Tag Archives: Imagination

The Clown in us all

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I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.

Lecoq

Lecoq

However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.

lesson

‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’

Twist

 

Christmas Thoughts

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It feels like ages since I wrote – I’m aware my themes are sometimes similar and I’ve been lacking fresh ideas in the last few months; you’ve probably given up on me!

The John Lewis advert I think is delightful – it is simple in its message on one level but on another reminds us of the power of the imagination: the boy projects onto his toy penguin a real emotion, thus making the toy penguin live as a real penguin. What the unreal/real penguin desires is companionship – a very real need.  However fantastical the advert is, its deeper meaning is universal. And, when the penguin gets this companionship, his other friend – the boy – is as happy as he is.  Happiness gives happiness.

John Lewis

The power of the Every-Day: part 2

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‘The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper‘  W.B. Yeats

A quote from the Exposat 2013 exhibition in South Kensington (Imperial College), London, currently showing.  Here is what it is about –

Exposat: The theme is based on pieces and images suggesting how time and space can be re-presented. The title ‘EXPOSAT’ is an acronym of the phrase ‘EXploring Perceptions of Space and Time’. This is also a Catalan word meaning ‘exposed’ and is linked to ‘exposar’ – expose (reveal, uncover) which is a nice coincidence. The pieces are intended to portray one or many moments in time and space. These images or sequences are intended to reflect events, structures and processes and our perception of them. The objective is to provide experiences that link to the model of events in space / time that the pieces are intended to suggest. The intended mood of the exhibition is to portray interesting and perhaps novel ways of achieving this. The theme allows for exploring different techniques to capture moments in time and space and to record and present them and the linking of these to create a dynamic process of perception and re-perception.

The photographs and video installations show how we’re caught up in our everyday lives not knowing what we pass through.  The quote at the start of this article comes from the set of photographs produced by Kayode Disu, as does this quote:

‘There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception’ Aldous Huxley.

His set of photos show this brilliantly – people immersed in their own bubble and yet part of a whole.  Here is one of his many superb photos – this one shows the bubble of the underground – many private worlds in one public world:

Perspective

It is so easy to form a decision about something or how someone is and yet it would be easier to leave our imagination open:

‘The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favour that theory’ Thomas Jefferson.

Let us turn to Liverpool Cathedral where the expressions of the divine are certainly not caged in!  The striking sculpture on the front of the cathedral has not been made within any framework – there is no theory and because of this, it can be seen through the eyes of anyone:

Christ

Christ

and provokes individual repsonses such as the one inside of the cathedral:

I felt you and knew you loved me

I felt you and knew you loved me

Whether the quote is religious or not, whether the man on the front of the cathedral is Christ or not, when approached openly, the viewer is the one to benefit.

A Way of Seeing

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I often wonder if people who don’t enjoy culture or do not feel drawn to any kind of artistic endeavour, are missing out on a way of seeing the world.  The poet Coleridge said of imagination – that it is the unconscious, primordial power of the soul and that knowledge is wedded to feeling.  So this would indicate that for knowledge to be accurate, it must have a relationship to feeling, to emotion – even to the irrational.  He also said that imagination allows us to see reality as a whole.  Parts are seen as a whole through the creative imagination; art is not a skill – it is the imaginative work of the soul.  Art is a certain kind of seeing – the inner eye’s fusion of the external and internal.

Coleridge

Freud went so far as to say that the discontent of the world is due to the lack of connection between the inner and the outer.

So what of the person making the art – singing the song, playing the instrument, writing the music/song, painting the picture, dancing the dance, writing the poem or book, or acting the character?  Coleridge said that a poet can be known by how he/she makes the reader express their emotions. The artist does not know what they’re expressing until it is expressed – hence it is unconscious.  Mentality cannot be strictly identified with consciousnes itself – e.g a musician is not completely aware/conscious of what or how well they’re playing.  They have a mentality of it but are not 100% conscious of it.

So having said all this, we are pointed to the concept that imagination clarifies and makes aspects of life clearer; in the act of elaboration, ironically we see more clearly.

I leave you with two quotes; one from a composer of great music – Sergei Rachmaninov – who says that his need to create music is linked with his reaction to it after it is created.  Both are efforts to create something good and beautiful through which the rest of life can be carried –

‘I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music, remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty.’

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards and we often need tools – such as the arts and imagination – to understand it.  In the book ‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers, one of the characters says ‘how little of another person’s reality is visible to us.  We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen.  And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity.’

Vickers

Imagination is like a window which allows us to see others more clearly, as we use imagination to interpret the arts which are about people.  Film and Theatre Director Rufus Norris says in relation to his film ‘Broken’ – acting is the business of humanity.  The arts are more informative than we give them credit for and far more than simply fantastical.

Broken

‘Dance First. Think Later.’

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The quote is from a favourite writer of mine – of ‘Waiting For Godot’ and many other plays (see below).

dog quote

This is all very well – and a good idea most of the time, I think, but we are rarely able to.  Numerous examples show where people have danced – in other words done what they’ve wanted…and there are consequences for themselves and others.

Perhaps not so long ago I would have said yes to this philosophy with no hesitation as I do think it’s important to grab the moment and enjoy it for what it is – without thought.  I think I’d still say this but I’d add ‘as long as you don’t hurt yourself or other living beings (animal or human).’

Hollywood

What’s the link with Hollywood I hear you ask?  Well, Hollywood is the place where I suppose people do, and can, dance, and achieve great things – if they have the money and contacts.  I recently spent some time at Universal Studios LA and I was blown away by the dreams that have become real.

It is a place of dancing and thinking simultaneously and film makers would not have achieved anything if they had thought and then danced.

Dancing therefore is a metaphor for living life to the full and Universal is a place that takes you to where imagination takes over from reality.  In a world of 3D – which Universal uses to the full in its news rides and shows, we watch a fixed image which we think comes out at us and part of our world.  As we know, this is not the case – but we believe it to be the case.

Terminator

In the Terminator show, above, the Terminator is not really touching us but we believe it to be so.  Even when we are told ‘it is not real’ – we still jump when it happens!

Universal shows us – in a fun way – the benefits of dancing and not thinking.  The dimensions of the mind would not be stretched to their full capacity if we did only the latter.  And, dancing is often the more objective approach to life; thinking too much can be unhealthy as judgements can creep in.

Universal

Walking into Universal is walking into an impossible yet possible world.  It is not so far from the way real life works.

The Significance of ‘The Snowman’

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I love the Christmas animation, The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs.  I think it is a family event for some families; the kind of event which encourages people to sit together and watch at home, especially if there are children around on Christmas Day.

As a child, I loved it because of its magic.  Wow!…this snowman came to life and flew with the boy who built it.  Maybe this could happen to me if I build one.

flying snowman

As an adult, I love it because it holds memories of how easy it was to be transfixed by make-believe as a child – the memory is sad because life has taken over since and reality, which I find increasingly hard,  is not something we can run away from.  And if we do have the chance to run away for a brief moment, we are reminded that happy moments don’t last forever.  As with the snowman, he melts.

melts

But I do love it also because it does present that moment we have either within imagination or within real life, to escape – and learn from it – or even be changed forever by it.  The boy invites the snowman into his life to share some part of his human life:

Xmas lights

The snowman finds a motorbike – a novelty of the human world –

bike

and uses it to share some of ‘snowman world’ with the boy, when on their flight they drop in on a snowman party –

party

I guess again, I am making the point for good entertainment having a point to real life – since much of the time it is about real life.  The Snowman is about the need to imagine.  In the real world, imagining opens us to other worlds and other poeple.  In the case of this story, both snowman and human are able to live in each others’ worlds for a little.  There is always a risk when we open our minds – but most of the time it is because good moments are had, and good moments don’t always last – but the memory does and the morals learnt are not forgotten.  The risk is that we will be sad to lose something we love, but we will be likely better off for the experience.

cuddle snowman

The Arts as Illumination of Truth: Preaching to the Unconverted (but not on religion)

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It seems a natural urge to look for meaning…it’s a commonly held view amongst scientists, artists and religious people that enchantment comes naturally to us – the interest in meaning comes from imagination.  Curiosity makes us scientists, believers, artists, actors…  I’d go so far as to say it’s dangerous to not be curious and to question, because it means you are not open to other people and other ideas.  Art is not just about us and pure entertainment, it is a social tool to embracing others.  Art is about all of us, whoever we are.

Some art illuminates real life – some art in doing this, gives people a voice – because in real life some voices are crushed.  Harvey Fierstein, writer of the book La Cage Aux Folles on which the musical is based, says:  ‘Let’s be clear about this.  The characters in La Cage Aux Folles are living their lives out loud and having a wonderful time.  They are respected in their community.  That is still not the case for many people today, and there are still politicians and religious leaders who make a living out of preaching hellfire on this, and as long as that is the case, La Cage has a role to play in the world.’

Douglas Hodge as Albin in La Cage Aux Folles singing 'I Am What I Am'

The singer-songwriter Don McLean refers to himself as a ‘reporter’ as he writes his songs.  There are so many singer-songwriters, composers, writers, artists, who do seem to have this quality – I’ve mentioned some of them in previous articles.  Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Coope Boyes and Simpson and Ralph McTell I would add to this.  They offer a commentary on life….sometimes a way in to thoughts that we would otherwise not consider – like La Cage – yes it’s a feel-good, wonderful musical but it is more importantly about identity and being proud of who you are.

Likewise, fiction in novels is a way in round the back perhaps…we don’t always get at truth or honesty via the obvious way: ‘There’s this idea that autobiography is more truthful than fiction but I believe the opposite can be the case.  In fiction, you are constructing a truth, whereas in memoir you are trying to find one.  And sometimes the thing most in the way of that truth is yourself.’  (John Burnside)

See the quote from Oscar Wilde on the ‘About’ page on this blog…