never fight a clown...

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Eyes, Head, Shoudlers & Hips

To maintain balance during choreography and movement we need arrange and assimilate data from our vision, proprioceptive and vestibular systems. A weakness in one of the three systems can have an impact on a person’s balance. The intimate relationship between the vestibular and visual systems starts from when we are born. Interestingly the vestibular system is the only fully functioning system that we are born with. In the beginning this system guides our movement, which in turn then leads the development of our visual system. When we are young, movement guides vision. However, as soon as we develop the necessary visual skills, vision begins to guide movement. 

Eyes, Head. Shoulders and Hips. Four ways I like to help my central focus i.e. foveal vision. “The foveal system of the human eye is the only part of the retina that permits 100% visual acuity. The line of sight is a virtual line connecting the fovea with a fixation point in the outside world.” (Thank you wiki). Interesting to note the discovery of the line of sight is credited to Leonardo da Vinci – another great arts and science hacker.

I further define these four ways of help into: - Eyes: Line of Sight. Head: Line of Attention. Shoulders: Line of Support. Hips: Line of Effect. By help I mean my ability to maximise my brain and nervous systems relationship to the information I am receiving. The four ‘lines’ that I am referring to here can be all lined up depending on what I need my entire system to do to the information.

For example, I can look at an object with my eyes – my ‘line of sight’. I can remain locked on the object without the support of my head, shoulders and or hips being in direct line with that object. If I need more processing power in relationship to the object. I can also bring my ‘line of attention’ in sync with my ‘line of sight’. Now both my eyes and head are now fully locked on. My orientation of the head allows for my nervous system to start being included in the level of importance I feel my body potentially needs to be involved.

This calibration process of my four ‘lines’ can continue through to include my ‘line of support’ and ‘line of effect’. By including my shoulders: my ‘line of support’ I am now preparing my whole body to start being included in responses and decisions about what to do to this object. My arms are now free and the nerve pathways and firing in harmony based on my orientation. The last calibration is that of my hips: my ‘line of effect’; my power base. Which for the sake of this concept includes my feet. The final inclusion of this ‘line of effect’ means my body is now fully engage and available for all responses and needs in relationship to the object. The orientation of my hips gives me greater stability and options of requirements that I may need in relationship to that object.

This calibration of these ‘lines’ doesn’t seem to hold much meaning until I identify what the object might be. What if the object is just a fly? It might be that all I need to do is watch it with my eyes? What if it’s a mosquito that lands on my arm and I chose to swat it? Now my head – ‘line of attention’ is now included as I need to start engaging my arms to successfully swat the mosquito. What if a ball is flying at me? May be that I must orient my shoulders - my ‘line of support’. What if it’s a tiger? Surely, I now need to engage all my ‘lines’: sight, attention, support and effect. I need my body primed and attentive ready for fight or flight!

What does all this have to do movement for the actor? For me there are many applications but three really stand out. 
  1. Safety. Once something goes wrong or something happens beyond the scope of the choreography or what was rehearsed my level of attention will become heighten. So, to support the level of danger I find myself presented with when things go wrong will inform the orientation of all my ‘lines’. 
  2. Targeting & Striking etc. There is much debate in stage combat community about whether to watch targets, blades or maintain eye contact when sword fighting for example. This could take up a whole musing, but I’ll save that for another posting. At the very least depending upon the choice of my body’s engagement will determine the level of my bodies perceived commitment to the moves needed to support choreographic choices. So, as a performer it would behove me to make conscious choices around what ‘lines’ I bring into the shapes my body makes. For example, the difference between a parry with my shoulders and hips involved verses just my shoulders makes for a very different silhouette in my bodies involvement. 
  3. Dramatic Focus. The orientation of all four ‘lines’ can help to bring about different levels of attention and focus for directing the audience’s eye. I can use the different ‘lines’ to help craft and direct the way physical images direct where an audience looks.
Well this concept is still running around in my mind so if you have any questions or want to seek clarification please free to reach out. Feedback is always welcome.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Left of Bruise. Part 2: What does Robocop & the OODA Loop have to do with Slapstick? What the?

Left of Bruise is a small series of blog entries / musings that seek to unpack my ability to see near misses, incident, accidents & injuries (MIA&I) before they happen and why. If you missed the first entry, please follow this link for the preamble.

I remember once having a conversation with my father. He was trying to understand my craft and what it is that I do. In that conversation I recall saying something like: “I feel like a fighter pilot when I’m on stage dad. Constantly measuring and assessing all the information around me and making decisions about what is going on and what could go on”. Little did I know. Sadly, my dad passed away years ago now, but that conversation has always lived with me.

Left of Bruise Part 2: Robocop & OODA Loop

The very nature of slapstick and physical comedy is that it is chaotic. The performing of it and the environment itself lends itself to the potential for MIA&I. This can be the same for a staged fight but it is especially ubiquitous in slapstick. To remain ‘left of bruise’; the moment I make an entrance into a scene on stage or set I need to do what I have always referred to as: a ‘Robocop’. Yes, another film analogy. A clinical and scientific analysis and observation of the space before me. I literally do a diagnostic of the environment around me both geometrical and atmospherically. I need to take stock of all the elements. I do a 360 of the space. This entails things like:
  • Location of objects – check measurements are consistent with what was rehearsed etc
  • Proximity to audience & crew is consistent to rehearsals and previous performances
  • Operational tempo of the scene before
  • Geometrical observations of the objects
  • Observe any anomalies in the space (ie has a chair been left in the wrong place?)
  • Is a prop missing that I need?
  • If other actors are involved – how are they placed? are they present?
This list can be extensive but hopefully you get the idea. Only other variation to consider would be if the scene is improvised. 

This ‘Robocop’ process usually occurs in split seconds. It needs to happen faster than the actual operational tempo of the scene being acted out so I stay ahead of the game while remaining present for the performers and the performance itself. It is fluid. The ‘robocopping’ continues as I move through the scene or scenario. A constant feedback loop between me and the elements to ensure all is going to plan and that nothing is out of place that could cause any MIA&I’s. The ‘Robocop’ is ultimately an observational and decision-making process. This is about what to do when things are not as they should be to remain ‘left of bruise’. 

At this point I would like to make a personal shout out to Brian Marren & Greg Williams from Arcadia Cognerati. These guys have a great podcast and YouTube channel you should check it out! I have been dishing out the same old approach to my style of stuff over the years but recently with my journey to becoming an Officer in the Army Reserves I have started to look at my work with fresh eyes. These guys have really helped me adjust the way I see my own work and give it a re-boot! Thanks guys. While listening to one of the podcasts they mentioned the OODA loop. I became fascinated by it so looked a little deeper. 

OODA Loop — Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. This break down is care of Wikipedia – but you can use professor Google to dive deeper. But for the purpose of this blog entry this might help us. 

The OODA Loop is a concept by John Richard Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997). He was a United States Air Force fighter pilot. According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe–orient–decide–act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage. 

Boyd developed the concept to explain how to direct one's energies to defeat an adversary and survive. Boyd emphasized that "the loop" is actually a set of interacting loops that are to be kept in continuous operation during combat. He also indicated that the phase of the battle has an important bearing on the ideal allocation of one's energies. 

I know Boyd is making references to ‘combat’ and ‘winning’ but it is not a big leap to make the link to the dilemmas we face when dealing with props and scenarios that are going sideways on stage. On one level the OODA Loop can appear simple, it does however get deeper the more you investigate it.

What the OODA loop brings to my ‘Robocop’ process for slapstick is a reminder that the playground and tempo of the area of operation can and will no doubt shift all the time. When things are not as they should be there is no time to get caught up in what they should be – as the circumstances have changed so I need to move to the new circumstances. An example may be that a chair is not where it ‘should be’ on stage or has not actually even been put there. There is no time to waste on the motives around why it isn’t there. I must now move on and deal with the new. Time is of the essence.

Observe – Isolate specifically what has changed or occurred. What is different?  Identify clearly the parameters of the problem. File it away for future reference as well.

Orient – Mentally check if I have experienced something like this before if so draw on that. Adjust emotionally, mentally and physically to what has occurred. Orient myself fully to the problem. Slow my breathing down so I remain open to change and be calm. Bring the tempo of the operation under my control.

Decide – Based on all the available options and story needs you will make a hypothesis about what is the best course of action to take. 

Act – Another word Boyd used was ‘test’. Because ultimately this whole process is a learning cycle and decisions you enact will feedback into the whole process. Thus, the cycle begins again.

No doubt there will be several observations and decisions you will be making in other areas of the performance. They will all impact on the whole feedback process. Remember it is fluid. Be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and you will be fine. One sure way to be ok with that is to train for it.  By train I mean training at operational tempo in a performative context. Train to be ready, to be ‘left of bruise’.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Left of Bruise. Part 1: Clusters of Clues

I have always had this expression when working on the floor – ‘I see dead people’. Lifted of course from the movie Sixth Sense. But what I’m saying is that I have always seen accidents before they happen. But over the years I have broken that down even more and tried to work out how and why I have this ability. This musing is about sharing that knowledge.

A major component of my movement praxis is about being ‘left of bruise’. Specially in my practice of slapstick and physical comedy. Left of bruise is a term I have appropriated and tweaked from the expression ‘left of bang’. In military and law enforcement circles ‘left of bang’ is a reference to a timeline when a deadly force incident has occurred. The ‘bang’ is when the attack begins, or damage is done or as the maxim infers when shots are fired. On this timeline moving from left to right, ‘right of bang’ is what happens after the event. Therefore, in the ideal world practitioners of this theory like to remain ‘left of bang’. 

Consequently, in my praxis, being ‘left of bruise’ is about being alert, ready, prepared, and able to respond before the injury (‘the bruise’) happens! Which means looking for pre-event indicators. This can be done by looking for a cluster of clues that could determine the likelihood of an accident, incident and or injury before it happens. 

For me the basic stage combat parameters of eye contact and cue are a great entry point for safety procedures.  Up front I am not knocking them, and I am certainly not saying don’t use them. I just think we can be more modern in our collective approach to safety. They are great for a basic stage combat class and even generating choreography. I am just of the opinion we can be more sophisticated. This can be done by creating diligent and vigilant safety procedures and practices for operating under performance conditions founded on our natural instincts. Specifically training those instincts to be more present and more receptive when in performance mode. I posit that most humans know when something feels a little ‘off’, that instinctual feeling that something feels unsafe. 
Developing and training an actors instinctual and situational awareness I believe can be the mainstay of remaining ‘left of bruise’.  

Because of the amount of work involved in this type of training I would like to unpack this blog over a few entries. 

Left of Bruise Part 1: Clusters
One aspect of my process for staying ‘left of bruise’ centres around looking for clusters of clues that lead up to events. Eventually that cluster will form a constellation and that constellation will mostly likely be an incident, accident and or an injury. ‘Bruise’. If not at the very least, you have remained alert to the possibility. Examples of clues might be an:
  •  actor’s shoelace may be about to come undone
  •  the pommel feels a little lose during a sword fight
  • fellow actor maybe running late for a fight call
  • the fight over the last few performances has slowly changed
  •  cast change
  • lines have been dropped in the lead up the fight moment
This list is extensive from my experience but hopefully you get the idea. There is always a cluster of clues we can sift through to ensure things are going according to the choreographic plan or are about to go sideways. This level of instinctual work needs to be trained at a performance tempo so actors can gauge how they will respond under pressure. Which goes beyond those two basic components of eye contact and cue. 

In order to frame the clusters of clues I find it easier to view them in these broader concepts. This helps to orient the binos (binoculars) when looking a little closer and deeper at the actor’s performance in front of me:
  • Atmospherically: The collective and individual attitudes, moods, and behaviours present in a given situation or place during rehearsals and performance and how that may impact on actors.
  • Geographically: Ability to notice correct use of the floor plan prescribed in the original choreography; and if that changes under performance pressure. Noticing props or furniture placement that is incorrect that now impacts on the fight scene.
  • Biological Responses to Stress: How do you or your fellow actors respond when the situation is going sideways? Have you trained for that? If you don’t know how you respond to stress, then it will just be a roll of the dice as to how your safety will turn out.
  • Proximity & Measure: The use of space, time and distance. How do actors use time and distance to their advantage? What kind of operational tempo do you train at and perform at? Are you even aware of your own tempo?
  • Kinaesthetically: Conscious and subconscious body language. Is your fellow actor aware of their body or not? Are they presenting body language that supports full knowledge of the choreography? Reading their eyes for clues.
Well this is a big subject matter which is why I want to unpack it over a few blog. But for now, I hope that helps you gain insight to how my brain sees safety! Lets all stay ‘left of bruise’ – safe fighting!

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Creative ways to help actors acquire stage combat techniques

When my mindset is stimulated and engaged the capacity to deepen and broaden my skill set is enhanced – Creative ways to help actors acquire stage combat techniques

“When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow – you are not understanding yourself.” Bruce Lee

Around 1998 I was exploring and advocating for a different form of delivery in stage combat from purely an acquisition of techniques to a process-based form of tuition. What do I mean by process-based?  In simple terms: utilising seemingly unrelated exercises, movement patterns and forms of exploration to gain insight and understanding of the combative arts; think ‘wax on / wax off’. My objectives and goals were still the acquisition of the skill stage combat. However, my pathway to that procurement of that skill set was geared towards concepts and principles. This line of enquiry eventually became the backbone of my MFA.

Why would I do this? The primary driver: Actors in an acting institution environment are adult learners and often have no combat knowledge and or experience. As such I generally observed actors had an inability to get their heads around combative techniques and sequencing that were extremely foreign to their bodies. As a result, the agitator in me was railing against subjecting creative people to learning techniques by mechanical rote. What I started out with was a simple enough objective – develop a process-based approach. But as my method and pedagogical development evolved it became convoluted.

What exacerbated my development was that stage combat itself was evolving. This blossoming evolution of stage combat was in hindsight a wonderful time in the development of modern stage combat. My observation of the progression of stage combat can be attributed to several major factors.

  •       The number of practitioners around the globe was growing at a rapid rate

  •      Those new teachers of stage combat were coming out of their exposure to stage combat via acting school as opposed to traditional pathways; that of the fencer/actor

  • The inclusion of the study and application done on old fighting manuals and systems was booming – the likes of Payson Burt and Brad Waller spring to mind.

  •          Industry demands through various styles becoming fashionable (Krav & Kali as an example)
The skill set itself had started to become vast and unwieldy. So much so that the current dilemma faced by any stage combat guild or society developing a stage combat syllabus is the daunting task of how to deliver so many martial systems. Which is why for me the old notion of Basic, Intermediate and Advanced may need to be rethought – but I will leave that for another blog!

There was a time where we, by we I mean western theatre stage combat teachers just had; unarmed, rapier & dagger (I’ll include case, buckler and cloak here), small sword, quarterstaff, sword & shield and old school broadsword. It was simple and linear. The complication of the vast number weapons systems galvanised my personal pursuit. Simultaneously my study with the work Brad Waller was doing highlighted to me I was on the right path. 

The field of study is now too wide and diverse for any simple stage combat system. The conclusion I came to was that I needed a martial systems-based approach combined with a movement process-based methodology. So now I focus on common martial concepts across all systems, the ranges of movements expressed through these martial forms combined with the extended development of gross and fine motor skills through patterns and sequencing. 

Which meant I renewed my objectives and goals when teaching stage combat. Primary goal: develop an actor who can be placed in any cultural, stylistic or timeline demand and have an adaptable platform that can acclimatize to the needs and demands of both the story and the fight director. Secondary goal is to create an inbuilt safety operating system in the actor. Based on these deeper approaches to movement forms and combat systems. This approach is about developing an actor who is operating at a higher safety frequency and recognises when things are not right or not safe. A pre-emptive mindset that recognises glitches in a choreographic matrix through heighten situational awareness. Eye contact, cue and safe distance are great as a baseline safety, but those basic introductions to safety understandings are making big assumptions that actors can function well under pressure and when things go wrong. They don’t factor in unsafe anomalies. Baseline plus glitches equals informed decisions.

As a comparison exercise let’s look at someone like Dr. Keith R. Kernspecht a sports scientist and combatology expert who has been practicing martial arts since 1958. In a paper he presented to the Ido Movement for Culture - Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology he was presenting an argument on the ideas surrounding self-defence. What was interesting to me in Dr. Kernspecht paper was his advocation for developing “non-specific training in general, basic capabilities such as consciousness, flexibility, balance, physical unity, sensual perception (especially tactile), timing, sense of distance and most particularly the development of fighting spirit and familiarisation with the effects of adrenalin is of great importance for the development of a self-defence capability.”  

Here we can see someone also on a similar journey. Looking for a simple system. A system that is adaptable and applicable, fluid not fixed. Fluidity and simplicity are what I am chasing. Systems of combative arts and forms of movements that allows me to fully explore myself and my students too, stretch my abilities and enhance my capabilities rather than being locked into a number of set siloed stage combat syllabi. 

to be continued...

Sunday, October 6, 2019

the simplicity of breath and water...

I’d just like to frame this up for you before we go at it. As I age, I am continually striving to refine many aspects of my life both creatively and holistically. One of my recent curiosities into simplicity is the role water and breath play in our lives and their interconnectedness. The beauty of anything that appears wonderfully simple is that there is a complexity behind its design.  

To help you with the framing process of this week’s musing I have been recently re-reading sections of The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. As such the way in which I would invite you to view water and breath is through the Japanese elemental meaning / definition. (which for the benefit if this musing I have taken from Wikipedia)

Sui or mizu, meaning "Water", represents the fluid, flowing, and the formless things in the world. Outside of the obvious example of rivers and the lake, plants are also categorized under sui, as they adapt to their environment, growing and changing according to the direction of the sun and the changing seasons. Blood and other bodily fluids are represented by sui, as are mental or emotional tendencies towards adaptation and change. Sui can be associated with emotion, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism.

Fū or kaze, meaning "Wind", represents things that grow, expand, and enjoy freedom of movement. Aside from air, smoke and the like, fū can in some ways be best represented by the human mind. As we grow physically, we learn and expand mentally as well, in terms of our knowledge, our experiences, and our personalities. Fū represents breathing, and the internal processes associated with respiration. Mentally and emotionally, it represents an "open-minded" attitude and carefree feeling. It can be associated with will, elusiveness, evasiveness, benevolence, compassion, and wisdom. 

The simple act to breathe in times of stress and anxiety can make a big difference to how we make sound decisions. Good breathing technique can make all the difference to remaining calm. Calm and chaos are both extremely contagious. So, let’s focus on the calm. What happens when we breathe with a view to remain calm and engage the parasympathetic nervous system?

I’ll just back it up at that point for those not as familiar with our nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the branch of the nervous system that carries out the vital functions of the system without conscious control. This system is again divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic.  Put in basic terms the sympathetic nervous system role is to gear us up in moments of fight and flight response for example heart rate, blood pressure, sweat secretion and pupil dilation.  Whereas the parasympathetic nervous system basically does the opposite. Decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and prepares the body for digestion rest and sleep. 

With a focus on the exhalation cycle in our breathing we can start to tap into that part of the parasympathetic nervous system and begin to regain some control. There are many techniques out there and I’m sure Dr. Google will help you. Basic ones are box breathing, 2-1 or 4-7-8. Which ever you choose the focus in on the ‘control’ of the exhalation is the key. Where my current training is taking me, I am focused on the box breathing. But that is where I am at. 

There is enough research out there to know that dehydration adversely affects us, even in very small amounts of dehydration our visual tracking and short-term memory are affected. Our brains are about 75% water. Water has a vital role in our body’s overall health, including keeping your neurons firing well!

Neurons send signals that allow your body to move, talk and function. Water makes the myelin sheaths (the thing that covers the neurons) thicker, thus helping it to work better. Put simply drinking water keeps you brain fuelled. Given your brain has no way to store water it’s up to you to provide that constant flow. 

Breath and water. Their interconnectedness to and affect our nervous system is wonderful. The simplicity of it is amazing and yet the complexity is magnificent. The mindfulness that we can bring to it as a simple daily task could have a huge effect on our overall life. When in doubt; take a sip of water and a breath of fresh air. When hit with an emotional front – take a sip and a breath. When learning something new – sip and a breath.

to be continued...

Sunday, September 22, 2019

acting is being... not acting

I had a couple of thoughts to share this week. I'll keep it simple given that’s my theme this year.

Be aware strong car mechanic metaphors ahead!

Acting is about 'being' not acting. For me our craft is about just being – being present, being available and being open. If we can achieve that simplicity, we are in a good place. We are positioned to service good work. To that end, keeping any instrument running efficiently it needs to remain highly tuned.

My observation over the last 30 years of many acting students has been they stop learning upon graduation. Certainly, in Australia anyway. In my opinion graduation it is just the beginning of true investigation of education and a deeper learning.

What I am trying to achieve in my movement drop-in classes might therefore be better thought of as a garage. A place to bring your instrument in and get a serious diagnostic and tune up. Then using the information from the diagnostic to inform your personalised development with a view to create a more biomechanical, functional and economical instrument. Moreover, helping you with gaining agency over the way in which you continue to build on that knowledge over the years to come. The drop-ins are there for you to keep tinkering on areas that need work.

It’s not until you put the car up on the hoist and really look under the chassis and or under the hood do you really see where the problems are. A lot of cars look nice and shiny and have great paint work but doesn’t mean it is running well.

I would invite you to take part in the drop-ins for you to start really taking an honest look at your instrument. I will be there to aid you in your self-improvement. After all I’m still learning too after all these years.

To be continued no doubt!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Wonder of Gravity II

(Previous blog about gravity: link to Wonder of Gravity I)

Gravity has a huge effect on our body. It impacts on our blood pressure, our bone density and our muscular system. The two areas that are of interest to me are the bones and the muscles. Bone density is what helps our structure and muscles (for the sake of this musing I’m including ligaments and tendons here) gives us stability. 

Because gravity is acting on us all the time these two areas are getting a mild workout continuously. The ongoing force of gravity is by default ensuring you maintain some form of structure and stability to remain standing. Essentially our joints are either collapsing under the force of gravity (pronation) or it is using resistance against it (supination). A delicate balance of both pronation and supination are required for a fluid balanced motion.

This delicate use of pronation and supination combined with our base (what our feet are doing) help to determine the best placement of our centre of gravity (CG) for any given physical task. If our CG moves past the line of our base, we will fall (see what I did there) victim to the forces of gravity.

What does this investigation into gravity have to do with mastering learning to fall as an actor? For me there are two forms of falls we can do as actors. 1. Where my feet remain on the ground during the fall and 2, when they don’t! One of these falls obviously has a higher degree of risk. My focus here is on the first where my feet are on the ground.

Something causes the body to fall, the effect is; it falls over.  Simple enough. Simulating a human falling means to embody the force of gravity. We are essentially feigning that our CG has moved past the line of our base. The conundrum is that if we replicate that we endanger many parts of our body; coccyx, wrists, skull and kneecaps to name but a few!

Therefore, the art of falling lies in our ability to disguise the safe harbouring of our CG within the base line so as to not actually topple over and yet give the impression we have done so. A wonderous physical alchemy of the supination and pronation of ankle and knee joints combined with an acute use of and harmony of gravity.