January 30, 2013

Creating Dynamic Contact

"There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique." - Anne Bogart

Where does a performance exist? You might say: the space - the place we see it happening, for example on a stage, on a screen, over there in that corner! This is spatial; it uses the site as the measure and guideline for establishing a performance. Alternatively, you might say: in the act of viewing and naming what I view as a 'performance'. This is different to the spatial. It does not rely on the site, but rather privileges the eye of the viewer. A performance is happening because I view it - it reaches my eye. The trouble is: what about performances that are not 'seen' but are only heard, for example performances that take place in the dark or on the radio. I had a group of actors-in-training who created a piece that involved blindfolding the audience for the entire duration! This performance existed in the aural, but also through other sensations. Touch, smell, and the almost sixth-sense of knowing that an actor had come to sit next to you or that you were being watched.

Problematising the nature of performance through asking where it takes place opens up a very rich and unique way to approach devising. It is too easy to imagine creating a performance that focusses on the primacy of one sense, or one 'space'/'place'. By challenging the 'where' to a point when it starts to involve all the senses of the audience, we can open up not just occular sites for performance, but aural sites, olefactory sites, tactile sites and perhaps most interestingly, in-between sites. These in-between sites can be imagined as the spaces between senses (most simply conceptualised in the cross over between smell and taste eg. in smelling chocolate you can almost taste it too!). In-between-ness offers the devisor/actor/director a very interesting palette to work with.

Another form of in-between-ness is the space that exists between the actor and the audience member. This space can be imagined as the space of contact that exists between people. It is always changing, in-the-moment and thus improvisatory. At the beginning of each rehearsal or workshop I like to begin with an exercise which I've called 'Three Forms of Contact". This is where actors in the room start by jumping up and 'double hi-fiving' each other at a cue given by the facilitator (eg. me...) After doing this a few times the task changes. Now instead of jumping and hi-fiving the actors are asked to catch another's eye, exploring the contact before letting it go. The last form involves walking shoulder to shoulder, peeling off when the contact 'feels' finished.

These exercises make use of three very different ways of relating. The double hi-five is high octane. It raises the energy in the room. It is explosive and involves risk (if you make a mistake you end up slapping someone in the face!) The eye contact is subtle and involves a lot of silent negotiation (are you engaging me? do I wish to engage you? what's happening in this moment, intentionally speaking?). The shoulder to shoulder contact requires a deep listening to cues of rhythm, pace and direction. It is a de-privileging of the eye, (and the 'I'!) as the actors silently negotiate a movement in one direction, often navigating furniture, space and other actors.

Developing the kinds of awareness, the changes in rhythm, the different senses used and so on has the effect of opening up the actor's dynamic range of expression and contact with others (both scene partners or audience), however something else also becomes possible. That is, the mixing of different these forms of contact to create further dynamic presence, deeper awareness and the ability to remain present in not just one, but a spectrum of ways. In this case, the actors are asked to try and bring the explosive, high octane, 'dangerous' quality of the 'high-five' form of contact into the way they catch each other's eye. The 'high-fiving' should also now include an awareness that is more characteristically present in the shoulder to shoulder form, that is, silent collaboration towards a shared goal; and so on. (It is interesting to note that after 'mixing' forms of contact there are always less accidents in the 'high-five' form, less boredom and bumping into things in the shoulder to shoulder form, and less 'zombie' or 'psycho' qualities in the eye-to-eye form!) By becoming more sensitive to these different forms of contact, the actor starts to mix the qualities. In a sense by mixing, the actor starts to play with an in-between-ness that incorporates all these different forms, making for a more present, flowing and engaging performance.

Step two in developing dynamic contact is starting to be able to open up a 'third ear' in one's performance in the moment - that is, a sensing of what's needed in a particular moment to further the audience's engagement. When face-to-face with an audience member what quality needs to be increased in order to enhance the level of contact (and thus the level of engagement) with the audience. Do I need to up the high octane energy level, do I need to work more intuitively, listening to and anticipating the direction of attention of the audience. Or do I need to develop a more intimate quality to my performance, catching their eye and working subtly?

As Romeo & Juliet Go Business! is a promenade, site specific performance, the way that the actors engage dynamically with the audience will largely determine the audience's experience. At times the actors may find that alienating the audience will push them to explore the space and the different performances taking place across the building. At times the actors will need to re-assure and develop an increased level of trust with the audience. The trick is, to develop in the actors the ability to sense which mixture of qualities of contact is required at which moment, and also, what 'level' or 'dosage' of a quality needs to be increased or decreased in order to engage the audience more fully in the experience.

Every actor will bring their very own style and unique kind of quality to these three, very broad forms of contact. A whole spectrum of unique qualities thus opens up when working with an ensemble. This playful, improvisatory spectrum is the backbone of any performance, as an ensemble work together to carry the audience through a series of creative experiences. Working together, becoming aware of the spectrum of styles of contact in the ensemble, listening or sensing out what the audience needs in order to experience the performance more fully - these are the building blocks of collaboration. In developing an awareness of the shifting qualities of contact at play during a performance, the actors are, in a sense, creating new dynamic forms of collaboration. This is a skill that can never be underestimated in terms of re-imagining forms of collaborative practice in any field.

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