Thursday, August 16, 2018

Talking with the bones. Listening with the muscles.

In recent musings I have made reference to my  Emptiness Compass: a process driven approach to my movement training. This has been the launching pad for many of my musings over the last year. Riffing on last week’s musing about spirit and energy I wanted to share my maxim I made up many years ago: Talking with the bones and listening with the muscles.

If we subscribe to the notion that when an actor grabs another actor, pushes another actor (hands or feet) or even crosses swords with another actor – a “conversation” is taking place. On a deep physical level - one person is “communicating” with another. I believe my maxim is relevant to humans not just actors but hey; to the musing at hand. Therefore, it follows that if one actor is ‘talking’ the other actor must be ‘listening’. This doesn’t have to be the grabber or pusher – in fact the actor being grabbed or pushed can / could be the one ‘talking’ and vice versa.

So, if someone is talking and someone is listening what are they taking with and what are they listening with? It is a physical landscape after all so it’s not our mouths and it’s not our ears. Yes of course we use our awareness but to be more specific for me: I talk with my skeletal structure and listen with my muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Due to the straight nature of my femur, tibia, fibula, humerus, radius, ulna, they have a direct line to someone’s core - after all that is what I am talking to, even if I am grabbing their elbow, ‘push’ kicking them or pushing them. Ultimately, I am talking to their ‘hara’. So, if my bones are talking to them – they must be listening. When I am being grabbed etc. I am listening with the subtler parts of my anatomy in this case my muscles. (I include ligaments and tendons in this). My muscles can absorb what is being ‘said’ and interpret it for my ‘hara’ so I understand what is being communicated and work our how best to deal with is, so my balance is not compromised.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

spirit & energy

The Emptiness Compass I have been referring to in some previous blogs is comprised of 12 paired words. These paired words when used together are designed to help keep a participants and students focused on an exercise / task at hand to ensure they are remaining in process rather than a product or outcome driven mode. 

My musings for this week’s newsletter bring me to one set of those paired words: Spirit & Energy. So, what do I mean by these words and what am I hoping a participant will gain by focusing on these two words?

“The floppies” is a term that I use when a person has no spirit or energy. No Life force as it were Being energised and tapped into your spirit is a must for this sort of work. Not only for your own safety but more importantly having your spirit and energy ‘switched on” on means you are actively accessing your physical communication receptors – meaning your body is alert to stimuli. Conversely you are sending information for someone else to read as well.

Mistakenly actors seem to perceive being energised with being tense and spirit with intent. For me being energised is about making your structure and alignment bristle with liveliness and by spirit I’m referring to your essence.

The combination of these two elements: spirit and energy make for a deep human body ‘space dish’. If trained, honed and tapped into; can allow the actor to pick up on the subtlest of information being transmitted. Thus giving the actor an extra set of eyes and ears on what is actually going on around them.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

"Can you direct our fights but make sure they're safe"

“I’d like you to choreograph a fight for our production, but can you make sure it’s safe?”

For the record questions like this continually do my head in. Surely, it’s implicit in the job title isn’t it? Fight Director. We work in an industry that over the last decade has been going through huge overhauls to its risk assessment process. In terms of both physical and emotional safety in the workplace. Which is fantastic and a natural response to high injuries, bullying and a lack of policy and procedures over the previous decades.

With respect to physical injuries in our industry. I’d be curious to see the proportion of injuries sustained through a staged fight that has been choreographed by an appropriately trained fight director and injuries in other workplace areas of theatre for example but not limited to; working from heights and electrics. My instinct is that given how long fights have been choreographed for I would imagine our collective safety record as fight directors must be high comparatively speaking. If anyone has stats out there I would be very welcome to see them.

My observation over the last 30 years since choreographing my first fight in the mid-eighties has been: that safety is built into the frame work of fight direction. I’m basing this opinion on the years of development that have gone into the art form. My impression is that safety is in fact within the scaffolding and foundation of the choreographic process. Even a novice would consider basic old school principals like: the victim does the work, eye contact and cueing. It strikes me (pun intended) that this long-term development of safety within fight direction positions the art form at the forefront of risk assessment.

I’m not saying the industry wasn’t (or isn’t currently) safe - I’m just making the observation that for the fight director, safety awareness appears to be built into the language and vocabulary when discussing and building a fight scene with actors. As opposed to (certainly in the years gone by not now-a-days) if I were doing a scene as an actor that didn’t appear to involve ‘combat’ there was no discussion around ‘be safe while rehearsing or developing that physical scene’ or even having a discussion around safety after a scene was explored.

I have this ability to see an incident or accident before it’s going to happen based on my years of experience as a performer and choreographer. The cues for seeing possible incidents and accidents are not always obvious; they could be as small as an unusual foot placement, prop being held in pronation rather than supination or an actor appearing a little ‘off’ emotionally one day.  I’ve trained my eye to see beyond safety towards a future that hasn’t happened yet. It is focused on the possible domino effect from one small movement. Seeing into the future like an upside-down pyramid of risk. 

So, I find it frustrating sometime on jobs when people outside the process of fight direction say: ‘that doesn’t look safe’. I acknowledge that different people have their own sense of what is; or appears unsafe or dangerous however if I’m employed to make something safe then surely it follows I’m qualified to know if something is safe.  Knee jerk reactions after a failed first attempt at an idea during a rehearsal like people saying: ‘well that has to change’ or ‘that’s not safe’ are further frustrations.

Have we gone too far though? Therefore, the question in my head is: are we behaving like helicopter parents with our actors? Are we being overly cautious? To be extremely clear I am not saying be reckless. I am not inferring we explore physical scenes in an unsafe way. I’m just expressing my observation around how safety is perceived and managed.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Venn diagram of Stage Combat & Martial Arts

When it comes to concepts and skills in terms of delivering a stage combat class. I constantly refer to two ‘spheres’ of knowledge. One is the art form I am delivering of course; stage combat and the second is naturally martial arts. Both with a series of skills, concepts, codes and practices which must be understood and honoured by the student. Eventually they will need to embody those skills and concepts in order to apply it when called upon. 

From my experience of teaching actors there is a wide continuum of understanding in relationship to the two circles of knowledge I have mentioned.  This ranges from the complete novice in both spheres through to those who have a great knowledge of both.  Ultimately, I believe we are trying to bring both spheres together like a Venn diagram. The larger the cross over in intersection area of the Venn diagram then the better chance I have of creating an actor who has more versatility across multiple weapons systems.

So, the task when training actors is developing exercises that work to align both spheres to help increase the intersection of knowledge for the learner. 

To be continued…

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

problem solving & multitasking Part II

“Years ago, I remember dropping a glass with liquid in it on stage during a performance. I could feel the condensation on the outside of the glass slowly undermine my grip of the glass. As it was slipping from my fingers; externally I was presence, delivering lines and listening for cues. Internally however I was developing a process to deal with the glass that was about to break at my feet and the feet of fellow cast members. My mind was developing a strategy for how to clean up the glass.  I even considered going off stage and getting a dust pan between my lines. I was even deciding on how to incorporate the soon to be broken glass on the floor into the scene should I have to or need to. The glass did indeed break and all ended well. However, what stuck with me the most after the show was how ordered and calm my thoughts were.” …

“Play with knives expect to get cut.” = “Performing slapstick expect a bruise.”

“(Disclaimer: I am not advocating to push through injuries or to perform with a reckless mindset. What I’m entertaining here is that with a solid training approach, actors can safe guard themselves and be mentally and physically prepared for when things go wrong) “…

“Therefore; the trick is to develop exercises and tasks in training that replicate choices under pressure. The main principle of my approach is prioritising how to deal with; and respond accordingly to an issue or accident that arises. A way into this approach is to start looking for a range of variables within a spectrum of scenarios that an actor may find themselves in. By seeking the order in this spectrum of perceived chaos, one can start to reduce stress levels because a series of responses can be programmed in the conditioning training level.”

Part II

When contemplating and designing training exercises that help to advance problem solving & multitasking as an asset in the actor’s tool kit I naturally look to my own experience and how I honed those skills across the last 30 years. I fully realise that nothing will ever replace experience. My goal in the development phase of exercises is however to decode my skill base as a resource.

The key to problem solving and multitasking as I see it is: experience combined with an ability to see past problems and tasks. To train the eye to see pathways that lead to solutions rather than seeing a series of obstacles. The more time spent in a variety of situations the more likely one can see patterns and the range of variables that will present themselves. The development of this insight will lead to informed and calculated decisions that can be made more effectively under pressure. Worth noting when I say multitasking I know we are not really ‘multitasking’ but rather we are prioritising and switching between tasks. That said our ability to switch between tasks with accuracy is what we can train or develop.

Experience has also taught me to remain open as you move through your career to the full range of opportunities that are presented to you. Every performance, rehearsal or class is a chance to see the order in the chaos. This could be as insignificant as observing the differences between a sabre hilted sword landing on the ground as apposed to a rapier hilted sword. Noting how they behave differently as they land. Or something as insignificant as the tempo with which a chair falls backwards after it goes past its point of balance. Witnessing the way gravity acts on these activities. The smallest of details can be filed away. Each time they are filed away compare them to the last time you saw the same thing happen and note the differences and similarities.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

humility, humour & hope

In previous blogs I have made references to my 'Emptiness Compass.' Which utilises a set of coupled words to form my process driven approach to movement for actors. Over the past 20 years or so three other words have continued to take meaning and purpose in my process: humility, humour and hope. So much so I use them as a bi-line for my academy. 

Why do I use these words at Combat Circus? The words have always been in my verbal lexicon. But over these years the relationship between them and the order with which I use them has become clearer for me. They are designed in that order as a mantra of sorts.

Humility is a great platform from which to start any activity or class. The warm up can be a great place to defrag from the day. To empty the mind and see the people before you as equals. To warm up before the work in a place of peace and tranquillity. To drop the personal baggage at the door. To aid the process of seeing the work about to be presented to yourself from a lack of judgement. 

Humour is always a fantastic way to see oneself. The class content before the student is always designed to  be challenging. To challenge the sense of self and the physical abilities one thinks  they may have or abilities they didn’t know they had. To see ones failures in activities as gifts not obstacles. To give over to the process. To take oneself lightly. 

Hope is the natural progression then in this context. To grow from humility and humour and see that there is hope in the work and the greater world before oneself. Hope in the approach to the work. Hope in the ability to  push through any difficulties that one may have with the work. Hope that the work will engage in the greater journey for the student.

From hope we can pass onto humility again and thus the cycle begins again.

Thursday, June 7, 2018


In a previous blog (link) I made mention of the word 'Harmony' coupled with 'Empathy' in the context of my Emptiness Compass.

I'd like to extend my thinking a little more on what this word means for me and more importantly the how and why I promote it as way of guiding actors to a deeper understanding of self, others and environment.

The image of a butterfly moving against the wind comes to mind. The butterfly isn't fighting the breeze but yet is moving forward. Or a sail boat working in sync with the cross breeze and yet moving forward. The harnessing of energy for a greater good.

Aikido use the a great word - blending and sometimes; musubi - a form of unity. Great ways to conceptualise what is needed from a task at hand being explored when both Uke (attacker) and Nage (the one exploring the technique) need to harmonise to ensure the task will breed a successful application and understanding of a technique.

The Uke must attack with truth. It is the only way for Nage to truly get a grasp on what is to be explored. A careful act of listening on both parties especially the Nage who is utilising subtlety and responsiveness. The sensitivity required will allow Nage to responds according to any slight variations of the attack and thus be listening to the moment. 

This approach to training always struck me as a possible useful tool for actors to explore the physical world of their craft. I think harmony as a noun is a tricky way to visualise what I’m referring to. However when used as a verb; to harmonise. I think then it can be an action word and thus a stronger word for actors to enact in their work.

By generating exercises that promote
a collective focus both actors must work in harmony to get results. By generating exercises that facilitate a feeder and a receiver (Uke & Nage), it enlists an honesty and drives actors away from performing martial arts but rather asks of them to explore the truth of a technique and be present. Not to over play any one moment over another and to truly honour the value of a specific movement.

Put simply: to guide actors to focus on the other.