PhD Journal 02/11/2020

24/10/2020: Thoughts after watching “An interview with Michael J. Frayn” the playwright (Copenhagen).

This interview showed the playwright being questioned on how he feels about adaptation, creating his own characters and the experience of the theatre.

Recently I have been discussing a new project with Dani and Hannah for Infinite Opera. This will be based around Hannah’s experience of living with OCD and the way that it manifests for her in everyday life. This is particularly of growing relevance in the increasingly isolated and uncontrollable world we are living in today. Many of the comments made by Frayn about the life of a stage actor seemed to run in parallel with what Hannah had been saying about her experience of OCD. In Hannah’s description of her OCD she expressed the sensation of being frozen and inhibited from completing ordinary tasks, such as just getting out of bed, by the amount of negative thoughts and scenarios that are played out in her mind at the thought of the slightest action.

In order to create a piece about this struggle, which does not rely on the representation of many voices inside one characters head, I suggested we write a piece where we see the protagonist starting to carry out the same task several different times, with different outcomes at the end. The length and absurdist nature of these different fictional scenarios would be able to highlight the struggle and mental turmoil of the protagonist, as well as the sensation of fear over the unexpected, or uncontrolled outcome. The purpose of the piece would be to help inform young people of the potential pitfalls of cyclical thought processes, and the kinds of mental barriers they might face in the future. For this reason we would ideally be making a piece which we could take to schools around the UK.

In the interview Michael Frayn spends some time discussing how the actor remains in a state of both control and freedom, especially if they are repeating the same role night after night. How is it possible for an actor to enter into the same mental space and embody the same character knowing exactly the outcome? During the interview Michael Frayn says this in reference to the way a friend of his has described performing the same role everynight:

But he says in his case, and I would think it’s quite likely true for a, a lot of actors, there’s a third track, which comes into play after you’ve been doing the performance for some time, and that is the anarchic feeling that you could completely destroy the performance by doing something outrageous, you could destroy your own career, you could destroy the play, you could shock the audience by suddenly doing something which is not part of the play. And he says it’s something, it’s a kind of temptation he struggles with. And I know that feeling, one has it in, in ordinary life, there’s suddenly the feeling that one might not go on being the normal citizen one is, one might suddenly break out and do something which would shock the world and, and disturb everyone. So it’s, live performance is, is quite complicated to process.

He then goes on to say:

Well in any play, the lines have been fixed, the moves have been fixed, everything’s been rehearsed and people have a, a plan for their life, they’re living out their life according to a plan in front of you, but as in everything else in life, things do go wrong, props do get misplaced, people do forget their lines, the audience does react in unexpected ways, mobile phones do go off in the middle of the act, and actors have to cope with that, and sometimes the circumstances get so extreme that they can’t cope with it.

This interview made me think again about the ways of representing OCD in a theatrical setting. There are many links between the way an actor feels and responds to live performance, and the way Hannah had described experiencing OCD. The theatre is such a controlled environment, it provides a safer but more magnified setting for these extra and unwarranted thoughts to appear. They will appear even louder than normal to most as the desired and pre choreographed course of action holds an imperative. In real life it may not matter if I cross the road at the crossing here or down the street but in a staged performance it will make a difference if I exit upstage or downstage. The opportunity for expressing the dizzying moment of realising that a rogue choice could change everybodies outcomes is perhaps one of the reasons that many people fear public speaking in the first place. An actor must overcome this and choose to go against these constant urges.

This connection to performance anxiety and OCD has opened up a new way of viewing this project, and one which I will be carrying forward on further discussions with the collaborators. There are now new possibilities for how to express the experience of living with OCD. One idea was to stage a production in which the audience are always interfering, leading to us watching the actor have a kind of nervous break down on stage as they work to control the increasingly rebelious circumstances around them. Perhaps ultimately they will find that the only way to avoid such a high level of anxiety is to confront the thoughtless audience head on.

24-27/1-/2020: Brazilian Collaborative Theatre by Aleksandar Dundjerovic

During this week I have been reading a series of interviews with theatre directors in Brazil, who have been working at the forefront of their art forms from the last half of the 20th century to today. These theatre practices all involve a large amount of collaborative work, lead mostly by the director, whose visions and philosophies guide the nature of the work done by the participants.

Much of this work is highly relatable to my work in opera. For example in the interview with Antunes Filho he expresses how in his productions “you see several different things and your mind gets agile just like your eye. You get the audience away from passive behaviour and make them become active.” This idea of the active audience is very important in contemporary opera works. For a long time it has been assumed that one should almost treat the audience as stupid, or do the complete opposite and assume the audience already knows the piece that you are presenting them. Many productions will either present you with a traditional view of what opera should be, or make it so obvious that they are doing something different, that there is not much point in observing beyond the first five minutes. In my work I am expecting the audience to always be actively involved in the piece with me. They must engage their minds as they are taken through the journey of the story and music. They will be offered several ways of understanding what is happening in each moment, and it is up to them to decide how they wish to respond. They should leave the production feeling like they can think about what they have seen and heard for a long time after. The work should be active so that the audience can live with it and take it away with them.

Antônio Araújo was also particularly interesting as he utilises physics in his approach to collaborative drama. He has used Newtonian Mechanics to understand the interactions between players. His work is also centred on the connection between academic and creative work. He sees theatre as a space for research, as much as a space for performance. This resonates well with Filho’s expecations of his audience as an active member of the piece. Here the audience will also be actively part of the research process.

In a broader sense reading this text is giving me a greater toolkit with which to approach the devising process of my own work. It has opened up a broader way of thinking and reassured me that in approaching difficult concepts it is essential to consider the multimodal nature of the work from the start.

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