Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Falling/Failing: some photos from my Failure Project

I wanted to share a few photos from my project. These were taken during one day of rehearsal; Lara and I were exploring falling, and I also spent some time creating puppets.

photo by Jorge Lizalde Studio Cano

photo by Jorge Lizalde Studio Cano

photo by Jorge Lizalde Studio Cano

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Friday, 14 August 2015

Failure Project Day Ten: Tonight We Fly

Today, the last day of my research and development, was about revisiting and reviewing work. I had a few people coming to join us in the afternoon, and I wanted to make sure I could give them a good overview of what we've been doing for the past two weeks. So, we did that, and I got useful feedback and had a good discussion about the work, and then Lara and I went out for a drink to celebrate.

Now what? I want to sit down and look over the footage from the last two weeks, maybe transcribe a couple of verbal improvisations. Lara and I will let a little time pass, and then do a post-match interview for analysis. I will do some writing - a script, I suppose, but not one with any particular order. I need to get the various stories knocking about my head into words instead.

And then the task of finding the money and finding the support to get more studio time for development, and somewhere to show the piece. And then...?

Thanks for following the beginning of this journey. I'll keep blogging about the process here, no doubt, so if you are interested then check back here.

This process would have been sad, lonely and probably quite static without Lara Ward; it would have been less comfortable without rehearsal space provided by the Wales Millennium Centre; and it would not have been possible in this form at all without the support of the Arts Council of Wales.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Failure Project Day Nine: Making Friends

I didn't really know what we were going to do today. I'd thought maybe we could return to some of the improvisations I'd done on Tuesday; some of them had reached the point of feeling satisfactory, but others hadn't. But for some reason we decided to start with an object manipulation improvisation - I'd tried to bring in random objects to use in clowning last week, and one of them - a sprinkler - was still hanging about. Improvising with the sprinkler led to a challenge from Lara for me to choose three items from the costume bag to create a "safe space" for the object (I built the sprinkler a nest). That led in turn to animating the object, which in turn led to building a whole puppet out of the sprinkler and costume bits... which led to two more puppets and the passing of the whole morning.

Unexpected, and actually through-provoking. I love puppetry, and I've not had the opportunity to study or explore it much. So it felt in keeping with the failure ethos (I've not forgotten failure) to get stuck in and play without caring whether I was "doing it right". Puppets may also prove a lighter way to explore dark themes - I couldn't help recall a fantastic puppet show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe years ago (saw twice actually, it struck me that hard) called Lily Through The Dark, which told the story of a young girl so grief-stricken after her father's death that she tries to kill herself and goes on a journey through the darkness to find him.

In the afternoon we explored falling, and stumbling - being off-kilter generally. It's possibly a very obvious visual metaphor in a study of depression, but I'm trying generally to build a physical vocabulary.

I had a photographer with us all day as well - Jorge Lizalde, of Studio Cano. His work is definitely worth checking out. I'll post some photos as I get them

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Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Failure Project Day Eight: Danse Macabre

one of Hans Holbein's 16th century Danse Macabre woodcuts
Today we focussed almost exclusively on the body. We're looking for what Lara keeps calling the "Big Ugly"; searching for release, movement that feels uncontrolled. We'd found euphoria, dancing for joy yesterday - and we returned to this today (when's the last time you skipped? it's hard to be unhappy when you skip) - but the darker end of the spectrum seems harder to tap into. Who wants to go there, voluntarily? But it seems worth exploring anyway.

We started with the spine, with movement that is initiated from the spine: shaking and spasms. It's exhausting, and near impossible for me to sustain for any length of time, but that in itself is interesting and strikes a chord with some of the narrative content I am considering.

And we worked with skin, and touch - comforting sensations, basic animal contact - the things that can really help a person in a depression. Do any of us get as much of that contact as we need? I'm not thinking about sexual contact. All the other primates spend time grooming each other, don't they?

From skin, we went back to bone, considering the fragility of our bodies. In one of my depressions I became so aware of my partner's skeleton, how close to the surface it lay, how vulnerable to breakage and exposure. I was terrified of losing my partner in some way, and this fear tortured me through this awareness of his fragility. I definitely think it is healthy to be aware of and to consider death - that's why I've always liked the medieval ideas of Memento Mori and the images of the Danse Macabre, like the one above. But these thoughts should be life-affirming rather than paralysing, right?

I'm finding our process interesting as well. We get stuck, and we have conversations around ideas and follow tangents and look things up on the internet. There's always a niggling worry in my head that maybe we're wasting time. Then suddenly something comes to me or Lara, and I try an improvisation that reveals a lot to us, and I realise that we've only arrived there because we took that circuitous path. It's a good reminder that creativity can't often be forced. And I should worry less generally.

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Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Failure Project Day Seven: Gliding Through The Sea of Silent Euphoria

Today felt immense. Yesterday felt immense too, but in a weighty way that I found hard to shake off in the evening - Lara had to remind me today that improvising movement while someone shouts negative things at you (it made sense at the time) will take a toll on a person.

Today we continued with physical improvisations. I do the improvisations, and Lara has taken on more of the role of director/movement director. We're trying to explore the physical and emotional sensations of depression. It is actually quite difficult to recall, when (like now) I am not depressed, the specificities of those feelings. But I know how I have described them to myself in the past, and so we have begun with that. As an example, we spent a lot of time today trying to pin down the feelings and physical sensations that underly the social anxiety that grips me when I am depressed - trying to find the word, the image, that seems closest. I think we got close by the end of the day.

We're also exploring contrasts and extremes - I spent some time today dressed as a giant golden sausage - and this afternoon we started to tap into movement that expresses euphoria and a sense of release. Thinking about euphoria led us to thinking about the things we do to connect to each other, and how depression is often a severing of or inability to make those connections. We closed the day by watching an absolutely classic TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor - "My Stroke of Insight". If you haven't seen it, and you can spare 20 minutes, just watch it right now.

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Monday, 10 August 2015

Failure Project Day Six: What I Mean When I Talk About Failure

I spent the weekend thinking about the work we'd done last week, and trying to decide what to do with the week ahead of me. Some of the provocations from the observers I'd had in on Friday afternoon stuck particularly in my mind, especially a suggestion I'd had emailed to me on Saturday: "define to yourself what specifically you are exploring about failure". Would that help? Of course. Blindingly obvious, again, now that I consider it. I've spent a lot of time asking other people what they think about failure, and what kind of shaping force it plays in their lives. It has led to a lot of insightful conversations. But ultimately I need to know what I am making a piece about.

Ultimately, failure is secondary. I think I need to make a piece about depression - I've actually been thinking about it for years now. Failure is a major part of my experience of depression, mostly because it is easy for me to use perceived failures as weapons against myself. I guess I've been avoiding stating that with decisiveness, because I often tell myself that "personal is not the same as important". Most of the time it isn't. But perhaps, with regards to mental health, it is.

(I'm aware that I'm still not sounding entirely certain, with my "I thinks" and "perhaps"... I want to leave space to change my mind in the process of exploration).

So this morning Lara and I began by having a chat about how I wanted my exploration of depression (and accompanying failures) to inform our physical work. I brought in an excellent picture book called The Red Tree by Shaun Tan - I can't emphasise enough how much I think it's worth getting your hands on a copy - because the illustrations have always seemed to me to express some of the experiences of depression that are difficult to put into words.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the movement of impulses around the body, and minimalism in movement. This was really to address my concern that I can't dance depression, because nothing happens. So we tried to answer the question: how little can I do and still be doing something?

It's not going to be all unhappiness. My life isn't all unhappiness. I just happen to have this thing that rears its head up occasionally and seriously affects my experience of the world. So I need to explore it in the way that I know best.

As a side note, it sounds like there are some interesting shows about mental health at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

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Friday, 7 August 2015

Failure Project Day Five: We Want to See You Fail

photo by Lara Ward.

A shorter blog post today, because it's late and I'm tired.

We spent today trying more exercises pairing movement tasks with verbal improvisation. In the morning we tried to make the improvisation about successes in our lives. We raided the costume pile again as well, trying to dress for success.

In the afternoon we had a small audience of invited guests for an open rehearsal, and we continued the exercises of the morning, but changing the verbal exploration to failure instead of success.

Useful provocations included the observation that I appear quite good at these exercises. How do I find a way to fail, or come close to failing, in performance, without contrivance? Do I need to do this, if I am making a piece about failure? I don't really have the answer to that. I could attempt to do many things I'm not any good at, but is that actually creatively interesting? One of many questions to consider this weekend.

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Thursday, 6 August 2015

Failure Project Day Four: Unquantifiable Failures

Today felt oddly difficult. I suppose I am tired, and Lara is too, and yesterday's work had started to stir up the darker currents that run through the topic of failure.

I've had the (blindingly obvious) personal revelation that dancers probably use emotional recall as much as actors do, so we spent the morning looking through all the questionnaire responses that I received, searching for words that resonate. A recurring word was "expectations" - our own, other people's, those of society. I definitely connect to that; I make a lot of effort to manage my expectations of myself, mostly because I often find other's expectations of me too uncomfortable to bear. We spent some time exploring weight and resistance in movement as a result.

Yesterday we'd also spent some time talking about times in our lives that we've both felt trapped and constrained, so today we decided to take that further. We explored improvising with actual constraints: how can I move if I strap one leg up, with my calf against the back of my thigh? How about if I connect my wrist to an ankle?

We also returned to an exploration of text and movement, because at some point I'm going to have to consider content if I go ahead and make a piece out of this. Again, working with personal stories of my own, we explored movement that works with the text, and movement unrelated to text: how does the content affect movement, or movement affect content? When do they complement each other, and when is there tension?

I feel like we've moved from quantifiable failures at the beginning of this week - i.e. can I get this choreography right? - to unquantifiable ones. How can you express an experience like depression through movement, when the experience of it seems so much about remaining in stasis?

I know I said that we'd return to Sergei and Beyoncé, but I have a feeling that they have served their purpose for now. Never say never, though - I'm still bringing in my heels every day.

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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Failure Project Day Three: Be the Best Version of Yourself

Today we finally cracked into the sackful of costumes I've been dragging into the rehearsal room every day. We dressed up and played a clowning-game as a kind of failure warm-up. Then I set us an exercise I first encountered in a workshop led by Greg Wohead: create the Best Version of yourself - the artist you would be and the work you would make if you could back and do everything again. It's always insightful, because it makes me think, why don't I just make that work now? And it can be reassuring as well, to realise what things about myself I would never want to change. I feel like if I want to think about failure, then I have to to consider success as well, and this exercise seemed a good way to examine what we personally consider indicators of success.

Lara and I interviewed each other's Best Versions, and then, interestingly, we moved into a discussion of our actual selves and the journeys leading to where we are now - the opportunities we didn't get, either because they didn't exist, or we were advised otherwise, or simply because we didn't grab them. It seemed organic next to work on physical improvisations around those journeys, to explore what success and failure feel like as qualities of movement. We did individual improvisations around difficult times in our lives and the transitions out of them, and I also explored telling a personal story while moving, and allowing the movement to effect the story and vice versa.

It's felt like quite a substantial day, and it's given me a lot to consider about how I approach movement improvisation - how the tools I have as an actor are transferrable to a different practice.

We've not forgotten about Sergei and Beyoncé of course (how could we?), but it was good to take a break from them (and think about what we want to do next with those dances).

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Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Failure Project Day Two: was that as hard as you expected?

Today Lara and I were both quite tired and sore. I think we sprinted into our first day with a lot of enthusiasm yesterday, and... well, it's not a failure to admit that our bodies have limits.

We continued working on our impossible tasks regardless. It's funny how  - even knowing it is not possible, given the person that I am - I still want to get the dance routine right. And I feel frustrated that I can't get it right. This is also the person that I am. The alternative to getting it "right" is to make the dances our own, somehow. Lara observed that there is a childlike quality to me, as I watch the music video and simultaneously try to copy it - a little girl joyously imitating her hero... when I can be joyous about the process. I don't think I was unafraid of failure as a child - I didn't like getting things wrong, and I hated being laughed at. It's still a struggle willingly to make a fool of myself, which is probably why I need to do it if I want to examine failure.

I recently became interested in how sports players and managers talk in their post-match interviews: the language they use, the way they can say a lot without actually saying anything of substance, the often pointed questions about failure they have to answer.

We spent some time watching these interviews today, and then tried to make our own versions - breaking down the many ways in which I am not Beyoncé, and Lara is not Sergei Polunin, but using the language and shape of a post-match interview. We looked for post-audition interviews to see if they are comparable, but it seems that the world of competitive arts (Britain's Got Talent etc) just borrow from the sports world, and ultimately it feels a lot more manufactured and not as interesting.

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Monday, 3 August 2015

Failure Project Day One: I Am Not Beyoncé.

I'll be blogging here about my failure project, on a daily basis (time-permitting), and cross-posting to social media and the NTW community. 

How to begin?

One of the sources for my interest in failure was the music of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an art-school orchestra in the 1970s, whose members were unable to play their instruments. They went ahead and recorded popular classics anyway. They are worth looking up  - there are plenty of recordings available on youtube. I love the glorious way they embrace failure, turn it around, and make some astonishing art in the process. I didn't really know how to do something comparable.

On Sunday I was sitting in my garden, enjoying the sunshine and reading the Gob Squad Reader, and skipped to the final chapter "On Failure". This jumped out:

"I'm not interested in ability, but rather the feeling of empowerment; that one empowers oneself to do something. Especially when you can't actually do it. You tell yourself, 'Even though I can't do it, or even though this is now a technically bad do-it-yourself situation, I'll do it anyway.' And this [...] is what is emotional about our work; it gives people a good feeling [...] Because as an audience member, you have the feeling that possibilities are opening up, rather than doors closing. That is the problem with ability. You see it and think, 'that is perfect, but what does it have to do with me?'..." (pp. 119-120)

The chapter goes on to describe "impossible tasks" the company set themselves in their work, and that sounded to me as good a starting point as any.

So today Lara and I started by setting impossible tasks for each other. In the spirit of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, I thought we should aim for something that people might recognise. I chose for her a music video that went viral in the last year or so - Sergei Polunin dancing in Hozier's "Take me to the church" -  because I thought that although Lara's a dancer, trying to approximate the work of a male, Royal Ballet dancer would be pretty challenging:

Lara chose Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" music video for me, specifically the choreography of one of the backing dancers rather than Queen Bey herself (only because she stops dancing to sing at certain points):

It's been such a fun day. It feels really freeing to throw myself into something that I know I have little chance of perfecting. We're both pretty sore as a result, and I need to bring some high heels in tomorrow properly to do justice to the choreography.

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