Sunday, 31 August 2008

The Torment

Philippe Gaulier, master teacher of the clowns, has a book out called The Tormentor. It's an apt title. Torment is one of the key agonies of working in this field.

The more you work the further into the void you look. It's a place where everything is ridiculous: our behaviour, our competitiveness, our personalities, our beliefs, our mortality - it's all valid comic territory and nothing is taboo. The trick when sharing the stage is to stay light and not to react defensively and that's very hard as we ridicule the very principles by which we've each forged an existence.

It's a brave and frightened act all at once, and the rules of playing in such a universe seem to be ordained by a randomly provocative and cruel God, who mocks everything - on occasions the teacher performs the part.

The final exercise run by Kasia had Paka standing, red nosed, on stage repeating 'I don't know what I'm doing...' in as many ways as she could. The instruction was that she could add '...but it's ok!' but only when it actually was!

For twenty minutes Paka tried everything shouting, singing, running from up to downstage, in slow motion, one word at a time, apologising, laughing, in Spanish, magic tricks, etc etc etc. but, because we could accept such a performance, she never got to the 'it's ok!' She needed to do something else.

Eventually she gave up and stopped acting. Kasia drove her on and in exhaustion she looked at us and without act or attitude said

'I don't know what I'm doing ... but it's ok!' It was the first time she, the actor, met us, the audience with the simple truth.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Get Off!!!

We're clowning a lot with Kasia now and I'm really enjoying it. My stamina is improving and I'm finding much more pleasure at simply being on stage. Slowly, I'm just doing things for the joy of doing them rather than thinking through survival strategies (or tic tacs as Kasia calls them) in advance.

It's hard to trust that something of interest will develop organically on stage and it's even harder to allow your carefully prepared personality to drop a little - but when it does and a more vulnerable persona emerges its electrifying for the audience. Most of us are finding it shocking to recognise how many physical gestures and speech patterns are habitual and we all make ourselves cringe from time to time when we fall back to the safety of our little tricks. When this happens the struggle is to bounce back and stay open to the real possibilities of the situation.

Occasionally I just withdraw, give up and want to get off. I also sense I'm better in minor, supporting a proposition from another actor, than I am taking the major focus. In reality I'm delighted to be still in the mix and still producing work eight days in.

The group changed for this second week, which has brought a new dynamic. There are slightly more of us on board, but the mood is still light, supportive and occasionally giggly. We're also getting fantastic - if a bit competitive - at volleyball, which we devote at least an hour a day to.

I'll be sad when the week ends.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Whole Lotta Love?

The Olympics have come to an end. I've struggled to watch this week, partly because I'd got used to the twelve hour difference between the States and China which meant a Michael Phelps swim at 10am Beijing time would mean inevitable victory at 10.01pm the previous evening in Indianapolis. Halving this time deficit by crossing the Atlantic meant I wasn't really sure what was going on when so I kind of drifted away.

Today though at the closing ceremony London, as the inheritor of the games for 2012, had eight minutes to make a splash and I watched with interest to see how we would represent ourselves. (I'm still trying to see how the Cultural Olympiad 2012 might be a genuinely inspiring event in its own right.) In the end the show was neat, quirky and tidy. Threads of visual and aural iconography ran through to remind the world that Britannia is still an equal partner with Cool in our cultural make over. Most countries seem to assimilate the new into the old, but we seem fixated in sampling the old in the modern. Strains of Greensleeves and Jerusalem mixed up with punk beefeaters, Leona Lewis dueting with grey haired, but still virile enough to lick a rift, Jimmy Page and David Beckham kicking a ball out of a Double Decker bus that turned ingeniously into a privet hedge.

So we're funky, energised, ironic, eclectic, slightly eccentric - in a Boris Johnson stylee - proud of our symbols and not lacking a sense of playfulness - albeit on our own terms. (We are after all the world's great rule makers.) Economically the games cost, but it's also an opportunity to cash in, in the short term - which means defining yourself in the most marketable and uncritical way possible. We need to be positive until it hurts.... it can't be great art, but it's where spectacle finds a niche.

Yet through all of today's display is still a very British sense of precision and self containment. You'll be very welcome here, as long as you don't mess...

It's the charming menace of the man in the pub who claps his hand on your shoulder in a display of seeming protection and flashing his teeth with a pearly smile says...

'Welcome to London, my old son! It's your round I think.'

Friday, 22 August 2008

Timon of Athens

I'm just back from the Globe, where I've been to see Timon of Athens. I've only seen the play once before when Michael Pennington took the lead role, at the RSC ten years ago.
It's a tough text, partly because the last two acts take place in a muddy hovel where Timon, a bitter self-exile from Athens, tries to work out the value of riches. I've always thought it a clever morality piece, exploring the selfishness of bargained generosity, a slightly cynical attack on altruism and a fairly dark look at the human condition. A stripped down King Lear. When I last saw it the philosophical dialogue between the extremes of indulgence and frugality, set beyond a definable space or time, reminded me most of Samuel Beckett.
This production, directed by Lucy Bailey, focused more on the greed of Timon's flatterers rather than the lead character's own psychological flaws. We had aerialists playing bungee birds of prey, swooping in from the roof of the Globe as creditors literally scavenging his gold, and finally feeding in a frenzy on his very bones. It was a neat idea - but the costumes felt rather literal and didn't always help support the movement work. In the end the amount of rope, harnesses and visible pulleys allowed us to neither freely enjoy the illusion nor be surprised by the actors dexterity. Michael Boyd has been exploring the vertical as a metaphor for both power and time in his gargantuan histories project at Stratford over the past few years and this work felt clumsy in comparison.
Other images in the production nodded towards the surreal dystopian paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, but the production didn't push through with this idea - a shame as the nightmare vision of a world without compassion or logic seems a viable direction to take the play and may have given more edge to the softy vultures swooping, without danger, above our heads.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Sidelines and Centre Stage.

Acting is a brave thing to do. I've always known this, but Kasia's course is a real reminder of the difficulties involved with staying light and fresh enough to earn your place on stage.

It's so much about trusting your body and I'm finding that my best work comes when I'm slightly detached from my thoughts (being jet lagged, it turns out, was a bonus.) The moment I plan or predict the next action is the moment everything freezes and I become self-consciously hung out to dry. Excruciating for me, boring for the audience. My scoundrel's refuge has always been in ideas and language and even on day two the deficiency of this default defence is beginning to reveal itself (especially as occasionally this leads me to think that ideas without action are enough!)

A lot of our work is based on pre-performance, training us to be in a position to both grasp the major focus of the audience's attention, whilst also finding strategies and conventions through which we can trust and play together. The mat work, focused on realigning our spines, is already giving me a bit of an energy boost.

It feels full on, but the group are kind, and every time somebody falls on their face, there is both support for the risk they took and encouragement for them to try again. The truth is I'm really enjoying myself.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Back to Work.

It's Monday. I'm back in St.Mary's and trying to catch up a bit. Former Simmarian Rebecca Romero won a gold in the cycling in Beijing over the weekend, which prompted smiles all round and with seven other athletes who connect to the University. It's a very happy and expectant campus to return to.

It's also day one of Kasia's Physical Theatre summer school so I'm fighting the jet lag by running around the theatre. I'm really pleased I've signed up though as it gives me a chance to work with Kasia as a student and really understand how much she gives as a lecturer.

From September we start three pathways through the degree programme. Theatre Arts, Applied Theatre and Physical Theatre but all of the staff are very keen that we should find common links between these. One idea, which I've really grown into, is the thought that the three programmes might share a foundation performance course, which would give all our undergraduates a basic vocabulary and approach to rehearsals and performance. It would enable us to genuinely share our work and encourage the students to appreciate good practice on the programme, which ever pathway it was coming from. With that in mind it's great to take part and see where Kasia's own training has led her. It's also just fun and liberating as a lecturer to be taught by a colleague.

We varied the work - some games, some direct performance skills and an hour of Feldenkreiss mat work. By the end I was tired but happy not to be completely out of my depth.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Art of Seed Spitting.

A final right of passage and the end of Americana was a visit to the Indiana State Fair, with eight assorted members of the Hahn tribe.

The ever effervescent Pop Hahn has only missed one fair in the last 65 years and eagerly took on the role of guide. For me the apparent highlight was a chance to see the two largest pigs in the world - but Pop kept us in suspense for this moment by taking us methodically from exhibition hall to exhibition hall, past tractors, remarkable pumpkins, pampered roosters, home grown tomatoes and rural crafts.

After three hours of rigourous agricultural showcase, we stumbled across a Watermelon Seed Spit Competition. Matt did well - over 25 feet, but my trajectory was all wrong and I barely cleared 12. The Hoosier in the stetson next in line analysed my technique with me.

'You were all up - it went real high, but the seed's so little you need to bust it out yer mouth like a bullet, you were floating it like a paper aeroplane.'

Pop Hahn was on the move again and I had to feign interest in the a talk by the world's fastest Omelette maker to avoid the dog splaying demonstration, which he was keen on attending.

Finally we arrived at the big pigs and had our photos taken with them before refuelling on deep fried gherkins, Pepsi donuts, root beer ice cream sodas and a mountain of thin cut fries... most people leave the fair feeling happy but squiffy and we didn't break with tradition.

...and I'm now the proud owner of an All Indiana Watermelon Seed Spitting Competition participant's pendant!

God Bless America!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Blogging the Blogger

I'd assumed that things chez the Hahn's would be calmer post-wedding. I was wrong. The photos at the church hadn't come out well and so Matt and Aida slipped back into their wedding garb and off we went to restage the event with me charged as photographer.

It was great, so much more relaxed than the pressure of the big day and we spent about an hour making sure we'd got some beautiful images. Then, because it seemed fun and we were all dressed up, we ran around town taking lots of informal shots - doing the washing up, filling the car with petrol, with policemen, the fire brigade, in front of the Soldier and Sailors memorial in the circle. Heads turned everywhere - especially in Steak n' Shake, where many of the staff came out from the kitchen to shake their hands and wish 'm well.

We'd had a plan to take a smiley photograph next to a Vote Obama poster and then a miserable one next to a Vote McCain - as we were on the look out we spotted a huge bus with Obama's logo on the side parked down a side street off Meridian.

It seemed a great opportunity so we popped out and knocked on the door to ask permission.

'Sure,' said the startled intern sitting in the front 'I'll just go and see if I can get some staffers out to have their photo taken with you.'

First out was Glen, Obama's regular driver -now on bus duty whilst his man takes a break in Hawaii. Then to our suprise out stepped former presidential candidate Howard Dean and actor Kal Penn (none of us watch House regularly -so we didn't have a clue who he was! - but it did earn us a lot of respect from Matt's teenage cousins at dinner in the evening.)
Dean is an interesting figure and although he blew his opportunity to run against Bush with an uncontrolled moment of triumphantism four years ago I think he'll have a footnote in the annals of political history for being a pioneer of the podcast, text message and blog. Now all campaigning politicans use these methods of communication, but Dean was the first. True to form, by the time we'd ridden home. The story was on the Democrats website.
Very pleased with the new photos.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

We left on Tuesday morning. Feda, Gianni and Bruna back to Venice via Philadelphia and myself back to Indianapolis via Atlanta. It's been an amazing seven state, 1,500 mile adventure and it doesn't seem to make sense that we only met properly ten days ago. Parting was sad - especially as Gianni insisted on repeatedly shouting 'Ciao Marco,' whilst waving a white handkerchief as I clumsily removed my belt, shoes and loose change to get through security.

N'Awlins is an incredible place and I feel a real desire to return to the deep South soon. I love the city's contradictions, its pride, its romantic underbelly. I can see a city in waiting - unsure still what was lost during Katrina and now salvaging its narrative and music rift. I'll miss sitting on my ornate cast iron balcony in the heat of the night, the music drifting up from Bourbon Street, I'll miss looking out to the spire of St.Louis. I'll miss the colourful cottages on St.Peter's, the rattling streetcars and and the huge ships pulling round the crescent of the Mississippi. I'll miss the black humour. Most of all I'll miss the ghosts. I feel at home with them.

I was exhausted and slept for both of the short flights hopping north back to Matt and Aida, but I woke in time to see the Brickyard laid out below as my plane circled once and brought me safely back to the mid-West.

The Voodoo Priestess.

On Sunday morning I stumbled on the house where, in the late forties, Tennessee Williams wrote 'Streetcar Named Desire.' It was sadly run down and for sale. I was in the play twenty years ago at University playing the young collector who Blanche seduces and then, through the cunning use of a fedora hat -so as not to confuse the audience - the doctor to whom she delivers the famous 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers' line to. All the minor parts also had to do a lot of shouting as street sellers offstage: 'Red Hots... Red Hots!'

Standing in front of the house many of the lines came back to me. I'm not sure much of the town can have changed since the play was written - but it's interesting how Williams is kept relatively anonymous. Apart from an annual Stella and Stanley hollerin' competition - which takes place in March and must be great fun - there is little formal recognition.

On our final afternoon a torrential rainstrom came. Gianni and Bruna were already aboard a Mississippi steamer when it hit, whilst Feda and I stoically stuck to our planned Cemetery tour. Unfrotunately the guide was terrible -her mind seemed elsewhere, distracted, thrown by the rain and forgetful of the details, she dealt mostly in the bleeding obvious.

'Here's a grave belonging to... ummm ... a family. And here's another one. This one has a cross on it! Look at us, like a load of drowned rats. It sure is raining hard.' etc. etc.

Most of the party wisely drifted away towards coffee shops, until finally we were the only ones left - holding out for the advertised promise of an audience with the high voodoo Priestess Miriam. The occasional stop for shelter had made it late now and our guide was in a hurry to go and feed her eighteen year old cat...

'I'll will take you to the Priestess - but be warned she'll talk and talk, like a verbal trance. When you need to go, you just tell her you have another appointment. She's very important, a bit like the Pope, and she'll want to try and get a sense of you. Make sure she shows you the temple. It's really neat!'

We entered the house, but the Priestess had clearly expected the tour slightly earlier and, demob happy, had now settled down to beans and rice in front of an episode of Dr Phil. Although pleasant enough, she wasn't in the mood for blessings. Feda floated around the incense, doll key chains and T-shirts in her shop whilst I stood by and waited for the torrent of wisdoms.

'From England, huh?' asked the Priestess, barely looking up from the TV.


'Good. I'm going on holiday myself tomorrow for a couple of weeks. We're flying to Buffalo and renting a fly drive. I'm going to cruise around Canada looking at the lakes and sights and stuff. It'll be great and its very reasonably priced if you get the airline to book your van in advance.'

This wasn't quite the possessed insight I'd anticipated. So I tried one last tack...

'The spirits?' I said quietly 'Do they come with you or do they stay at home?'

'Spirits? What? Spirits, come with me?...Don't be stupid!' And with that she turned up the volume to signal time was up.

There's a deeply melodic rhythm to this city, but there are as many cul de sacs as pathways and not even the prettiest paper lanterns can soften that.


New Orleans feels like a city where the dead are very much alive - it's mythical, melancholic and unlike anywhere else I've ever been.

The final approach over the 28 mile Lake Pontchartian causeway bridge sets you up for a change of tone. We came at in in half sleep, after a night on the road, and for many miles just seemed to be driving further and further away from land until slowly, through the mists, the sky scrapers and high rises of the new town gain shape on the horizon. A modern river Styx. There's a ferryman's distance between N'Awlins and the rest of the States.

Everything here is pre or post Katrina and the effect of the hurricane three years on is still devastating. Over half the population of just over half a million still have not returned and having settled now in other places the feel of a ghostown hangs heavy. This is all hard to imagine in the tourist saturated, upbeat French Quarter, where we took up lodging at Mme Olivier's 1836 townhouse, but a short trolleybus ride away up Canal Street and you're in the aftermath of an apocalypse of biblical proportion.

However, there's also genuine anger at the State's ineffectual response and the lack of support to help put storyville back on the map. Perhaps the corruption, the spontaneity, the garishness of the city has made benefactors think twice about regeneration. Perhaps they're put off because it is, as it appears, unreal and a dream, unable to cope with anything but the most romantic of infrastructures.

On our first evening, as the temperature cooled, we took a walking tour through the Quarter with Mary, whose lived here for forty years. She told great stories over murder, mayhem, funeral dirges, followed by joyous second lines once the body is interned and the spirits of the ladies of the night who turn themselves at dusk into stray cats and hang out in Jackson Square.

'We live short lives,' she said wiping the condensation off her glasses 'short, but happy lives.'

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Overnight through the Delta.

Friday morning saw Matt and Aida turn our van north and head back to Indianapolis to spend a little more time with their family, which left four of us still on the road and heading for New Orleans.

We'd just assumed - in a terribly European way - that leaving Memphis would be a simple matter of catching any train south. So leaving Gianni and Bruna sitting on the luggage in Starbucks, Feda and I headed off to make arrangements.

The next four hours were hysterical. Yes - there was a train, but only one...and it had already left at six in that morning. We'd probably just have stayed up with the musicians on Beale overnight, but Saturday morning's train was already full with Memphis residents escaping town to avoid Elvis' week - so no go there. The bus was possible, but took forever and again meant waiting 'til Saturday. Airline prices were astronomical so that was out! The hotel prices had also dramatically shot up as the weekend approached and the town filled with non Memphis residents arriving from all over the world FOR Elvis week! So sitting tight also seemed the wrong move. Admitting temporary defeat we rejoined the others and went for a good lunch to reassess - or think American.

Thinking American means not relying on public services to get you out of trouble and, even before the catfish and fresh lemonade arrived, Feda had begun to negotiate with the concierge about hiring a car overnight, just to do the six hour push through the delta. In then end this proved cheaper and (because a van the size of a Sherman tank was delivered to the door almost before we'd paid the bill) much more fun.

Feda was on a roll, after the cul de sac morning. She blagged us into Sun Studios - even though we were too late for the official tour and Gianni had his photo taken with Elvis' mike and then with a brilliant sunset over the river side park we finally escaped Memphis, hit route 55 and headed into Mississippi and the Deep South - laughing all the way.

Thank You, Thank You Very Much!

The afternoon belonged to Gianni...

Having patiently sat through miles of driving, hours of conversation in English and even the occasional non rock n roll song on the car radio - he finally got to pull into Graceland, 58 years after first falling in love - and I can't adequately explain how much Gianni loves Elvis in words alone! - with the music. The torture was carried on a few minutes more when, rather cruelly I felt, the consensus of the group was to have lunch before heading off on the tour. Still Gianni waited tapping a beer mat with increasing excitement, whilst we took an age to get served. Fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches later we were off, through the gates and up the drive to the surprisingly modest looking house.

The tour itself is short and the house is completely decorated in early seventies kitsch - a style which I guess Elvis did more than anybody to help create. I, myself didn't get the ghosts here at all, but it was cool to watch some of the footage of the King in concert. Every now and then I looked at Gianni, face lit up like a child, eyes moving across every room - a video camera recording as accurately as possible every detail, imagination in overload. Here was Elvis walking up the stairs from the games room. Here he was tuning a guitar on the circular chair in the jungle room, here he was helping to make hamburgers in the kitchen...

We left long after all the attractions had closed down and headed back to Beale Street for dinner. Feda and I asked a street band to play anything by Elvis for Gianni. As soon as the first chords hit - he was on his feet, shades in place, taking a pose, left leg shaking and then dancing on his toes, joy all over his face. Everybody in the vicinity turned their heads and began to applaud the happiest 63 year old in town! Thank you, Thank you very much!

Significant Space

America is big and Wednesday's drive to Memphis took time. Unlike Europe where a 450 mile journey would be punctuated with many historical and cultural places of interest - there was very little to divert from the unrelenting interstate. So much that feels devoid of history and when it does arrive it comes in the shape of scale rather than time. The world's largest hog farm, the worlds biggest tractor tyre etc. etc. I must have spent at least an hour just staring at the clouds swirling and changing lazily over the huge skies.

Arrival also becomes hugely exciting when the route is fairly straight and after unloading at the motel, a pelvic thrust away from Graceland we headed into town and the neon oasis of Beale Street. It was a bit dreamy drifting through the hot summer night with music pouring out of every doorway and from every alley.

Early next morning we were up and heading into town to see the Civil Rights Museum built into the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. We parked up a couple of blocks away in a silent and deserted side street. From the moment I stepped out of the car I felt shivery, something malevolent was absolutely tangible. I wanted to get back in the car and drive away. We circled the building looking for the entrance and eventually turned a corner and saw the first floor balcony with room 306, the aquamarine door - the stage set still standing from one of the most dispiriting moments of the twentieth century.

Dr King had spoken in Memphis the night before he was shot - his famous 'I have seen the promised land' speech and this was cast in iron on a doorway across the street. More moving to me was a simple quote from Genesis on a plaque by the side of the road

'They said to one another
Behold, here cometh the dreamer...
Let us Slay him...
And we shall see what will become of his dreams.'

The museum itself was fantastic, Kayne, an exceptional young actor/guide took us round, involving us over and over again with questions and interactive demonstrations of the civil rights struggle. Fantastic video and audio footage aswell. Towards the end it became slightly macabre - the gun that was recovered, the bullet that killed, the window from which the shot was probably fired, the bloodstain on the concrete, too many artefacts of a 'celebrity' death - and I pulled away from the tour and hid in the bookshop.

Nobody is ever lost

After the rains it was good to see the pizza party return around midnight - soaked, but satied. The strom quickly passed, which disappointed the ten or so English guests, who'd spotted a golden opportunity to rekindle some form of blitz spirit.

So desperate were they to dig in for the long haul that they remained huddled like mice in the corner of the lobby long after the storm had turned to heavy drizzle, trapped in a heroic disaster movie of their own making, united excitedly around a couple of apples and a packet of pringles, salvaged from their rooms on the 'unsafe' upper floors.

Tuesday morning - Chicago sparkled and I went to meet my old friend Bridget from Milwaukee, who I first met in Canterbury, when I was a first year undergraduate twenty years ago. She was on a one year exchange programme and although she's been back since I can't think that we've seen each other for fifteen years.

It's amazing to realise that nobody in the industrial world is ever really lost. Facebook, blogs, reuniting websites all make it seemingly possible to re connect with anybody from your past. Its the surveilliance society's secret joy ... hidden treasures in the shape of old friends, unexpectedly reappearing to delight you. In the end we just sat by the Chicago river filled in the gaps, laughed a lot and I couldn't believe how fast afternoon turned to evening. A fantastic day!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Weddings and Tornados.

I'm sheltering in a travelodge from a tornado that's just whipped through Chicago. It seems a fitting way to end the manic whirlwind few days of pre-wedding preparation and post-wedding celebration.

We are a motley crew of road trippers who've come north from Indianapolis. Bride and groom - Matt & Aida, Maid of honour - Federica, her non-English speaking parents - Gianni and Bruna, myself and a plastic Elvis which has been attached to the windscreen to guide us in times of trouble.

Gianni is the numero uno Elvis fan del mundo and in a couple of days we'll be turning back south for Memphis, a pilgrimage he's been waiting 58 years to make and that he can't even think about without tears appearing in his eyes. When my poor Italian runs out we sing softly to each other. Love me Tender, Suspicious Mind, In the Ghetto etc etc. It has already become the universal language of the road.

The wedding was a great success, although it all went by in a bit of a blur. The main focus for all of us was keeping Matt and Aida on track to have the best day of their lives, whilst making sure we paid due respect to each of the cultural traditions and expectations in play. Still if anybody wants to ask me how to stage manage a American, Italian, Eritrean, British Catholic wedding in Indiana - I think I may have just become the world's leading expert? ... at the very least I feel I could crack out a Ph.d from the experience. The main thing is that Matt and Aida are very, very happy - so from that point of view mission accomplished.

Remarkably twenty minutes after I broke away from the main party tonight (a timely quest for a bit of private contemplation after ten days of complete co-habitation) the storm rolled in. The rest of the crew went looking for pizza, whilst I was intercepted by a police car as I headed for a lake shore stroll and told in no uncertain terms to take cover. Sirens began going off and I just about made it in doors before the eye came rolling over downtown.

It's a very dramatic end to the day!