Some of the training exercises, techniques, and framing ideas for Axolotl
I feel that 3 weeks is a bare minimum for the rehearsal process for Axolotl. It has a very simple seeming frame, but within that, there is a lot going on, there are a lot of tools that take a while to cultivate, and there are a lot of pitfalls that happen quite regularly that we need to take the time to go through before I feel we are ready.
The purpose of the following writing is twofold. The primary reason for this is as a tool for performers who have been in the work as a reminder of some of the things that we have done. In this sense, the descriptions are just there to trigger memories of much more detailed processes in rehearsals. the other purpose is as a window into our rehearsal process for people researching the work, either for intellectual or practical work. In this case, you will not know what we do by reading these descriptions… it is just a cloudy window into our process. If you are a practicing theatrical or paratheatrical artist, hopefully some of these descriptions, in combination with your own experience, will spark your imagination for your won explorations… i encourage you to run with whatever you feel inspired to from reading this. It might not be what we have done, but hopefully it will be interesting.
In the performance itself, there are only a few very simple safety rules and very loose structure of beginning and ending. The performers are basically all autonomous, following their own curiosities. We do not operate under a set of rules, a schedule of events we are trying to replicate. Instead, we act independently with a mutual understanding of each others’ tendencies and interests based on a history of rehearsing, exploring together, and dialogue about our concerns and interests. As a director, my “control” on the piece comes primarily from the early phases of rehearsal when I am introducing training exercises and from the basic filter of whom I invite into the process. When we hit the performances, we are more or less formally equals and I am acting more as facilitator.
These tools do not define the work, but are simply working tools that can inform individual performers’ curiosities, possibilities, awarenesses. They give language to ways of investigating and allow awareness and action to be more precise and specific, allowing our questioning to be more sophisticated. The communication of these exercises is difficult in written words and is much easier with demonstration. Therefore, these writings are 1)to bring the imagination of people unfamiliar with the work into proximity of the work, if not actually into the work itself and 2) as a reminder for people who have already been through the work. If you are reading this and have not done the work, I whole heartedly encourage using these writings to inspire physical and psychological investigation. Even if you don’t get exactly what we are doing, hopefully these writing will, in synthesis with your own engaged creative interest, take you someplace interesting!
The following exercise list is not complete , but is just presented to give a sampling of explorations.
A sampling of exercises from Axolotl…
- Authentic Movement (adapted from Mary Stark Whitehouse)
- Contact Improvisation
- Passive Sequencing
- Martial Dance (adapted from Tai Chi push hands)
- Maker/Resistor (adapted from Arne Mindel)
- Approach Trio
- Conversation Study
- Physical Poems (adapted from Felix Ruckert)
Some scattered notes about the piece…
What is important is not what is happening on a gross level physically in the space. What is important is that which is happening inside of the minds of the audience members. A still body might have a wild and transformative experience inside. Someone moving a lot physically may be having a very monotone and shallow experience. The relationship between gross level movement and meaningful internal experience is a non-linear and complex one. The piece is happening not in the physical space, but in the individual minds of the audience members. What happens in the physical space is just instrumental to the experience, but is not the experience. With 50 audience members there are 50 different pieces going on, although even this is a simplification, as it posits a unity of each individual, which is not the case. Each of us has many parallel selves and subvoices, each processing the piece differently. We are each a multitude of experiences and selves.
The sound in the piece has many functions. It can serve to nudge people in different directions psychologically, create poetic or emotional framing. It also is something to interact with. As it is louder and more pervasive, it creates a sense of privacy in the space, where the blindfolded audience members can not sense clearly others around them, and conversations are obscured. Removing the soundscape creates a sense of the public, as our movement through the space and our breath is heard across the room. Conversations can be heard and listened into at a distance. We are exposed to each other.
Electronically fabricated sound has a very strong effect, which I like to limit in the piece, so prefer that the background soundscape be dominated by field recordings of “real world sounds”, not to create illusions of place, but for the specific effect of these sounds in contrast to the effect of electronic music or atmospheric soundscape.
Recognizable music is used, but sparingly.
A dj creates a background soundscape experienced in the whole space. The dj acts in collaboration with the other performers. Being so strongly influential on everyone’s experience, the dj has the least creative autonomy of anyone in the space. Other musicians and sound artists create local soundscapes within this background, playing for individual audience members or creating local zones of sound.
Seeding with strong interactions – The performance is not intrinsically about direct audience-performer interaction. Most of the audience interactions will be with other audience members. The performers act often through other audience members, seeding the event with more provocative and clear, intentional interactions that then give an atmosphere of deeper exploration.
The Beginning – The first moments of the piece are vital, from walking the blind people into the space to how they are left to begin their explorations. There is not a prescription, but an awareness of how important this moment is for framing what will come next. Often we will begin with an encouragement of silence and quiet. This has seemed more important with recent audiences who have a tendency to drop quickly into the mundane social unless invited into something else. Sometimes, however, if things get too precious, we might, in the next show decide to begin the piece with some light banter to break up expectations and invite other states of exploration.
Channel switching – Sometimes things get stuck in one mode. In these moments, it can be very useful to present a strong invitation to switch modes. For example, if things are very non-verbal, asking a question can shake up what is going on and bring a different part of the self into the process. If things are stuck in superficial banter, bringing in a big psycho-physical state difference can throw things into avoided territories. The reverse of either of these might also be the case. This references Arne Mindel’s ideas of channel switching. When a subvoice/process seems stuck, sometimes it is useful to change channels/modes-of-processing in order to see if the process can get around a block in another channel. This can be very important for getting at avoided material that is often quite meaningful, but which carries some unconscious fear.
Steering interactions- Much of the action of the performers in Axolotl is not about direct interaction, but about steering interactions. If I interact with one person, I affect the whole space by changing the flow of interactions in the space, for example by removing that person from interaction with others or by shifting their mode of interaction. It might be important sometimes to help people find physical privacy in order to continue a deep exploration without it being disrupted. On the other hand, something might need disruption, so it can be interesting to guide people into them for interaction. Bringing people in similar explorations together in tight space can cause interesting amplifications and reflection. Guiding someone into a quiet zone might help them find processing space. Many of the more meaningful actions of the performers are really about crowd control.
There are many problems that come up in the piece, and I wanted to address a few of them here, to get the imagination going. If a problem has to do with a person, I like to take it as an opportunity to check into my own tendency to be self righteous and act not out of an implied objective sense of morality, but from my own subjective morality. I will do a lot from this subjective morality, but I try not to assume that it is an obvious shared one. I don’t let this fact hold me back from acting by any means, but somehow, it changes the conversation a bit… makes it more about objective facts about what is happening and what I am going to do based on what I am perceiving.
The playful and unconscious archetype
There is a certain kind of person who often shows up at the shows, friendly and playful and careens through the space trusting that everything is going to be great as he expects to bump into other playful and physically active people, unaware that someone is having a quiet, sad moment lying on the floor in his path. He (or, less often, she) is friendly, but unconsciously reckless, assuming that everyone is like he is. Strategies… talk with him, put hard thing in his path so he bumps into it and slows down, contain him. I usually try not to make him feel bad about it, just be sensitive.
Diversity of states and emotions in the space.
Many explorations will be boisterous and pleasantly superficial. Some can go really deep into emotional territories. It is an ongoing issue of the piece of how to make space for both. This is sometimes about crowd control and guiding one person away from another so they don’t interact. It can also be an interesting and transformative shock to both to encounter the difference of states. We can shape what is about to happen, but we can also help frame what just happened. It is just something to consider navigating. We can make different zones in the space, and this is sometimes helpful. I also like to think of the kinds of emotions we all are better at supporting and use these skills.
Talking is one way to process experience and so I want to invite it. It also has the effect of being able to carry across space, to remove senses of privacy and solitude, to create public instead of private. This is a dynamic to be negotiated in the piece. Silence and sound are not equal. Sound overpowers and eliminates silence.
Similarly superficial social-personality based conversation has the potential to dumb down the experience of everyone in the space, becomes something that needs to be resisted in order to find depth. It can itself open doors, but it shuts many others, not just for those conversing, but for those listening. People can get into boisterous feedback loops of party conversation, especially when there is not the countervailing influence of seeing people around them in quieter states. This is a challenging dynamic to negotiate sometimes, and has especially seemed more so in the last years of doing Axolotl.
How to work with this dynamic, empower people to create for themselves quiet space, when others talk? How to bring awareness to people of what they are blindly shattering and destroying when they chatter? How are the problems of this dynamic an opportunity for awareness and empowerment? How to help people find this power without doing it for them?
Sexuality, sensuality, and all sorts of other states in proximity of these states are constantly recurring themes. They also do not occur for everyone. Sometimes it is easy and beautiful, sometimes it is problematic. How do we facilitate negotiation of physical interaction amongst people, and bring attention to what people bring to themselves and what they do with others? We don’t guarantee a “safe space” for anyone, not knowing what people might assume by “safe space”. We want to create a space where people negotiate their own experience in relation to others and their choices, we don’t want to control it. We will participate in the interplay of these issues with people with a mind towards what we think might be meaningful or interesting. This is not the same as giving people what they want, although hopefully it doesn’t involve creating what people don’t want. Of course,we are not in control of what happens, we just have influence.
Everyone makes their own decisions, including the decision about whetherto attend the show or not. Some people choose not to come to the show because they don’t want to expose themselves to a situation that is not tightly controlled around issues of intimacy… they are exercising thier boundary construction. Some people come to the show without even really thinking baout what might happen and find themselves on a very unexpected and complex journey. Other people choose to come to the show, and have an experience which does not have anything to do with any sense of pushing edges around sensuality. Some people find what they were looking for, where others have their assumptions challenged in uncomfortable ways. Lots of things can happen. It is an uncontrolled process. It might be safe, it might not be.
I hope that people don’t feel too safe or too anything.
We use this for training, but it is also a trap. Specifically, people will come who are contact improvisors who will try to just turn it into a blindfolded contact jam, complete with all the blind repeated movement patterns cliché of any contact jam. On the one hand, they are acting a bit like Kenny with those around them. On the other, they aren’t really experiencing anything new, just repeating old patterns and trying to impose them on others. This can be an interesting opportunity for others to create their own space, and would not want to deprive them of that strange experience of having a contactor try to do contact with them I the dark. However, I may decide that they are dumbing the space down and choose to intervene. This may take the form of interviewing them about the reason for their movement patterns and why they keep repeating them, offering also my opinions and observations about options they are avoiding and things they are choosing to ignore. I may also choose to engage with them physically in such a way that their blind contact patterns cause them to crash to the floor repeatedly until they realize they are actually “asleep at the wheel”.
Similarly to CI, we use this as a training, but it is also a trap, especially if people are coming from the more culturally specific school of AM with Jungian therapy base. This usually includes all sorts of assumptions about safety in the space (which don’t apply) and the kinds of states that are valued (that certainly don’t apply). Mostly, these people just cause problems for themselves psychically, but I sometimes try to help them out by helping them to become conscious of their own assumptions and how there are other opportunities in the space if they let go of them.