Monthly Archives: November 2014

Letting Go

I could try pretending to be cool about this – but since no-one who knows me will be remotely convinced, I’m not going to bother. I was childishly, gleefully thrilled that people liked my first post! While it’d be disingenuous to claim I wrote it without expecting anything, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback. But for every kind word that made my heart leap a little, I also started to feel a creeping dread. Fuck, I thought, now I’ve got to do it again.

My first instinct was to run, panicking, back to the first post I’d written and try to figure out why other people had liked it. This is never a good tactic. Aside from all the perils associated with lapsing into that kind of solipsism and trying to second-guess your audience, trying to recreate a past success never works. Even if version 2.0 managed to be technically identical, it would lack a crucial ingredient: spontaneity.

‘Success’ is a big word, but the positive moments I’ve had so far at school have come when I’ve least expected them. There have been days when I’ve felt awful, physically or emotionally or both, and have had to drag myself onstage. Usually, this leads to being rubbish onstage and feeling even worse. But occasionally – very occasionally – something else happens.

I had one such rare moment last week, during a neutral mask exercise that entailed, um, being a tempest. (I’m fairly sure that was the exercise – Philippe seemed reluctant to commit to clear instructions. Some teachers would tell you to ‘be’ water, he’d said, but I am not so idiot.) I certainly felt like a total idiot, wafting my arms around while desperately trying to conjure up images of a raging sea. My entire frame of reference seemed to consist of swimming off the North Norfolk coast, and watching Titanic, and neither felt hugely inspiring. Well, it can’t get much worse than this, I thought: I guess I might as well have some fun. So I did. And when Philippe banged his drum a few minutes later, I fully expected to be dismissed with an Absolutely orrible – adios immediately! But he let me stay, and I carried on having a great time until all my muscles were burning and I could hardly breathe and then I spoiled it all by reciting the Homer like a TGV.

There’s much to learn from this experience. I think I understand a little better what Philippe means by giving something as an actor – not least because, after a week full of tempest and fire exercises, I have spent the weekend moving like the tin man and groaning in agony every time I bend over. And it definitely proved Marina right about the value of taking risks onstage. (Thank you.) BUT. Now I have to do it again! And I don’t know if I can. Is it possible to go onstage free of expectation and willing to give up control, every single time?

I suspect that it’s easier to free yourself from inhibition at physical and emotional extremes. Being a tempest, writing a blog about being rubbish at everything – in different ways, both are acts of abandoning dignity. But what about subtler states of being – playing a bubbling stream, say, or writing about having a moment of being not so rubbish and then being gripped by a terror of never being able to repeat it? Those aren’t acts of total abandon – they require some delicacy, some control – and I don’t know how to marry those qualities with the wilder, freer state I briefly enjoyed. But maybe my central assumption is wrong. Maybe to express those subtler feelings/ characters/ ecological features is still essentially an act of revealing, rather than of restraint. And maybe such expressions simply require a greater trust in ourselves: that those levels of nuance and complexity exist in us too, and all we need to do in order to reveal them is let go a little.

In real life, I often find myself clinging onto especially good experiences. I want to recreate them, and worry that I won’t be able to – that I’ll forget their vital ingredients unless I identify and preserve them. But the same problem arises here: even if you could pickle fun, or fascination, or sexual chemistry, the very process of preservation would rob them of their spontaneity and surprise.

Everyone knows that the best nights out are the ones that begin dully or with few definite plans, and end with you pelting Hoola Hoops at your mates across a church hall at three in the morning. That the best conversations start on doorsteps – mid-goodbyes – and end hours later, awkwardly perched on the pavement, when you’re desperate to pee and crippled by pins and needles. That the best sex happens when it really isn’t supposed to.

We know these things, but still we feel compelled to record, analyse, relive. Maybe it stems from a need to prove it wasn’t just a fluke: if we understand the causes of our favourite experiences, we can take credit for them. Deep down, though, we know that holding onto these moments gets us nowhere, because the best things always happen when you least expect them. In a way, you can have more fun as a sort of recipient or vessel of experience than as a generator of it. As soon as I’ve had this thought, I realise it’s one of the least helpful conclusions I’ve ever reached. It’s totally paradoxical. How do you nurture an attitude of passivity, aspire to be a vessel? How do you make yourself give up control? I’m not sure you can. Maybe the key is to stop trying to nurture anything and just let go.

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Bad and Happy

A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Philippe’s words of advice to the second-year clowns, my roommate inscribed the words BAD + HAPPY on her inner wrist in blue biro. She was considering getting them permanently tattooed, but thought better of it in the end. (I think in part because I pointed out that the word ‘bad’ might read differently in different circles, and wouldn’t necessarily give the impression of a happy-go-lucky theatre student to everyone she met.)

It’s something I’ve been struggling with ever since I arrived in Etampes last month: how to feel glad to be here (in France, at school, onstage) in spite of the knowledge that I’m not doing anything well. It goes completely against the grain for me. I hate being seen as incompetent above almost anything else. Being good at stuff has always been my ‘thing’, and the rest – liking myself, being liked by others – has somehow seemed to depend on it. Why should my colleagues want to spend the evening with me if I’ve been useless at work all day? How could my crush be reciprocated if that show I directed just bombed? So the twisted thinking goes. Without being good, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?

Philippe said something in our class today that got me thinking. It was prompted by someone else’s question, but came at a timely moment – just as I felt myself slipping into the familiar slump of Idon’tknowhowtobebetteratthisandIamsodepressinglybadIjustwanttogohomeanddrinkwinenowplease. In order to be beautiful onstage, he told us, you have to have a dream: that you’re a beloved actor, performing to a thousand (or at least 700 – any less won’t cut it) adoring spectators.

I realised then that I’d been kidding myself about becoming braver here. I’d spent so much of this first month paralysed by fear, that reaching the point of volunteering regularly-ish for exercises in class actually felt like being courageous. But there’s being onstage, and there’s being onstage. And what I’d mostly been doing was skulking in the shadows: trying to get through exercises as painlessly as possible, without being too ridiculous, so that afterwards I could tell myself I’d been brave and got up there and done something. I would learn stuff, just at a comfortable pace, getting slowly but steadily less bad. In reality, all I’d been getting was an increasingly colourful array of criticisms.

This week, two of my classmates have asked Philippe to clarify what he wants from us. I don’t want anything, came the reply, on both occasions: I’m the teacher. It’s not my job to want anything. His job, he said, is simply to watch us do things on stage, and pass comment afterwards. He doesn’t mind if we’re good or bad. We’re the ones who want something from the process.

The first weekend here, the lady behind the counter at Etampes station had to repeat the ticket price three times before I understood it – and then I put the money in the wrong part of the sliding tray (don’t ask). A few minutes later I got myself stuck halfway between the carriage doors and had to be rescued by the guy behind me, who tried to show me how the (totally counter-intuitive) doors functioned as I scuttled off in embarrassment. And later that afternoon, a toddler ran into my shoulder bag at the park, fell flat on his face and started wailing, while I attempted to apologise profusely to his mother in broken French. All I’d wanted was to spend an uneventful day acclimatising to life in France and getting to know some of my classmates. But I was so flustered by trying to speak French, and trying not to come off as too spacially or socially inept, that I spent a lot of the day making a complete buffoon of myself.

If it’s true in life that desperation of any sort (and in my case it’s usually to not look like an idiot) invites the opposite of your desires, it’s probably true onstage too. Anyone can be average, Philippe said today, but to be beautiful you’ve got to have that dream. And if I’m really honest with myself, lately I’ve been replacing the dream with a desire to just get away with itdriven, I suspect, by that desperation to not look like an idiot. Perhaps being afraid of being bad – being sad about being bad – is the quickest path there is to averagedom.

I wonder how long I’ve been kidding myself that I’m being ambitious and daring. After all, it’s not that hard to do it superficially: quit your job, move abroad, volunteer for that scary exercise you haven’t quite understood. It’s doing it in your head that’s the hard part. It’s silencing the voice that says: right, I’ve been prancing around in this mask for at least a minute now – can I go home yet? – and replacing it with… well, I’m not sure yet, to be honest. But I know that I’d like to start finding out.