Opening Umbrellas in Theatre

I was talking with a student today about original writing for theatre, gathering new material, specifically interview material for a project the class was working on.  As the people interviewed in this project were grandparents, the taped interviews featured a lot of reminiscences from the “good old days” which were heavy on ‘exciting events’ and very light  on what was actually going on emotionally inside people during these times lived.

She was having trouble not only getting useful information from people, useful in the theatrical sense, but also then in finding ways to dimensionalize this material and turn it into ‘theatre’.

This image occurred to me and it may be a useful reminder when turning rather sentimental, de-emotionalized accounts into something we could call theatre.

We could walk into that kind of detail as an actor, as a storyteller, and experientially, open up an umbrella in our imagination.  Suddenly we have a defined space that the observer, the witness, the writer, the main character is directly connected to (by holding the handle) a space in which a story, or story elements, are unfolding.  This space would be created by the actor’s breath and 360 degree awareness of both body and space, a space in which powerful and dramatic ideas could come in and out from any angle, any level of space.  The creation of this ‘spherical’ space would help open up a similar space and ability inside each of us in the audience.

It was  tempting for the students to judge this interview material as uninteresting or useless theatre material but as soon as we judge it we prevent ourselves from getting inside it.  We stop breathing and expanding our play space.  A space with no breath soon becomes breathless, stuck, cartoon like and two dimensional.

Laurence Olivier once told an actor (Charles Laughton) who was struggling to play King Lear, “you have to love him, in the sense of’ be willing to see the world through his eyes’.  And this love needs to be physicalized, made tangible to an audience.  You need to take his words up over hills, down into valleys, down staircases, any landscape that allows the language to have an actual terrain to come out of.”

Characters speak from 3 and 4 dimensional worlds.  Actors have a lot of duties to perform and will sometimes flatten these dimensions to create a 2 dimensional representation, a cartoon, of the character they are trying to make live.  Cartoons can be funny, but they don’t know how to breathe.  They are designed for the page or for flat film stock and we understand that their projected reality is an illusion or animated image of life rather than life itself.

Because the ‘umbrella’ space has been articulated, defined, brought into awareness and made specific, there seems to naturally arise a corresponding need for whoever is in this space to also be specific about what they are seeing, feeling, suffering, hearing, etc., saying and moving.  Specific context and location necessitates specific response to this context and location.  There can be context that is felt with no location, but not location without a context.  Real responses are specific responses.

In theatre we are less interested in descriptions of things than who is describing, who is feeling, thinking, who is moving or who is acting.  How is that someone impacted by what happens.  What happens to them on the outside and on the inside. This is the real context that the outer material context is a metaphor for.  They can speak complete nonsense and be highly interesting to us if they are there.

Do they reveal to us what is happening and the degree to which they are impacted either  verbally or non verbally or do they mask their true responses and make us guess by throwing out various clues for us to follow.  As an audience we can have fun with a Sherlock Holmes adventure but clue leaving is an art form and if not done carefully and progressively can lead to us running off in all directions resuming the Sherlock game we already have running in our lives.

If actors actually did this,  consciously, opened specific umbrella (360 degree) spaces within themselves as they delivered text or used a form of movement language,  they would open up, for all of us, an accessible space housing different dimensions, and this space would communicate  to us the size and type and quality of world that had just been created.  The training of the good physical actor, usually accomplished over three or four years, deals with the HOW we create this space both inside and outside the actor.

Dean Fogal

A Gap – in the Marketplace of Attention

The Dream

I was an instructor trying to get the attention of  young college students who were all over the map, some starting to eat their lunch before class had ended, going out into halls and laughing with friends, and texting already as if lunchtime had already started. Other teachers were also wandering into the room before our class had even finished so there was pandemonium. I was trying to rally their attention for a few more minutes to tell them something REALLY IMPORTANT.  SOMETHING I HAD JUST DISCOVERED IN OUR THEATRE RESEARCH AFTER YEARS OF LOOKING.

I looked around at all this chaos thinking of the irony that they even needed to remember that it was important to focus on the last few minutes of a class or anything else for the sheer fact that you never knew when something extremely important, paradigm shifting, was going to happen.  Why assume that things needn’t be fully completed whether these ‘things’ were classes, sentences, or relationships ? I thought of great singers who seemed to never end the song and would slide into home plate after a home run in slow motion, recalling eternity. In the dream there were few great singers present.

I must have been dealing with this whole idea of how you tell people something important, to you at least, when they have so so many distractions competing for their attention.  I remember wrestling with the idea of whether to tell them about the idea of a ‘key word’ for example, say the word  ‘GERONIMO’ and the idea that when someone says this word, they REALLY  want to get the group’s attention to say something serious.

Sometimes a therapist  in a group situation will say out loud a word agreed upon with a particular individual that  tends to get out of control or ‘over contributes’ and hence takes up an extraordinary amount of time or space in the group.  This key word is an ‘invitation, perhaps a warning’ that in the opinion of the therapist that individual is going into this over indulgent space and can pause and reconsider  whether they really need to go there.

Our own names cut through everything when they are said loudly at a cocktail party lets say – everything stops momentarily and people focus. A loud single note on a piano stops our collective  attention for a moment.  A spoon hitting a glass at a wedding.   The trouble with emergency words or sounds  is that   they can soon lose their ’emergency’ status.  (the boy who cries WOLF too many times).

Back in the dream, other teachers were entering the classroom even before my class had finished and I had the strong sense that they, even more than the students,  had had years of contending with this reality of no one really listening to them or not listening at key moments,  and that they were not about to hear ME get serious and insist on everyone’s attention.   They would have no patience with it.  It would seem like an indulgence no one had time for in this kind of chaos.

Just a now thought –  so many movies now days are actually  based on this idea – how to say things to get everyone’s fleeting attention.  The old shock and awe technique.  But it can quickly lose its effectiveness.  We can be so used to getting shocked that we don’t respond any longer to shocks.  It becomes the norm.  We obviously have to develop other methods for getting people’s attention, other than over stimulation and the creation of shocks.  Stroboscopic images try to do both, over stimulate and shock our systems, to get our attention.  Sometimes things whispered will get our attention.  Whispering in a noisy crowd is a kind of reverse psychology saying “maybe if I go completely in the opposite direction, this will work to get their attention”

So in my dream, I heard myself say to myself, “just for now at least, tell it to me, I will listen.  They are actually listening too but to a thousand other things that were also extremely important to you at one point.  Don’t worry about it.  On one level it’s none of your business, how busy their minds are.  They could all be working on Unified Field Theories and don’t need the interruption.  There might be another moment, sometime, down the road to share your insight.  Who knows?  It may prove to be ‘insightful’ to you alone, even AFTER you’ve shared it.   Swallow this one, breathe and get back to whatever makes you full, full with a little room at the top of the cup for cream.”

As a friend of mine once said, someone who had managed big projects, “I learned bit by bit to ‘point but not carry’, indicate a direction, an idea, but not to take people on my back to get them over the finishing line. And   believe me, as I was learning this ‘point but don’t carry’ rule, I developed legs like a mule and a spine bent into the letter C”.

Actors Energize Space

When good physical actors work I sometimes think I’m watching a spider weaving first the spokes of its web then an intricate pathway of interconnecting perpendiculars to those spokes. Great actors might be playing one scene but they are holding the whole play as they play this scene. Like a hologram, the whole is in all the parts.

These web lines are playful, elastic connections with everything and everyone in the play. Every playwrights thinks he or she has created a unified Universe no matter how bizarre that thought might sometimes appear to us, the paying public. The actor’s duty is to play the play as if its a unified Universe. Like a lawyer he says,’it’s none of my business whether my client is guilty or not, my job is to defend him according to the law’. An actor’s commitment and raw ability can, at least for a short time, turn a badly rendered story into King Lear.

The play they are in demands that actors build not one web, but many, strung in different directions.

And unlike the spider ,actors are not trying to trap our attention (or ARE they), but seem to be building a series of vibrating web planes, architecting a kind of eardrum that can sensitively react to every sound, every footstep on its surface, sounds from the actor, the play and its other actors, and from the audience too as they breathe and sound in response to the play. The silk material just might be produced by the coming together of the two attentions, the actor’s and the audience’s.

Actors, I think, are working to affect the space itself, to fashion the materials IN the play space, in order to funnel sound to a place shared by all of us in order that it become available to all of us, in this very moment we share. What is true for sound may also be true for images. Actors bounce images down these web lines to a space at the core where all of our attentions meet, a kind of black hole but one where things get illuminated rather than annihilated. What the hell, could we call it a white hole?

Jean Louis Barrault said “all senses reduce to the sense of touch”. Actors touch but do more than touch things, touch on ideas, touch on feelings. They caress the words, they caress the objects, they caress the emotions coming from themselves and from fellow actors, and these caresses linger longer in the space, like an engraving rather than a stroboscopic image. WE in the audience then have a chance to also caress it, take it in, hold onto it, nurture and remember it for a very long time. Good actors are engravers of
the space, they are not glib cartoonists content with a caricature that struts his hour and then is heard or remembered no more.

The stroboscopic world of advertising which uses some of the best creative brains in the world, spits us out the back of IT’S theatre once we have purchased, become deflated with the purchase and are now in no mood to re-purchase.

Actors pick us up in a limo, waltz us through the front door of THEIR theatre, amuse us, rouse us, inspire us and even listen to us, all the while pausing between phrases and allowing us to assimilate what has just been said by them and by us. Even in the shallowest of plays, there is play, real play attempted if not brought to fruition and on some level we are revived by this attempt. We play again like the child artists we all were. We touch again the re-enchantment of everyday life. Occasionally we walk out of
THEIR theatres having accepted all that we have become and all that we have not become like the jester in the Tarot deck that knows he is all the characters and so is content to be called fool.

Can so called empty space have walls, web walls like this? I don’t know. I’m only imagining it can.

Maybe this metaphor, if it is one, is not something that has practical merit, but I would like to think that in our attempt to physicalize emotion, thought, passion, all these invisible and fleeting things we know have impact on our lives, we benefit from creating a language that translates the seeming ’emptiness’ of space between ourselves and others, into something vibrant, elastic, tangible and inspiring.

Decroux, in being asked “why do Mime”, said, “well you have to do something between breakfast and lunch, it might as well be Mime”. By the same token, we hang out enough in the emptiness of space. Why not turn its ‘floor’ into a responsive trampoline, its ‘wall’s into the walls of a listening eardrum and its various ‘rooms’ into echo chambers where sounds and passions move through like torrential water ways just dying to be embodied by someone.

We can say we want to be loved, we say that all the time. All cowboy songs attest to this. We also want to be heard, and its possible to feel loved but not heard. We know what that feels like do we not? The word ‘parents’ springs to mind.

Do good actors and playwrights know about this need? Is this the driving desire behind the playwrights and the actors work? Was the theatre invented to provide us with a laboratory where we could collectively grow new ears, new eyes for experiences we only dreamed of inside the dogmatic borders of all polite society?

When others concerned themselves with Philosophers Stones that could turn base metals into gold, were actors working in their cheap, damp studios in the hills surrounding the cities, not to produce gold, but to re-work space into a vibrating series of planes that could dynamically funnel the gold down and down the mountain, driven on by torrents of water, arriving straight into our hearts at the bottom of the hill?

I don’t know but am only imagining that actors must have had SOME strong reason to collectively turn their backs on money for so many years. There are some film celebrities of course, that are making up for lost time. But most theatre actors were doing something between breakfast and lunch and it wasn’t adding to their stock portfolios. They were mining gold, even taking some of it to market, but along the way to cashing it in they got this strange idea that became an obsession.

The idea was, “gee, the only way I discovered any of this gold was through working closely with others in my ensemble and feeling safe enough to plummet into myself and my creative life. What if I invited everybody into my ensemble, whether they had training or not, regardless of their age, background or ethnicity or socio economic status…… What if I assumed they could totally hear what I had to say or what the play had to say, ? What then? I have watched myself and countless others in my group, rise
to the occasion and create huge breakthroughs on physical, emotional and intellectual levels. What if, in fact, it wasn’t about training or knowledge but that my training merely gave me the time and the space to realize I had valuable insights, connections and experiences that were always and already inside of myself? I saw in that rarified space of training that what I was discovering was available to everybody that took the time to see and know that it was there.

Our training as actors points to that and says “be the first one in the water, swimming, and invite them in to swim with you. The swimming is what’s important not who sends out the invitation.”

Speaking of spiders, isn’t it one of the great ironies to discover that spider web material is woven into fabric then used in bullet proof vests. The material is stronger than steel of the same thickness. Have spiders known all along just how flexible and powerful their webs were and have they, for centuries, being trying to find the words USE IT TO MAKE BULLET PROOF VESTS YOU IDIOTS, every time we wrote a poem about the romantic nature of spider webs? We might never know. Unless, that is, some actor gets
the bright idea of opening a theatre training centre for spiders. Then, all bets are off.

They will no doubt go on and on about eardrums, and trampolines and sharing everything with the collective. Inviting everyone into the swimming pool with them may require training techniques that can only, at this moment in time, be imagined.

Not your typical blog

Hello people,

I will not be posting weekly like your typical blog, but rather as the fancy strikes me. Having spent most of my career in theatre, I’m adding a mixed bag of subject matter into this blog.

Here you’ll find articles on the philosophy and training of physical theatre, which will eventually be compiled into a manual or small book, as well as bits and pieces of other work as it comes up.

I approach visual art with space, form and dramatic context in mind, using the elements and colours to tell a story.

I believe that all forms overlap and converge, supporting and enriching each other. Hence the inclusion of a variety of subjects.



Getting even, with wood – poem

my hands make noises when I’m excited,

they do,

they pirouette as dancers round the index to make

their point, grab

for a chisel to thrust the wood,

pull saw teeth back and plunge into grain,

preparing to sweat and to swear, preparing to

right all wrongs done to my body

to wipe away, with a hand gesture,

all perceived insults

to my face

dean fogal

WE WERE ARTISTS FIRST (The need for creative team building)

When I was six someone came up to me, someone who I knew for sure was as important as Alexander the Great. He said to me, “so, what do you want to be when you grow up little boy?”

Fool that I was, I told him. It just came right out of my mouth. “I want to open an employment agency”. Then there was the longest pause and blank stare ever. Endless.

Long enough for me to forget how you put a real sentence together. I was red in the face and could barely breath. The stare had that kind of effect. I stammered in order to fill the gap and stop that stare, “well I think that people adults spend so much time at work. I just thought it would be good to find them the best jobs in the world.” Still nothing but blank stare. Obviously my explanation was just making it worse. He didn’t get it and now neither did I. So I walked away and hid my shining face. I never saw him again but I remember his disbelief. I thought later, “why didn’t I just say fireman or policeman and be done with it? Some dreams are better left unspoken until you are old enough to hire an armed guard.”

With some definite weaving up and down the mountain called life I have pretty much stayed on course. That man would not approve. I have run a number of studios and schools in the area of Physical Theatre training, have worked in treatment centres with emotionally challenged teenagers and designed and renovated apartments and houses with small teams of people. The money aspect was always problematic in the area of theatre performance training, but they were environments that sparkled with creative input and output. They were healthy places to work and to be in. They attracted very good people, people who enjoyed other people and were inspired to do their own research in their fields and to honestly support the research and performance of others. These schools and studios attracted fine students, other professional artists and therapists both in and around them.

The strength and power of the ‘ensemble ,the healthy ensemble, was revealed to all of us, regardless of the creative project we were taking on, and perhaps because of the level of risk and difficulty we were up against.

Training schools that spend almost all of their time and energy on performance readiness have little time nor money to put on great productions and yet there is an expectation to do just that. The value of a safe, creative and inspiring ensemble to do your work within, despite the risks, becomes all important for personal growth and gradually, we learned, for performance excellence as well.

In architecture school which slowly turned into theatre training in Europe, the first thing I ‘built’ when we were asked to “stay with a large circle of earth in the forest all day long to see if and what we would build on it”, was a playground for children. Alexander would not be pleased. But I thought, ‘gee, kids spend all of their time playing, they need a creative environment that does more than amuse them, a place that has building materials, some tools, a chance to get some real work done.’

Creative ability is our legacy, our inheritance. It just needs a context to blossom. We were all artists first, before we were people of power, of influence, of wealth. We might not have been trained artists or recognized artists but we sang when we needed to sing, danced when we needed to dance and spoke when we needed to speak. Except when Alexander was in the room. As adults, we can dare to BE ARTISTS WHEN ALEXANDER IS IN THE ROOM. Alexander, after all, might be the Michelangelo of his age. He just hasn’t yet found his way inside all that. The world we live in is a feather duster, exploding in every direction imaginable. People have real needs to relax, become themselves and gain access to their creative gold mines. My work is focused on all the ways we become a creative individual in the company of and with the support of other people.

dean fogal