What does it mean to be “stunning”?

So the last few weeks have been epically busy. Threepenny Opera has come up to Nottingham Playhouse, we’ve had a very long tech week and a great press night and opening week. We have had the fortune of getting some amazing reviews as well. It is lovely and extremely fulfilling to be part of a show that is being received well. That being said, we have had some very… strange responses from our audiences. 

I think when one is trained in theatre, particularly musical theatre, music theatre and (to a certain degree) opera, you get use to having some kind of audience reaction. In particular, after a musical number, one learns to expect at least some polite applause. And with this show, I mean for goodness sake, the music is extremely challenging, and some of the songs are really freakin’ catchy. In short, we’re working our asses off to keep this show entertaining… so why aren’t people applauding?

This was our reaction after Saturday’s matinee and evening performances. Both had very little audience reaction during the show, and then very strong and enthusiastic applause in the curtain call. Along with this, there are some very funny lines in the piece that have previously gotten laughs that weren’t yesterday… All the while, the cast had felt that we had done strong performances. The dialogue was well paced, the singing was strong, the band played well, etc. We chalked it up to weird audiences… then we went to the bar and had a chat with a few people who had seen the show.

Apparently people wanted to laugh, to applaud and react. They didn’t because of the subject matter. Yes, Mack the Knife is a catchy and well known song, but it is about a man who rapes and murders people. “He’s a sadist, he’s a rapist and they haven’t caught him yet!” is the final lyric. And yes, there is a lot of dry humor in the piece, but it is around very serious political and social issues. People that we spoke to said that they felt by laughing, clapping and otherwise having a good time they would be somehow condoning the horrible things that happen in the story. 

They also said that they were “stunned” for most of the play, particularly in the first act which does hit you a bit like a sledge hammer after our pre-show antics. People were busy analyzing the large amount of intellectual and sensory information they were receiving, which left less space in their minds to be “entertained”. In this sense, our show is “stunning” in a much more literal way than one may usually use that phrase in relation to art. People watching it apparently couldn’t move!

Add to that the fact that a large majority of the audience is probably not use to seeing disabled actors on stage… disabled actors who are often cracking jokes in and around disability politics that might leave people unsure of the PC way to respond… there is a hell of a lot to take in with this piece. 

That or they thought we were shit and were being nice… ha! (I don’t really think that is true. The responses were very enthusiastic, articulate and thought out, which is hard to simulate when lying)

It makes me think that we would be doing Brecht proud with this version of his show. We’ve made people think, feel disgusted by the way of the world and wish for change. They spend the whole piece not knowing what is coming, so they can’t engage with the story in order to just be “entertained”. In fact, most people have said things like, “I don’t think I could call this piece enjoyable. It’s hard to watch, but it’s a fantastic show.” This must be what Brecht’s V-effect (distentiation, estrangement effect, whatever you want to call it) is suppose to do. 

As actors, it is important for us to remember that we are not doing a standard musical piece, which means we won’t get standard audience responses. It’s very easy to think that little or no audience responses = shit show, which can be damaging to the moral of a cast and a piece. With this one, I think it’s best we stay strong, trust the piece we have, and keep on working our asses off. We’re certainly having a blast, which always helps!

That being said, if any of you come and want to clap, laugh and cheer, you are more than welcome… none of us will think you’re condoning rape or murder if you do!

There is one more week of Threepenny at the Nottingham Playhouse. We close here on the 8th of March and then move to the New Wolsey Ipswich from March 11th-22nd. After that we have Birmingham and Leeds to look forward to! Full tour information is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

 

 

Accessing Brecht… AKA, now how is this going to work?

I am currently sitting in the comfortable… if not a bit chilly, Jurys Inn in Nottingham after long and fairly uneventful travel day. (We caused quite a stir with the national rail staff at the train station, but that always happens when there’s more than one crip in a public space… particularly when each has luggage to carry) Tomorrow marks week four of rehearsals for Threepenny Opera, and one of our last chances to iron out the details… of which there are MANY. On a personal note, as an actor, I have never felt so secure at this phase in a rehearsal before. I am completely off book, and have been for the last week or so, which is no small feat considering that most of us are in the band as well as singing songs and delivering lines. This has allowed me to start to “really” play with how I’m going to do this whole acting malarky with Jenny Diver, and this is the bit I love. It’s where many of the big discoveries are made. I’m also surrounded by some of the most lovely, supportive and talented people I think I’ve ever been surrounded by, which is particularly important as I will be spending the next three months in close proximity to all of them. 

Some of the things that get layered on this week are set pieces, costumes, a space that can more easily accommodate the size of the show, and various other technical bits. We also get to start finalizing how the audio description is going to work. I say “we”… I think my input will be appreciated as one of the resident blindies in the cast, but I certainly won’t be writing it for obvious reasons. I have to say, I do not envy the person/people who have that job. This show is extremely wordy, fast paced and has tons of characters to remember, most of whom come in for small sections only to disappear for long stretches of time. Along with that, the songs are almost always only loosely in context with the actual story, as is the Brechtian way. (i.e. making political comments on some of the issues in the play, “alienating” the audience from getting too sucked into the story so they too can reflect on how they are being brought down by the man, etc) And usually, once a song finishes, the setting completely changes in order to introduce a whole slew of new characters to learn about that then disappear for ages. Alongside that there is a set that moves and changes, a veritable army of actor/muso’s doing all sorts of interesting things as they play, a screen showing various images related to the play and/or the political topics the play references, choreography, signing of the songs and many of the speeches…. This piece will be a feast for the eyes of those that can see. So how does one translate that all to the ears and imaginations of the blind?

Graeae has done some wonderful things with audio description in the past, which is no surprise considering their manifesto for full inclusivity in theatre and insistence on creative access. (Integrating access tools like sign language and audio description directly into a piece as opposed to layering them on top of a finished show after the fact… which is what normally happens) And I believe that as challenging as this show will be to AD, if any company can do it, it’s Graeae.

In my humble opinion, AD works best when it is acknowledged that while description is a form of seeing in that it requires the listener to visualize, it cannot function in the same way as seeing. It just can’t. Seriously. Look out the window for five seconds and then think about how much you can remember seeing. Now try to describe that image in the same amount of time with the same amount of detail. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. Because of this, I think that most blindies accept that AD gives you a flavor of the visuals, and the rest is up to individual imagination and interpretation. The question here is how best to do it? What information is necessary when there is soooo much happening at once?

I also am aware that in rehearsals thus far, the BSL (British sign language) that will be incorporated into the show has been dominant from the beginning. This makes sense as a large portion of the AD is about things like set, lighting, costumes, blocking, etc. and we don’t have a lot of that yet. In all likelihood, the completed AD script won’t be able to be written until tech. It does make me wonder though if there is something inherent about BSL that makes it… I’m not quite sure how to put it… more inherently “theatrical” maybe? And does that inherent theatricality make it easier to incorporate into a piece than something like AD? Is it that translation of an image into word is more complex than translation of one language into another? Is it simply that sign language has already been established more firmly as a create tool in performance than audio description, which would mean there are more guidelines for what might work?

Access for sensory impairment is an interesting and complicated topic, particularly when it is made into a creative force for performance. I am very curious to find out how both the BSL and the AD work in our show, and how the spectators respond. I do think it is safe to say that whatever happens, it will have it’s own Graeae flare, whatever that becomes, and that it will be a much different experience than watching a standard ADed play. As far as I’m concerned, that in itself will always be a good thing. 

What does it mean to be crip?

This past Monday, I went into school and gave a presentation on my research as it stands thus far. I am currently in the midst of doing a lot of practical stuff, and have yet to collect any definitive data (what ever that means!), so this consisted of me giving a fairly informal chat about what I am up to and what I hope to accomplish. As I’ve said here previously, I stated that my argument is that acting process is made for able-bodied and therefore sighted actors, and that when someone like myself comes into that structure, we “trouble” and “crip” it. I then said I am looking for the trouble, and the crippy moments in order to open up new discussions on some of the processes of acting. I then mentioned my work on ThreePenny Opera, and how exciting it is, as well as some workshops I have done around various naturalistic acting techniques. After I finished my somewhat rambly chat, one of my fellow Phd candidates asked me a simple question. He said, “what makes your research crip?” That is a very good question… and the main answer at the moment is… I don’t quite know!

To put this in context, there is a difference between crip and disabled in the same way that there is a difference between queer and gay. It’s the difference between asking for equality and inclusion into normative structures that are pre-made for the heterosexual, able-bodied masses, and questioning the foundational validity of structures as they are used in society. For example, the “gay” argument might say that everyone should have the right to get married regardless of sexual preference. Equal rights for gay marriage! Etc. Being “queer” might ask what the purpose of marriage is to begin with, especially if people do not have religious backgrounds. It might claim that marriage is a societal institution that is expected to be fulfilled and that the very structure of it is based in heterosexuality, regardless of who is doing it. (i.e. aww that gay couple is getting married! I wonder which one of those guys is the woman.) So in short, one wants a place at the table; the other wants to analyze the table and potentially make it into something else, or throw it away all together. 

Being crip denotes a bit of radicalism, so by asking me what in my research is crip, he was asking what in my research is radical? Where is the subversion? What separates this from straight up disability studies? Things I do know is that I am not focusing on equality and inclusion, not because I don’t think they are important, but because I know that they are being covered by a lot of other people. I also know that one of my questions is around the rules in acting. What are they? What happens if you bend or break them? As interesting and important as that is… I am not sure (yet) if that is radical “enough”. Is it valid research? Hell yes. Is it crip? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s probably too soon to tell. 

I am also realizing that as an actor, you only have so much power. This is as it should be. The directors are the ones who hold the entire puzzle that is the piece being created. It is the actor’s job to create one piece of that puzzle. Because of this, actors need guidance from the director. (Right? Feel free to disagree with me on that, but tell me why if you do!) They can’t see the whole piece (blind or otherwise) while it’s being created, and potentially not even when it’s finished. So if a director is working from a fairly standard understanding of acting, how can the individual actor crip that process without undermining the piece? 

I am finding this within ThreePenny at the moment. The directors are lovely, supportive and open minded people. They are both very happy for us actors to come in with our own processes, and for us to make suggestions on how to interpret scenes and character choices. That being said, there are some patterns emerging. For example, repetition seems to be a bit part of the acting calls, which I love. It’s useful for various reasons: you get to embed lines and blocking into your memory more quickly, and you get to try different ways of approaching a scene, a character or even one line. Also, much of the processes around character development have been fairly naturalistic, which for those of you who know Brecht is interesting. Questions like “what happened just before this scene” or “why is she doing this, what does she want? How does she feel about such and such?” keep coming up. These questions are asked in order to create the impression of a fully rounded human being that will be put on stage. As an actor, this is a fairly comfortable place for me as this is how I have been trained. As a researcher, it presents a potential problem. These naturalistic processes are what I am questioning in my research, but because I am in the midst of this rehearsal process with directors who have specific ways of working, I am finding it impossible to both trust and work with my directors and find potential “crip” moments. And obviously, because I care about the show and the people working on it, and because I am thoroughly enjoying the rehearsals, I am immersing myself in the direction I am being given. This makes me worry that I am slightly loosing touch with the purpose of my research, or maybe not identifying important factors that could be useful later on in my Phd/academic life.  

I know that most of the discovery for this will have to be in hind sight because I am in the middle of creating a show, but in the mean time, it presents some interesting questions: What makes something crip? How do you crip a process when you are, and maybe have to be, completely immersed in it? How can you identify and “trouble” a structure when you do not yet fully know what that structure is (and when you may indeed never find out)?

Have I lost you completely? I hope not. If you have any ideas, let me know. At this point, I can use all the help I can get!

 

Nuts and Bolts

Here are some useful things to know about my research. Again, please ask questions, debate, comment, etc. I am still getting to grips with most of this, so any thoughts and ideas are useful!

1. I’m looking for “trouble”. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a straight forward, “you did bad, go sit in time out” kind of way. Trouble in an academic sense is a space of tension, subversion or rupture. It is a place of conflict where things aren’t (and may never become) resolved. Though this might come from doing something like breaking a rule, the result is not as straight forward as the common understanding for the word trouble insinuates. For one thing, I don’t think trouble is “bad”. These places of tension often bring about possibilities for new questions, thoughts and ideas to occur. Trouble can (should?) be a place of creativity and insight as well as a method for laying down boundaries and rules. 

2. I’m going to use the word “crip” a lot. This too is an academic term. Shocked? Good. That’s the point. There is a whole section in disability studies that calls itself “crip theory.” (Look up Robert McRuer and/or Carrie Sandahl if you don’t believe me) It is based in methodologies from other identity based studies like queer theory and feminist studies. The use of the word is meant to be a tongue and cheek provocation. It is also a common word in disability culture. We all call each other crips, and when we do we’re not just referring to physical disability. Blindies like me get to get in on the action too, as do any others who fit under the disability umbrella if they so choose. 

3. Everything can be a performance, or at least “performative”. Crip theory and queer theory take on the idea of “performativity” which is… difficult to explain in a few sentences. In essence it means that pretty much everything you do, and everything you associate as yourself is performed. Gender, sexuality, culture, social class, and yes, disability (among other things) all have aspects of them that are based in societal structures and expectations that are taught to us from childhood. If this seems unlikely, think about toys that are given to children. The average five year old girl and boy have the same hormonal make up, yet what will the little girl be likely to want for her birthday? What will the boy? These are taught behaviors that are repeated continuously until they become “normative” or what is considered to be normal. Obviously, this is not universal for everyone, but the general systems that are in place are pretty obvious once you start looking for them. 

4. I’m an actor who has trained a in modern, western school setting, which means that I have been taught that an actor’s best tool is her imagination. I am really curious about what the imagination is and what it does for an actor. What images does imagination create? What are those images made of? In particular, I want to know how much of these images are visual, and more to the point, how often methods of acting, training actors, directing actors, etc. expect this imagination output to be visual? The academic way I am phrasing this in my thesis at present god something like, “Is acting ocularcentric (visual)? If so, where does the ocular sit in acting processes?” (blahhh!! …so much for not using words that no one understands!)

So essentially, I am a crip actor who wants to trouble the “image” in imagination. Make sense? No? Good. That’s about where I’m at with it too!

The beginning…

Hello! So, I’m a performer. I act, sing, play musical instruments and dangle from various aerial circus contraptions (trapezes, silks, ropes, etc) whenever I get the chance. I’m also a Phd student, and my research is focused on performance… though try as I may to avoid it, a bit of philosophy keeps sneaking in as well. I am hoping to use this blog to help develop my voice as a researcher, and to discuss questions, themes and troubles in my research. Discussion is highly welcome, so please follow and comment! Oh!  Also, I’m registered blind (or legally blind for my American peeps). I state this not as inspiration porn; I’m not looking for sympathy or admiration. I mention it because it’s part of my research and my identity, and is therefore important. My research is based in…

It’s always a bit daunting to try and explain your research when you’re in the middle of it… often because you’re not quite sure what it is going to be yet. However, throughout these blogs, hopefully it will become clearer to everyone… including myself.

I will also state for the record that I do not want to become an academic that uses language that no one can understand… that being said, to a certain degree, dense wording is the language of the academic world. If you want to live in it, you have to learn to speak it. So I will occasionally throw words out there like “ocularcentric,” or “performativity” or “normative” or “phenomenological”. Needless to say, if I stop making sense, please tell me, and I will try to explain myself.

I won’t go too in depth about my research at the moment (every time I try I write a novel, which makes me think it needs its own blog) other than to say that I am looking at how disability, visual impairment in particular, interacts with various performance practices, processes and techniques. This is particularly interesting for me at the moment as starting Monday, I will be going into rehearsals for Graeae and The New Wolsey Theatre’s production of ThreePenny Opera by the lovely and very German Bertolt Brecht. Info for the show is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

Come and see if you can! I’ll be playing Jenny Diver, and I have to say, I’ve never been so excited to be classified as a hooker… or maybe I should say, “lady of the night”. A friend of mine once joked that the difference between a “slut” and “lady of the night” is the pay bracket… How she knows that is anyone’s guess. Anyway, I digress!

Graeae is a disability led theatre company with some unique and exciting ways of working and presenting theatre, and Brecht plays use a very specific style of performance, so this is a golden opportunity for me. I anticipate that I will get tons out of this experience, and hope you enjoy me sharing my findings as I go.