never fight a clown...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

a shared thought...

The thoughts that follow in this post are in reference to my teaching of actors, primarily with respect to stage combat. However, my philosophical application of (and to) Chaos & Order and the discoveries shared below also relate to my teaching of acting, improvisation, mask, clowning, slapstick and an interesting class called ‘Creative State’. For the purpose of this posting, I shall elaborate a little on what is meant when I am referring to my methodology of Chaos & Order, and my recent discoveries in class and on the floor in rehearsals.

In simplistic terms, there is a relationship that exists between the two elements Chaos and Order. The basic concept of Chaos Theory is that random events have an underlying order. We can use Chaos Theory to understand more about how an actor problem solves or acquires and processes new skills. What appears to be a series of chaotic events can in fact have an order, something that I will elaborate upon further.

Over the last six months my process of Chaos & Order has taken on a deeper sense of application, learning and comprehension. It is worth noting my use of the term ‘process’: I am personally very tired of using it, but for now it shall suffice, and I shall save my thoughts on that for another blog. Although I feel my work is ever-evolving, I have been confused by my inability to articulate that development. However, I now feel that I can begin to articulate it, or at the very least, try and share it here.

In January 2011, I returned to my ‘mountain of contemplation’, the place where I am able to renew my understanding of my artistic endeavours in stage combat and fight directing. This ‘mountain of contemplation’ is the Paddy Crean Workshop in Banff, Canada, an amazing workshop held every two years, bringing together some of the most interesting folks in the movement and combative arts. Anyone who knows their geography would know that Banff is literally on a mountain. I have been visiting Banff for ten years and every time I return there I meet old friends, make new ones and reflect. Here, in isolation from the ‘real world’, I experience and discover new ideas, share techniques and take part in a cross-pollination of disciplines.  I find I am able to share my mythology with students, participants and peers. My mountain affords me a small window of time to really reflect on my process (ugh, that word again) and really call into question what I am doing, how I am doing it and more importantly, why I am doing it.

On my most recent visit, a friend of mine, Tim Klotz, asked me why I didn’t write more on my blog. It made me think: do I actually have anything to say? I felt there was something I had to contribute and I set about seeking clarification (for myself) on what it is that I actually do when sharing with my students in a class – particularly in reference to Chaos and Order. (I prefer not to use the word ‘teach’ – I like to think of it as sharing.)

Over the last twenty years of sharing, I have had all sorts of epiphanies, ideas, approaches, break-throughs and philosophies occur to me.  By in large, I over-complicated everything. However, in the last few years I have tried to distil my philosophies down to just a few concepts. Regardless of where my thinking has taken me, the driving question has always been the same – why do some actors pick up stage combat more easily than others? I am not just referring to remembering moves or knowing how to sling a sword or push another actor safely. I am suggesting a deeper understanding, one I felt I had instinctively. In my early days of teaching, I was unable to articulate and unpack this instinct for my students. Now, however, I feel I am better able to discuss my approach towards Chaos and Order.

An actor is taught, learns and then performs a technique. Let’s take the technique of a parry, a defensive move used in sword play to prevent an opponent’s attack from landing. Simple enough. One could even say a parry is just a parry. But what complicates the process for an actor learning to apply all this new information is all the variables that come into play as he or she realises that the parry can be used and applied to so many scenarios and contexts. Ultimately, it is a form of septic focus to only teach a parry, what is meant by this is that there needs to be a holistic approach to the teaching, a parry cannot be taught in isolation it needs to be taught within a set of combative principles along with the rest of the frame work that sits around the combative requirements and kinaesthetic awareness needed when and while performing the parry. There is the kinaesthetic languaging that takes place while performing the parry, the potential emotional drive behind it, the demands of the script, the probable costume restraints and so the list continues. So now a parry is not just a parry.

Humans are a complex system. We are in on-going interaction, development and learning with and by our environment. This includes the physical world and as well as other humans within that environment and we learn by that process and the interactions in turn inform new developments and new directions. In chaos theory, there is sensitivity to dependence on initial circumstances. A small alteration in the initial situation can lead to major change in the long-term behaviour of a system. The actor learns a technique – a parry (initial circumstance). Then the use and application of the parry occurs and deeper understanding ensues (alteration). This is finding order within chaos. Students are now on the edge of understanding.

Of course, at this stage I have only refereed to a technique in isolation. In reality, an actor will have to (amongst other things) use this technique alongside a series of other techniques and also deliver text, avoid trip hazards, work generously with other actors, be aware of lighting, work within the limitations of some costuming dilemmas, keep the action contained for various angles and shots (for film), be mindful of the audience (for theatre), work safely and most importantly, convey the story. In short, actors are continually multi-tasking and problem-solving.

While I feel I am able to multi-task and problem-solve while performing, I have not always shared this fundamental part of our job with my students – I was taking it for granted. While at Banff this year, I began to explore what was to become a breakthrough in my process and the relationship between Chaos and Order. I began to share this idea with Spencer Humm and together we started with some basic multi-tasking exercises to see how students would react. We set tasks that I felt were fairly simple – say doing two or three things at once. I was astounded at the small level of tasks any one person (generally speaking) could perform. For the most part the actors’ brains began to fry!

Since my mountain visit, I have developed a large range of exercises that focus on problem-solving and multi-tasking. The exercises stimulate both logic and creativity. For the most part, whether an actor is learning stage combat, rehearsing a script or performing a role, they are often in what chaos theory physicist Norman Packard calls ‘the edge of chaos’ -  a state of complexity that exists between order and chaos . I think the concept is very pertinent to what I am attempting to do when I place my students in a complex state of learning. The exercises I have created since my Banff visit, immerse students in a complex situation for a given amount of time to increase their ability to operate in that context. Students begin to see the need to compartmentalise aspects of techniques and develop skills to problem solve.

I am not suggesting that an actor be a multitasking guru, but rather that developing multi-tasking and problem solving skills is a great way to help an actor deal with certain scenarios which may occur on the job. I am attempting to help increase their ability to switch between tasks and deal with dilemmas in a high pressure situation. Here’s an example that has happened to me:  in the middle of performance, I began to feel the handle on my sword loosen. I had to make a series of decisions about what to do next, knowing that it could save someone from serious injury. This is why I am suggesting that the range of exercises need to fluctuate between multi-tasking and problem-solving. In a controlled environment, I am taking my students to the edge of chaos.

What I am hoping to achieve is that my actors can learn to identify when something is becoming chaotic and when things need to be brought back to order. I am also helping them become aware that from a spectator’s point of view, we may want things to appear chaotic - but we on the stage, or on set  must look for the order. Ultimately the audience members don’t want to see our homework.

to be continued...