This post is the second part of my reflections after reading Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Persistence: Keep at it, keep at it, keep at it
We persist most when we are serious about something. Gilbert encourages us to take vows with our creative lives. It’s a kind of commitment. While we’re at it, we cannot be sure that it will be a breeze. This is where Gilbert talks about the Shit Sandwich. We’ve all had to deal with the shit Sandwich now and then, the so called grunt and the so called rejections. It’s part of the process.
She urges creative practitioners to take up day jobs in order to support themselves financially to be ale to continue their creative line of work. It’s going to take us time to be able to make a living out of our creative lives. Gilbert herself admits she did not quit her job until she had written and published four books, many of which even won national awards.
Here’s where I tend to think about it differently. I’d say, yes get a day job, but try and get it in an allied field of your work. This I believe can stimulate your creative life far more than a completely unrelated job that could physically drain you out.
Time is a very significant contributor in this whole process of creative living. People generally tell me that the work will change with time, for the better. Gilbert also illustrates that the audience will change over time for the better. The same person, who did not connect with your work four years ago, might suddenly find a new way to look at your work and like it very much. So keeping at it is the only way to stay in the game.
Trust: You’re not in it alone
Do you love what you do?
Do you believe that what you do loves you back?
This mutual love and trust is what is going to keep one’s creative spirit alive. Sometimes when we’re stuck somewhere, when we feel like an idea is just not moving forward, we get this feeling that creativity is pissed off with us. We end up blaming our creative paths for how bad our lives are turning out.
Two years ago, I was devising a play as a collaboration with a Lithuanian artist. One week before the show, we had no idea where the show was headed. We had created all these bits and pieces of work, but we had no idea how it was all going to come together. We were nervous and also blamed the devising process for letting us down. However, we just kept at it and rehearsed the bits that we had put together. And as we were doing that, slowly a narrative emerged and before we knew, we were able to see patterns between the various sketches that we had put together. Though we blamed the process, we just kept at it till the end and that’s what finally helped us. We trusted it and it decided to reciprocate.
Gilbert then questions how seriously one should take themselves and their work. Like most creative practitioners, I’ve also been told that real art comes from a space of suffering. Gilbert urges us to embrace what she calls the Trickster energy vs. the Martyr energy. This is captured beautifully in these two lines
Martyr says: “the world can never be solved”
Trickster says: “Perhaps not… but it can be gamed”
Sometimes, I am also left with this feeling that I take my work too seriously. But here’s where I am going to try and embrace the trickster energy a bit to see how it shapes my work going forward. This also comes down to style, I guess. If my style is not funny, then can it be playful?
I also feel that creative practitioners tend to be a bit too possessive about their work so much so that a full stop being removed can change the very nature and intent of the piece. Gilbert asks us to think about this in the light of change vs. opportunity. And what you would pick!
I’ve had a lot of trouble changing, editing my theatre pieces. When you look at it with a delete button in hand, everything feels important. A performance of mine called Re:play was part of the Kala Ghoda Festival a few years ago. Owing to time restrictions, we had to keep the performance to under 60 minutes, when it was actually 75 minutes long. 15 minutes of edit seemed like a lot of getting rid of. But I had to let go. And I felt that at the end of it, it was not as bad as I imagined it to be. The audience response was very supportive and I also felt a great level of engagement with the performance that evening.
Divinity: It will go around and come around
When the work travels, it morphs, adapts, changes and when it comes back, you look at it and smile. For the core has remained unchanged, unshaken. It’s still yours in some way and every way.
Thanks Elizabeth Gilbert for sharing your life story and inspirations. Thank you for Big Magic.
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
"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 !
Breathing life into Objects
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.
Performance and what it means
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 !
Which is right ? Left or right ?
When you look at the title of this post, you could be thinking that i am talking about socialism vs. capitalism. If you look at the image on this post, you are right in thinking about how Perseus took Medusa’s life without looking her in the eye. However, both the title and the image are purely symbolic. How you perceive this is upto you and that depends on whether you use your right or what’s left.
When i was in school, i attended a workshop on excellence, and how excellence can be learnt and therefore achieved – using the brain in a way that we could possibly control it. Biology classes had taught us the anatomy of brain mapping which were basically layers of the cerebrum, cerebellum and medulla. The front of our brain (Cerebrum) is responsible for certain functions like movement, temperature,reasoning, emotion, hearing etc. among others and likewise the other parts of the brain too, are in charge of other things.
Apart from the biological classification, i was soon learning about a more qualitative division of the brain, namely the right and the left. The right brain is our creative craving while the left brain is our logical reasoning. At these ‘excellence’ classes, i was now being taught how i must control my brain. The tutor told me to place my fingers beneath my nose and examine my breath and breathing patterns. After about 30 seconds, i jumped up and almost yelled ” Something is wrong with me ! Air is coming out of only one nostril “. There were giggles in the room. I knew there was something wrong. I was waiting for class to get done, run up to mom and tell her that i should be admitted immediately. The person next to me suddenly nudged me and said ” Me too – one nose”
Soon, there was a lot of excitement in the room, since most of the students had discovered that air gets out only through one nostril while breathing out. The tutor then tells us that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain, the left of the body. This means that if i can feel air coming out through my left nostril, means my right brain is alive and in control. Therefore i am going to be at my creative best, coming up with great poetry, winning prizes for creative writing, so on and so forth. When i am breathing through my right nostril, i could be a math genius, or a scientist making the best discoveries.
The tutor then told us that he would teach us to control our brain and therefore the way we function and operate. So immediately, a question came to my mind. It was like i had to decide then about which side of my brain i wanted to make permanent. Did i want to lead a life inside a lab, smelling chemicals, solving puzzles and experimenting with gadgets or did i want to rest under a tree with a nice book in my hand, writing some stories, making some movies, cracking jokes and having fun? Just as i was thinking about all this, another thought occurred to me. Which side of my brain was i exactly using at that point ? Wouldn’t that influence my decisions about which side i wanted to make permanent ? I just froze.
The tutor then explained to us that the body goes through a natural cycle of shifting from right to left brain, which means, automatically my breathing shifts from my right to the left nostril periodically. He said, we could control this through a technique called Body Yawning. It was a technique where you closed your eyes, held your breath, lifted your arms above your head and stretched out with your palms interlocked into one another and then thought within your head that you want to move from left to right or right to left. Then you breathe out in a slightly forceful fashion and that’s it ! you’ve changed your brain side. And trust me ! It worked. I just shifted it from one side to another.
The rest of the day, i spent shifting between my right and left, between my creative and practical, between my artistic and logical and i thought i could now be an Einstein as well as Shakespeare, both at the same time. I started doing better, both academically and creatively. I remember how i used to stretch out before a math exam and made sure i was breathing through my right nostril and when it was an english exam, i would do it the other way.
Eventually, life moved on and there were no more excellence classes to go to. That does not mean that i achieved it already. Soon i really forgot about body yawning and about controlling my brain. At office, in Daimler, filled with engineers, i would be called creative and when i came for drama rehearsals, people told me i was good at marketing and managing accounts. Hah ! So much for growing up learning to control your brain. These days i really dont care about being left or right brained. I just go about doing my stuff, but what i do consciously is space things out, over time, may be a couple of hours, or sometimes many days. This means that i am definitely allowing both parts of my brain to look at the what i am doing at different points in time. I know this has worked for sure, because people have told me that consistency seems to be missing in the eventual outcome. That explains it doesn’t it ?
However, i tell my self that the guy who exclaimed about the consistency issues was just using his left brain at that point in time. If not he would have said, i like the way this thing is broken up and the fact that it’s not monotonous. These surprises are healthy Of course, what you think of what someone does or delivers also has to do with situation cues, what you had for breakfast, your state of being and what you think you need to achieve in the next 24 hours among many other factors, including the weather.
This is precisely why there are two sides to most things. There is a third dimension as well, which is of course a combination of the left and right. However, this is not what i call centre. This is because i am not sure if one knows what is the mix of both brains being used and therefore if something is more logical than it is artistic or vice-versa. So i think the term “Using your head” would apply quite aptly. It would apply to most things though and we would be closer to excellence if we did that consistently and yet randomly !
I had a boss who used to always say “Life is about Common sense. Everything, including Branding, Accounting, Media, strategy, R & D was all common sense”. I used to wonder if common sense was creative or if it was logical. Somehow common sense seemed like what was totally obvious. If you dint know it, you would either be dumb or stupid. So whichever side of the brain enables you, you had to have this. Let’s say a fire needs to be put out. You have a right brainer and a left brainer. Hand them each a bucket of water and what would they do ? I can quite confidently say that both these people would use it to put out the fire. I am sure neither of them would use that to quench their thirst at that point in time.
This goes to say that there are certain things that are sort of universal to the brain like reaction, reflex etc, which are more biological in nature. Again this can vary between individuals in terms of the extent and depth of the actions. Using the left or right side of the brain is a process element of how the outcome is delivered as opposed to the outcome itself being delivered. Each of us can be as right as we can be left and this depends on our choices and of course our actions.
I wont believe the one who tells me that he’s not creative and at the same time, i wont believe the one who tells me he’s intelligent. Left or right, believe that both are right for you, at the right time and at the right place. This feels like a no brainer now !