Posted on 31 October 2014 | 1 response
With cooking the quality of your ingredients will determine the quality of your resulting product. Similarly in (comic) theatre you must start with good material, good direction, and good performers in order to create a good performance. I sometimes complain how hard it is to get reasonable comedic performances from actors, but I find even just a good performance can be difficult to obtain. Some of the young people I audition are smart and should be doing better. I question the training they are being given.
Right now higher education is being seriously undermined. It has been turned into a business whose sole interest is selling vocational training to as many students as possible, offering as little as possible, at as high a rate as possible. Vocational schools of dubious quality are popping up everywhere. Many lecturers are not even being offered enough teaching time to make a living. Students are being sold their dreams and not a future. So, you can find plenty of places that will teach you acting, playing the electric guitar, film-making, computer game design: all the sexy stuff. None of them have much of an entry policy in order to ensure the students who are paying them money are dedicated to their art, rather than just the idea of fame.
Acting courses have their own unique problems. You have methodologies that have more to do with machismo and hazing, than skill and mature performance. You have cinematic sleaze and theatrical snobbery. When I spent some time with university theatrical courses, I found even at that level students were not encouraged to develop sufficient depth in their understanding of stories, storytelling, and character development. I saw the need as an English major to take theatre classes to help with my with playwriting. Theatre students really should have been taking literature courses to better understand their source material and how to represent it. Both English and theatre students could do with a few courses in philosophy and psychology.
As a writer I am told to develop through travel, journaling, and personal introspection. I am expected to engage with many different types of people without judgement: rich, poor, working class, artists, young, old, ill, and more. When I write I then bring my experience and my viewpoint to bear on the problem of creating a story with complex characters and intricate plotting. I don’t have to be poor to represent poverty, but I do have to carefully and compassionately observe.
In writing I do not put on a show of emoting in order to find emotion. As a director I do not want a show of emotion. I want a living human being who out of their character and circumstances will display some emotion, anything less is fake fireworks. When writing a novel a writer frequently evokes emotion from a single gesture, a word, or even what is being observed by the character, whether it’s a painting, a flower, or a blasted landscape. For any of that to work I have to believe this person is having this emotion.
Both beginning comedians and actors frequently feel like empty jars. The label on the jar says “strawberry jam”, but I can perfectly well see they haven’t put in the strawberries, sugar, and pectin. This is where people think method acting is the answer. Get direct experience of what the character is going through. Okay, so you at least have some pectin in the jar, but that’s not the same as personal understanding or engagement with human nature. Learning to be a mature person who cares about the well-being of others, the planet, and their art will get you so much further than waving your hands about in a show of theatrical heroics.
I have to admit I despair even more deeply when it comes to screenplay writing books. The film industry is so rich and so powerful that people take anything anyone in that industry has to say as HOLY TRUTH (cue heavenly choir). They largely provide a stereotypical view of the world and encourage a very narrow range of storytelling. Actors and comedians are also encouraged to perform in ways that have more to do with how people expect a certain character to behave and what they think emotions look like.
Listen, observe, care, consider how the world fits together and what you think about that, then practise-practise-practise your performing. Get in front of people on a regular basis in a wide diversity of circumstances, whether you are paid to do so or not. These are things that will make you an actor and a comedian worthy of note. In the meantime watch this space for education opportunities that might be of more value.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 11 October 2014 | No responses
We often have such unrealistic expectations of ourselves and of others. This will get in the way of meaningful relationships. As soon as a person wanders out of our direct experience they often turn into symbols. We forget their humanity and in our minds they become either super or sub-human. When we forget that humanity it becomes easy to make terrible decisions which bring suffering to these people’s lives. Ultimately it ensures we will continue to experience suffering in our own lives.
Here are a few thoughts to consider about being human.
• Everyone experiences suffering, and to each person that suffering is significant, because they have to live with it.
• It is a waste of time comparing suffering. There’s a game that goes, “My suffering is greater than your suffering, so I don’t have to care about you.” This just furthers sufferings.
• You cannot wait until your life is better to start caring about others. You will always be experiencing your own suffering while reaching out to help with others.
• Helping others is an excellent way to not get overly focused on your own suffering. However, you still need to recognise when it is time to attend to your own difficulties.
• Suffering should not be required of a person to show their loyalty, to justify their art, to demonstrate what a good person they are, etc. Some people tell inspiring stories of how they have overcome suffering or have turned their suffering into something of value. Never take that as an indication that you should seek suffering in your own life, just that if it happens then you can turn it around.
• We are all so fragile and we are all so strong.
• No one is free from fallibility and vulnerability. No one. Not presidents, kings, queens, heroes, superstars, your parents, your teachers, your friends, not even you. Nor can you escape fallibility or vulnerability.
• Infallibility or invulnerability are not to be admired. To do so is to deny humanity and to stop caring. How helpful is it to judge yourself or others as weak for simply being human.
• No one person can save the whole world, nor should they. You should not expect it of yourself, nor should you expect it of others. The world is the responsibility of each and every individual.
• Be slow to put people into the too hard basket. Sometimes some people are too difficult for you to deal with in an ongoing fashion. Make sure you are creating the sort of society where they can find help, even if you personally can’t offer it. Someday you might be the person who is put into the too hard basket.
• You are human, forgive yourself. Others are human, forgive them. Life will be an ongoing exercise in forgiveness.
• Find the strength and commitment to work through the troubles in your relationships. Everyone experiences ups and downs. Everyone makes mistakes. Let temporary occasions of anger be just a moment which challenges a friendship to grow.
• Let no mistake, tragedy, or loss be seen as defining of who you are or anyone else is. Nor let mistakes, tragedies or losses be seen as the end of the world. It’s very easy to get lost in such moments and it can be very hard to pick yourself up and move on. But it is possible. Give yourself the time and compassion to realise that possibility.
• Find places where upon occasion you can confess yourself. Be someone to whom people can confess themselves upon occasion. Help is being given when a person simply and solely listens.
• Treasure every moment of light you find in your life, no matter how big or how small. Offer even the smallest moments of light to others: smile, say “thank you”, offer a little help, offer a little friendship.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 7 October 2014 | No responses
I must warn people who seek my reviews that 9:30pm is generally my cut off hour for whether or not I will see a show. This is because, to my utter dismay, I am a morning person. The sun comes up and my eyes snap open—no matter how early. When I see a show that starts later than 9:30pm, I can’t guarantee I will stay awake, and I have to get home safely by car or train afterwards which takes about an hour and a half.
So, it was with great dedication that I found the wherewithal to mostly see Anthony Jeannot’s Unaccept-a-bubble. Yes, I had to fight through a few yawns and felt badly for doing so. After all it was a GREAT show.
Jeannot has it in him to be the next Adam Hills. His relaxed and personable style is utterly engaging. His stories have a beautiful every day charm. His upbeat take on the strangenesses of life is exquisitely relateable. He was right to start and end with his stories about bubbles, because they gave his show a great big heart.
I would like to see him engage more with his audience. If he needs to, cut a little material in order to get friendly. He’s on the verge of adding this dimension to his show and I believe he is skilled enough and amiable enough to pull it off. Perhaps less about his girlfriend and more about his family would give him the space to chat about other people’s families.
I look forward to seeing Jeannot again at Melbourne Comedy Festival. In fact before that time I would like to see him at one of Melbourne’s storytelling lounges. He is a talent worth seeking out.
More about Anthony Jeannot:
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 7 October 2014 | No responses
I have never been one of the cool kids. I have never been the one people crowd around hoping for attention. I have a few fans and a few people who respect my work. But probably like many comedians, I know what it is like to be dropped or looked over for not being cool.
However, in the comedy community we know the race doesn’t always go to the prettiest such as the Paris Hiltons and Justin Biebers of the world. Nor does it even go to the people with the most training. It goes to those with a combination of luck, talent, and persistence. Josh Thomas will never be listed as one of the world’s most attractive men, but he is the lead in a show that has been successful both in Australia and in the US. Adam Hills is attractive, but he had no training and has hosted more than one successful talk show. Character actors are in much higher demand than pretty boys and girls.
As a professional writer, actor, artist, you want to hang out with a great diversity of people to inform your work, develop as a person, and to feed your soul. Distancing yourself from some people as “losers” is a surefire way to limit your career. Worse, it can give you a bad reputation. You never know who may gain or already have prominence and can give you a hand up.
Finally, for your own humanity and the health of your own heart, open up and show some genuine kindness and loyalty to the real people in your life—to the old ones as well as the young ones, the fat ones as well as the thin ones, the ones with the quirky faces, quirky personalities, the ones who find joy in unusual places. We all need to know what it is like to be accepted without being “on” all the time. We could all do with a little loving. Find your soul first and the rest will come.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 1 October 2014 | 1 response
In jazz there is a concept known as “soul”. A piece of music has soul when it comes from a place of authenticity: where every note is deeply felt and speaks of a person’s inner truth. Such music may not have a lot of polish, in fact sometimes polish is eschewed as not honest enough. People are impressed by skill, and given the amount of time it takes to excel in any art, respect is certainly due. But skill without heart lacks humanity.
10 Things You Can’t Do on Stage is a production with soul. Friends Caitlin Yolland and Jaklene Vukasinovic have constructed a show around the thought that as far as creativity goes…rules are made to be broken. This they do in the most charming and heartfelt manner. They chat with each other, they chat with the audience, they do several improvisations that illustrate how each of the ten “don’ts” are not hard rules. Life is bigger, messier, and more wonderful than a set of rules could ever encompass.
Yolland plays the bubbly pixie dream girl to Vukasinovic’s more measured and good-natured comic straight. Their affection for one another is genuine and it creates a lovely sense of joy as they dive into their scenes. My favourite scene of the night is when Yolland fangirls God: asking for an autograph and getting a selfie with The Almighty. Vukasinovic’s droll delivery was outright roll on the floor hilarious.
Improvisation performances frequently refer to the audience to request ideas. In 10 Things the women go further than that, actually engaging in discussion over such issues as what topics are too sensitive to put on stage. The moment is rough, but completely honest. The audience comes away feeling expanded, and more invested in the two performers as human beings.
I have to admit that I get tired of shows where the performers haven’t invested very much of themselves. Cleverness is entertaining, but one dimensional. Sadly, this happens too often in comedy and it doesn’t have to. 10 Things You Can’t Do on Stage is a good example of how to do comedy and theatre right.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 30 September 2014 | No responses
Pajama Party is a delightful adult confection, like a tiramisu sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Melbourne Fringe is its second outing in this city, after a short run at the comedy festival. It really deserves a larger venue and larger audiences. This is an expert piece of comedy.
Sarah Jones and Nicholas Johnson have organised a pajama party, but no one has arrived…except the audience. This premise provides the framework for a series of sketches that range from the silly to the downright disturbing. They cleverly find ways to weave in their skills as respectively a ventriloquist and a magician, but never at the expense of story or comedy. Johnson murdering an orange was one of the funnier shticks I’ve seen in a long time. I cheered when Jones’s character wanted to be Santa Claus.
These two have been honing and expanding their skills for some time. It’s always a pleasure watching performers grow. Jones in particular is finding more depth in her delivery and material. As slight as the story is, it makes the show more than a mechanical presentation of entertainment tricks and into something memorable.
Nicholas Johnson and Sarah Jones are the founders of The Variety Collective at Brunswick Green. If you have missed Pajama Party, you can catch these two performing there on the odd Wednesday evening.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 30 September 2014 | No responses
I love working with students. Running humour writing classes is indeed a lot of fun. Running a class on storytelling for computer games is also a blast.
Humor writing classes tend to create community—because as part of the work you’re doing together, you’re laughing together. A humor writing class will teach you that there’s nothing better than having a writing community.
“Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Writing Class“, Siobhan Adcock
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 29 September 2014 | 1 response
I am a long time Bugs Bunny fanatic. To this day I can quote verbatim various episodes of the cartoon show. When I heard that Phantom Panda Power Wizard Master Smasher was performing the music of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner to the actual cartoons, I was not only intrigued but downright excited!
I am not precious about the sanctity of original works. The more people engage with a work and make it their own, the greater homage is being done to the creator. In this way a new generation of creators have the opportunity to hone their skills. Fan fiction has been around for a very long time. From as early as the twelfth century you can find manuscripts where people have taken on the style of a favourite author, written a story in their genre, and attached the favourite author’s name to the work. It’s only with the idea of the author as literary hero that people became concerned about attribution. Attribution is important, support of artists is important, but so is free play.
Phantom Panda’s take on Carl Stalling’s orchestral compositions, as well as the many classical works used by Warner Brothers for the Looney Tunes, is a real delight. They create something utterly unique, bringing a contemporary sensibility to old favourites. I love how they ensure that every sound, every note they make, fits meticulously into the action of the cartoons as they are projected onto a large cloth screen.
They describe themselves as blending “the drama of the symphony and the intensity of highly orchestrated rock.” Phantom Panda certainly have a prog rock meets heavy metal vibe. They most remind me of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who are tremendously popular in the US.
Blue Grassy Knoll have been creating blue grass scores to play in conjunction with Buster Keaton films for years. However, where Blue Grassy Knoll choose to be relatively invisible while playing to such classics as The General, Phantom Panda go out of their way to be a part of the fun. One performer has a peculiar umbrella hat, another wears a panda mask, and one guitarist has the most awesome metallic shoulder pads that shoot out red laser beams through the haze of a smoke machine.
This is a glorious night out. I can highly recommend it for big and little kids who don’t mind some noise served up with their cartoon silliness.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 28 September 2014 | No responses
I often joke that as the director of theatrical and/or film productions, I’m the eye of the storm. I have to remain calm, so when cast and crew are facing difficulties, I can be there for them in order to move the production forward.
I remember one situation where a costumer decided she didn’t like two of the women for whom she was constructing belly dancing outfits. She deliberately sabotaged the costumes. We didn’t find out until the day of a film shoot. The women were in tears, and we had quite a bit of expensive leased equipment waiting to be used. Within an hour I had to calm the young ladies, fix the costumes, and restart filming.
Every production is going to experience moments such as this. They are more fraught with danger when dealing with a volunteer cast and crew, since losing even one person can cause the show to collapse. To manage these dramas I regularly remind myself of a few things.
I am responsible for my feelings. No one makes me feel anything: whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or infatuation. Certain people may stimulate these emotions, but they are not in fact the source. The words that cause me to laugh when a person says them, may draw anger when the same person says them again at another time. I then need to ask myself, why am I feeling this? The feeling isn’t wrong. It’s simply communicating something about a situation or issue that needs addressing. The person who stimulates those feelings may or may not be a problem; they may just represent difficulties I am facing or simply have problems of their own.
The instant I make someone else responsible for my feelings, I lose my agency. This may seem like a get out of jail free card, “It’s not my fault—this person made me yell.” However, I would then lose not only control over my emotions, but any understanding of them as well. This is not an option for anyone in the storytelling business.
The best storytelling comes from people who have rich inner lives, and a capacity for empathy. How else can anyone come to understand and portray their characters? People respond to stories where the author clearly shows compassion, insight, and wisdom. This comes when storytellers are able to sit with their emotions: to allow rage, passion, pain, joy, and more to flow through them without judgement. Because the instant you judge these things, your characters become flat. The emotions aren’t bad, it’s what you do with them that determines whether the outcome is life-affirming or not.
I would say we actually need the stimulation of emotions. They help us to safely interact with our environment and bond with other human beings. This is why storytelling is such a compelling art form, it helps us to practise what we will do with our feelings. I would also say we need to distinguish between a cheap emotional hit, and nurturing the sorts of emotions that will sustain us as human beings: like the difference between cotton candy and apples. I would never censor films or games about war, but it does disturb me when people are endlessly practicing war for the thrill of it. I much prefer to immerse myself in stories that have to do with people collectively finding positive solutions to their problems, as in a good episode of Dr Who.
When cast or crew are having a difficult time negotiating with their emotions, a few things can be done. First, you can just listen. We all frequently need to confess our emotions and our situations to a friend, family member, or counsellor. Do not try to analyze, rationalise, or provide answers. Give the person the freedom and dignity to find their own answers. Your sympathetic presence is enough.
At most share your own experiences, and let the person draw their individual conclusions as to whether it is of any help to them. Sometimes you might have resources that could help alleviate their circumstances, only proffer what you are completely willing to offer unconditionally. If the situation requires more, consider suggesting professional help. You will not have all the answers, nor should you. Though it feels good at first to be needed or to have someone address your needs, be very careful about such relations—they lack freedom.
Scientists have found some emotional states cause our brains to light up in ways similar to addiction. So, if you are used to being in a state of fear for instance, it will be difficult to settle those feelings in order to gain a sense of peace. But it is possible with practise, perseverance, and a little help. Actors need to learn the self control to switch on and off emotions at will. This may require neutral time, where peace can be found between being a character and being themselves. Directors should at least discuss “cool downs” with their performers to ensure their mental well being.
We are all so fragile. And we are all so strong. Among the greatest gifts we can give one another are freedom, kindness, and respect. Actors are not merely cattle whose emotions are up for cheap sale. Crew are not drudge workers whose needs are to be ignored. Any true artist will recognise the beauty and value of each person who comes within their sphere of experience. As theatre workers we are a team, as artists we are a team, as human beings seeking fulfilling and meaningful lives we are a team, as creatures of this planet we are a team. See one another with the eyes of friendship.
Peace and kindness,
Posted on 26 September 2014 | No responses
In 2000 Nick Chisholm was carried off the Dunedin rugby field after suffering multiple strokes. These strokes broke the tenuous link we all have between our consciousness and our ability to move our bodies. Chisholm became a victim of “locked-in” syndrome. He was aware of his surroundings and his own thoughts, but had no way at first to communicate his available awareness.
Fortunately, Chisholm had a doctor who recognised the symptoms of Nick’s circumstances, and soon everyone was mobilised to help pull Nick back into the world. His is a story of intense determination: one fraught with set-backs and triumphs.
The life-affirming nature of Chisholm’s story attracted creator/actor Renee Lyons. She spent some time in Dunedin speaking with people and piecing together her understanding of events. She then used this material to create Nick: An Accidental Hero, an hour long festival show. The story is alternatively tragic, heart-warming, humorous, and inspirational.
Lyons has an impressive array of skills. Her storytelling has pitch-perfect timing ensuring a natural poignancy flows from the narrative. Her capacity to bring to life a whole raft of characters is exceptional. Her tour de force moment came when she portrayed a particularly emotional scene by interacting as several of the characters at (about) the same time while maintaining engagement and believability.
I have to admit when I read the description of this show, I wasn’t certain it would be my thing. Nevertheless, organisers of Melbourne Fringe kept urging me to go. They were right. This show is a gem. Interestingly, I would say that it’s not so much about Chisholm, as all the people who were changed in the courage they too had to find in order to support someone they loved. This is an uplifting night out.
Peace and kindness,