from Johnson Art MuseumI am having one of those days when I know what I should be doing, but I keep circling around it, nibbling on the edges of the project, but not really diving into what I know I need to do—the core work. I notice that for some reason, I am afraid….afraisd of what? Of success, of failure? I love doing this work, but I am avoding it and dreading it as though it were horribly painful to do, as though I would be risking my very self. Yet the act of ‘saving’ myself from this ‘terrible experience’ will actually sabotage my success and bring actual suffering to my life.

I find I must coax myself, not bully nor command myself (that makes it worse) and I think (I HOPE) I am picking away at it enough to tip the scales so that what remains is smaller somehow, less terrifying.

But really, what the heck?!?

Like many other people, I am susceptible to the doldrums of a northeastern North American March, when the sky is slate grey nearly incessantly, and it might be raining or sleeting or hailing or snowing…or all of the above in any given day. But I think it’s more than that. My fear of diving into this project, wherein I must breathe beautiful life into someone else’s words, someone’s dream, is (yes) partly

by Balkhovitin Dmitriy

neurotic “I’m not good enough” artist-thinking…..but it also fear of being too vulnerable, being nearly subsumed by the tempest of the text in the sea of characters as I struggle alone in my fragile little boat.

And that and a pony will get me a pony (sigh).

I will now fortify myself with hot chocolate and dip back in to this work, sending out a “halloooo” to all you other artists out there having a blue grey work day….soldier on, friends. What else is there to do?

(Please note: although these pictures are not from my classes, the practice plays out so similarly!)

I recently taught a workshop on Dramatic Improvisation for a Comedy Festival focused on Improvisation and Stand-Up comedy for adults. Mine was the first workshop of the day (a Saturday), and I had anticipated a small turnout of people, mostly men, who might resist all but the hilarious and shallow. Why? Because Dramatic Improvisation only works with deep vulnerability and an almost intimateLong Form Improv relationship with a scene partner, who may be a stranger. It’s hard to do, and if the commitment to the scene partner is not complete, the scene is unsatisfying. It’s also not necessarily funny (although it can be), and has the potential to be beautiful and raw. Kinda doesn’t fit Saturday Improv Comedy Fest, but that’s what I was asked to teach.

Well, it’s true that people dribbled in and it’s true that they were men with one late exception, BUT they were receptive, worked hard, took direction, and did some poignant, funny, breath-stopping work that was character-driven rather than joke-driven. They took direction and critique and grew in awareness and, yes, intimacy.

I have given this outcome and my own prejudice a great deal of thought in the days since. I typically teach Dramatic Improv and Contact Improv (another deeply personal and wonderful improv form that is movement based) to teenagers, and the hard part is always inching them towards the Contact Improvletting go of their outer walls, helping them to launch themselves into a moment where they are vulnerable co-stewards of an intimacy of emotion and raw honesty made public.

To be clear, I don’t mean ‘intimacy’ in the sense of sexuality or sex scenes. In Contact Improv, the intimacy is both physical and emotional; students’ bodies stay in contact as they discover and apply what are, in essence, planetary and geographical physics. They must learn to not be self-supporting, but rather co-steward as they move through poses hunting for balance, center-point, centripetal force of the unit which invariably puts them as individuals in a place where they would fall if they let go or tried to use brute force instead of trust, vulnerability, and connectivity.

Contact Improv 3There is always huge fear, huge resistance, and then unfettered and profound joy when they nail it. I often take as my partner the largest or least physical comfortable person—I am not very big—in order to demonstrate that it will be okay. I will have the large young man do the pose with me where he ends up standing on my knees as we both lean back, his arm extended, like flying …. because relationships are not about who is stronger, who is bigger, who has what qualities as an individual, but rather how those

Contact Improv 2qualities can be used to find the balance, the center-point, the connected but turning planets, the tectonic forces of people. After this body work, we do an exercise where each person slowly and carefully touches the air about an inch from their partner’s body (with the back of their hand, not the front) in slow consciousness and respect. Then we do scene work.

Although the process of inching teens towards intimacy, vulnerability, and co-stewardship is different when I teach Dramatic Improv (different exercises), the outcome is the same—surprise, elation, pride, bravery, and an enriched capacity for calm and courageous openness. It’s that trusting co-caring that relies on the relationship and not the self; it is intimacy. Inevitably the scene work is extraordinary, regardless if they ever met their scene partner before, regardless if their scene partner is someone they would even like under other circumstances.

Inevitably the performers carry forward a heightened awareness of other and interpersonal bonds, and the realization that they can create something truly incredible through this practice…onstage AND in life.

Why was I surprised by my group of adults? Because for teens, the resistance grows of the newness of true co-caring and the ‘terrifyingness’ of such intense vulnerability, and I had presumed that most people who do Stand-Up or joke-type comic improv would be focused on the self rather than the other. Yet in the workshop, they moved more quickly through the steps of deepening vulnerability and emotional intimacy than the teens. Why? Oftentimes, dealing with other targeted performance skills, adults are less willing to take risks than teens. I wonder if, perhaps, the value and impact of a vulnerable, co-stewarding practice was so great in their past (on stage? In real life? In actual relationships?) that they were able, in 50 minutes with people they had never met, practice the art of intimacy and create fabulously engaging Improvisation.

Regardless of the underlying reason, it was an incredible experience it was for me to work with them and have my assumptions turned upside down, and I will carry this learning forward with me to other times when I am teaching intimacy in performance practice—as something to be mindful of in the workshop participants’ relationships to the material and with each other …. but also in my relationships with them.

 

This week, I have been on treasure hunt.

I am the Advocacy and Outreach Chair for the New York State Theatre Education Association (NYSTEA) to promote performing arts as a critical part of the k-12 learning experience.

Readers of my blog have heard me mention that Youth at Risk have greater success in school (success determined in multiple ways, from attendance to grades to type of class taken and more) when that school has an art-rich environment—including graduation rates, which are double (!!!!!) what they are at other schools. You can see that study here. For more research, check out arts-in-ed research. Yet the conversation about closing the achievement gap and about finding ways to keep youth on paths of constructive rather than destructive action often occludes the essential roles arts play in a school environment. Moreover, in an era when many of our children go to jail, or are valued only the world of gangs or cannot find their value anywhere, and become lost, and so on, it astonishes me that we ignore that power the arts have to impact the sense of self, community, history, human values and meaning/purpose of life!

So here I am this week, commercial videographer Tom Hoebbel in tow, lugging gear around NYC to do interviews. It has been such a deeply moving experience. Some of them are in the performing arts, some are not. Many have spoken of the the adult work world skills and basic life skills that theatre gave them, including the ability to work well as a team, deep listening, wanting critique/input, being able to give constructive feedback, hard work and delayed gratification, and the active practice of empathy.

Nearly all of them told of feeling lost or shy in High School, like the world had no place for them …. until they were in the theatre. It was there that they were embraced for who they were, what they had to bring, and there that they were challenged to find a voice (literally and figuratively), and there that they learned how to be empathetic while being strong, to take up space but not more than your own.

There is absolutely no replacement for this kind of growth and no other safe environment in which to take these risks. link to

In the upcoming weeks, we will be editing and revising to put forth the PSA, and I find I am excited about it, my faith in what I do renewed. 

 

Whether we have family members of the past or the present in war zones, or live in countries affected by war, Veteran’s Day and Armistice Day focus our reflections, thoughts, research, hopes, actions, wishes, and/or prayers. Myself, I am drawn to war memorials, war histories, parades, and the stories Veterans and other war-experiencers have to tell. My own brief war-zone experience brought home what I have heard many say: there is no way people who have not been in the midst can understand. Artists, though, can bring us closer, can make us smell the aroma, see the images, taste the feelings.

I am sure you know to look to Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Aristophanes (and ‘War Horse’) for intense, wonderful, terrible scenes and monologues in and about war; here are some resources for lesser known works followed by an excerpt from one of my own.

* Sicker Than a Rabid Dog: African American Women Playwrights Look at War”, by Marilyn Elkins (I had read most of these plays before discovering this essay—it–and they–are worth reading). It is in Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage by Carol P. Marsh-Lockett

* Anything by Ronald Harwood, especially his 1995 play, Taking Sides, and its ‘companion piece’ Collaboration.

* Anything by Marguerite Duras, but especially India Song, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and her memoir, The War.

* The Two Towers film script, including that stunning monologue at Helm’s Deep when the young boys and old men are given weapons they are ill-prepared to wield.

Below is a monologue from my play About Face, which takes place in the Red Cross Hospital in Paris during WWI. My work (as a Clown Doctor) in other parts of the world with burned face-scarred children and at home as a mask-maker converged when I read of the masks made in WWI for men who survived with profound facial trauma, and this play was born. I dedicate it to my father’s father, who survived WWI but emerged with PTSD, and my mother’s father, who died in 1945, doing war work so secret that officials still came to him at his death bed, and the work is still classified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pressing the aeroplane to go faster, turn harder to get away, feeling her structure strain and hearing the moan of the frame, the rattle of loosening metal sheets, and the sound of enemy gunfire. Paper and sticks, like a kite, at the mercy of wind and fire. You fly again and again, hoping that when you are shot down, you land in deep water so death will come more quickly.

Some are lucky enough to land a wounded plane safely all through the war. The rest of us choose from a menu of deaths:

Death by drowning or water hypothermia

Death by crash impact

Death by forced landing in enemy gunfire

Death by direct hit and maybe surviving the crash, walking toward mercy with your blackened hands holding your white flag

Death by explosion that fills the cockpit with fire and covers you with pieces of Navigator and gasoline. You smell meat cooking; it is your own face and you pray for death. (small indication to self)

Death by bloodloss

Death by surviving too much too well, pushing yourself so hard through Death’s teeth that you find yourself living in a small dark corner of your own mind

 

I think, I think, that we should end it with, with a party.” J.T. Is the last one to make a suggestion about how our movie should end.

This is the third session of “Theatre 101”, an open workshop for adults with a range of developmental challenges, and our group has grown to 10 counting myself, the Coordinator of Recreation Programs for Individuals with Disabilities, and the Specialist in Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities. Although I have worked with folks with various challenges and disabilities all my life, this is a pilot project with this particular organization.

The Coordinator and myself weren’t sure this workshop would fly, especially since we had only two participants on our first day, and those two brave souls were so very apprehensive.

But the opportunity to have an individual voice, and to, as a group, bring to life a story that never existed before is so exciting and wondrous and powerful that people – all people — are drawn to it. I never cease to be awed by the creativity and joy that comes pouring out of people who not normally perceive themselves as artists.

For the first two sessions, we created and performed scenes and bits inside classic theatre exercise frameworks, and talked about the scenes using Visual Thinking Strategies-type questions and lots of support. During our second session, the group decided to make a movie. As with any group, we have been exploring the meaning and importance of ‘Who’, ‘What’, and ‘Where’, with emphasis on performing the answer to the question, “How does the audience know?” Once the group decided to make a movie, we applied those questions to a brainstorming session of ideas, which included a haunted house, various spooky beings, the idea of fear and friendship, and the need for lots of songs. It was certainly fun and fabulous, but not mind-blowing.

That is, not until the third session. After our warm-up and acting exercise, we begin to lay out an outline, with me just asking questions. The group decides that the movie begins with a character in her room, dancing to Monster Mash. She is afraid of monsters, so when witches and a bat and a cat and Wolfman come into her room to dance and have scary fun, she screams and runs away. The monsters are left on stage to wonder what happened and call after her, “We didn’t mean to scare you!” They are then all at a baseball game (as players who sing Take Me out to the Ball Game), and the first character is uneasy, then freaks out again, so the spooky characters have a meeting to talk about it (and sing a piece from Friendship from Anything Goes). Then what? How does it end? A party. A party to which the first character has been invited, and they sing Don’t Stop Believing, and the first character realizes that it’s all okay and they should be friends.

Then the group casts themselves and casts me, although I had not planned on performing, and resisted doing anything more than a small supportive role. But the group was insistent and unanimous in their decision—I was to play the person who had only liminal experience with monsters and was afraid, not realizing that monsters are wonderful, fun, loving people until the party, where I join them in singing Don’t Stop Believing.

Holy metaphor, Batman.

So we make the movie, film and project it during session 4, just using “photobooth” on my laptop, and it is awesome.

I cannot share the movie with you, as a few of the folks had signed “Do not share my likeness” forms, but I can share with you that they all requested another series of workshops.

I can’t wait.