Acting with feeling

Hang around the theatre long enough and you’ll hear the stories: actors going to the ragged edge of their psyches for a role. Daniel Day Lewis sensing the presence of his dead father on stage while playing Hamlet and being too traumatised to return to the stage… ever. Adrien Brody selling all his possessions and starving himself in order to play a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist. Or Kate Winslet taking months to recover from her role in The Reader and describing the experience as being like an escape from a serious car accident.

Our culture lionises these actors for the lengths they are prepared to go in pursuit of truth. There is a mystique around these performances. We know these actors are “really working” as they suffer for their art and our enjoyment.

But does it have to be this hard? Are there ways for actors to create gripping and truthful performances without sacrificing their physical and mental health? A recent report tells us that Australian arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten-times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five-times higher. Much of this is to do with the insecurity of the industry, rather than the work itself. But it’s vital to help actors stay mentally healthy when they are in work. To choose an approach to acting training that avoids the feeling of being in a traffic accident!

This is the mission of the Perdekamp Emotional Method or PEM, an acting technique developed by German writer and director Stephan Perdekamp. I’ve just returned from a four day PEM training in Sydney, hosted by 16th Street Actors Studio.

The training was led by Sarah Victoria, Master Instructor in PEM and an exceptional teacher. Sarah explained that the technique was developed by Stephan Perdekamp in Gemany in response to the repressed national psyche after World War Two. At this time it was dangerous for Germans to express too much emotion. Passions were considered suspect and there was a consequent shrivelling of the emotional life in the theatre. When emotions did burst out, actors were often uncontrollable. Sarah tells us that this led to a German law that actors were not fully responsible for their actions for a number of hours after a performance!

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Stephan Perdekamp, creator of PEM

A new technique was needed which would allow for safe, powerful access to emotions. Developed over ten years, the PEM technique was founded on detailed scientific research and precise experimentation with actors. The latest independent research supports PEM’s philosophy that emotion manifests in the body the same way the world over. It turns out, when we go below cultural conditioning, we are all the same kind of animal. We have the same energetic systems. Our deep emotional centres are shared everywhere on earth.

Of course there are national differences between the way that cultures shape us. Sarah’s experience is that Russian actors ask an enormous number of questions, but once they understand the technique, their emotional connection is very strong. Australian actors usually have quick emotional access when doing the exercises. And for some reason Australians have a particularly powerful access to grief.

Sarah Victoria Teaching PEM
Sarah Victoria, Head of the PEM – International Office, PEM Master Instructor, Developer of PEM Body Work

Thankfully, the workshop was a huge amount of fun. The small muggy studio theatre at the University of New South Wales was quickly filled with sweaty actors, fully engaged physically, vocally and emotionally in the work. Sarah proved to be a gifted teacher, communicating with passion and specificity. Skills scaffolded one on top of the other and after four days we were creating complex, layered characters with deep emotional lives vibrating below the spoken language.

I found  the exercises incredibly powerful and effective. The crucial aspect of this method is that the emotions generated rely only on the body. There is no need for psychological gymnastics. Actors do not need to draw on their personal experience or memories to create emotion. Regardless of what emotion is explored, it leaves the body moments after each scene.

PEM is now being used therapeutically in prisons; as an emotional education for autistic children and to help executives communicate in the corporate world. But the success of this method and approaches like it should come as no surprise. Well-designed theatre programs have great power to develop resilience and emotional intelligence. It might not make headlines in the same way as “I saw the ghost of my dead father!”, but the fact is that in the right hands, theatre is a profound force for physical and mental wellbeing!

At Barking Gecko we are committed to creating mentally healthy rehearsals for our mainstage work. Similarly, our Gecko Ensembles are all about creating an environment where young people can express themselves and thrive. Act Belong Commit sponsor our Gecko Ensembles in recognition of this powerful positive relationship between theatre participation and mental health.

The PEM technique fits beautifully with our existing philosophy, allowing for safe and powerful emotional access without asking actors to trawl their personal lives for trauma. Thanks to Sarah Victoria for a wonderful workshop!

Robot Dispatch #2

Sometimes I can’t quite believe this is my job. We’ve just spent a week playing with robots, joysticks motion capture technology and even a laser! Six year old me is well impressed!

This is our second week-long creative development on our new show My Robot and the show is taking on clearer form each day. We’ve taken the fourth draft of Finegan Kruckemeyer’s script into the week, which means we can focus our time on design. How will the set function? And how to bring our robot to life?

By now we know that our robot will be built from a typewriter (his name is Olivetti) and a bunch of junk. We even have a tiny prototype, Odd Eyes, to test controllers. Olivetti will look completely different to Odd Eyes, and he will also have to do an enormous number of things that Odd Eyes can’t. How will he navigate around the room? What voice will he have? And how will he send things flying with his suction and magnet robot arms?!

To help answer these questions, this development brings together a stage manager, two actors, a puppeteer/roboteer, set designer, lighting designer, robot builder, robotics expert, writer and magician. Regardless of the outcome, you know it’s going to be a fun week!

Photo by: Matt Edgerton

Isla Shaw, our set designer, is an incredibly quick and intuitive artist and although her final set model isn’t due for months, she brings in a draft design of the set that we work from. Designers often work from a model box – a kind of miniature version of the stage where they can experiment with architecture without having to build the real thing. During the week we shape and reshape the space as each theatrical challenge calls for a slightly different configuration of doors, walls and windows.

A live feed of the stage from above, to help our robot navigate
A live video feed of the stage from above, to help our robot navigate

Halfway through the week we realise we will need to build a soundproof booth onstage for Sarah Nelson, our robot-controller. A great discovery. We also realise that the swift costume changes will be incredibly challenging for St John Cowcher our male actor. There isn’t really a solution for this: St John will just have to get used to being sweaty.

Photo by: Matt EdgertonSteve Berrick, our robot builder/designer, brings in an amazing array of technology. This includes the prototype robot Odd Eyes. We explore various joysticks for controlling the robot. Voice distortion software allows us to test various robot voices. Sarah and Steve even experiment with controlling the robot through motion tracking of Sarah’s head movements!

Richard Vegas, our magician-consultant is full of illuminating ideas. I won’t mention what we discussed in case I break the magician’s code and get trapped in a hall of mirrors. But there are lots of exciting things to explore…

And of course the actors. Theatre is nothing without actors, and Arielle Gray and St John Cowcher add a phenomenal amount to the process, throwing themselves into their characters, suggesting solutions to tricky bits and squeezing the joy from Fin’s hilarious script.

I can’t wait for the next development in July when we put it all together!

 

FRESH INK – Playwrights’ National Mentoring Program

WHAT IS FRESH INK?

FRESH INK is Australian Theatre For Young People’s national mentoring program that has supported more than 50 playwrights over the last four years. FRESH INK is the only program of its kind in Australia. Barking Gecko Theatre Company are proud to partner with ATYP to bring FRESH INK to WA.

The program is designed to create opportunities for committed and talented playwrights to help bridge the gap into professional practice.

The program pairs emerging playwrights with a mentor for a series of workshops that will result in a 15 minute three person script delivered for rehearsal with professional actors and a 30 minute script that will be rehearsed with a professional cast.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

WA Mentor: Will O’Mahony

Throughout the program participants will:

  • Attend a pre-arranged workshop session once a month with their mentor for 6 hours
  • Meet once a month independently of their mentor for at least 3 hours
  • Work with external directors and guests to widen networks and build skills
  • Deliver a 15 minute play for up to 3 characters in July which is then rehearsed with professional actors
  • Deliver a 30 minute play for 4 characters in November that will be rehearsed and performed by professional actors for an invited audience

WHAT DO PARTICIPANTS GET?

Participants Receive:

  • Mentoring across the year by an industry professional – Will O’Mahony in WA
  • A complimentary subscription provided by AUSTRALIANPLAYS.ORG for the period of the mentorship
  • The opportunity to work with professional actors and directors
  • Several opportunities to showcase their work to invited audiences

HOW DO I APPLY?

To be eligible participants will need to:

  • Be aged 18-26
  • Have some experience in the past with playwriting
  • Be available to meet the time commitments (briefly outlined above) between April and November 2017.

You can apply online here: http://www.atyp.com.au/2017-fresh-ink-mentoring-application-form

Fees and Scholarships

Please note that there is a $400 participation fee for this program. ATYP offers scholarship places for those who could not participate otherwise, please get in touch for a scholarship application form. 

KEY DATES

Applications are due on the 27th of March at 9am.

Fill in the application form HERE. If you have any questions please email Jenni on writing@atyp.com.au or call her on 02 9270 2400

20 March – World Take a Child to the Theatre Day

ASSITEJ stands for Association Internationale du Théatre pour L´Enfance et la Jeunesse and is the only association of its kind connecting thousands of theatre makers, artists, educators and producers dedicated to theatre for children across the world. ASSITEJ has members in over 80 countries across the globe, including 75 National Centres.

Monday 20 March is World Take a Child to the Theatre Day, their global campaign #takeachildtothetheatre advocates for the cultural entitlement of children to have access to spaces for creative play, performance, theatre and expression.

‘A story well-told on stage doubtless captivates the children in the audience and somehow transforms them. Leaving the theatre after a show, the world seems different: it has been touched by a performance that allows members of the audience to see beyond the surface’.- Francisco Hinojosa.

We’d like you to celebrate this world day of theatre for children with us on 20 March. If you can’t physically attend the theatre with a child on the day then we encourage you to pause and plan a trip to the theatre with a little person to share in the unique wonder that theatre offers #TakeAChildToTheTheatre.

Later this year the ASSITEJ Conference and Festival will take place in Cape Town and our CEO/Executive Producer Helen Hristofski will be there to represent Barking Gecko Theatre Company and the many Western Australian families and teachers for whom we make theatre.

She writes, “the last time I had the opportunity to attend ASSITEJ was in 2008 (Copenhagen) and had my mind expanded in so many ways. I remember the breadth of artistic forms and stories on offer and their strong European influences. There were the Danes, well known for their extraordinary commitment to highly sophisticated and crafted children’s theatre, alongside memorable productions from Belgium, France and Russia. I observed that Australian companies make some of the finest children’s theatre in the world and we are extremely good at collaborations between companies.

I clearly remember the contrasting perspectives between countries on the role of theatre in education, alongside informed and passionate debates on children’s cultural rights, their agency in artistic processes and the necessity of ‘arts for arts sake’ in the lives of children. Having attended three ASSITEJ congress and festivals since 2004 it seems clear to me there is an obvious link between the artistic vibrancy of a country’s children and young people’s theatre sector with how that society values children more broadly.

In 2017, the 19th ASSITEJ Congress and Festival will take place on the African continent for the first time in the organisation’s 65 years. Always evolving, ASSITEJ is embracing Africa and Asia in new ways and seeding different global creative conversations. I’m looking forward to what the theatre program will explore in terms of cultural diversity (a very live conversation in Australia), listening to current perspectives on children’s access and agency in the performing arts and ponder Barking Gecko’s place in the world. Its going to be quite a trip.”

 

 

 

Figs and Cogs: The Making of a New Script

Last week I spent five days in Hobart with legendary playwright Finegan Kruckmeyer, working on a brand new script for our play My Robot. It’s pretty wonderful being part of the process as a playscript takes shape, especially one as unique as this. So I thought I’d give you an insight into how the script came about. And a sneak preview of what’s in store…

I have rarely seen a writer work so quickly. The script went from draft one to four in the space of a week. The resulting text is brimming with brilliant ideas, touching moments and scenes so hilarious that a bit of wee comes out when you read them.

Finegan’s story centres on young Ophelia, who has moved to a new town by the seaside. This place is odd, the people are weird and she misses home. So when a pile of junk arrives from the junkshop downstairs with the instructions “Make Me”, Ophelia can’t resist. But what kind of friend can you make from:

A typewriter, cheese grater, switch and a spring.

A pipe, lighter, alligator clips and some string.

A biscuit tin, fan belts, a torch, some hair rollers.

A broken alarm clock and three wheels from a stroller?

Fin and Matt next to the fig tree

The story goes on to answer this in the most imaginative of ways. And of course I can’t say much more at this stage…

Every writer-director relationship is unique. Strange as it may sound, Finegan and I only met face-to-face in Hobart last week as I turned up with my notes and questions all over his first draft. So it was a great relief to slip into an effortless working rapport. Fin’s work is playful and joyous but also detailed and precise, so I am cautious about how we talk about how it might evolve and change. But he turns out to be entirely unafraid of provocations and challenges. His eagerness to work through my pages of notes and questions on day one sets the tone for our working together. The cogs turn quickly as Fin shapes and reshapes the story, character and dialogue, always into something better than I could have imagined.

I think back to eighteen months ago, when Fin and I first spoke. Back then, I thought we were going to commission a very different play…

I remember ending our first phone call with a strong desire to make a show together about the intersection between science and art. I had called Fin during a break snatched from rehearsals, rugged up in a patch of Sydney winter sun. He had talked about the importance of treating children with deep respect. He told me he loved the idea of exploring science with young people. And he said how much he liked being given new ideas to work from, sometimes even more than inventing them himself.

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Some very old plants in Hobart, from Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things In The World

Perfect, I thought! We’ll dream up a play about the natural world. One of my favourite books is The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman – a stunning photographic book about living things that have a minimum age of 2000 years. I imagined a work drawing on these kind of big exciting ideas – science and art woven beautifully around a central idea.

But many months later, it was a very different branch of science that got me excited enough to pick up the phone again. When the idea of a play about a robot emerged from conversations within the Barking Gecko team, I immediately thought of Fin. His curious and playful mind was a perfect match for the technical brilliance of our Western Australian robot boffins.

My Robot
My Robot, Poster Artwork by Juicebox

Of course, Finegan has form working between Hobart and Perth. Usually on scripts with short, snappy titles. Most recently he wrote Those Who Fall in Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon the Ocean Floor (Jo Morris + Themoxycollective). And previously This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing (Barking Gecko, directed by Noel Jordan). Hobart and Perth: two vibrant corners of the country working together. What’s not to love?

Finegan at desk, overlooking the fig tree

Back in Hobart, I’m getting an insight into Fin’s inspirations. Fin writes in his study at the top of a steep hill with a fig tree outside his window. The house is right next to the Hobart CBD, but his overflowing vege garden, coop of lively chooks (“the ladies”) and view of the river make it feel more like a country retreat. The neighbours often stop off metres from his writing desk to collect figs throughout the day.

When you pay attention to it, you can feel Hobart as a muse for Fin’s writing. You notice the presence of Hobart’s hills and oceans in his imagery. The network of relationships he creates feels grounded in a lived experience of a tight-knit community. His stories and themes seem to continually circle around making peace with that community, or with family.

In fact, it turns out that the whole of Hobart is a pretty inspiring city to explore if you’re working on a script. Our discussions ramble through laneways surrounded by great street art, the lounge at the vibrant Alabama Hotel, a conference space at Arts Tasmania and Fin’s sunlit back room.

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The Alabama Hotel, arty haven for writers and lovers of plastic flamingos
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Hobart street art by iconic Perth artist Stormie Mills

Topics of discussion range over robot ethics and philosophy, story structure, poetic techniques and mechanical eyebrows. We explore whether you can make a robot catch a ball (not without a lot of money as it turns out). There’s even time for some lateral exploration at MONA’s latest exhibition On the Origin of Art. The new exhibition has a huge number of inspiring works, including some great anthropomorphic machines.

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A woman chooses a door at the MONA exhibition, On the Origin of Art
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The Lovers, by artist Patricia Piccinini, MONA

On Thursday our amazing set and costume designer Isla Shaw pops down from Melbourne to get us thinking about aesthetics with dozens of stimulus images. We hear the play aloud with two terrific local actors Craig Iron and Karissa Lane. And we squeeze in a Skype session with awesome Robot builder Steve Berrick back in Perth.

We confirm that the robot will roll, not walk. That it will have a typewriter for a torso. And that it will not be catching any balls.

Our next creative development is in a little over a week’s time in Perth. We’ll be testing Robot protypes with Steve as well as fleshing out the set design with Isla. And we’ll be putting draft four of the script through its paces in the mouths of some of Perth’s best actors. I can’t wait!

My Robot will premiere at the State Theatre Centre in November this year. You can book tickets HERE.