum of the artistic and technical processes with whose help the work complied by an author as written text is transferred from its mental and hidden state of existence into the real and present state of theatre" (Copeau 1991: 341 in Fischer 2008: 186)
The concept mise en scène has evolved over time. Fischer links the term to the idea of an event, its staging stimulating action, in a way that elements attract audience attention.
"Spectators become aware that they are affected and transformed by their experience of the movements, light, colours, sound, odours and so forth. The mise en scène can therefore be defined and described as a process that aims at the reenchantment of the world and the metamorphosis of the performer's participants" (Fischer 2008: 189)
The Gossamer Mise en scène
In attempting to devise the mise en scène for Gossamer, careful consideration of the various elements of performance, their relationships with another, the space as well the audience members played a key role in the design of the performance. The challenge was to achieve an optimal balance between the elements, that would enable a physical, mental and emotional transformation for the audience. Given that Gossamer was a bespoke experience, based on the life of audience members themselves, with the mode of address being direct, the intimacy of the event and the creation of a unique atmosphere were careful considerations from the very beginning of the development process. With audience material sourced from social media as well as through friends and family, we adopted a method of converting text to gesture as one of the first aspects of the mise en scène.
Anne Bogart in Viewpoints, addresses gesture as behavioural, those that belong to everyday life and expressive, those that express feeling, which is not otherwise directly manifest. "One could say that Behavioural Gestures are prosaic and Expressive Gestures are poetic" (Bogart 2005: 49) This was a key starting point in devising Gossamer. Content would be translated into gestures in the studio with supporting movements as well as sound-scapes and text to create the various parts of the mise en scène.
Spatial Relationship as a view point induced the range of possible distances between the elements of performance. "The distance between things on stage, especially (1) one body to another; (2) one body (or bodies) to a group of bodies; (3) the body to the architecture." (Bogart 2005: 11) The placement of the audience member within the performance was therefore a critical aspect of the mise en scène. To further foster the intimacy in the environment, we designed distinct performing spaces within the space and placed the audience member in an intimate spatial proximity that would help performers make connections with the audience at various levels. The spatial relationship also motivated audience members to move around the space, interact with performers as well as experience the event in a way that they chose to. As a performer, it made me feel emotional connections with my audience member and their reception of the piece and reactions to it constantly influenced my performance in Gossamer, enabling the feedback loop between the audience and me, in turn triggering my spontaneity during the performance.
Consideration of atmosphere
The mood and the atmosphere that the performance space would set was also an important element of the mise en scène. According to Gernot Boehme, "atmospheres constitute the spectators' first sensation on entering the auditorium and enable a very specific experience of spatiality" (Boehme in Fischer 2008: 115)
As a part of the aural mise en scène, the audience on arrival into the space were welcomed by a piece of music that was special to them in some way. This was complemented by visual elements such as the blue light and the EL wires (Electro Luminescent wires) that created an atmosphere that was magical, enchanting and welcoming at the same time.
I was particularly keen on creating powerful visuals in the performance through gesture, movement and lighting. Through the devising process, I realised the possibilities that may unfold, when the audience member also becomes a part of the mise en scène in a way that a shared space is created.
Co-Presence in Gossamer
"[The] original meaning of theatre refers to its conception as social play - A game in which everyone is a player - actors and spectators alike… The spectators are involved as co-players. In this sense the audience is the creator of the theatre. So many different participants constitute the theatrical event that its social nature cannot be lost. Theatre always produces a social community." (Hermann 1981: 19)
Max Hermann understood and propagated the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators to constitute performance. "For performance to occur, actors and spectators must assemble to interact in a specific place for a specific period of time" (Hermann in Fischer 2008: 32)
If the relationship between the audience and the performer has to shift from traditional passive spectatorship to being an active part of the performance, can the construct of the mise en scène enable this new relationship? Max Hermann mentions that "The audience's physical participation is set in motion through synaesthetic perception shaped not only by sight and sound, but by physical sensations of the entire body." (Hermann in Fischer 2008: 36) Staging proceeds the insight that the bodily co-presence is required to generate the performance. Any definition of mise en scène has to take that into consideration (Fischer 2008: 187)
The mise en scène of Gossamer integrated the audience as well as the space into the performance, enabling the bodily co presence of the performer and the audience. This intimate co-presence induces new connections that performers are able to make with the audience members, powerful enough to move them, shake them or even shock them. This co-presence escalates to an emotional level as well, when the performance is about the audience members themselves, which means that the performance will not happened if not for them. The performance material comes from the audience which is then processed into various elements of the mise en scène and presented in an environment of intimacy, creating a shared space, co presence and human connection at every level. This connection also induced physical contact during the performance, when an audience member held my hand and I kissed it- a moment of transformation was experienced. There were also moments of interaction, verbal gestures and immediate reactions from audience members through the performance that highlighted the co-presence and at the same time kept the environment of intimacy and connection. In a way, Gossamer made me understand my audience members better at multiple levels, who outside the performance space, are my good friends and colleagues.
In the event of bodily co presence inducing physical contact , the element of liminality generates transformation. "The spectators remain on the threshold for the duration of the performance. Their position is never fixed. They do not control the performance, but their influence can be felt nevertheless. The audience constantly oscillates between these various states, ultimately enabled, defined and triggered by the bodily co-presence of the actor and the spectator" (Fischer 2008: 67)
The Gossamer mise en scène was carefully designed and constructed to enable the bodily co presence, yet the way it would unfold with every experience being unique in itself, was to be realised through the process of the performance. Hermann states that in spite of clever and empirically effective staging strategies, the success of mise en scène ultimately cannot be planned; it is to be seen as an emergent phenomenon. (Hermann in Fischer 2008: 189) Bogart adds to this by saying "You cannot create results; you can only create the conditions in which something might happen" (Bogart 2001: 124)
Gossamer's mise en scène created the conditions that enabled the bodily co-presence of the actor and the spectator, which then led to transformation at various levels for all involved, inducing a mise en scène of co-presence.
Through the process of Gossamer, I have become interested in exploring the concept of co-presence that can be achieved at various levels, through mise en scène. A performance is designed with the consideration of multiple elements, the coming together of which will shape the performance and the experience of it for audience members as well as for performers.. The element of immersion and therefore the creation of shared space, changes the way the performance is received, processed and experienced. I am also keen on exploring the concept of aural mise en scène and if through aurality, co-presence can be created. With a focus on creating work through gesture, sound and movement, I am interested in a mise en scène that will liberate, transform and induce new possibilities of experiencing performance.
My first visit to the TATE Modern in London remains memorable, even today. Thanks to Tino Seghal and his team of performers.It was around 10 am on a Friday morning and as a class, we had gone to the TATE. I had no idea about what I was getting into and I dint want to do any reading before hand. I just wanted to experience it firsthand, without any expectations.
As I entered, I had this feeling that a hundred other people were entering the hall with me. I felt quite claustrophobic. The crowd however, seemed to possess a sense of purpose. They all moved the same way, towards a common place. I followed them, curious about what was happening.
Suddenly, in my head, the crowd had transformed into a mob. They kept walking towards the end of the hall after which they turned back, spread themselves wide and began a chant. A chant that was rhythmic, deep, repetitive and magical. A chant that embodied the human spirit in this technological age. The mob then started moving back in the same direction from where it originally came in.
A man, in track pants walked up to me from the mob and started talking to me about his scuba diving experience along with his brother. A few minutes later, a girl, just out of school told me a story about her ballet dance class and how that experience made her realise who she truly was.
The mob suddenly gained pace and now people in the mob were almost playing games with one another. It seemed like they were playing 'catch me if you can'. Suddenly the pace reduced once again. The mob spread out all over the hall and the rhythmic chant began again. This time the chant sounded different as the tones and ways in which the chant was done was different from the first, still magical though.
As the chant subsided, a man came to me and started telling me about his girlfriend and how he went to the bar one night and then he met another man. Suddenly he stopped the story abruptly and went away, leaving me in a curious state of what his story could have potentially been.
The mob began to play once again. This time, they started encircling people around the hall in various dramatic ways. This was interesting, since it seemed like they were making me a part of them. There were forming human chains and mini societies around people who were watching them.
Suddenly, I had this feeling that there were stories all around me. I wanted people to walk upto me and tell me their story. I also wanted to find out if they would be willing to listen to my story. I waited patiently for the next person to come to me and tell me their story. The more I waited, no one came.
Tino Sehgal's Live Art was thoroughly inspiring. There were moments of calm and chaos, certainty and surprises as well as rhythms and silences.
I could walk in when I wanted, watch them, mock them, distract them and leave, but the show would go on. Interestingly, we had the opportunity to meet one of the actors in the show and he shared with us their process and rules, that each one followed every day.
Great leanings and a whole load of processing to be done now.
(These words will hardly do any justice to what I saw and experienced. This photo will not tell you anything.) Live Art needs to be lived.
Curtains as pillars and moving in and out of it
Last week, I attended a workshop on Stage lighting, conducted by Andy Purvees at Central School. As I walked into the room, I saw four distinct areas being lit up, using a variety of lights. After a brief warm up and initiation, we were divided into groups and asked to play around with the equipment that was around in the room. Even before we knew it, art was being made.
Having lights at your disposal from day one of your rehearsal can change the way your play takes shape, significantly. The difference being, you are designing a sketch based on the light that is available, as opposed to designing light to a set pattern of moves. This just changes the way you begin to look at the work you are making. In a way, the light becomes a part of the act, a protagonist of some sort and not just a support element.
Sound was also brought into the space and now we were keeping the mood of the music and varying our rhythms of play with the light sources accordingly. This created some interesting possibilities. It's truly a luxury to be able to have your sound and light from day one of your rehearsal, but I think if you did, your work will end up being a lot different, definitely, for the better.
I've also seem to taken a lot of liking towards using other innovative light sources and bringing them on stage. This could be Light bulbs, serial lights or even candles and kerosene lamps. Lighting should be used more than just for lighting up actors and setting the mood. Lights induce new possibilities and gives us room to do more !
"The performance is possible and gains a new sense of purpose only because of the audience"
Re-creating the Shawshank experience - Photo by Creativesocialblog
Immersive or participatory theatre is about designing your performance with active participation from the audience. The audiences' presence makes the play possible. Their actions give the play a new sense of purpose.
A fortnight ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a re-creation of 'Shawshank Redemption', as part of London's Secret Cinema venture. This simply meant that I was a prisoner in Shawshank. I dressed like one and ate like one and was definitely treated that way too. The experience was questioning in many ways about how I truly felt through the experience and after its conclusion.
We were asked to come dressed in formals, and wear our long johns under our clothes. I was sent for trial, where I was convicted of kidnap and sentenced to 8 years in prison. A prison bus drove us from one location to an abandoned school a few miles away. As soon as we got down, we were mocked at, guards yelled at us in their firm tones, commanding us and treating us like dirt. However, you know that everything you are going through is an act and you know for sure that you are safe. It's that willing suspension of disbelief that makes it or breaks it for you. At this juncture in life, I don't think I will ever be convicted for kidnap in reality. This was my chance to live a second life, though you may not really want to.
We were sent into a common hallway, where we changed and everything was administered in a strict drill sort of fashion. We were led to our bunks, where prisoners also offered to sneak in beer and other eatables. Dinner followed, where we were given steel plates and served food in a rather harsh manner. A whole spoon full of baked beans was shoved into my mouth, against my liking. (I am allergic to baked beans, but the guards dint care) The atmosphere set was scary, strict and violent.Well, that's how jails are, at least from what we know of it from the movies we see. We were taken to recreation rooms, where I sketched and also made wax candles. Of course I was inducted into the library, where the jail warden pushed out books from all rows and it was my job to rearrange the whole bit. I did have my revenge. I stole the warden's shoes, as it happens in the movie !
We were then taken to the medical room and asked to consume some pills. The nurses at the counter refused to tell us what the pill was and almost forced us to take it. I took the pill, but did not swallow it and spat it out as soon as I left the room. At that precise moment, I felt like I was really a prisoner, breaking the rules and being sneaky. It was a realization of another sort. Was I really feeling violated and manipulated at that moment? Was my life really in someone else's hands? Was I really in jail ? Do I ever want to be in jail and be put through such treatment ?
I also broke the rules, where I disobeyed the guards and created chaos. I was literally pushing boundaries and testing their patience. I know that if it were all real, I'd maybe be shot down by now, but it was rather interesting to see and feel the tension of the environment and be part of it.
We also got to watch Shawshank Redemption at the end of it, to top it all. Plenty of beer was served and we were finally released into the real world !
Over the last three months, I have found great joy in clicking actors during performance. Looking at a performance through the lens is a very different experience. It's almost as if you frame what you want to see. The complaint however is that I am missing the bigger picture. The photos however tell the story, for now and forever. Here is a collection of photos of performers from the Advanced Theatre Practice at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. A big thank you to all of them, without whom these photos would have never happened.
"A starting point is a spring board you take off from to land on a platform of possibilities"
Often, we are in search of the Big Idea that will give us the significant edge. Let us for a minute think about the combined power of multiple ideas and what that means.
In devising new work, starting points are critical. Not that they necessarily dictate how your work shapes up, but they give you an interesting direction by which new content may be generated. A starting point can be just about anything. It can be a word, an image, an event, a person or simply what's in front of you or outside the window. If your starting point is intangible or of the past, think about it, deeply. If it is tangible and of the present and available with you or near you,observe it, keenly.
In the process of observation or thought, it is important to be able to document in detail what you are going through. Once documented, make informed choices about priorities within the set of documented ideas, events and thoughts. An important aspect hereon is the conversion of thought to action. A series of such constructed actions by multiple members will open up a variety of ideas. The complementing or contrasting themes that emerge between team members can be explored to create interesting narratives or sketches.
In a recent workshop with Head of a Woman, a London based international theatre collective, my starting point was established as a date. I had to detail out the events of a certain 21st of October in 2002. Coincidentally, it was the year I started pursuing theatre and in all probability, I would have been rehearsing my one line part in Twelfth Night. Detailing out this day set the base for my work. The performance at the end of the week long workshop had nothing to do with 21st October, but the starting point defined and directed the work in a particular direction. We ended up devising a promenade theatre piece that was a game in which the actors alone knew the rules.
A different starting point every week and content generated in this direction will essentially leave you with a pile of material to choose from and play around with. Once you get started, you will need to couple your working methods along with certain performance directives. These are tools that will enhance your work and enable you to look at your work differently. A directive can be anything from tossing a coin to make decisions or to look at news paper images and relate your work to that.
Devising is interesting because it lets performers think about themselves, their lives and their actions. People on stage are no more merely giving away lines from a script they recently got familiar with, but living a moment that they created with a certain objective. This raises the stakes, for all those involved, be it the audience or the performer.Devised work ends up being more precious for the performers, since they made every bit of it, from scratch - from that very word - 'starting point'.
Being a student of Drama is not just about wearing black and learning lines. It’s an attitude - to seek, imbibe and experiment, within ourselves and with what’s around us. There are ideas and stories out there, in every breath and step of ours. We just have to look to find them. Find, capture and embrace them, and before you know, Drama begins.
The word Drama comes from the Greek word Dran, which is to do. Looking becomes doing, when done actively. I begin my drama process, by looking and absorbing the environment, the people in it, the space I am in, the objects around me, the sounds I can hear and everything else that I can feel. This is my inspiration to start creating new work. When this is done with a team, you have ideas that you can play with, develop and craft. This is the beginning of collaborative working.
Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is one of the oldest drama schools in London, started in 1906. Its special strength, unique in the sector, lies in a combination of first-rate practical training and production, with a highly ranked programme of research - research aimed at the cutting edge of new performance practice. Affiliated to the University of London, Central School offers dedicated drama programmes in the field of Advanced Theatre Practice, Movement Studies, Voice Studies, Applied Theatre, Acting, Actor Training Scenography, Creative Producing , Writing and Performance based research.
Studying drama is focused on process as opposed to outcomes. We are given guidelines as opposed to instructions. We are encouraged to build and shape our ideas, given that there is no such thing as a bad idea. Professors are practitioners who continue to create and devise work across the world, thereby constantly widening the scope of learning through doing. Studying with collaborators from various cultures pushes you to think afresh, and do what’s different. On the course, we currently have Circus Acrobats, Opera Singers, Ballet Dancers, Lighting Designers, Art Critics, Playwrights, Directors, Actors, Stand-up comedians and Marketing Professionals as students. This environment opens up possibilities and helps us push boundaries. In doing so, new work emerges.
Studying in London is a great opportunity to watch a variety of drama, from classics to west end musicals to performance art. There are shows in which we are passive spectators to plays in which we become active participants. There are classical performances that take you to another world and there are immersive fringe shows that involve you in a new reality. This plays a part in shaping our understanding about possibilities in Drama, with drama. Through the course, we also have the opportunity to interact with artists making these shows. This gives us an understanding of working methodologies and development processes used by specific companies to devise and develop work. Apart from drama practitioners, we also get to interact with Puppeteers, designers and artists who collaborate to create inter-disciplinary work.
Through the year, students are encouraged to collaborate with other courses to enhance work content, style and design. The school comes equipped with Auditoriums, Drama Studios, Lighting and sound booths, Costume design and execution labs, set construction garages and other digital equipment that may be needed for performance. In short, the school is fully equipped in terms of drama related infrastructure. An entire theatre and allied art focussed library offers dedicated books, journals and other material that contributes to widening our areas of learning.
The school offers under graduate and post graduate programmes with both full time and part time possibilities. The course begins in September-October every year and applications open in January. The admission process happens in two stages, starting with a written application, followed by a creative audition. The school also has the option of conducting auditions over video for International students.
In this digital age, we can access information virtually by just exercising our fingertips. So what makes drama different? Drama is not information. It's an experience. Drama is not about place. It's about space and shaping it, using your body, imagination and time. Drama is live and alive. It is about that moment. It is that medium when repeated or recreated, changes. It is about you, what you believe in, what you can change and what you can create. It can transport you, move you, mould you, shake you up or show you what’s really real. That’s the power of drama. Let's live it.
This article was published in The Hindu, Education Plus. To read it, click here
There are objects all around us. Some to use, some to look at, some to be with, some to take help from and some to give away. From furniture to utensils, toys to artifacts, clocks to mobile devices, clothes to shoes to hats and more - Objects complete us in multiple ways. We invest time, energy and money using the many objects we do. Objects come into our lives, serve their duties and disappear. How would it be if these lifeless objects that are so intrinsic to over lives come alive?
"The only rule in puppetry is to bring to life inanimate objects" (Francis in Ganesh Ram: 11.11.2012). The thought of possessing the power to 'bring to life' is fascinating. The magic of making anything and everything speak, move, walk and talk seems like a bestowed boon of sorts, waiting to be explored and experimented with. Mark Down, Puppeteer from Blind Summit, focuses on breath and its importance in completing the illusion for audiences through puppetry. Breath and bringing to life go hand in hand. Neither can exist without the other. Though they complement each other, they are essentially one.
"'Breath is the engine of all emotion"(Down, 2012). All living things; plants, animals and humans breathe. They breathe to exist and to serve a purpose. A purpose that ensures the status quo. Though breathing is involuntary, it can be controlled. A controlled breath has the power to bring to life objects that can therefore influence. This brings alive characters, plots, stories and situations that transport us into another world, shaping our imagination and creating unique experiences using space, form, rhythm and time. That is what puppetry can deliver. An experience that uses the audience's imagination to construct a new reality. Down also explains that Puppets coming to life is based on four distinct breath oriented functions.
"Inhale. Suspend. Exhale. Suspend. Most action occurs on the suspended in-breath, or if you prefer in the controlled exhale: speaking, signalling, starting to walk. The in-breath is literally the inspiration for action, or the intention. The exhale acts as brakes for the movement, and the suspended out-breath is when we assess the action and the results. When the breath pauses, the action is suspended. The scene pauses, but it does not stop."(Down, 2011)
The Hindu Yogi science of breath qualifies life as a series of breaths. A toddler inhales the very first life inducing breath and releases it in an long wail while life ends for the aged in an faint gasp, when they cease to breathe. Life and death are both an action and function of breath. Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppetry relates this aspect to acting, puppetry and theatre. "An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life." (Kohler, 2011)
According to Penny Francis, 'The term puppetry denotes the act of bringing to imagined life inert figures and forms (representational or abstract) for a ritual or theatrical purpose - for a performance'. (Francis, 2012: 5). To enable that imagination successfully, an audience have to see, hear and feel a puppet breathe, move, communicate and therefore live. This life is bestowed on a puppet by its operator, the puppeteer. The puppeteer is truly the mother of a puppet, feeding it and nourishing it to stay alive.
''The puppet is an entity which absorbs its operator's energy and is thereby able to convince the spectator of its vitality. It is a matter of transferred, not duplicated kinesthetics. If the puppeteer is projected 'into' the puppet character, it cannot but be the cynosure, it cannot make a wrong gesture; it cannot produce the wrong voice.''(Francis, 2012:28)
In the case of 'hands on' or 'hands in' puppetry, a medium where the puppeteer is in contact with the puppet's body in some form or the other, the puppeteer is breathing with different parts of his body to enable life in the puppet and make this life visible to audiences. Nikki Tilroe terms this as 'Muscle respiration' and it being a critical technique to create an illusion of life in a puppet. (Tilroe, 1988: 18-19) Based on the puppet, its form, size, shape and desired attitude, the puppeteer alters his breathing speeds, rhythm, size and form to communicate the story and create the illusion of life, motivating the audience to suspend their disbelief. Basil Jones, co-founder of handspring puppet company believes that breath is a crucial indication of the puppet's life on stage.
" The audience can see and feel you breathing and therefore see the puppet living. The rhythm and the a-rhythm of the breath and the way it changes is a very important emotional indicator as to the thoughts and the feeling of the puppet being manipulated." (Jones, 2011)
Jacques Lecoq believed that every emotion can be achieved with a push or a pull action. "I push or I pull. I push or pull myself. I am pushed or pulled."(Lecoq, 2006: 22) Breathing functions similarly. A push or a pull in breathing can communicate different emotional responses. Rhythm in the simultaneous push & pull of breath is central to perceiving the state of the puppet. "Shock and surprise for instance are achieved by the inhale action at different speeds."(Tilroe, 1988: 19) The emotions pain and exhaustion can be achieved through an exhale of the breath. Emotions such as joy and sorrow can be achieved with both inhale & exhale. However, the way a puppet moves in relation to the breath is also important in fulfilling the desired illusion. A puppet would mostly move backward to portray shock and move forward for exhaustion, while it could move back and forth for joy.
In bringing a puppet to life, the role of the puppeteer and the relationship with the puppet is vital in making effective performance. Tadeusz Kantor, a visionary Polish theatre-maker and designer propagated that "There must be a very close, almost biological symbiosis between an actor and an object. They cannot be separated. In the simplest case, the actor must attempt to do everything for the OBJECT to stay visible, in the most radical case the actor and the object must become one." He calls this state a BIO-OBJECT. (Kantor,1993: 240 in Francis, 2012: 20). Francis adds yet another dimension by involving the audience into the equation and introducing a relationship that is shared between the puppet, the puppeteer and the audience. "A delicate triangle of projected energy and response from the puppeteer through the object to the audience has to be formed, but is rarely sustainable for long." (Francis, 2012: 18)
This triangle of energy also indicates a shift in focus of the viewer from puppet, to puppeteer to the technique and back to the puppet. "This changing focus is evidence of an alternating belief and un belief in the puppet's autonomous existence. This condition has no scientific label that I can find, but has been described (poetically) as the 'Opalisation effect' (Jurowski, 1988: 41-42) and (confusingly) as 'double vision' (Tillis, 1992: 59). Probably the most accurate word 'oscillation', is used by TA Green and WJ Pepicello (Green, 1983: 157)"(Francis, 2012: 21) To the initiated, the confluence of the puppet, puppeteer and the technique will create the illusion. To the uninitiated, the invisible equation will still facilitate illusion, but they may not be in a position to appreciate the aspects at play.
In National Theatre's War Horse by Handspring puppetry, life sized horses are represented using puppets. Three puppeteers, one playing the face and neck of the horse, the other the heart and fore limbs and the third playing the hind limbs and tail, together create the illusion of the horse breathing, moving and reacting to stimuli through the performance. This demands harmonious coordination between the various puppeteers, including breath, movement, rhythm and synchronised reactions that together create the bigger picture for the audience as well as for other members in the performance. Miniscule movements of the horse, the way its body twitches, the up and down action of the body indicative of breath, is clearly visible even from the last rows of the performance auditorium. This is the precision that can be achieved with puppetry. Little did one know that cane and fabric bunched together artistically could come alive as war horses, puppeteered diligently.
As a medium, puppetry also offers the unique advantage of portraying situations that are beyond human reach in a performing scenario. Explicit Murder, brutality and other grotesque realities that may be difficult to portray using one's own body, may apply puppetry techniques to show and soften the impact that the performance may render to audience sets. Dancer and performer Dan Hurlin in the context of comparing dance and puppetry says "While Dance pushes the body to its limits, puppetry can explore what lies beyond those limits." (Hurlin in Animated Bodies, 2009: 7)
In essence, Breath and therefore breathing is a starting point to almost any form of creative practice that one chooses to undertake. Puppetry uses the operators breath and the object strives to make it its own and therefore comes to life. The human therefore is the technology that the puppet employs to spring to life. As actors or performers, our own breath, its controlled rhythm, size and variation sets our energy levels on stage and outside of it. Apart from contributing to successful artistic creation, breath and its control can be critical starting points in training for personality development, communication skills and voice practices too. Breath is that engine that runs our body, mind and what the combination of body and mind can achieve.
What is the difference between being a performer and an actor ?
A performer performs and an actor acts. This would mean the former is a more truthful portaryal of what one feels and what one one believes in. Acting however, is mostly imitation. You create impulse or stimuli that you want to be influenced by and therefore respond to them in a way that you are motivated to.
Performance is about honouring your own beliefs and your own stimuli that is predominantly intrinsic. When a musician is creating music with his violin, you dont say “he’s a great actor”, but you say “he’s a good performer”
The same would apply to a dancer, a Circus acrobat, a magician and a puppeteer. Over the last 3 months, I have come to realise the power of being a performer over being an actor. Being a performer is more gratifying. It feels good when Aruna plays Aruna on stage as opposed to playing Martha or Bettie or Olivia.
Playing creatively with what comes naturally to you is a basic start to making performance. This does not mean that you don’t learn new things. For example, if performers decide to invest in a new skill through training, that becomes a life skill more than just a skill for a particular show. Performers can learn to Juggle or skate, and then their acquired skills are displayed when they’re performing This way, you are not acting like you are skating, because that’s just not possible.
I always believed that I was a hopeless actor. However, over the last 3 months, I seem to develop a strange confidence of being a performer, where I play with material that’s mine. Material that i can personally connect with. Material from my own life – Personal Material.
This does not mean that we cannot approach adaptations or scripts that already exist. We just have to approach them in a slightly different manner. Focus on what the play means to you as opposed to what it generally means. Creating performance also inspires you to make original work that’s inspired by what you have seen and experienced. A sense of attachment comes through when performers create work that has their personal stamp on it.
I am looking forward to create performance that is devised, original and involves personal material, stories and experiences.
Let’s see how and where this goes !