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.


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