Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Look Back at First Semester

It's hard to believe that it's the last week of my first semester of graduate school. I know it's been a while since I last updated. I came to realize as the semester went on that part of what makes my program work is that everything is a surprise. The faculty work very diligently to lead the class into each lesson seamlessly without giving anything away in advance. It creates an atmosphere of discovery and adventure. By openly blogging about our creation prompts and lessons I felt like I could potentially reveal too much to others that might venture to take this program.

So I'm working out how best to record my adventures without perhaps giving too much away. I'd love to do a recap for myself though!  This first semester starts with nature. We begin our exploration of the physical body through the neutral mask. This is a Lecoq technique with actual leather masks. It has a lot of similarities with Alexander technique. Finding a neutral stance, and learning your bad habits so you can put less stress on your body. By finding neutral it becomes more apparent when the performer makes a conscious choice to change their physicality, and that's the basis for good character work.

We took our neutral mask through nature. Starting in the ocean, landing on the shore, seeing the edge of a forest, entering the forest, traversing through the forest over obstacles, exiting the forest to reach a field, seeing a mountain, climbing the mountain, peaking and seeing over the edge, coming down the mountain (in various forms), coming to a river, crossing the river, entering tall grass, finding a desert, watching the sun set and the stars come out, then exiting. A long journey! The greatest lesson in the neutral mask through this journey is how to see. When you, as the performer, see what is ahead you allow the audience to see. This is the basis for everything we covered this semester. How does a performer create space. By making sure the mask (aka your face because eventually the mask comes off) faces out, and taking the time to make the gaze specific to the coming space, a performer can create the world before it is entered into. The eyes must always be out and seen.

Throughout this process the faculty was determined that we would be as specific and realistic as possible. We took a trip to the ocean and practiced turning around and seeing it for the first time. Where was your eye drawn? How did your breath change? What was the measure of time it took to see it all?  We also practiced entering and exiting water of different heights. Dry sand to wet sand to shallow water to current catching to waist deep and then shoulders deep. How does the tide move your body? There was so much specificity to be learned.  When we returned to the classroom it was our job to create this same physicality without set or props. Gaze, breath, and physicality. We practiced by breaking the process into steps. Walking on sand, the grabbing of the toes, and then an incremental walk into the water and the difference in weight distribution.

When we'd moved on from the original journey of the neutral mask we took it on different adventures. We did the same journey but called 'Cataclysms' where in each step something big changes the landscape. There was a hurricane in the ocean, a fire in the forest, an avalanche of rocks on the mountain, a volcanic explosion when you reached the top that carried you off, rapids in the river, a tornado in the grass, and a sandstorm in the dessert. How does the physicality change? And how do you keep your face completely neutral through these when not wearing the neutral mask? That was definitely the hardest part. The mask is always neutral, and it teaches you that even after it is gone, your mask should remain neutral too. The facial neutrality allows an audience to stop focusing on that area of the body for clues to how they should respond. Instead it redirects focus to the rest of the body and allows the whole to tell a story. So whenever you're traveling through the cataclysms you have to show a a change in space with your body, but not your face.

Another difficult skill to master is that the story is told by traversing space. It doesn't need to be a struggle. It can be very indulgent and uninteresting to watch a body struggle though space. Climbing the mountain even in an avalanche need not be difficult, because the neutral mask can only move forward. There is no thinking that needs to happen. You can search for the next foothold, but you can only do so if you can do it un-intellectually. Fun, right?  The other challenge was how to recycle space. These journeys have to feel like they're outside of the room you're performing in, and performances often happen in small enclosed spaces. So without a proscenium to help you, how can you continue to cross the same space but make it look different every time?

We incorporate the neutral mask in everything. From there we traveled through different bodies of water. Water seeping from rocks inside a cave, sweating until dripping, then the drips trickle into a creek which becomes a stream which became a river. The river then had a dam which led to a waterfall which led to a larger river with rushing rapids that eventually led to the ocean. In these exercises we put our bodies in the space not as if we ourselves were in the water--but as if we were water itself.  We tackled the elements. We became fire in all its different forms (ash, smoke, spark, burning), and air (hurricane/tornado force, gentle breeze, kite flying weather), and earth (mud, dirt, trees). In each of these forms we started with the breath of the element, and then the gaze. We found the physicality from these and as we physically became them we allowed our breath to create the voice we would use and then improvised language.

This spawned one of my personal favorite creations this semester (spoiler alert: the awkward party). My group decided to be 12 year olds having their first boy girl party and all the awkwardness that comes with greeting parents, being alone in a room with no chaperone, and playing a game of twister. It was fascinating creating scenes where elements inspired characters, but we used those elements to show our interactions. So air can stoke a fire to be bigger, fire can burn earth or earth can put out a fire. Water can put out a fire, or fire can boil water. So many choices!  Suffice to say that everyone thought our party was incredibly awkward once all the elements ended up close together on a twister mat. I should mention this was at the same time that we were practicing 'clocking' in Jeu (Play). Clocking is when a performer turns their mask (face) out to the audience. So you're performing an action as if it's normal and then you face forward. This reads as a comment on the action. The comment is up to the performer. We ended our party with all of us in awkward positions on the mat and then turning to clock the audience, allowing them to feel part of it.

Jeu was a class that took me awhile to get the hang of (actually I'm not sure I ever did get the hang of it), but once I got going it was incredibly freeing. This class allowed us to explore body physicality through games. A lot of class we would put two people in the middle and they would start doing abstract movements until a game was established (even if the game was something as silly as I touch your foot and then you touch mine, or as intricate as basketball) and then once the audience could say what the game was the performers would abstract it again until a new game was formed. In this game the challenge was to try not to necessarily play a real game, and to try and create a relationship with your partner where no one person was leading. So it couldn't be a switch off between who would create the next game. Through breath and listening and repetition of movements the duo would decide simultaneously that they had the next game. Difficult to master but easier the more you do it!

We also played structured games. We played serious games of imaginary tennis with the only goal being to match what your partner was doing so you were playing at the same level. We played a game where you and your partner had to keep the same amount of space between you. So if one person moved forward the other had to move back, same with side to side motion. And if there was a mistake made that changed the space then you had to agree on the new space between you and play that game instead. We played a game where you had to create an object with your hands in space, play with that object until the audience could name it, pass that exact object to another person in the circle who played with it in the same way, and then they had to reshape that object into something else and do the same thing.

All of these games require you to not think. Thinking is the death of play. We played a game of who could die bigger. The weapons would change, but one person would be killed by another, then come back to life and kill the person who killed them, who would come back to life and it would go in a circle endlessly until it felt like the death was as big as it could possibly be.  This class was sometimes difficult in the beginning because each time a new pair started a new game it felt as if the rules changed. I soon realized that the point of the class was that there was no rules at all and that doing something as big as possible was really the name of every game. Take risks, fail big, don't think.

This all feeds into our improvisation classes. In improv we often practice our next step of the neutral mask. We went from elements to colors to paintings to pictures to music and we're finishing the semester with animals. Improv is our opportunity to explore the physicality of these and discover how to perform them with a universal language. How can I be the color blue and have the audience know I'm the color blue? What is the dynamic of the color blue? The rhythm? The breath? How long does it last? What shade is it? A class like Jeu can really free up your body to tackle these questions. I once worked for one week trying to be a picture of a multicolor carpet in a Vegas casino. The script I wrote for this said, "Wa wa waaaa wow wowee woah winding willowy watermelon wildebeasts Welcome!"  And that was normal.

In movement analysis we worked on different 'attitudes'. These are movements working with fixed point. Creating a stick in space, grabbing it, shifting it from horizontal to vertical, and back again. How do you release in a way that the audience believes you don't still have it? Can you leave it in space with your gaze even if your hand isn't touching it? Of course to get there we practiced throwing around real sticks a lot. Can you throw and catch silently? How do you cushion a blow?  We moved imaginary tables and set them. We learned to juggle and do plate tricks. We became different forms of light (starlight, moonlight, sunlight, sun through trees) and then said Shakespeare with our movements. We practiced seeing and climbing walls. We became different materials with our bodies. How does honey leave a jar? How does it land on a new surface? Can your body become the consistency of honey even though you have bones and joints and fingers?

Mostly what we learned this semester is that having bones and joints and fingers and arms and legs makes being other things that aren't human very very difficult. But eventually in all of these explorations we dial back the material/color/element/picture and put the physicality in our bodies as human. Maybe you're 50/50. Or maybe you're 80% one and only 20% the other. Where does the human body take over? When does language become necessary?

I've really enjoyed leaving out language this semester. I thought it would be difficult since I've had a career in popular theatre. This means reciting a script first and physicality last. But this has been such an amazing experience to flip what I know on its head. When the physicality is focused on, it can inform the voice, and the words aren't necessary unless the body can't tell the story alone. And most of the time it feels like it can. I know we'll be adding words back in soon this next semester and that will be a challenge. A lot of times when we speak as these characters we create, it feels like we become a parody instead of embodying it wholly. Such a difficult balance!

Throughout all this we also had our marvelous voice class. We learned different resonators (chest, nasal, mouth) and worked on placement. We've practiced mimicking sound because once your learn placement for yourself it's useful to know if you can recognize placement in someone else and copy it. In fact, this class is where I learn the most pedagogy. We spend so much time watching each of us individually discover whatever the vocal lesson is that by the end you know how to do it as much as you know when you hear it or see it. This means I can tell where someone is placing their voice. Which is really useful.

In our music skills class we're rounding out the semester by writing our own songs. I really didn't know if it was possible to come so far so fast. Our professor told us we'd be writing songs by the end of the class, but it seemed so far off. I actually really like the song I wrote, and I'm looking forward to second semester of music skills where all we'll do will be writing songs. It's hard, but it's such a great skill to have!

I have one final creation showing this week, an evaluation from my professors, and then I'm off for winter break. I plan to do a lot of strength building to stay strong for second semester acrobatics. This semester was somersaults, cartwheels, and handstands. Who knows what next semester holds?