Personal connection to violence
Written on February 11th, 2018 by Yuko Takeda
During the fifth week of the Imagination of Violence course, the main task of the students was to write their own texts about invisible violence. Previously, they had explored preexisting texts written or spoken by others for ambivalent violence and reenacted the still images and videos from pop culture for extreme, grotesque violence. It was time to generate some original material to go deeper into invisible violence.
Davide had given an assignment for each of them to pick and read two articles that interest them personally, regarding invisible violence. One article should be scholarly or contain objective facts or analysis, and the other one should be of more personal nature. The topics of interest included childhood trauma, justified and unjustified violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame and masculinity in violence against women, oppression and pressure of a society regarding sexuality and manhood, and suicide. The idea was to use those articles as an inspiration or a starting point to write. Davide asked them to write in third person and to fictionalize a moment inspired by the articles.
The students spent about an hour to compose their first draft.
Afterwards, Davide asked them to pair up. The tasks were for one to speak his or her text to a partner and for the partner to make notes to remember and to give personal impressions about the text. Then they came together as the whole group and shared each other’s text in the following order: (1) A retells the story of partner B, (2) B reads out loud B’s original text, (3) B retells the story of A, (4) A reads out loud A’s original text, and so and so forth. This way one could hear his or her text from a different perspective.
Davide asked the students to listen to the texts with two questions in mind: (1) What’s the strongest image? (2) Where is invisible violence in the text? They also shared their answers to those questions for each other.
The second step was to pick a specific moment within the text that contains the strongest image and potential for action or invisible violence. “Stretch that moment, dig deeper, and write in first person if you feel like,” Davide said. It was a homework assignment for the next day.
Their second drafts were more monologue-like with most of them in first person. One by one the students read their text out loud while others took notes about the strongest image and invisible violence. Afterwards, they discussed what they heard and imagined in the texts.
At this point in the writing process, a few of them expressed a degree of frustration and confusion as to how to develop the text further. Writing is usually a solitary, personal process, which takes time to assimilate and to find a creative flow. A stroke of divine inspiration that drives one’s pen across paper is a rarity, in my opinion. Much of writing consists of sheer perseverance and rewrites. It can be quite agonizing. So, I emphasized with the students’ struggle.
I suggested Davide, after the second drafts were done, that the students should also be introduced to a different way of writing, which emphasizes more visual, physical, intuitive aspects of it. I told him that I’d once written my solo piece by using a writing method called “Action Writing.” It is a method invented and developed by Annie Lanzillotto, an artist based in New York. The main aim of Action Writing is to generate material for solo performances. (For more information on Action Writing, please visit Annie’s blog “Annie Lanzillotto Action Writing”: https://lanzillottoactionwriting.wordpress.com/).
I briefly outlined the method for Davide, and he allowed me to lead an Action Writing session with the students one afternoon.
There are three main steps in Action Writing. The first step is “Cave Work.” You spread paper on the floor and/or tear paper to build a cave with it. Pieces of paper are taped to the walls, the floor, or hung from the ceiling so that you can write on them in any physical position, standing up, sitting, lying down, etc. Then you just write and write and write for a certain amount of time without any pause. Usually fast instrumental music is played in the background to assist the uninterrupted, fast writing.
To start the Cave Work session, I asked the students to pick a few words or phrases from their own texts in response to a question, “What hurts you?” They then wrote the words on their caves. “Keep on writing for seven minutes, anything, literally anything that comes to mind when you look at those words. When you feel stuck, write answers to the question. The most important thing is that you don’t stop and think.” They did the fast writing round twice to fill up their caves.
The second step is “Shovel Line.” You look at what you wrote and pick a word or phrase that resonates with you. You underline it and dig deeper with it by writing fast again. When you reach a natural pause, you look at what you wrote and begin again the Shovel Line process. The cave keeps growing.
For this step, I gave the students about an hour and played the songs that are important to them personally as background music.
The third step is “Phrase Walk.” You take a phrase from your cave and walk with it. Speak it out loud in different rhythms and physicality.
I needed to modify the third step for the purpose of writing the third draft. So, instead of the Phrase Walk, I asked the students to “mine the cave” and then “score the cave” to develop their texts further.
Mining is to observe deeply what is there on and in the cave as if you were discovering it for the first time. And from the observations, you start to “find” creative possibilities. What images stick out? Is there a potential lyric, a character, a story, a monologue, a stage direction, a choreography? You make artistic choices based on what you discover. This is scoring the cave.
The students found many things such as a song, a poem, a monologue, and imagery from their caves and tried to integrate them into their third draft. Davide encouraged them to not get caught in a linear way of storytelling and to take a leap into the intuitive language appeared in the process.
Then it was time to “stage” those texts. Each student started out with a certain physical situation that could be suitable for his or her monologue, such as standing half-naked for an initiation ritual and charging at and moving away from an unresponsive partner in an abusive relationship. The struggle to bring life to their own personal texts became clearer and clearer as time went by. Just speaking it out loud was no longer enough. A transformation from a personal text to a dramatic performance felt harder and more delicate than we had anticipated.
Davide commented on the students’ challenge, “You have no problem playing different subtext with the text other person wrote. But when it comes to your personal writing, you get attached to it so much that you tend to get stuck in one interpretation of the text.”
The word “personal” is a tricky word to use in acting. In a way, everything is personal in acting because the actor’s main tool for expression is him or herself. And oftentimes the actor is asked to establish “a personal connection” to the character or the text to play it truthfully or deepen it. This demand, if wrongly understood, could result in unhealthy dependency on personal memories and emotional trauma. Since the course is dealing with violence, I want to point out even more that building a personal connection to a text of violence, personal or otherwise, does not mean to relive one’s personal memories of pain and hurt. It is about bringing the truth of an actor as a person into the situation the character is in. It takes empathy, imagination, and courage because the character you’re playing is as real, strong, crazy, and vulnerable as you are.
This is one of those things that are easier said than done. As a pedagogue and actor, I try to come up with questions to come closer to that kind of connection. What circumstance is the character in? Who is the character talking to? What’s at stake in the situation? What is the character wanting or yearning now? etc. In addition to those, specificity in a physical situation also helps. What kind of physical state am I in? Where am I exactly? How does the space make me feel? etc.
Many other things happened during the week, too. Here are some highlights.
As for my physical training, “specificity” turned out to be a key word. How much detail can you pick up about your body in executing a movement? How specific can you be in your embodied imagery? Also, to help the students to feel the specificity of focus, I asked them to hold an object in walking across the stage in slow tempo and to make the object “the main character.”
Davide introduced the students to the concept of accident in Commedia dell’arte. Traditionally, it is a succession of many scenes and each scene in Commedia dell’arte is 90-second long. A typical scene contains at least three accidents. There are different kinds of accidents such as supernatural (a wall suddenly becomes adhesive) and mechanical (one steps on a banana peel). An accident proceeds in three stages: before the accident, the accident, after the accident (which leads to another one). For an accident to be executed on the stage, there needs to be a goal for a person to achieve and an obstacle(s) that makes it harder to reach it. Davide told all this to familiarize the students with dramaturgy. The improvisations of accidents were hilarious.
The students also went to the costume and prop shops one afternoon to pick up their outfits for their monologues. They are getting ready for the demo performance next week.
Speaking of the demo, they spent one afternoon on trying out fake blood in Studio 1. They had to rehearse the extreme, grotesque, pop violence scenes with it once before the demo. First, we covered the walls and floor of the studio with white cardboards, which took some time. Then the students put on clothes that could be spoiled by the blood. They had been anxious to try the blood since last week. Excitement in the space was palpable. I took a lot of pictures during the rehearsal. There are some very stunning images. But, I don’t want to give out too much before the demo. So, here are a few of them to give the reader a sneak peek of what it was like.
As the last thing of the week, we had Kirsi Monni, a professor from the master’s program in choreography visit us and give a presentation about her artistic process in creating “ActsAndAffects,” a dance performance about violence. She not only explained her process and inspirations behind it but also taught us some theoretical knowledge about the modes of representation to create meaning in dance, such as replication, imitation, resemblance, and reflection. It was very interesting to listen to how she creates as a choreographic artist. She added, “I think that the difference between theatre and dance is that in dance there are two different levels of meaning creation. One is the bodily articulation level, and the other one is the abstract (compositional) level.”
In response to her creative process to deal with violence, Davide indicated that in theatre different types of violence create different narratives. This eventually led to a question, “What is narrative?” Kirsi said that there could be narrative in dance as well, depending on how one defines it. Is theatre’s narrative different from dance’s narrative? Is it what you interpret from an event? Is it a point of view? I was thinking that it might have something to do with how meaning is created or how one experiences meaning. But no one was sure.
What a great way to end a week, full of questions to make us more articulate and specific in our art form and closer to the connection needed for becoming alive on the stage.
The next week will be the final week of the course.
You are invited to the demo performance on Thursday, February 15th at Studio 1, TeaK, starting at 18:00. Welcome!
To be continued…