Sunday, 9 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival 2015

Just a list of shows I've booked for so far-

Awakening, a sweet and sour sensory experience: Spotlites.

The Encounter: EICC

The Room: Assembly, George Square

The Room, The Musical: City Cafe

Hey, I'm Alive: Dance Base

Phantasmagoria: C Nova

An Audience with Jimmy Savile: Assembly, George Square

Today is my 100th Birthday: Greenside, 6 Infirmary St

Scaramouche: Underbelly, Cowgate

Jurassic Park: Assembly Roxy

Sirenia by Jethro Compton: C Nova

ACMS: Heroes@The Hive

Current Location: Summerhall

Fiction: Pleasance Dome

CUT: Assembly, George Square

Fake it 'til You Make It: Traverse

Underneath: Dance Base

The Bloody Countess: Space Triplex

Tomorrow: Traverse

Comfort Slaves: New Town Theatre

64 Squares: Underbelly, Cowgate

H.P. Lovecraft: Space, Surgeon's Hall

A Game Of You: Traverse

Institute: Pleasance Courtyard

This Will End Badly: Pleasance Courtyard

Letting go: 1:1 experiences in The Drowned Man


As elusive as they can seem I had my very first 1:1 during the first hour or so of my second visit to The Drowned Man. In fact, during my first show, back in October 2013, I was actually witness to two people being chosen for the Doctor/PA 2:2 scene, however I thought they were being taken through a concealed exit and would just come out in a different room. How wrong I was! The idea that two randomly chosen audience members would be locked in a darkened room, made to dance with strangers and had torches shone in their faces was not something that I'd really considered could happen. I'd studied, created and experienced a decent range of non-traditional performance during my degree and I wrote about live art projects, Happenings and the Fluxus movement but I was way out of the theatre loop. I had forgotten what was possible.

Punchdrunk were re-opening my eyes in so many ways.

Over the 9 or 10 months that I regularly visited the show I was also studying Person Centered Therapy and I couldn't help but relate the show back to my training. I often thought in some detail about what effect these 1:1 scenes could have on the audience member; it's not very often you are in such an intimate situation with a complete stranger. If you are they usually have a formality and structure surrounding them- interviews, doctor's examinations, eye tests, hair and beauty treatments and therapy sessions. There are codes of conduct, rules and laws to protect you, the vulnerable party. Are any of these rules are present in theatre? 

As part of The Drowned Man online community I sometimes helped out when people needed volunteers to answer questions about the show for their own studies. It was partly to be helpful, but also partly an excuse for me to write in depth about the show whilst having a framework for my thoughts.On one occasion I volunteered to answer questions on the ways an audience member may feel vulnerable during the show and I wrote at length about how this was manifested in my very first 1:1, with James Traherne playing the Doctor on 21st December '13.

Writing about this one scene in detail gave me the chance to explore my own thought processes during the experience and consider how this might link with my study of Person Centered Therapy. Carl Rogers, the founding father of Person Centered therapy sets out 6 necessary and sufficient conditions for therapy to take place and the first three seem to have a lot in common with the 1:1 experience:

1) Two persons are in psychological contact.
2) The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
3) The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.


Now, I'm not claiming that Punchdrunk are specifically aiming to give audience members therapy for their personal issues, indeed that would be rife with problems (and, probably, law suits)! One can see, however, how a therapeutic effect could be a byproduct of providing an environment that broadly meets these conditions for therapy.

Most 1:1s in TDM (perhaps all?) rely on the audience member being somewhat vulnerable and, as Felix Barrett has mentioned in many interviews, in a heightened emotional state. Moreover, the physical proximity to the performers, the prolonged eye contact and detailed reality of the set removes the feeling that they ARE performers so it becomes easy to project your own fears, desires and insecurities onto them. I'd tentatively say that the performers sometimes  fulfill the role of the classic psychoanalytic therapist who remains relatively neutral to enable the client to experience transference. A friend suggested, and I agree, that the whole production of TDM was like one giant Rorschach test that we projected our feelings onto. This is such an accurate and appropriate analogy, given the strong imagery of the Rorschach test threaded throughout the production to represent the stories of William and Wendy running in parallel.

So, bearing all this in mind, I come to the nature of my first 1:1.

I was engrossed in the decaying glamour of Dolores as she stumbled along a corridor and into a doctor's office where she was manhandled, injected and came 'back to life'. Slightly disconcerting but I suppose all in a day's work for the doctor. I remained seated as Dolores walked off to her next scene because I was thrilled to have found a whole new area of the set to explore, yet before I had time to think about my next move the doctor extended his hand to me and asked, "would you come with me?" I could feel people around me bristle slightly so I felt immediately excited to have been singled out.

There is an inherent vulnerability in a doctor/patient relationship so this particular 1:1 had a realism that many other 1:1 scenes didn't. This makes it quite interesting from a therapeutic point of view: it may have been a segment of a fictional story but I was physically present, actually telling this stranger my unfiltered thoughts. Exactly how unfiltered anyone's answers to the Rorschach test are is debatable but it is a good way to put the subject 'in the moment'. Similarly, the genuine therapeutic value of these tests in the real world is negligible but it is a fantastic tool for creating tension in an unsuspecting audience member, and it is through tension that theatre-makers create catharsis.

The Doctor was very careful and kind, rather like Mark Gatiss as Mr Chinnery the vet (rather an apt comparison as he is a vet doomed to kill all of his patients!) The doctor carefully took my pulse, explained the consultation and genuinely tried to make me feel at ease. He made it feel very familiar, like just another check up. I got occasional pangs of fear, though as his interpretation was very kind, but as things progressed I could see he was slightly too kind and so you were suspiciously waiting for something very, very bad to happen. It had a sweet, saccharine coating over the bitter pill you were force fed as a star of Temple Studios.

This gradual increase in tension over the course of the 1:1 is something the actor handled skillfully (likewise for all the actors I engaged with). The shift happened in subtle increments and while he became more and more sinister, he was never cliched. The rooting in reality was what gave this particular scene it's danger. So, to answer my previous question about what rules are present- in this 1:1 Punchdrunk are successfully appropriating the rules of another intimate interaction (doctor/patient) in order to create an exciting, emotional experience for their audience.

It is the underlying safety that allows for the therapeutic effect. In real life therapy you have the formal, medical framework to make you feel secure enough to explore and face up to difficult emotions; in a Punchdrunk 1:1 you have the theatrical framework that makes you feel safe enough to just let go.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Your bearing shapes your fate...

What has prompted my latest desire to pour out my thoughts and feelings onto the internet is my recent involvement in the fan community of Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man'. Well, actually my involvement in going to see the play came first (and quite by accident), but for me the two things go hand in hand.

Despite the show being an intensely personal and individual experience (you are told specifically to 'ditch your friends, go it alone'), it is the strong community of dedicated, enthusiastic and, dare I say it, a little 'obsessive' fans (and cast members!) that fueled the burning passion I have for the show and the mythology surrounding it. The late night theory forming, the heated discussions on Facebook, the agonizing over tiny details or cast combinations, the plotting and planning your next visit over endless tea and cigarettes...this was not just theatre, this was life.

In addition, my own experience of the show came at a time in my life when I was very lost and alone; I had just had to give up my job due to severe, ongoing anxiety and I was also considering the fact that perhaps teaching was never going to be the right job for me. The show and the layers upon layers of detail, allusions and references gave me a direction and focus as I was using my brain for something I deeply loved instead of a job that had become too stressful. What is more, it appealed to the dramatic, creative and also the academic sides to my personality that had been buried for a long time.

The other important factor in my life this year was my decision to look seriously at training as a therapist. My first step was a course in Person Centered Counselling and what I was learning on the course dovetailed neatly with my experiences at 'The Drowned Man'. On the course we looked at Phenomenology and the Self-Concept...our unique ways of experiencing the world and how a therapist can empathise and get close to seeing things through another persons eyes. This was never more apparent than when you were taken into a room, alone by a character and given a very unique experience.

Not only was I completing the first stage in my training as a therapist, but I was also having some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of my own to help with anxiety and long standing self-esteem issues. This close look at my own behavior and responses to situations informed my Punchdrunk experience; in the show you are left entirely free to explore and to make your own choices for three hours. As you can imagine it led to some interesting, and sometimes surprising, self-reflection, some of which I aim to explore in this blog.

It has been noted by many that the experience Punchdrunk enabled their audience to have was extremely therapeutic and I wholeheartedly agree. One of my interests is experiential learning and therapy and you can't get a much more full-on experience than a visit to 'The Drowned Man'. It was a strange juxtaposition of having complete control over your journey...and yet occasionally letting the experience take you by the hand and lead into the unknown...