I’m going to write a bit about bodies in performance. Being a deeply self conscious person I’ve never been at ease with my body as a performer. As a wee young lad I went to a performing arts school on a Saturday and the hour of dance every week was a painful nightmare. I was shit, but I also really, really, hated looking stupid. A dangerous combination.
On the second day at Performer’s Playground we did a Lecoq movement exercise where we moved imaginary trays holding teapots around our bodies, being careful not to spill them. As my limbs were flailing around and I was scanning other people in an attempt to copy them, I realised that instead of plunging into the familiar abyss of self loathing, I was able to go against my habit and just enjoy the movement exercise. I was able to come to terms with the fact that there is some kind of disconnect between my brain and my body and that I find it difficult to recreate even simple movements accurately. It’s only an exercise. And this perceived weakness may turn out to be something I can use to get comedy out of. Celebrate your mistakes.
Through Alice’s movement exercises you are given the opportunity to be present in your body and play and discover. Because of the amount of time spent and the atmosphere in the room I’ve quickly become at ease jumping around and twirling about like a knobhead trying to discover something elusive.
Some exercises are focused towards you simply finding the pleasure to move. One, for example, has us walking around the room and then only one person is allowed to move, in what ever way they choose, the only rule is when that person stops, someone else must take over- there can be no dead time. This reminds you that you should be ready and waiting and wanting to move and when you do move you are free to do whatever you like. And even though everyone is watching you, you are free to move in the space and dick about how ever you want, and if you want you are free to care or not care about anyone’s judgement.
At University I remember taking part in an exercise where we were asked to walk as if we were the colour blue or the year 1945. Inwardly I said ‘Fuck Off’. Now , around 10 years later I’m being asked to move around the room as if I am tar and inwardly I say nothing, I just do. And by doing and following impulse I get closer to that pure state of being rather than stuttering about and worrying about looking like an idiot or trying to get it right. I don’t know whether this is because I have become less self-conscious or because of the difference in approach of the teacher- I suspect a bit of both. Now I’m becoming more aware of myself as a body in space and how that body is perceived and read.
This brings us to John Wright’s tension states. These exercises are about playing a level of tension in the body so it reads to the audience as a psychological state that is affecting your movement. Being in your head recalling how your body moved when you were mortalled that one New Year’s Eve, in my opinion, is not as effective or fun as when you are playing a game that your body is made out of tar. Your mind is focused on the game, which effects every movement and gesture and your text sits on top of it, your voice naturally effected by that image. This is as much about any type of theatre than it is about comedy or clowning.
Tension states are an alternative to the sacred psychology of character that modern acting seems to fetishise. Why this resonates with me can partly be traced back to a moment in another workshop on a different course. I played a scene where I thought that because I was feeling emotions and being vulnerable that meant I played the scene beautifully. But when we got feedback the director just said we needed to look at the ending- I was eagerly awaiting praise but got nothing. I was pissed off because I thought my beautiful exquisite work had been ignored and that it was everyone else’s fault but the truth is the emotions I was feeling didn’t read to the audience. If what you are playing isn’t clear then it doesn’t matter what emotions you’re feeling. This is one reason that neutral mask/ larval mask are so invaluable.
In neutral mask we aim for neutrality of movement. One exercise sees a solo performer in neutral mask run along, late on his/her way to say goodbye to a friend who is setting off on a voyage by boat, never to return. We imagine this scene is pre-internet/telephone so the friends will never meet again. The parting is not desperately sad but is final. I found this exercise, and others, incredibly eye opening. Every small movement is imbued with meaning. When I did the exercise, I ran along, and spotted the person on the boat, the person spotted me, I waved, then when I stopped waving everyone burst out laughing. I had no idea why. I turned around and walked back off stage as the exercise demanded and people continued laughing. The audience had read into my body language that when I stopped waving I was pissed off and when I walked away I was sulking.
I had next to no experience with mask work before now and had no idea how eye-opening it would be. These exercises force you to be aware of the image you are creating on stage with your body and you realise how every tiny gesture and movement is imbued with meaning.
Why is that So Funny? by John Wright