never fight a clown...

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Ctrl+alt+del Redux

I don't know about you but Covid has brought into sharp focus the serious need for self reflection, self evaluation and action. Working in an industry that for the most part doesn’t really exist at the moment and what work there is, isn’t enough to support a large family. The time has come for a serious reboot.

So many cheap posters, metaphors and platitudes come to mind that I could turn to in order to find some motivation through this extremely difficult time. But ultimately three things have stuck with me and have actually motivated me.

The first one is ctrl+alt+del. This famous reboot combination of buttons first invented by David Bradley at IBM around 1980. You can google loads on this but in short he was a programmer who was sick of the system crashing while working on a project for IBM so he quickly invented the keyboard short cut to save time from having to manually re start the system. 

His logic with these buttons was based on their location being so far apart you have to use both hands. That way no one could possibly bump those buttons by accident. So my point is when we reboot. We need to actively engage in the process. Just saying reboot is the platitude but to actually reboot takes a physical action of setting about change. To use both hands across the keyboard of your life and with purpose, strike the buttons and make the change. It can’t happen by accident. 

The second thought about dealing with change was reflecting on “Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” by Morihei Ueshiba. Which in turn made me think about working with my bonsais. We must remain like the new shoots; green and subtle - open to the elements and not like the dead wood. Remaining green allows us to be open to shifting, adapting and change.

Lastly I know this expression is a pet hate of someone who has in himself become a huge source of inspiration - Brian Marren. (Shout out to the guys at Arcadia Cogenrati) “Think outside the box” I too hate this expression. Adaption comes from using all the elements within the box. Not outside. Thinking outside the box suggests to me images of someone who couldn’t use what was in the box so they had to go outside it. My ability to change and adapt comes from within me not outside. I hold the keys for change and it is up to me to dig deep and look inside myself and see what capacity I really have to become a-new. 

My personal growth over these last 6 months has allowed me to be a more honest me. I hope that you have found the frustrations of isolation to become a source of growth rather a diminishing experience.

Don’t file down the edges of your potential. Keep them sharp. Work from humility in order to find the humour that will lead to hope.

Happy learning and training. Thanks for letting me share another musing. Don't forget to pop over and subscribe to the YouTube Channel for Combat Circus. YouTube Link

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Internet of Self. Part 1: The Body

Over the last year I have been listening to two interesting podcast series around future concepts: Sleepwalkers and This Time Tomorrow. Both raising amazing issues around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and our relationship to it with the future. In the latest series of This Time Tomorrow they continually refer to a construct known as: The Internet of Things (IoT). There are many new and evolving definitions of it – but let’s roll with Wikipedia version for now just to frame this up.

“The IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction”

So, what does this have to do with my curiosity and desire to improve myself and my art? I like to conceptualise our relationship between mind, body and spirit as the Internet of Self; our IoS if you will… see what I did there! Here is my definition.
“Our IoS is a conceptual structure of interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit. This awareness of the interconnectedness can give rise to a harmonious sense of self”

For our IoS to be fully interrelated it would follow that we need to really understand how each individual area has its own interdependence. In this musing I will focus on the Body.

As I have mentioned before in previous musings, I’m interested creating a notion of bodifulness. Which I have acknowledge isn’t a word but essentially, I’m appropriating some concept of mindfulness but using them in a movement awareness setting. I also recognize that mindfulness is about moment to moment awareness of everything around you, inclusive of the body supposedly. But I guess I am asking us to really dive into our awareness and communion of our bodies on a sophisticated level. Which in simple terms could be proprioception or kinaesthesia. That said I sense it is deeper than that.

The body is a remarkably sophisticated structure reliant on the delicate balance of so many systems. If we take the time to listen to these components, then we go a long way to feeling how our body is going from moment to moment. Some of the ways we can achieve this is by taking the time to really get to know our systems.

By systems I’m referring to:
  1. Circulatory system
  2. Respiratory system
  3. Nervous system
  4. Muscular system
  5. Skeletal system
  6. Digestive system and Excretory system
  7. Endocrine system
  8. Integumentary system / Exocrine system
  9. Immune system and lymphatic system
  10. Renal system and Urinary system
  11. Reproductive system

I’m going to dive into one system that is always overlooked. I’m choosing to dive in deep here because this particular system could be considered in many ways an internet of the body, just to extent the metaphor. I am of course referring to our Fascia. Interesting to note my favourite arts and science fusion hero Leonard DaVinci depicted fascia in one of his works.

The Fascia is a web of connective tissue made up of bands. These bands cover all the internal parts of the body from our head to toe and hold it all together.  This allows the muscles to move without friction along structures. You could think of the fascia as a pair of tights; closely gripping the entire body underneath the skin.

The fascial system retains a delicate balance of tension and flexibility. This make available an effortless, unhindered movement for each of our muscle groups while holding everything in place. If the fascia is restricted, then it follows that muscle contraction will be restricted. If we imagine the fascia like a glove; it has enough stuff to hold its shape, however, not enough to take weight. Highlighting every organ and system in our body has a function that only it can do; wonderfully however, none of it transpires without the effort of the body operating as a complete component. Maybe this highlights that we should not hyper focus on any one aspect of ourselves but rather its interconnectedness?

 Home schooling calls, to be continued. Over the coming musings I will keep diving into how I see this deep connection of self. This Internet of Self; my IoS.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Reflections on humility, humour and hope.

I have just returned from Singapore where I was fortunate enough to share clown and physical comedy with the second year BA acting students at LASALLE. The idea of sharing clown for the first time in a ‘non-western’ context was daunting to say the least. I was briefly paralysed by the usual ‘what a fraud am I’ routine. But realised I really just need to go back to my motto: Humility, Humour & Hope. After all a function and role of clown could be to put the spotlight on those three things for humanity, right? 

"The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them" - Molière
(his gendering not mine)

The sensitivity the clown needs to bring to any scenario is paramount. From there true listening can take place, for me sensitivity is born out of a place of humility. That place of humbleness that allows for subtle information to be transmitted. Guided by empathy. Taking the time to really notice what is happening around you atmospherically and emotionally and physically.

“Maybe I have the fear of being the 'poop' when I always try to be good with things that I do. But you see… a 3 year old kid won't correlate his/her self-worth to how much they fail. As grandiose as it sounds, clowning in its essence really stands for humility and sharing joy with others. This is where naivety is being embraced. But here we are, as we age, we are being tested of my humility and we build walls among ourselves, so we are incapable of being vulnerable in front of others, we become selfish and mean. How wonderful it is to see, feel and even be that 3-year-kid who loves nothing more than joy, pleasure and simplicity of the world? And the simple joy of just playing through happy accidents.” – reflection from one of the students.

Humour is a delicate double-edged sword. On the true edge is healthy humour and the false side isn’t. Laughing at ourselves and with others verses ridicule and laughing at people. It is so easy to use the latter. Social platforms in today’s society are a great example of that. To resist that easy quick wit takes virtue. Aristotle’s 12 virtues come to mind. 

“when i first heard that clowning was for the whole week, i couldn’t wait  for it to be over. and now that the week is over, i am utterly dismayed. i got less and less nervous as the week passed. the nervousness turned into excitement, and excitement turned into eagerness. i never expected to enjoy myself, yet here i am, with my friends, re-enacting what happened in class, and other people are staring. but it doesn’t matter. we’re having fun.” – reflection from one of the students.

Hope is more sophisticated than the ‘glass is half full’ approach or attitude.  The clown informs us that against all adversity we will prevail. They remind us that is not about how many times we get knocked down. It’s about how many times we dust ourselves off and get back up again.

“What really struck me was ‘you are not there to be funny’ and “there is no character, only clown” and not to have an attitude as clown, never show them that you are disheartened/disappointed. There were just a lot of revelations throughout the experience.” – reflection from one of the students.

"The greater the obstacle, the greater the glory in over coming it" - Moliere

The glue that holds my motto of humility, humour and hope together is joy and pleasure. Despite it all - it is paramount to maintain joy and pleasure. 

“Finding your joy is not about the denial of your current state, but finding what is wonderful in it and also what is wonderful about sharing it with your audience. Clowning is not about denial, you acknowledge and revel in it, be it a flop or a success.” – reflection from one of the students.

What underpins all this work is a sense of vulnerability. Vulnerability is not about being exposed, it is about being seen. To step into the light.

“Vulnerability for me is hard to access sometimes as an actor and an actor with an ensemble. One of the exercises we were made to do had us to stand in front of our peers and just “be present”. It sounds easy but to be a “clean template”, to be comfortable and not behind any impulsive behaviours, was an extremely challenging thing to do. However this innocence, joy and pleasure that i was starting to find gave me a new sense of independence from all the habits that i created as an actor trying to hide my insecurities. That was one of the biggest takeaways from clowning. This idea carried on for all the exercises that we did, and i believe for the future of my theatrical ventures in my career. Helped me as a human being and an actor.” – reflection from one of the students.

What a deeply joyous week. Thank you second year BA acting students of Lasalle. I learnt so much.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

In the Shadow of the Tree

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he
 (his gendering not mine, I would insert they)
will never sit in their shade.
Has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
Rabindranath Tagore

This inspirational quote got me thinking about the process of learning a new skill. Two things occurred to me about the acquisition of a new skill. There is our interface and difficulty with learning itself and the underlying components and depth of the skill itself. The quote made me ponder when we learn a new skill, we really have no idea how that skill will be utilised across the length and breadth of our lives. Nor do we know how the act of learning it will impact on us either.

What I mean is that sure we will use the skill in the short term for its intended purpose and desire to learn it. But as life progresses, the underlying facets of the skill may bear fruit in unexpected ways.  For example, we may learn how to ski but we have no idea what the deeper learning of that skill set will provide us and more over the difficulty we are confronted with when we try to learn the new skill.

We are usually confronted by something unexpected when learning a new skill. These ‘confrontations’ usually have to do with us, not the skill itself. Learning a new skill will always challenge us. Meeting challenges head on is not always comfortable and could be thought of as an opportunity to get outside our comfort zone. When we are outside that comfort zone great stuff happens!
"On the heels of your comfort zone is complacency and
on the heels of complacency is destruction"

Noble Gibbens.

The calm I feel now when trying something new is exciting. Knowing I will be challenged learning a new skill and having no idea what this will provide me to my future self is a form of Zen.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Have we evolved certain parts of our brain only to de-evolve our ability to move? Zen and the Art of the ‘Lizard Brain’.

The other day I took two of my kids swimming. It was 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and I had forgotten shoes for my daughter, so I gave her mine. Which meant I had to walk on the hot bitumen to the pool. It got me to thinking how soft my feet had become over the last 50 years. I remember a time as a kid going everywhere with bare feet. I would traverse hot surfaces and fields of grass covered in prickles. I could navigate a wide variety of surfaces without a thought or care.

How and why we become bipedal is divided amongst a few theories. Common themes from these theories attribute our vertical ascension to; the need to carry tools, standing in order to see food and or prey and the general freeing up the upper limbs.

Over time the liberation of the hands enabled us to make and use tools. Sadly, it also meant we needed our brains to evolve to catch up to being bipedal which unfortunately occurred millions of years after bipedalism occurred. Some of the disadvantages included potential back injuries as walking upright and being able lift or carry heavy objects put considerable stress on the lower back. It is thought that varicose veins could be the result of standing upright, due to circulatory system having to move blood against gravity. One of the biggest disadvantages is if injury occurs to one leg or foot it renders the individual unable to move. Despite all that we have survived as an upright. 

We have evolved and continue to evolve all the while trying to make things easier and more comfortable for ourselves. I would even go so far as to say we have pursued this ironically at the cost of movement. That is to say that we hardly move any more. Are we de-evolving physically while our minds evolve? Surely it’s time to bring about balance again.

If I take a snapshot of my day. My food is in the fridge. I don’t have to move much to get it, no hunting or gathering there. My washing has been done by a machine even the drying of it - I didn’t have to go to a river to wash it. On top of all that the terrain I move on is predominantly sealed and flat. I’m not forced to focus on my balance because the ground is mostly all flat. My body isn’t really challenged. There is no prey so my flight, freeze and fight response is not challenged.

This lack of movement is now exacerbated by being hyper focused on the handheld devises (‘text neck’) and bad posture especially at a desk. It is worth noting that the average weight of the human head is roughly 5.4 kilograms (12 pounds). Now when the neck is lent forward that weight on the cervical spine can inflate to as much as 27.2 kilograms (60 pounds) depending on the degree. Even with a small degree increase like fifteen degrees the weight of the head can more than double to around 12.2 kilograms (27 pounds). This extra stress on the neck and lower back combined with our general lack of movement means our poor bodies could be destine to de-evolve.

Therefore, I believe the challenge in our modern lives is to confront this absence of movement and lack of movement awareness front on. I would posit we can achieve this in two ways. By finding a system of movement that gets you up and moving well that works for you. This could be a movement class, martial arts, cross fit or climbing – regardless it needs to be a healthy and safe movement system that works for you. Secondly finding ways to tap into that part of our brain that has been left dormant as we have evolved – cerebellum or our ‘lizard brain’. It is directly connected to the spinal cord (or brainstem). As living creatures, we have basic tasks that must be performed in order for us to sustain life. Those functions originate in this most primitive portion of the brain. Tasks such as: reproduction, balance, reflexive behaviours, heartbeat, breathing, feeding, digestion and muscle control.

I sense the answer to reigniting our ability to move again and move well in the future lies in the harmonious use of the basic functions of the body with a huge awareness of the ‘lizard brain’. With a healthy mental and physical approach to developing our bodies and ‘lizard brain’ we could set our bodies up to be more prepared for a future that is yet unknown. If we think more globally and with a view to the future, we don’t know what our environment will look like. With all the atmospherics changes occurring we need to be more vigilant than ever as evolving humans. The very ground we walk on could be vastly different in the future than it is today. With all this talk of mindfulness I think it is also time to be considering a term: bodyfulness.

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’.