Going deeper, not farther

Review of a referential improvisational theatre performance, showcasing an alternative path for theatre improvisation.

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Compagnie Combats Absurdes (Lyon): »Slow Impro«

concept and performance: Matthieu Loos, Marko Mayerl
music: Hannu Risku, lights: Borut Bučinel
november 2014, Naked Stage festival, Stara mestna elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana.

Compagnie Combats Absurdes - Slow Impro 01 - Photo Kristjan Kolar

It’s the play between the material and the framing which I found to be the most interesting methodology of this performance.

A scene would start with one improviser (Matthieu or Marko) exploring the stage in silence, trying out stuff, movements, playing with the physical things and the present material. The other improviser would be watching with patience, trying to figure out what is emerging from the moving body and the objects. After a while there’s a sentence: »This man! – is a thief – was in car accident – is a sailor trying to fix his boat – is a husband hugging his pregnant wife …«. The sentence frames the situation, accentuates certain movements, shapes, intentions which were already present and brings them to the fore. The frame gives direction to further exploration of the material, allowing both performers to direct their search there and explore, what was initially just a potential, into the details. It’s the play between the material and the framing which I found to be the most interesting methodology of this performance.

There would be “something” emerging from the material we didn’t bring to the table, creating a new sense, a new meaning.

The process reminded me of the way how I approached a creative process in my own theatre performances. We would start off by certain tasks, something performers would do on rehearsals. After a while, with patience and careful attention, we would notice things emerging that were not initially in the task’s description nor part of our intent. There would be “something” emerging from the material we didn’t bring to the table, creating a new sense, a new meaning. We would then try to extract this “something” and make it fully bodied by creating new tasks: tasks create new material, material allows new things to emerge, these things once discovered are framed, frames create new tasks which create more new material, or add details to the material and so the dialogue between the material and the observing minds goes on. What is special about Slow Impro is, what would be weeks of work for us, Marko and Matthieu perform live in front of the audience. A couple of times in a row. From scratch.

Compagnie Combats Absurdes - Slow Impro 02 - Photo Kristjan Kolar

What all these things have in common is they don’t signify anything, they aren’t codified, which is why they can be used to extract different notions out of them.

The crucial strategy is doing things slowly – which lets the material speak on its own. In the interplay between the framing and the material, framing is done by words and words function as signs – they are instantly recognizable by the audience and instantly digested. If “it’s a man fixing a boat”, it’s not “a man sticking his head in the machine” or whatever other route of interpretation would be plausible. As the style of Marko and Matthieu is very bodily, very physical and moves at a slow pace, it lets things to emerge from material, it give the material space to do its own “speaking”. Our attention is directed towards the space of the stage, the walls, the props, the music, the gestures, the duration, the sweat, the breathing, the muscles, the bones, the bodies. What all these things have in common is they don’t signify anything, they aren’t codified, which is why they can be used to extract different notions out of them – the associations they provoke in us, the observations that emerge. Because of this method, the accidental breaking of chairs (formerly belonging to Maja and Tomaž’s household) was seamlessly incorporated in the flow of the performance – chairs by breaking, became a generous type of material, offering all sorts of images, uses and associations which were then incorporated into the scenes, for instance: the scene of a sailor son trying to repair his father’s old boat and head out to sea.

Doing the obvious means being free while doing it – free to be attentive to details that come up and to give weight, full body and flavour to what could initially be a simple idea.

The second part of “doing things slowly” is to embrace the obvious. The obvious is your friend. Doing the obvious means being free while doing it – free to be attentive to details that come up and to give weight, full body and flavour to what could initially be a simple idea. For instance, “the man that had an accident was trying to walk again” and we all knew that Matthieu will eventually walk from one chair to the other chair. This most obvious and meaningful flow of events was indeed eventually realised, but through slow bodily exploration of what this means and how does it feel to do it. “You will walk from here to there” could be understood as a sign and simply executed, merely illustrating what was said and this information being quickly digested by the audience. To then move the scene forward we would need more signs, more talking, sliding further down the chain of signifiers, always hungry for more. Instead, by embracing the obvious – and doing things slowly – the obvious becomes less obvious, it gains colour, texture, intensity, emotion. We could observe how just a step of one foot on this path from one chair to the other  was telling a story, maybe painting a picture, we could notice how it helped to develop the character, his body and his relations. It’s not about going farther; instead it’s about going deeper.

Compagnie Combats Absurdes - Slow Impro 03 - Photo Kristjan Kolar

These wouldn’t be signs or information, rather these would be impressions, getting us to feel how is it to be this person – we would get to know them from the “inside”.

Duration brings with itself its own logic. The scene with “the man who is a thief” had Marko embodying a sculpture, being lifted, dragged, moved around, all the while Marko’s body remained in the same posture. This brought to my mind the tactics used in the durational performance, when freezing in a position, the image and meaning of this position slowly disappear and we, the audience, become more and more aware of the effort it takes to sustain such a position. Intensity emerges, our body feels the stress of the performer’s body, and with the intensity emotions emerge as well. The other association the durational approach reminded me of were slow shots in films (typically European art films), like: the camera would follow a character slowly walking down the street and slowly the details would show up – how the man lifts his foot, how he spits from time to time, how he wears his shirt and so on. These wouldn’t be signs or information, rather these would be impressions, getting us to feel how is it to be this person – we would get to know them from the “inside” without knowing anything rational/usable about them.

The slowly emerging picture is the organism, the subject of the performance, made of impressions, inside of which the physical material speaks for itself and slowly imprints itself into our minds and bodies.

In a similar fashion Matthieu and Marko build up their scenes: these are cinematic landscapes where the characters are but a function in the creation of the image and the atmosphere (which in the scene of pregnancy and birth also allowed for the performers to detach characters from their bodies and switch them). The slowly emerging picture is the organism, the subject of the performance, made of impressions, inside of which the material – bodies, broken chairs, wooden cubes, picture, atmosphere – speaks for itself and slowly imprints itself into our minds and bodies. In the process of being imprinted these impressions evoke our own emotions and memories. For instance, in the show the relations between the father and the son in one scene or the relations between the husband and the wife during pregnancy in another scene were sketched and open, yet their intensity evoked our own experiences related to these kinds of (quite universal) human relations. The lack of obvious instructions and meanings within the pronounced atmosphere and intensity of the performance, allows the audience to invest their own memories, feelings and experiences from their own inner archive/treasury (of life) into the show, each audience member completing it in their own way.

Compagnie Combats Absurdes - Slow Impro 04 - Photo Kristjan Kolar

Instead of going for the message or for the effect, they keep themselves away from the need to make an impression and away from the fear of not making an impression. Rather they let the impressions emerging on stage do their own thing.

A question being brought up frequently in relation to improvisational theatre is whether it could deliver a “profound”, “meaningful” experience or insight like the other, fixed forms of theatre can. If we frame “meaningful” as trying to create a certain kind of effect on the audience, it’s hard for improvisation to compete with the fixed forms which have more time available to them to hone the meanings, strategies, even jokes, and thus create a more powerful impact. But, as in the Slow Impro the father sailor (Matthieu) said to his son sailor (Marko): “You’re too weak. You’re too weak to be a sailor like me. Just be yourself.” As I was stating in my comment on the 2014 Naked Stage festival, the place where improvised theatre can be itself is the space of togetherness, where the audience and the performers both share their exploration of the things emerging on stage. Within this approach, the particular improvisational style of Marko and Matthieu goes the furthest in providing a profound, deep experience inside the field of improvisational theatre (of the all the performances I’ve witnessed). Instead of going for the message or for the effect, they keep themselves away from the need to make an impression, and away from the fear of not making an impression; rather they let the impressions emerging on stage do their own thing. Through physicality and intensity, the performers produce atmosphere and emotions which in turn evoke our own treasury of experiences and memories.

It’s deep because we – the performers and the audience together – dug in and kept on digging, until all of us were submerged.

This exchange culminates in the last scene where Marko and Matthieu would reprise the characters from the entire evening – a series of short images of people emerging from the darkness of the stage and dissipating soon after. These images, following the flow of associations in no logical order, evoke both the audience’s memories of the previous scenes and their own inner impressions of them, intertwining both into one whole. It’s a performance which is deep, but it’s not deep because of its meaning, it’s deep regardless of any meaning. It’s deep because we – the performers and the audience together – dug in and kept on digging, until all of us were submerged.

Samo Oleami, November 2014, Ljubljana

Photo: Kristjan Kolar

Author: Samo Oleami

Reviews drama theatre, street theatre, improv theatre, contemporary dance, intermedia, boardgames and stuff.

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