The Human Balancing Act

Rope Walking, Science and the Human Balancing Act

young d on a rope

This is me 25 years ago … and I’m still doing the same thing.

Have you ever had to justify spending time standing on a rope to someone who doesn’t get it? … your parents? Or, in my case …. my kids.
Let’s start this by saying that I’m a big fan of playing with ‘Imbalance’ …. In fact it’s my obsession and a huge part of my job.
I’m in my 50s and I’ve spent much of second half of my life studying many of the aspects of what we do and go through when balancing; physically, emotionally, psychologically and perhaps spiritually too … As an Actor, Movement Director for Film, TV and Theatre, and a Circus Performer. … As you might imagine, life has been great fun … and the studies have been fascinating. There is some evidence to show that, once the skill has been acquired, the act of balancing on a tightrope/Slackrope … or more recently, a Slackline, builds core strength, aids focus, can bring down blood pressure and bolster the immune system.
You can’t investigate what we do, what our body/mind goes through, when playing on a slackline, without having to take anatomy, psychology and behavioural neuroscience into account. Well, YOU can … I meant that I can’t.

Alright … Deep Breath …
With a dispassionate and mechanistic study … (scientists love that.) it is possible to analyse and compartmentalise the structure from an entity into smaller and more distinct parts in isolation.
It is possible to engage with the function, for example, of the lungs and the transfer of gasses to and from the blood stream … but then we must connect this function to the musculature of the chest and abdomen, the nerve impulses which are involved in the instigation of the firing of those muscles … the beating of the heart which transports the blood around the rest of the body and to the lungs, and the chemical signals registered within the brain which are informed by the level of acidity within the blood passing through it that another breath must be taken to exchange more gas in order that the entire system can function at a level which is non-critical. …. This might sound like ‘Blah Blah’, but this is going on right now inside each of us without us being aware of it. This is the fundamentals of a ‘Balancing Act’ performed moment to moment … and we haven’t even got out of bed yet, let alone stood on a slackline.
This unconscious adjustment is to keep us/You/Me in a state called ‘Homeostasis’.
This is where I start getting annoyed with the language scientists (including myself) use …. It’s the ‘Stasis’ bit I don’t agree with. Stasis is a concept. It’s another word for Balance …. And there is the heart of the matter. …. We are never balanced … Never …. No, stay with me on this and you’ll like it. I find this liberating.

The ability to maintain a stable upright position is taken for granted by most adult humans, however this seemingly simple and commonplace position requires a complex combination of coordinated cognitive, sensory and muscular adjustments.
How is it that we can be so oblivious to this wonderful dance of equilibrium when scientific studies have shown that we all sway beyond the optimal point of balance again and again., even while in a relaxed two footed stance on solid ground?
Is a moment of stillness possible? The planet is always moving … our blood flows .. our hearts pound… our autonomic nervous system is constantly adjusting our relationship between ourselves and the world around us .. a breeze caresses our skin and we are affected by it .. a sway .. micro-adjustments in the muscles help us to deal with the changes in temperature … our relationship to the environment around us and our continued perceived stasis. We are not symmetrical … our liver is to one side, our heart to the other. As we grow, our relationship to the environment changes on a moment to moment basis …centre of mass, centre of gravity, point of focus, needs, wants, desires, bodily functions. This constant adjustment is a dance of life and, it could be argued, the dance begins before conception and ends … who knows when. This may sound like “new Age Hokum” but the complexities of existence are labyrinthine …. And here’s the joy …. It seems that …. I mean, scientific studies have shown that ( I love it when I can write that to back up my argument) by actively engaging with states of physical imbalance, we are giving a thorough work-out to all the other aspects of our lives, releasing neuro-chemical cocktails which expand our conceptual framework of existence and further preparing us emotionally, psychologically, physically and , perhaps even spiritually for our unfolding balancing act of life.

We’ll continue this at some point soon.

Have fun … I do.

Sometimes I get the Fear

Sometimes, I get the Fear

 Maybe you don’t …. Maybe you are just coasting along in a constant state of ease and satisfaction …. maybe …

But me?

Sometimes I get the fear …. that nagging feeling that all the stuff I’m doing is sophomoric at best, and that the times I have felt capable of communicating anything I truly felt in a cogent and comprehensible way were brief, fleeting and all behind me.

That clawing sense of self doubt, placed there who knows when and by who knows what.

In truth, I guess that I always have the Fear ….. I just choose to get on and do things anyway.

Some days the Fear looms large and ominous, blotting out the sun and stifling my ability to see …. anything. But mostly, I know where the Fear is, and I keep it at bay by smiling slightly more than is considered seemly in polite circles, I dance while doing the washing up, even shaking a shimmy doing the ironing. I listen to music, read voraciously and ask questions a lot. I keep trying.

Maybe keeping myself busy and engaged is just a way of diverting myself from the fact that I’m fearful?

Maybe that’s why I was watching so many things on Ted Talks … shiny thing number 755?

Maybe I’m deflecting now by sharing this with you? …. Avoidance tactic 756?

It just seems better for me to say it … I’d rather be aware of the Fear and work around it or through it …. yeah, I’d rather that, than be in a constant state of ease and satisfaction.

Oh yes …. I found this, thought it was wonderful, and then thought I’d share it here.

Enjoy

Ole

Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

Image

I’ll start this with a little story.

When I was about 7 years old, I was sitting watching one of those Saturday afternoon War movies which used to pepper our TV screens in the 70’s. It was called ‘We Dive at Dawn’ and, as you can probably imagine, was full of submarines and testosterone. Sat beside my elder brother we were wrapped by the narrative …. but the point I want to make is deeper than how propaganda can grab hold of a boy … Toward the end of the film, a torpedo slammed into the side of the ship. Pandaemonium broke out as submariners scrabbled around to fight for rapidly vanishing air pockets as the water rose in the cramped compartments.

While I sat watching this horror, my brother decided to point out, with no short supply of derision, that I was craning my neck and breathing through the pursed lips of a drowning man. I was watching the action as if I were there, going through the same thing. A shortness in my panicked breath, my heart pounding in my chest and a sense of claustrophobia coursing through me…. As you can imagine, I straightened my head and continued to watch from a more ‘Normal’ position … but secretly I was still trying to hold my breath. Since that time, I’ve always been aware of my response to well told narrative. If it’s a good comedy, I laugh like a drain, if a thriller, I am thrilled to the point of having white knuckles up to my elbows and there is never any need to try and jerk tears from me if the story is a sad one, much to my children’s delight.

Cute story, Eh?

But you see, for years I thought I was just a bit sensitive … easily manipulated …

It turns out that there is a neurological reason why I did what I did, and that reason was not discovered or formalised until quite recently.

It turns out that around the 1980’s a group of scientists including Giacomo Rizzolatti and Giuseppe Di Pellegrino discovered a very interesting area of research kind of by accident.

They were in Italy doing research into the motor-neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys … this is not to imply that you have to go to Italy to do brain research on monkeys … They just happened to be there …

The research went something like this.

Let’s put some monitors on the monkeys while they pick stuff up … something they want .. food for example, and record how their brains respond when they pick them up.

Being scientists, they had to do this for quite a long time, with quite a few monkeys, and one day they were tidying up after a long day of monitoring and, in the case of the monkeys, picking up food, when one of the scientists was a little tardy about removing the neural apparatus, while the other guy was a bit more efficient about tidying up the food left over.

As the second chap picked up the food, the monkeys brains fired as if it were them picking it up … Think about that for a moment …. the monkeys brains sent out messages that they were moving their arms and grasping food when they saw another, of a different species, pick something up.

At first they may have called this the ‘Monkey See-Monkey Do’ response, but soon the neurons involved were named Mirror-Neurons, and that was the start of something quite revolutionary in the understanding of social psychology. It turns out that these Mirror neurons are not only part of monkey’s brain function, but appear to be an active part of how humans experience and engage with the world.

When we watch, hear, or even imagine an physical process or event occurring, we experience it in an intrinsic and cognitively profound way. On a tiny level we reproduce the movements of others within ourselves. You may have experienced something similar… a sense of pressure upon you when seeing someone get a wave dumped on them while surfing … even if you don’t surf. The change in breathing while watching a high-wire act go through their routine. Feeling exhausted after watching a boxing match or a particularly good action sequence in a movie.. hence my opening story.

Working in theatre and film is all the easier once one knows that those watching will experience, on a very real and personal level, the peril, joy and anguish we explore. We just have to be good at it … and we are all too willing to point out those who are, and those who aren’t.

It would appear that we are ‘hard-wired’ to have an empathic response to those around us.

Now this could be taken as a reason to believe that human beings are fundamentally good and caring individuals, who are aware of the experiences of others in a profound, visceral and compassionate way … and that it’s just education which teaches us to be grasping, acquisitive and selfish … and to an extent, I hope that is true … but I have watched many small children and heard their parents saying things like ‘Give that back. You only want it because he/she has it.’

Of course they do …. Their Mirror-Neurons have informed them that the other kid picked that up and showed a level of satisfaction on their face when hold or playing with it.

It is a shame that this piece of science cannot justify a move toward us all becoming relaxed and caring hippies in a fare and compassionate world.

I will continue to use this stuff in my work, though … it is really helpful when creating a believable character …. and I’ll keep looking through scientific journals and anything else I can find, just in case they come up with a cogent reason to justify me wanting to be a nice guy.

What does a Movement Director do? Part 3 …. The Workshop

What does a Movement Director do?

Part 3 …. The Workshop

pentangle

So what would I be doing?

Facilitating. With the emphasis on the first bit of the word … making it easy … easy to explore in a safe space. It’s my job to keep an eye on the task and guide the actor through a process, drawing their attention to moments of expressive clarity discovered along the way ….  allowing the actors investigate the connection between the Weird Sisters and the triple-headed moon goddess Hecate, to the point where the three sisters combined are the physical manifestation of the Goddess herself … this could give a conceptual framework on which to construct a simple ritual, bringing each of the sisters on stage for a specific high-stakes purpose. To this end, I’d bring collection of ideas, images, materials and other tools in to the rehearsal space in order to feed the process of the workshop.

The different ages of the Sisters allow for experimentation through words, phrases, actions and qualities of movement based on the terms of Novice, Initiate and Crone, drawing attention to different areas of the body containing breath, weight and intention. This could assist in further developing individual differences between the characters. Bringing a sound-scape of a thunderstorm could provide an environmental atmosphere and illicit physical manifestations within the actors through engaging their imagination, Exploring the different responses each of the characters feel to this environment. Bringing a collection of little bags and bottles with stoppers will avoid the need for uncomfortable miming of imaginary props, and a long wooden staff maybe… to be the focal point for the ‘Power of the Coven of Hecate’.

Then it’s play time for the actors and focused work time for me.

This all being hypothetical, I can’t tell you how it went … But it’s been a fun exercise trying to provide a tiny glimpse into one of the many aspects of what I get to do for a job.

Going back to Stanislavski and his final layer of uncovering a play or role, that of personal creative feelings …. That is the gift the actors bring to the task of communication. I love that bit … It’s what keeps me on my toes and regularly blows my mind.

If you’re still not sure about what a Movement Director does … the truth is, I’m still working that out too. I’ve been asked to do so many varied things in so many styles and situations it makes me smile .. a lot.

I would recommend you go down to your local theatre and watch a play, research something just for the hell of it, and ask some questions … always ask questions.

What does a Movement Director do? Part 2 …. The Research

What does a Movement Director do?

Part 2 …. The Research

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that I’ve been called in to provide a movement workshop to facilitate movement exploration, creating a workable physicalisation of ‘The Weird Sisters’ in Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Usually this would come after meeting up with, or at least chatting on the phone with, the Director.

A sensitivity of, and commitment to, the artistic and aesthetic vision of the Director is imperative …. It is their vision which will take to the stage in the end.

So we start with an in depth investigation of the play of Macbeth as a whole, as well as a close inspection of the content of the scene in question. Even given that it is a very short moment containing an entrance, sixty-two words shared between three characters and an exit, the ‘Weird Sisters’ scene in Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth, known as the ‘When shall we three meet again, …’ scene, opens the whole production. This position within the play holds the added responsibility of introducing the environment and style of, not only these characters but also the production as a whole, to the audience.

So what are the clues? Let me make this clear …  this is in no way a definitive academic research paper on this … it’s just to try and give an idea of some of the aspects of the job of a Movement Director … So here we go.

In the first folio of Macbeth the witches are called the weyword or wayard sisters. There are many ongoing debates as to what this may mean, some are as simple as signifying that these women go their own way in society, they are other and separate. This one clue could provide many options for staging and characterisation. One possible way to go with the ‘Three Witches’ would be to have them sit outside of the society within which most of the action happens … it might be interesting to have them have the clarity that distance can bring to a situation.

Within the later folios, however, these words are replaced with the word ’weird’, which appears six times within the play, (I. iii. 32; I. v. 8; II. i. 20; III. i. 2; III. iv. 133; IV. i. 136). Five times as ‘The Weird Sisters’ and once as ‘The Weird Women’. Within the Oxford English dictionary, the word ‘Weird’ is linked to the Anglo-Saxon noun ‘Wyrd’ meaning Fate. This could imply that the sisters are, in effect, to be considered either attached to, or the personification of, the Fates.  In his book The Greek Myths, Robert Graves asserts that the Fates, or Moerae, ‘are the triple Moon-goddess.’ (Graves.1960) This triple-faced goddess, also known as Hecate, appears in person later in Macbeth. Her appearance and clear power and status over the Sisters is very rich seam of information to be mined. Graves goes on to say that ‘The moon has three phases and three persons: The New, the Maiden-goddess of the spring; … the Full Moon, the Nymph-goddess of the summer; and the Old Moon, the Crone-goddess of the autumn.’(Graves, 1960)

moon phaseHacate

The research into these wider aspects of the Sisters could go on for ages … I for one find it constantly fascinating, but there is much to be discovered by taking a closer look at the structure and clues within the scene in question.

Within the lines of the scene, the First Witch asks a question which is answered by the Second and elaborated on by the Third. Could this status interplay between the three characters could be used to provide different ages for the sisters? … Young/Novice, Adult/Initiate, Old/Crone?

It is also worth noting that the first line ‘When shall we three meet again?’ implies they have already spent some time together and are about to take their leave. This could provide an opportunity to create a ‘ritual’ of some sort before the dialogue begins … a chance to set the scene and environment for the audience. The stage directions also ask for thunder and lightning, providing a sound-scape to play with.

Much of the rest of the dialogue draws attention to a point in the future when the Sisters will come together again to meet with Macbeth, implying fore-knowledge of events and, although not elaborated upon at this time, a reason for that meeting.

Both ‘Grey-Malkin’ and ‘Padock’ are words still used in the highlands of Scotland to denote a grey cat and a frog or toad respectively. These creatures are considered to be the ‘familiars’ of the Sisters. D.J. Conway, a leading expert on Animal Spirits within ancient and modern culture claims that ‘Hecate is associated with frogs in very ancient lore.’ Conway goes on to say that ‘In Scotland, the mother of the Witches is called the Mither o’ the Mawkins.’(Conway. 1995)

I could go on for ages about the layers of imagery held within the text, but you get the idea …

One hopes that this kind of research is also being done by the director, the actors and the designers involved, but you can’t always rely on that … putting on a play can be a logistical nightmare, and folks have to prioritise. For me though, research is an imperative and integral part of preparation.

Then one has to put the preparation to task …. and although I love to research and trawl for clues, this is when everything gets to be exhilarating and challenging. Each workshop is different and exists in the moment.

I’ll think about that and get back to you in Part 3

What does a Movement Director do? Part 1…. The Concept

What does a Movement Director do?

Part 1…. The Concept
‘The readiness is all’
(W. Shakespeare,Hamlet)

IMG_0089

Sometimes I’m am asked to oversee the development of movement and physical characterisation for the entire play, facilitating a cohesive aesthetic to the piece. Other times it’s to come in for a short period of time to provide a workshop on a specific aspect or part of the play. This may be for health and safety reasons as well as theatrical clarity, Stage fight scenes for example, for the building of a period or stylised dance/movement scene, or to assist in the creation of a chorus who share a common physicality. Maybe to help an actor age up or down, or explore the physicality involved in the characterisation of a soldier, or a long distance lorry driver … or a fish!
All that being said, we are still not getting down to the nuts and bolts of what is actually done …. that’s because each task is unique to itself, requiring research, preparation and structure … and then you have to be prepared to change tack in the moment in order to get the results needed to fulfil the brief and help the story be told.
One could spend a whole life researching the themes, symbolism and nuance in the texts of Shakespeare for example (many people have done exactly that) and still not ever get around to putting on a single play. Within Movement Direction, the onus was not about investigation. It’s about getting results, and those results have to be manifest and quantifiable. That is not to say that research and a thorough grounding in the nature, context, structure and themes within the piece is not necessary. On the contrary, being prepared and well researched, with a knowledge of the process and needs of the actor, allows for a more adaptive and creative engagement with the actors while staying focused on the task itself.

When engaging with the production, you have to be aware of the processes and systems of analysis used by both actors and directors. The truth is that I may never have met the actors before, so don’t know what they bring to the party yet. Actors, while sometimes padding out their CVs with stuff they can almost do, forget that ‘Life Experience’ and the strangest little bits of information or innate capability can be invaluable during the creation process.
In ‘Creating a Role’, Constantin Stanislavski describes the written text of a play as a complex multi layered structure of clues, to be investigated and explored in order to produce a satisfying and truthful performance.
‘A play and it’s roles have many planes, along which their life flows. First there is the external plane of facts, events, plot, form. This is contiguous with the plane of social situation, subdivided into class, nationality, and historic setting. There is a literary plane, with its ideas, its style, and other aspects. There is an aesthetic plane, with sublayers of all that is theatrical, artistic, having to do with scenery and production. There is the psychological plane of inner action, feelings, inner characterisation; and the physical plane with it’s fundamental laws of physical nature, physical objectives and actions, external characterisation. And finally there is the plane of personal creative feelings belonging to the actor.’ (Stanislavski, 1961)
These areas of analysis were formalised to assist an actor in the task of embodying a character. These same tools are used by a Movement Director as part of the process of preparation when designing and producing a structured workshop.
The first three of Stanislavski planes (external, social and literary) are held within the themes, concepts and imagery of the text itself, and can be explored before I get there. The Aesthetic plane is one to be explored and researched based on consultation with the production team, primarily the Director, as it is their role to oversee the cohesive creation of the entire vision of the piece. The areas of psychological and physical engagement can be investigated as preparatory research, but any thoughts, plans and ideas must be open to being adjusted and/or jettisoned if the actors or the Director find them unhelpful or inappropriate. Jane Gibson makes it pretty clear when she says ‘As a Movement Director, you have to leave your ego at the door.’ (Gibson,J.2009)

So the first bit is exhaustive research of the text for any and everything which might help quite literally ‘flesh out’ the story and the characters.

So what could that research look like?

I’ll do that in part 2