Tag Archive | "Creativity"

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Theatre versus: The mad scientist

Posted on 06 November 2012 by Russ Hope

The inventor, sitting below his Tesla coil in his laboratory in Colorado Springs.

The Tesla coil offers one of science’s most theatrical demonstrations, sending blue forks of electricity cracking and spitting into the air.  As its inventor, Nikola Tesla, packed up his kit and trekked across Europe and America for another demonstration before wild-eyed spectators at the close of the nineteenth century, he kept a balance between education for its own sake and telling stories through sparks and wonder.

Seventy years after his death, Tesla remains one of the greatest scientists who has ever lived.  The scope of his invention reaches as far as radar and x-ray technology, hydro-electric power, and the transistor. Tesla’s life and philosophy should inspire anyone who has ever laboured to create something new.

Tesla’s autobiography, My Inventions, chronicles the development of a creative mind.  It begins one day in school, with a boy watching his physics teacher make a lightbulb spin by coating the glass with tinfoil and connecting the bulb to a static machine. As he witnessed that “mysterious phenomena”, Tesla felt his life acquiring a charge that pulling him irreversibly in a new direction. Reading this, I remember the first time I sat in a theatre and realised that, without my consent, my ambitions had been redirected.

With practice, we acquire the theoretical understanding and dexterity to push ourselves further. As Tesla developed his mind through study, he began to fear “losing sight of the great underlying principle” behind his work, and becoming one of the sad “technical men, able in their special departments, but dominated by a pedantic spirit”.  We would do well to remember this as we sit through yet another production that overwhelms with its sheer competence, diverting us without surprising us.

Tesla escaped the trap.  He came to believe that “human pain” could not be solved just by providing for man’s “material existence, however abundantly”.  The solution, he reasoned, must be to “concentrate on some big idea” through his work.  In this, Tesla reminds me of the interests and idiosyncratic world-views that many successful directors cultivate, which result in productions that no-one else could make in quite the same way.  This is what creates plays and productions that – although we might find them difficult – claw into our memories and remain there for years.

Last year, I wrote about a conversation I had with the theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins about his production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic.  Debating how to explore the play’s theatricality through design, Joe was loath to present “the boring version of the play”, in which the theme was suggested merely by having the play’s narrator step in front of a curtain to deliver monologues.  The production had to find something deeper, he argued, something more expressive of the play’s dark heart and of its characters.  To do otherwise would be to direct by moving actors around a stage – this would allow the audience to hear Williams’ witty words, but would otherwise be “empty”.  A story is merely a confection unless it taps into some deeper human experience to offer insight beyond the teller’s desire to be heard.

Tesla’s big idea was his “wireless transmitter”, an enormous tower by whose means “the human voice and likeness [might] be reproduced everywhere, and aerial machines propelled around the earth without a stop”.  But like so many artists who struggle, Tesla believed he did his best work alone. He wanted to “release the energy of atoms” but struggled to connect with anyone who thought of an idea’s utility before its beauty.  This led him to hand over inventions rather than exploit them commercially like Thomas Edison, the more famous inventor to whom he is often compared.  When Marconi developed the telephone using many of Tesla’s inventions, Tesla commented only that as the relevant patents had expired, the opportunities should be “open to all”.  I wonder if the depth of his relentless giving was partly responsible for the sadder aspects of his life.

Tesla is revered by many of us who take solidity in the word ‘geek’.  A few months ago, the prolific cartoonist Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal) made Tesla the subject of an irreverent and moving cartoon tribute, followed by a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.3-million to buy Tesla’s former laboratory on Long Island and erect a museum to the inventor’s memory.  You could do much worse this morning than drop a few pennies into Inman’s virtual jar before you brew your morning coffee and start to think on your next mad scheme.

Many people in theatre make beautiful things but struggle to create an sustainable ecosystem around their work. Here, Tesla’s life and work should sound a cautionary note as much as inspire us.  His career serves as a reminder to find a safe place between the general good and keeping ourselves in check, nourishing the body as well as the mind.

Reference: My Inventions, the story of Tesla’s creative life, written at the age of 63 and published in Electrical Experimenter magazine

Russ Hope

Russ Hope

Russ Hope is a writer and sporadic theatremaker. His directing work includes productions, scratch performances and workshops of new plays by writers including Davey Anderson, Nick Payne and Richard Marsh. His first book, Getting Directions: A fly-on-the-wall guide for emerging directors, is published by Nick Hern Books.

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Theatre versus roller coasters: The art and science of controlled falling

Posted on 14 October 2012 by Russ Hope

A few weeks ago, an actor friend of mine started tweeting lines from a book she was reading.  The tweets were aphorisms, the first reading that ‘technique is a tool; not the whole of art, but a very essential part’. I replied with a line from the book in my hands that morning. ‘The closer you are to the vehicle in front,’ it read, ‘the less you will be able to see beyond it’. My friend’s book was about oil painting, mine was about driving – yet to my Sunday-morning mind, my quote spoke as clearly to the dangers of following fashion as my friend’s did to the importance of learning one’s craft.

We all have mottos and mantras we return to, things we read somewhere that just ‘clicked’ and help us frame our own ideas. Recently, I’ve been I’ve been thinking about how disciplines that seem completely different might relate to each other, and what we can learn about making theatre from fields that seem far removed. For two reasons, I want to talk about roller coasters. Firstly, I’m fascinated by people who create in metal and ink; by engineers, architects and industrial designers. Secondly, I’ve just read a book, Coasters 101: An Engineering Guide to Roller Coaster Design, by Nick Weisenberger, and it’s percolating in my head.

A roller coaster, Weisenberger writes, is a ‘complex three-dimensional puzzle’, ‘a perfect blend of engineering and art’, created in response to a ‘unique set of circumstances’. Much the same could be said of theatre, which too unravels stories in space and in response to the unique alchemy of a text and a group of individuals.

Playing with kinetic energy, roller coasters manipulate gravity, telling stories in motion, oscillating patterns of heightened g-forces that drag the rider into the earth and then gift him the sensation of weightlessness. For the theatremaker, words like gravity and weightlessness are metaphors to understand structure and emotion, suspense ratcheted with words. The engineer, meanwhile, ratchets suspense with actual ratchets.

Roller coasters, like theatre productions, need the audience to pretend that, for the minutes that matter, they are in real danger. As they are strapped into carts that run a thousand times a day, the riders must choose to believe that their lives are at risk; that this time, no-one knows what will happen. Weisenberger calls this ‘controlled falling’, which is as perfect a description of a theatre production as I have ever heard.

Making theatre and roller coasters share similar challenges. There is the question of intent (who is the target audience? Is this to be family-friendly or a high g-force thrill ride?), choosing materials, and pacing. The early stage of a roller coaster involves winching the cart high up to the start line, storing potential energy to be unleashed with the first drop.

Of speed, Weisenberger writes that:

‘Many coaster enthusiasts will tell you that they enjoy the sensation of speed. Actually, humans can’t feel speed; we can only feel or sense acceleration (this is why you can’t feel the rotation of the Earth, or why flying in an aeroplane feels the same as driving at 30mph). Without a reference point, you can’t tell how fast you’re going…thus a roller coaster designer’s main goal is is to produce as many safe accelerations on the body as possible.’

This thought has much to say about pace and revelation in theatre. As the coaster aims to thrill, it takes care to manage the stress it places both on the rider and on the machinery. Too much will break both, just as too much stress on the theatre audience – too many strobe lights, too much unearned bleakness or the sucker-punches of the deus ex machina – will weary rather than excite. As theatremakers, we would be wise to think carefully about when the audience might be ready for the next barrel roll or loop-de-loop of plot.

However, there is a key difference between rides and theatre, a difference that stops me packing up my tools and heading to California to pursue a career at theme parks. The ride operator presses a button and the story unfolds as it must. The physical forces involved dictate that a roller coaster must crush any unexpected variations in temperature or wind or load, rather than embrace them. ‘The circuit,’ Weisenberger writes, must be ‘completed’. The ride must always be the same to always be safe. The same could be said, I suppose, of many West End productions ten years into their cast changes, but theatre generally wants to respond to each new audience. In live performance, safe is deadly.

Theatre, it is so often said, began with stories told around campfires. Roller coasters started in the snow, with ice slides in Russia and the human urge to hurl ourselves down steep banks to feel the motion of being alive. The tools may evolve, from campfires to limelight to LEDs, and from ice slides to wooden coasters to vast, computer-controlled thrill rides, but only to find more exciting ways of turning us through 180 degrees and righting us again: the art and science of controlled falling.

Image via houddiggity.

Russ Hope

Russ Hope

Russ Hope is a writer and sporadic theatremaker. His directing work includes productions, scratch performances and workshops of new plays by writers including Davey Anderson, Nick Payne and Richard Marsh. His first book, Getting Directions: A fly-on-the-wall guide for emerging directors, is published by Nick Hern Books.

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Minsk 2011: the most defiant reply of all

Posted on 14 June 2012 by Sophia Milone

Minsk. Probably best known to many of us as the parochial European city to which Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend relocates in Friends. Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, however, by the Belarus Free Theatre, is a stark and unapologetic glimpse into the reality of living and working in the city. So unapologetic that the production has been confronted by much darker and dangerous issues than the usual tribulations of casting, design and direction. Belarus is under the shadow of the last remaining dictatorship in geographic Europe and Minsk itself is under a kind of serious socio-political oppression that would shock most in and around the UK. Behind the Belarus Free Theatre is married couple Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin; as well as producing Minsk 2011, they run the company itself, which recently visited Shakespeare’s Globe with a Belarusian King Lear for the Globe to Globe season. Now, they return to London for the London International Festival of Theatre with their Fringe First award-winning production.

Kaliada explains, “I’ve been in jail, my husband has been in jail, but this is the life that we have chosen”. Yet for them, this play is not exclusively about politics, it is about theatre. The play was inspired by Kathy Acker’s play New York City in 1979, which explores sexuality in New York at the time. Minsk 2011 follows suit, examining the strip clubs, underground raves and gay pride parades that exist underneath the oppressed surface. Obviously the play throws up an interesting antithesis; as well as showcasing exactly what’s happening in Minsk society, it is also a work of theatre that displays the cast’s talents. In fact, it is only recently that the company has acquired new members, as for the previous seven years new actors were too afraid to join, unsure of how serious the consequences would be. However, as Kaliada explains: “If creating theatre means that it will attract the right kind of attention to my country, I will do it if it helps.”

Bringing the play to England has been both incredibly exciting professionally, yet terrifying personally, for Kaliada, her husband and colleagues. Members of the company and artistic team were unsure as to whether they would be let out of the country to travel abroad to perform the play; they were sent one by one on different flights, anxiously hoping that everyone would arrive safely. The poignant thing about this theatre company is that it is not just the play itself that has a dramatic and gripping story to tell, it is the members themselves. “In our country it is so oppressed, the way people are arrested, the way they are treated. They are harassed and threatened to be raped. So the way that sexual violence develops in such ways, it is very interesting to see another side of it. Like when Kathy Acker was talking about her time in New York, it was interesting for us to go the same way as her, and explore it in that way.”

It is this sexual violence that develops in extreme social situations that Kaliada and Khalezin wanted to represent theatrically. This theme of sexual violence is where they had the idea of using Kathy Acker as inspiration and together with director Vladimir Shcherban (who Kaliada credits as instrumental in how the piece came about), the company have created Minsk 2011. The members of the company itself have dealt with so much adversity simply for performing a play, that it makes the drama and tension of the play undeniably real. A shocking example of this is that one of the young members of the theatre group was warned, at 20 years old, that she would lose her education if she joined the company. I asked what her answer was. “Her answer to this was that it was her choice, and that there was only one free theatre company doing something this unique, and she wanted to be a part of this company.”

This kind of oppression may seem alien to audiences in the UK, but Kaliada emphasises that the production as a whole is still easy for us to relate to. “If you think about the difficulty that younger people have in communicating with older generations, this is like that. Except it is a whole country unable to communicate with the government. I think whatever country you are in this feeling of your voice not being heard is relatable.” Ultimately, Minsk 2011 shows the value of one human being’s life. What could be more pressing and direct for audiences anywhere and everywhere?

With so much drama both politically and personally (Kaliada tells me how her parents’ apartment was raided by the KGB), it’s almost impossible to stop yourself asking, why? Why do Kaliada and the rest of the company continue to put themselves at so much risk? “It is because you don’t have any other choice. When you understand that, it is just your life.” This is a woman whose bravery is startling. “People know that if you join the Belarus Free Theatre, you lose your job, your education; you may be beaten or arrested. So I do this for so many people. I see these decisions being made by all members of the company, and of course it is a unique feeling when you do this play and you understand that everything is sold out. I know we’re doing something right.” That level of sacrifice to the play cannot go unappreciated or unnoticed, and it is almost unnerving to hear her talk so capably and defiantly about the horrors that people in Belarus have experienced. There is a thrill in the pride and absolute satisfaction of knowing shows are selling out. “Not only politically are we helping, but artistically I feel very excited about what is to come.”

Ultimately, what will propel Minsk 2011 is the unique duality of story on and off stage. The Belarus Free Theatre company is not only made up of talented actors, director Vladimir Shcherban and the phenomenal work of Kaliada and Khalezin,but also it beats with the hearts of pioneers who are artistically forging a new hopeful path for their country. The collective voice of the company ensures it is not just spectacular theatre that you witness, it is a glimpse into their incredible personal story. Surviving under the last dictatorship in Europe has seen them empowered to perform for what they believe is right. Artistic concerns over bad reviews are put starkly into context: this is a company fighting for its right to freedom of speech and theatre in its home country. Kaliada offers this challenge to us all: “The only way to understand it is to see it.”

Fuel Theatre presents Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Young Vic Theatre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre until Saturday 23 June. For more information and to book tickets, visit Fuel Theatre’s site here.

Image credit: Belarus Free Theatre

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International View: What actors could learn from travelling

Posted on 15 April 2012 by Lenka Silhanova

Recently I’ve made quite a hard decision - to leave London for a while. I’ve come as far as possible in my current situation and it’s made me sit down and think about my priorities. Acting is my number one priority and if there is something keeping me from doing it, I need to get it out of my way even if it means giving up something.

After almost year-and-a-half of working really hard and giving up most of the fun stuff, I’ve totally burned out and am in need of a retreat, mentally. Travelling puts things in perspective and awakens creativity, which is just what I need right now. I have so many ideas that I need to put on paper and this would be a great chance to do so.

Going through the blogs of these very inspirational people I noticed a pattern: many were feeling trapped in a ‘traditional’ life before they set off to pursue their dream. They felt there was something more to life than going to work and buying stuff. They claim that quitting their jobs, getting rid of their stuff and pursuing their dream of travelling the world had been the best decision of their lives.

When I read their stories I realised that control over my life is something I’ve been missing. People who take their lives into their hands make things happen. James Devereaux, in a recent post (The Independent Actor on The Great Acting Blog), wrote about how things have changed for actors thorough history. He pointed out how difficult it is nowadays to break into acting.

More and more actors realise that the Internet is changing the face of showbusiness. This can be a gift when it is difficult to place yourself in the major market, especially when you are starting out. It makes it possible to work from anywhere. But it has a down side as well: the competition is fiercer than ever. A great example of success is Felicia Day, who created a web-series called The Guild where she not only cast herself (perfectly reflecting her type!) but gained control over her career. Ultimately, she just did what she loved, which is what got her where she is today.

Reading travel blogs, I noticed that a lot of them were creative people or people who found their creative voice on the road. They freed themselves to focus on their art. They don’t have to pay bills, they freelance and they can go where the gig is, which is something actors used to do. Travellers have taught me about the importance of following my gut even if the unknown scares the hell out of me. If I want to achieve my goals, I have to take action, set priorities and free myself.

I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next, I just know I need to do something. Maybe I will find it on the road as well. As Gandhi said, “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result”.

Image credit: Will Ockenden

Lenka Silhanova

Lenka Silhanova

Lenka is an actor and blogger currently working in the Czech Republic and UK, who has also experienced the US market. She's sharing what she's learned and experienced with AYT readers. Lenka also has a personal blog called Acting Abroad and is helping potential drama school students on the IDSA blog.

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