Thursday, 24 February 2011

Random scribblings

From my notebook as I read Tony Allen's fantastic book - "A Summer in the Park: A Journal of Speakers' Corner. All of these thoughts are useful to OEMP - but exactly how remains a mystery -

A humanist congregation.

No suspension of disbelief in the park. No fourth wall.

Stay in the present and in the room.

The cross-over between performance, play and real life.

"Think before you speak ... and speak slowly."

"I may disagree with what you are saying ... but I would die for your right to say it."

Disturb the comfortable, comfort the disturbed.

Question and answer mode - mixed ability shaman.

Relax and pay attention.

"Having moments, finding the lateral, addressing the now and delighting in being alive."

When in doubt, tell the truth.

Be first to make light of seriousness. Be first to censure messing about.

There's always a next time ...

Social intercourse.

Stop when you're winning before it fizzles out.

Mellow, soften, play.

The laughter associated with schadenfreude has a quality all of its own.

Any questions?

Dynamics? Attitude? Material? Diction? Timing? Fancy a drink?

No one pulling you on mistakes makes for a slow learning process and an arrogance that can lead to demagoguery.

Self deprecation - a vital tool.

Free speech demands the involvement of individuals free enough to express themselves.

There you go. Make of that what you will. I certainly did.


Friday, 18 February 2011

Public thoughts on public thoughts

End of week two - nearly - of prep and research for the One Eyed Man Project and lots of thoughts to share. I've given myself an arbitrary ten weeks of research and prep before going into four weeks of rehearsals - quite how I rehearse a show that will be improvised from scratch every single time is at the moment beyond me but nevertheless ...

I'm reading a lot, thinking a lot, talking a lot about the project and ideas bubble and froth in my brain. Firstly, reading - this week I finished the first, key book that has been sitting on my shelf calling to me ever since the idea for this project began to take shape - Shamans - Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination by Ronald Hutton. The title alone gives away a huge amount about what I'm attempting with this work and I should state for the record that I'm not going to pull a David Icke at any point and claim that I'm a) the new messiah and b) giant lizards rule the world. But the notion of shamanic performance and the possibilities of finding a relevant and useful means of doing it in a modern context has long fascinated me.

The true progenitor of the One Eyed Man Project (OEMP for short) was a show I did with Volcano about six years ago called Hitting Funny. A snippet of which you will find by following the link below.

This was a one man show - 95% scripted and rehearsed with improvised elements and a small amount of audience interaction - that explored my personal fascination with what on earth happened to alternative comedy. When I was young, alternative comedy was the new punk - it seemed perfectly possible to me that the sheer power and force of people standing on a stage with a microphone could fundamentally change the way society functioned. Of course, it didn't and many of them became mainstream household names and the 'alternative' stamp increasingly came to mean less and less until we now have Michael McIntyre to 'entertain' us and the ever more nihilistic and misanthropic moanings of Frankie Boyle et al. But  Hitting Funny proved something to me about the very nature of performance - it seems that it is possible and necessary for performance to shake people up, force them to question, not only their society but the very nature of existence. All performance and theatre of any kind, in my opinion based on nothing but intuition, stemmed from the guy at the tribal campfire who stood up at the end of the day and told stories and went a bit crazy so the rest of the tribe didn't have to. Hence - shamanism.

So, what did I learn that was useful from Ronald Hutton's book? In a word, shedloads. I learnt that Shaman is in itself a portmanteau word that means next to nothing since what 'shamans' actually did varied wildly from performer to performer. The best and most succinct definition seems to be the following -

"A spiritual practitioner who contacted spirits in a public performance for the benefit of other humans."


When was the last time you went to the theatre or to see a stand-up and saw something like that?

Now, admittedly, I can't contact spirits no matter how drunk or caned I am - but the basic tenets of what I'm going to set out to do are contained in that definition - Spirtuality. Benefit. Performance.

Certainly what the shamans did had a vital role for their society and, I personally feel, we have never been more in need of performers like this than now. Don't get me wrong, the world has always been on the verge of going to hell in a handcart, but lately we have never seemed to be so close together and yet so far apart as people. So, this project is an experiment to see if it is possible to offer 'shamanic' performances that work specifically for the group of people in the audience at that time - and which speaks directly and specifically to their concerns, worries, fears and needs. As a performer, one always works for the audience but never more clearly than in this case. Hitting Funny - and I know this from first hand testimony - often felt like an attack on the people who had come to see it (even though it hurt me far more than it hurt them!). This work, I believe, will be different and will seek to comfort and heal the audience.

A very useful place to start then was Mr Hutton's excellent book.

I also came up with a perfect description for the shows this week - because 'performance' or 'show' just never felt like the right terminology since the work would be improvised with the specific aim of helping or healing - and so I arrived at this. It's not performances - it's offerings. Semantic bollocks? Quite possibly - but it certainly helps me feel clearer about what I'm doing.

I moved on to the second book on my pile - A Summer in the Park - A journal of Speakers Corner - by Tony Allen. This one was recommended to me by Mark Thomas who knows Tony Allen well. He is one of the godfathers of alternative comedy who worked in the original Comedy Store with Alexei Sayle et al. But his work has veered more towards the discursive and politically motivated and in the summer of 2000 he got a small Arts Council grant to work as an 'advocate heckler' at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London. This has long been the stronghold of freedom of speech, based on the site of the old Tyburn gallows and a place where, by law, anyone is allowed to say their piece - provided they accept any heckling or counter-arguments that may be thrown their way. Allen's original plan - to heckle on behalf of those less confident or able - quickly fell by the wayside as he became embroiled in perfecting the art of public speaking. Arriving at Speakers Corner every Sunday with no idea what to talk about but a clear desire to engage people in discussion and debate, he documents his struggles and triumphs. It's incredibly inspirational stuff in my quest to do something similar in a theatre/stand-up context but there are crucial differences. Obviously, the open-air, audience comes/audience goes aspect of Speakers Corner makes for a necessarily gladiatorial and confrontational atmosphere which is something I'm keen to avoid - although, I don't want to avoid conflict if conflict is in the room but I don't want people coming along feeling nervous or intimidated by being forced to participate or speak. But Tony Allen does describe the fact that there is no 'fourth wall' and he is resolutely himself at all times, operating in the present moment and not hiding behind character. This is what I too will strive for and what sets the OEMP apart from Hitting Funny and other work I've done in the past.

So, lots of good thoughts and information going into the computer banks to be processed and hopefull come out smelling lovely at some point in the future. In other news, venues are being finalised - touch wood, Swansea venues are done and Cardiff is coming together.

Any questions or thoughts on the project or anything I've said then please feel free to contact me or leave a comment. One of the things I've had to row back on at this stage is an idea I have to enable performances to happen at the drop of a hat on the day - the idea being that if something of import happens in the world then I can do an offering on it that very night by Tweeting the venue details and using other social media. Thoughts on this? Would you be inclined to take a punt on something unknown at short notice like that?

Anyway, cheers for now.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Musing on amusing whilst I should be doing something else

So, blog number 2 with the glorious sound of The White Stripes first album pumping in the background and whilst I should be doing other things - many other things.

It's been an odd couple of weeks in preparation for beginning the one eyed man process. I've set myself the arbitrary start date of 7th February since that gives me ten weeks 'prep' before I begin a four week 'rehearsal' process leading up to six weeks of shows - three weeks in Swansea and three in Cardiff, alternating between the two cities and in a different venue each week. So, there are all sorts of dull but vital administrative tasks to be performed - finding venues and securing them; writing promotional copy and disseminating it as widely as possible; getting images; organising online tools (like this one) - now, all of these things are vital but ultimately all they do is put off the inevitable question to wrestle with -

I'm proposing to perform 36 'shows' - and I want them to be totally improvised in the moment with that audience. No script, no rehearsal - simply me and them in that odd space as human beings together, finding out what we find out and saying what needs to be said. So, the questions I'm asking myself are all related to what I want to get out of it and what on earth do I think I'm doing? I guess like everyone else in life I find myself evolving and wishing to push myself out of my comfort zone and to challenge myself to do something of value.

I arrived at this place via a circuitous route - like John Lennon nearly said - 'Life is what happened to me while I was busy making other plans.' I started out as an actor and trained to be one at RADA nearly twenty years ago. I worked a lot but never really consistently and I found the work that I was doing ranged from rather dull to mind-blowing. The latter category was taken up with work that I felt changed people's minds and their perceptions through theatre and performance. So, I played Iago years ago in a production of Othello and annoyed a lot of people by playing him as a flawed, screwed up man trying to do the right thing - rather than the usual interpretation of a Machievellian villain. Because I've never met anyone like that, have you? Then I played MacHeath in The Threepenny Opera as a racist skinhead and scared the bejesus out of the audience because they quite liked me. Then I got involved with Swansea's Volcano Theatre Company ...

The work they do is so utterly unique and idiosyncratic that is almost impossible to quantify them - they are iconoclasts and artists who wish to take their audience on journeys far out of their comfort zone - to challenge, question and debate. And I love them.

It's extremely common in this era of knee jerk cynicism and internet trolls to be wary about showing enthusiasm for passion, commitment and idealism - but I'm so bored of that kind of thinking that I could tear out my eyes and hack off my ears whenever I see and hear it. I don't know about you but I'm only going to be here for a little while - I don't know exactly how long, none of us do - and I want to live every moment of it to the full - and that means throwing myself in with passion and a desire to dream and explore and create with every fibre of my being. And that's what Volcano do and that's what they taught me. Hence this experiment.

These are just rambling thoughts and I don't expect them to make any sense but perhaps if the next three months or so continue in this vein then some sense may well emerge.

So, venues are being prepared and print is being prunted (?) and yesterday I had my first meeting with my mentor on the project, Mark Thomas. Much of what we talked about is not for public consumption since it relates to the shows themselves and I really want to take people on a journey of the unexpected. But what I can say is that, in his case, the old adage about never meeting your heroes was proven wrong. He's an absolute gentleman who, crucially for me in relation to this project, talks like he walks. He is who he says he is and he does the things he believes in - and he believes in them passionately and with his whole heart and soul. Like Gandhi said - you must become the change you wish to see in the world. And Mark does that. And I want to do that too.

More soon. Hope you have a great day.