Fairy Tale Theatre (Continued)

by Howard Gayton

Tuesday, 15th November

Day two: This morning I smudged with sage the second space that we are using to rehearse.

We started with ‘Zazen’ meditation, kneeling in a circle and concentrating on our breath. The meditation is a simple pointer to how we can change the energy of a space with our intention, which is one of the abilities, and the job, of the performer.

Then we spent the morning working on some images that I wished to use in the show. We explored how the actors could create a boat using their bodies, with a fisherman sitting inside, and how this could transform first into a wave, and then into the Big Fish itself. It was a combination of ideas that the class had worked on before, and there was a good feeling of flow and transformation to it as the group went on to evoke a storm and the threat of a sea–monster.

In the afternoon, we did a warm–up using ‘chi kung,’ a form of movement with concentration on the breath. This led naturally into an improvisation of sounds, movements and characters, and then into me re–telling the story as the students improvised to act it out. In this improvisation there was a beautiful image of the boy flying in his boots, coming down to land in the kingdom of the birds where the other performers made the trees. He then climbed into a tree to look around,from where he witnessed the emergence of the Queen of Birds, his sister. We tried this with the black clothes that I wanted the cast to wear, adding small bits of costume over the top. The idea was to use just simple bits of costume to get character across. It worked very well.

The next exercise was for the students to work out, on their own, individual re–tellings of the part of the tale where the fisherman first goes to sea, which they then performed to each other in pairs. The most interesting of these, in terms of movement and use of voice, were shown to the whole group. This generated a lot of script. We split the story up so that each student entered the stage, told a segment of the tale, and then froze in place. It worked well,and created some very interesting images as the scene built up. I think it will be the start of the show.

Big Fish

Some interesting points that came up with this sequence:

  1. The first actress comes on, places a very tiny stool down, and sits on it. This is a traditional way of telling a story, but soon more and more storytellers enter, the world expands, and the telling becomes more physical. It is a great way to start the play, introducing the audience to the cast and to the way we are going to flow and transform throughout the show.
  2. I am aware that we are telling the same basic story, that of a fisherman going to sea and being eaten by a big fish, three times at the beginning. Though the "triple repetition" motif is common in fairy tales, this has the potential to be theatrically very boring. We can get around this problem by varying the styles of storytelling. The ‘gradual’ way of telling the story mentioned above will be good for the first sea journey, opening the play. The second time the fisherman encounters the fish,we can use cardboard cut–out puppets of a boat and fish; and for the third sea journey we can use the image of the boat formed by the cast’s bodies, which then transforms into the fish. In this way I hope to use the triple repetition motif, to give us a lot to play with.
  3. I have been intrigued for a while with the ‘power’ of sacred numbers, and I wonder whether this exploration of the triple repetition motif can give me any further insight into the symbolism of the number three. The ‘power of three’ in theatre, as I understand it, is that when you do something the first time (use a particular image, or idea), the audience sees it, but it has no special meaning. The second time, they really notice it. The image has been reinforced,informing the audience that it’s part of the symbolic language of the play. The third time that it’s repeated, it is now a motif that can be changed or subvert for comedic effect, or reinforced to cement themes of the story. Perhaps the ‘power of three’ can be applied to fairy tales as well.

Wednesday, 16th November

There were a lot of complications with the bureaucracy of the school and theatre today, which led to me being a bit ‘heated’ when going into the work. So, I moved from the warm–up exercises into a led improvisation of sound and movement, then transformations into creatures, patterns, and motifs from the story, in no particular order. This entailed following a movement or a sound, allowing it to develop to its apex, then sensing what the next movement or sound would be.The point was to be open, to listen, observe, and be sensitive. To accept and to live each part of the improvisation, and to immerse oneself in it. This shifted the negative energy I had brought into the class with me, and led to our discovery of a great movement sequence where static trees suddenly become a flock of birds. It evoked the sound and motion of birds taking off as a flock when disturbed.

The feel of the show is beginning to develop. There are times when the ‘energy flow’ of the piece is static, held in a still image, and then suddenly it transforms into movement before re–forming into another image. It brings to mind Prospero’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud–capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on . . ."

Theatre, like life, is fleeting. Things take a certain form for a while, and then the energy in them changes and vibrates at a different level, and so has different manifestations and appearances. But it is appearance only; nothing is solid; it’s all just energy moving, changing, playing.

Having run through the first plot sequence, the cast continued on in the story, improvising movement and text to link all the scenes we had worked on so far. We now have outlines for the three sea journeys, and the daughters being eaten by the fish. I then had the cast sit in a semi–circle, which brought up a discussion on the importance of circles. Many native cultures sit in circles for councils and ceremonies because of the equality it brings, allowing everyone to see everyone else. (I’m thinking here, in particular, of the ceremonies I’ve been privileged to attend with Native Americans.)This is the reason I begin and end each day with the group in a circle. It stamps its impression on the whole workday, to my mind making it sacred.

I think tomorrow we will carry on sketching out the story, filling in details with each telling, letting it all evolve. I have an idea that the boy will find out about the magic properties of the objects from an old woman he meets and shares food with on his way to find his sisters. This is full of classic fairy tale motifs: the giving of a gift to get one back, and the old woman who has the gift of knowledge.

What is really fascinating me at the moment is the ability to play with the images of the story in the improvisations, and how we are getting to know the story though repeated re–tellings. Each time the story is re–told, we find extra layers and add more depth to the storytelling, more ’roundedness.’ The actors are starting to know the structure of the story now, and are discovering their own motifs, their own ways of telling it.This allows them to bring it alive in many different ways. I am reminded again of the panel discussion at the World Fantasy Convention, about how one can take basic motifs from fairy tales and re–shape and re–jig them to tell different stories. But in order to do it well, you need to Gnow* them, to live them, to believe in their power — not as an intellectual exercise (though of course the intellect is a part of the process), but in ones whole being.