Tag Archives: physical theater

Snapshots and Group Mind

Due to a string of crazy life changes this summer, I’ve had something of a summer hiatus from playing and coaching. I miss it. I hope to dive back in soon. In the mean time, I’ve been taking pictures at Open Source shows.

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This was the opening scene from a show by the Unwritten Works of William Shakespeare. They snapped into this stage picture before anyone said a full line.

Watching a show through a camera lens makes it obvious why I like the troupes I like: They make the stage look interesting. When I look through the snapshots later, I never wonder, “Which scene was that?” because the scenes had distinct looks. The snapshots would make interesting fodder for caption contests.

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I love it when players use that back wall with some intentionality, not just because they’re tired of standing up straight.

If all of my pictures from the troupe are of two people, standing or sitting a comfortable arm’s length apart from one another, cheated out slightly, I probably won’t remember much about the show. It won’t have made any kind of impression on me. The players were talking heads who might as well not have had bodies at all.

If you get a chance to see a show at the i.O Cabaret, notice the stage floor. There are two worn out spots right in the middle from people always standing/sitting in the same safe spot.

This isn’t just about keeping someone like me interested in the show; how the show looks is usually indicative of how well a troupe works together. I’ve heard Jet Eveleth say that she doesn’t know which comes first, interesting stage pictures or good group mind. But group mind seems amorphous and vague, and stage pictures are concrete and manageable.

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I am also happy when I end up with lots of blurry pictures, because that means there was so much movement!

So instead of making your goal, “I want to experience amazing group mind in my troupe tonight,” try, “I want to help the stage look interesting tonight.” That gives you something practical to DO instead of a feeling to chase after.


When you forget that there are no grades

In the physical theater class I just finished taking, I had two good days out of the eight sessions. The other days weren’t bad or un-fun; they were full of hard work and mixed feedback from teachers, like workshops are supposed to be. But I want to explore what made those two good days so good.

The first good day was when I had a bad cold. I’d been taking cold medicine that suppressed the cough and possibly my higher cognitive functions. My body wanted to stay in bed instead of catching an early train to Wicker Park. I went anyway — I was there to absorb whatever I could, even if my brain was too fuzzy to understand.

The second good day, our teacher Marc had us run a relay race, and I was supposed to be a wheelbarrow for the fourth lap.

I was not a good wheelbarrow. Somehow, probably because my abs aren’t strong enough, I ended up sprawled on the ground, winded, unable to talk or move due to a crazy-sharp pain in my back. Five minutes later, I was back to normal, except that I thought — maybe it would be ok if I didn’t nail every Lecoq movement. Maybe it’d even be ok to look like this guy:

Our teachers looked for two main things when they watched us go through these movements: technical precision and presence. I was getting so wrapped up in mastering the technical movements that I was missing the bigger picture of being present with the audience.

Paola theorized that this overthinking — in improv parlance, “getting stuck in my head” — is because I was a good student for 17 years of school. And now I teach Latin.* My default is often to be concerned that I’m getting everything right.

She said something like, “Alyssa, sometimes you try to understand before you do. You are trying to get an A, and you forget I am not giving grades. This is not good. You stop and say you are confused? Do not tell me you are confused! Confused sounds like you should know already and you feel bad because you don’t. Instead, say you don’t know, and do something anyway. There is nothing wrong with not knowing as long as you do something. Understanding is for later. ”

The wheelbarrow day and the cold medicine** day, I had no energy to judge myself. I’d given myself permission not to understand, not to master everything, not to get an A. I was there; that was all. I was shocked when I got better feedback on my work those days than at any other time during the session. Apparently, just being there was better than whatever I was doing before.


*What’s more, I teach introductory Latin, where the students don’t yet have enough mastery to exercise creativity in their translations. An answer is right or wrong, and there is nothing subjective. Or subjunctive, either, because they haven’t learned the subjunctive mood yet.

**This is probably why some performers drink before shows. Buzzed people tend not to be too critical of themselves, which is good. However, they also lack self-awareness and timing, which is bad. Your teammates need you open AND sharp.

Walking in Neutral – or – Stay alive.

The last time I played “Standing in Neutral,” my class told me I looked like:

  • a person who judges people in public places
  • a teacher who isn’t friends with other teachers
  • a woman watching nervously out the window for gremlins

I wrote here:

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression. … I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.

So I was excited/terrified when Paola had us play a variation of Standing in Neutral* in our clowning class this week. I was afraid I’d be the same as I was back when Noah led the game.

Instead of just standing in neutral, we walked in neutral, and five people walked behind us. Paola told us that the leader was to think of these other five people as an extension of her own body — not to ignore them, but not to worry about them either.

And instead of just commenting on what sort of impression we made, she made each of us do it again and again until we were truly neutral.

After the first few people had failed, someone asked, “Paola, what are you looking for? How is it supposed to look?”

Paola** said, “This is like you ask me how you ride the bicycle. I write you the book on how to balance, how to ride the bicycle, but that does not make you do it. You do not learn to balance with words from other people. You know when you see, and you know when you feel.”

Then it was my turn, and I was resigned to failing a time or two at least. I walked across the room. This felt totally surreal. I was just thinking, “This is the strangest I’ve ever felt. I do not anything could take me by surprise right this moment, and also, I think I’m floating,” when there was this odd little gasp from several people. When I arrived at the front of the room to face Paola, the gasps turned into little groans.

Paola said, “Alyssa. You do this very well. In neutral, you walk like a queen. We all see this and soe we understand what I say about the bike. But then you disappoint me. You disappoint the whole room!”

“Oh no! What did I do?”

“You apologize! You apologize with your eyes. You are a queen, and then you use your eyes to hide being a queen. This is like you apologize for being alive. You were alive when you walked, and you died when you stopped. Stay alive.“***

I told this to my friend Steve tonight, and he said, “She’s right! You do that thing with your eyes!” (Someone please point this out to me the next time you see me do it so I can start breaking the habit.)

“Queen” definitely trumps “judgmental teacher plagued by gremlins.” Now I have to grow into it and quit doing the thing with my eyes.

*I now see that “Standing in Neutral” would be better called, “Standing in Natural.” Natural and neutral aren’t even close to the same, apparently.
**Italian is her native language; she tells us that her brain translates from Italian to French to English before words come out of her mouth. Imagine her words accompanied by lots of big hand gestures.

***Emphasis and Mountain Goats link mine.