by Howard Gayton
Monday, 21st November
Over the weekend I went to a small seaside town called Foz. It was very windy, with waves crashing down over rocks. There were seagulls pecking at dead fish on the shore and wonderful rocks that one could stand on, hearing the sound of the sea. It gave me the idea of starting the Fish Kingdom scene with a song and dance number, almost like a Disney cartoon! I have the Beatles’ ‘Octopus’s Garden’ going around my head.
This morning we worked on a calypso dance number for the Fish Kingdom. We explored the fish–masks, and used ribbons of silk to create a movement ‘spectacular’ of underwater choreography. It is very jolly, and then moves into the scene of the oldest sister singing a haunting song that expresses her ‘saudades,’ longing, for home.
Whilst on the rocks at the weekend, I had an image of the youngest sister cradling her young brother in her arms, with the sea splashing up around them. Sealskins are draped over the boy, as he is near death, and the seals sing the songs of the ancients to call him back to life. In order to get this ‘shamanic journey’ idea to work, I need the cast to be in the ‘feeling’ of this. We can’t show the metaphorical aspects of the tale — partly because it’s inappropriate, I feel, in a children’s play, and partly because it would be a diversion from the plot — but in order to get the rightatmosphere for this scene, the cast needs to know what the boy is going through in his inner soul journey.
I described the mythic tradition of a shaman’s voyage into the Spirit World, where the body is torn apart (or in some cases eaten) and then put back together after a certain number of days. The actors then split into three groups to work out a showing of just such a journey into the Spirit World. I used lighting to create a dark atmosphere in the space, and we sat in circle. Each group presented their tale, one after the other, without breaking the atmosphere between the stories. The watchers created a droning ‘aah’ sound all the way through, underneath the stories.
The three stories were as follows:
- Three naughty girl spirits took the body of a shaman, who had died, and plucked out his eyes to play catch with them — after which they set the eyes on an altar so that the dead man could see the path ahead. Then they broke his skull to form a road, and broke his ribs so that they fell on the path. Then the headless body collapsed. A disembodied voice called out, asking the girls what they were doing, chastising them, and telling them to put the shaman back together. The spirits were sad, because they liked playing, and they cried. Their tears formed a lake, which brought all the pieces of the shaman back together.
- The second tale had an amazing image at the start: A man was doing exercises at the front of the ‘stage.’ This represented the human world. Behind him, another actor was a tree, and there was also a bird, created by a third actor’s hands, which flew on and off the branches. This was the world of nature. A fourth actor was prowling like a wolf, but was clearly a spirit creature. This represented the Spirit World. All three worlds co–existed in one image; incredible! When the man died, he went to the Spirit World, where two ‘wolf creatures’ sucked out his breath, then his flesh, and then his body, which they blew into the stomach of the chief wolf.All this was portrayed very clearly without words. The spirit of the man spent three days in the wolf’s stomach, getting more and more agitated, which was portrayed by the wolf twisting in torturous pain. After three days, the wolf blew life back into the man’s body, first the legs, then the arms, and finally the head.
- In the fourth story, an old woman was murdered, and her spirit was torn apart by Buffalo — which symbolised the physical. Then Lions came and ate some of her flesh — symbolic of the emotions. Then Eagles came and pecked at her brain — symbolic of rational thought. After the woman’s ravaged body lay in state for many days, butterflies came, repaired it, and brought her back to life.
Immediately after telling these stories, and without disrupting the ambience, the cast set up the image we’ve created for the Seal Kingdom, and then improvised that scene. It was incredibly moving and beautiful. The actress playing the youngest sister had such concern for the boy; and the interaction between her and the Seal King was very touching. The Seal King brought the boy back to life by rattling imaginary seashells over the boy’s body.
Tuesday, 22nd November.
This morning we played a lot of games. I had to push the cast through a barrier of not really playing them, but of just going through the motions. Through my urging, we eventually reached the point where games are meant to be: where we are fully engaged, lost in the excitement, not thinking.
Simple games contain so much about theatre. A dramatic performance in English is known as a ‘play’ — and play and make–believe are the foundations of our work on this show. We are doing this play because we enjoy it, and it is important to remember this as we move onto a different phase of the work — where we will have to block things in more, and repeat them, without the exhilarating energy of improvisation. We need to remember the place we reached in one of the games where we worked ourselves into such excitement that we were screaming and laughing like idiots!
What can we learn from games?
- That they only work if we are fully present, focused, and reacting rather than ‘thinking,’ which is the state we should be in when we perform.
- They teach us that if we ‘drop’ the game, we can decide not to get thrown by this but to ‘pick up the ball’ (or, in the case of the game we played, the sound of the handclap) straight away and get on with it. We don’t have to let the energy drop too, as it is then harder to regain the flow. When applied to performance, this helps us to understand the importance of the flow of the piece.
- They teach us the value of eye contact, and how important this is for us in both receiving and giving.
- They teach us to ‘listen’ to the pace of something, and that we can inject energy if needed to pick the pace up.
- They also leave us invigorated and alive, as we have been in a ‘flow state.’
I am aware that we are moving into a new part of the process. We have started to work through the early part of the play, to fill in bits we have not worked on, and to tighten up bits that we have — to work on the dynamics of the movement between images, the choreography, and the attitude of the cast when moving or sitting. We are hiding the mechanics of the piece so that the images seem to appear out of nowhere, and, in effect, creating magic. Magic is all about concentration, intention, direction and misdirection.There is a point where a number of the actors need to get rid of some flat cardboard puppets, and other members of the cast have to move into another position. To cover what could be a very ugly piece of stage business, we do two things: A line of storytellers is formed, each telling a line of story in an energetic way. Behind them the others move, not trying to be hidden, but moving with precision, directness and simple, fluid grace. The result is that they are hardly noticed, whereas if they tried to creep about they would be noticed. Skilful actorsknow how to exercise their energy to be seen, and how to withdraw that energy so the audience doesn’t look at them! A good actor can disappear on stage and then re–appear.