Jenny Diver, a creature of vision?

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Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Jenny in a pink corset, black hot pants, fishnets and black heels and Macheath in black slacks with suspenders, patent leather shoes, a clean white shirt and dreadlocks, circle each other like matadors holding an orange mobility cane between the two of them. They stare at each other intensely. Lighting is pinky/red, and scantily clad ladies are in the background playing various musical instruments.

I’m opening this with a question, because I feel like genuinely don’t know the answer. Is sex visual? By this I don’t mean intercourse. I mean looking fierce and sensual, and… well, sexy. I ask this because of my research on images and visuality in theatre, and because of the character I’m playing in Threepenny and the inevitable journey I have been going on with her over the last few months.

Jenny and mac

Photo by Patrick Baldwin: Jenny has her legs wrapped around Macheath’s waist. They are in a tight embrace. Mac dips Jenny low with a serious expression on his face. Jenny smiles.

Jenny diver is a hooker, a slut, a lady of the night, a whore. She sells sex. That is how she makes a living. If the above photos are any indication, the costume certainly makes sex visual, at least on the feminine side. I’m basically tangoing with a man wearing only a corset, heels and my underwear… ya know, like you do.

In process, I’ve been very aware of the sort of “male gaze” and such that seems appropriate in this setting. She invites them to look, so they do. Looking means they’re interested, which means she might get money which means she gets to eat that day. She also allows them to touch, particularly in the case of Macheath (though there are others in the play as well. I myself would not allow that kind of contact without at least a few dinner dates under my belt, but she’s… use to it. It’s her job.

Interestingly, there are a number of points in the script where it indicates quite clearly that Jenny is also looking at the person she is in dialogue. It became a bit of a running joke in my head that in one of the scenes between Jenny and Mac, a character says, “What are you looking at him like that for Jenny?” and I routinely forgot to look at Mac. Also, in the tango that Mac and Jenny do, there have been a number of clearly choreographed moments where we are either looking at each other, or away from each other. They are deliberate, visual moments. Those, I think are less about “sexiness” and more about passion and connection in a relationship. Regardless, I think it’s related given the characters and the setting (a brothel). They are two very sexually driven people, and their relationship is defined in a lot of ways by sex… as well as love, violence and a few other things.

So contact between Jenny and Mac is definitely visual, or at least is presented in that way. In my acting process, it feels much more visceral or tactile, both in my interactions with Macheath and other characters. As soon as there is physical contact, that’s when I feel like I can “see” them and therefore look and interact. Otherwise, they are either indiscriminate blobs in the distance, or they just sort of disappear, or maybe aren’t there all together. Obviously, when they speak, there is some ability to make contact. But as I’ve just said, much of the interactions are about looking and are therefore silent.

Also, in rehearsal, the choreographer gave me some very detailed ways to stand and move as Jenny. I.e. specific ways to hold my body, walk, how I put a hand on a hip, etc. These little changes, apparently, make her physical appearance much stronger. Getting that into my brain and body has taken a while as I have no real context for how or why that would be the case, and some of the movement feels pretty far from my own movement vocabulary. I’m going pretty much solely on what I’ve been told, how I’ve been directed and what has been described to me.

Along those lines, a friend of mine who saw one of our first previews mentioned that he didn’t think I was moving “like a whore”. He thought it was down to my shoes, which I was admittedly having some problems with as I don’t normally wear heels, and the ones I have are not the most comfortable things in the world. I also wonder if some of my potential problem was getting use to the body positioning and movement I had been given. I certainly can feel that my movement throughout this show has become more confident and comfortable as we get further into the tour, and to be honest, I’m not too bothered about looking like a whore in the stereotypical sense. (If we were casting this show traditionally, Jenny would probably be about 10 years older than me anyway) It does bring about an interesting question though… What would normative movement for a whore be? What would it look like? I actually have no idea how to answer that.

So I guess the general question I have is, is sex visual and if so, what does it look like? I can make some guesses based on my experience, but am curious to know what others think.

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!

 

Getting into trouble: Jenny Diver and Brecht

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Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Myself as Jenny Diver, in a skimpy black dress, legging and black heels. Standing in a sexy pose with a snarky smile on my face. I have my cane across the back of my shoulders almost like a weapon.

“Art is not a mirror in which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Last week marked the start of my rehearsals for the ThreePenny Opera which is being put on by Graeae Theatre, the New Wolsey, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I get the exciting challenge of playing Jenny Diver, Mack the Knife’s favorite whore. As an actor, this is an insanely exciting opportunity to be in a great show with a very talented group of people. As a researcher, it presents some interesting thoughts as well.

I have said previously that I like the idea of “trouble” in the academic sense of the word. This means spaces of tension or unresolved-ness where questions arise out of something being slightly strange or other than the norm. I think Brechtian theatre is an interesting style in which to play with trouble, because he has his concept of Verfremdungseffekt. This has been called the v-effect, alienation effect (when badly translated) and more recently either the estrangement effect or distentiation. A literal translation of the word is “to make strange”. The idea is that Brecht wanted to “distance” his audience from becoming too invested in the characters as he thought too much investment would distract from what he saw as the purpose of theatre: to invoke and inspire social and political change. i.e. by watching the play people would want to change the world and make it less corrupt. So an audience would follow and invest in a story only so far as they could learn from it. Trouble, as a concept, is not as inherently political. But it can be about making what seems “normal” or “real” strange by introducing things that are not of the norm into new spaces. For example, putting a bunch of disabled actors in a mainstream and widely viewed theatrical production, like the ThreePenny Opera, is outside of the norm for most people. (This is what Graeae does. It is a disability led company, so one might say they specialize in the good kind of trouble.)

I am diving into this trouble, or distentiation or whatever you want to call it through the hard skinned London prozzie, Jenny. I am a not-so-hard skinned USA-er who, by Brechtian standards, has had a pretty fucking easy life. As a disabled woman, I have certainly had to deal with my fair share of discrimination, but I have never reeeeaaally had to want for work, money, food, shelter, family or friends. I’m not rich, but I’ve always been cared for, and usually am able to do what I want in my life. I am very lucky. So playing Jenny is a bit of personal “trouble” because I am not a broken woman. I don’t have to have sex for money, I haven’t been in abusive relationships, etc. Of course, Brecht would say I don’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) fully embody her. I need to represent her. What that means and how that will develop in this whole process and rehearsal period will be extremely interesting. I feel like representation often exists in things like gestures, body language, costume, etc. I wonder how visual this process is going to be, and what kind of “trouble” I as a blind actor will come across.

Last week, we focused pretty much on the music… in itself a beast of a task as Kurt Weill does not make it easy for anyone. This week, we knuckle down into the acting, so all things will be revealed in good time…

For info on the show, and to see some publicity shots visit:

http://graeaetheatrecompany.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/573/

http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

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.