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Magnetic North Blog

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Nicholas Bone is Artistic Director of Magnetic North and has directed all of the company's work.  He has also directed for Scottish Opera, Traverse Theatre, Opera North, Actors' Touring Company, Bristol Old Vic, NIDA and Dundee Rep. Nicholas wrote the text for A Walk at the Edge of the World, co-wrote the libretto of Happy Story (Scottish Opera), co-created Pass the Spoon (Magnetic North/Southbank Centre) and adapted Henry David Thoreau's Walden for the stage.

Rough Mix day 1- aiming to be open, receptive and generous

We started work at 9.30 this morning in a beautifully sunny studio 2 at Dance Base.  With a view through the roof window to the castle and sun streaming through the front windows from the Grassmarket it felt a very special place to be.

As well as the four contributing artists and the two emerging artists, I have also invited Sheila Macdougall, movement teacher, and Ros Steen, head of voice at RCS, to be part of Rough Mix this year.  Sheila is an extremely skilled teacher and advocate of Viewpoints, having trained with both Mary Overlie and Anne Bogart - the former having originated the technique for dance and the latter having adapted it for theatre  - while Ros has been working with Nadine George's voice work for more than twenty years as both teacher and voice director.  This morning was a double class - first of all Viewpoints and then voice. I have worked with both these approaches before but today was the first time I had been able to put them together - or in close proximity at least.

I've had a feeling for a while that they would work well together - reinforced by the time I spent training in Viewpoints with Anne Bogart and SITI last summer - and have been looking for an opportunity to use them together.  After today, I feel sure that the two weeks of Rough Mix will give me a really good idea of how they can work together.

This afternoon we had the first introductory workshops - from visual artist Kate Robertson, playwright Lynda Radley and emerging artist Jamie Wardrop.  Tomorrow, Ian Spink, Daniel Padden, Kim Moore and I will give our introductory workshops and then on Wednesday we start work on the five projects being developed here.

 
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The start of Rough Mix 2012

The start of Rough Mix 2012 is suddenly upon us.  After several months of preparations, we start work at 9.30 on Monday morning at Dance Base in Edinburgh.

This is the third time we've run Rough Mix, and I thought it might be interesting to write about what the philosophy behind it is.  I was reading in The Guardian last weekend about the Two Things game (link here).  This is where  you have to summarise something in a two phrases - the Two Things about trading stocks are "Buy low; sell high", and  the two things about theatre are, apparently, "Don't forget your lines; don't run into the set".  The most interesting ones are those that are slightly contradictory: for example, medicine is summed up as "do no harm; to do any good you must risk doing harm".  I was trying to think what the Two Things about Rough Mix might be and my current thought is "Don't think too much; think about everything".  The idea of Rough Mix is that it's an opportunity for artists to have some time to play with an idea, preferably one that they wouldn't otherwise get an opportunity to play with - it's an opportunity to push yourself out on a limb without having to worry about what happens.  This may sound like something that is part of an artist's job description, and I think we fondly imagine that that is what we always do; but the reality is that often we're trying to meet a deadline, or fit a brief, or meet expectations, so the idea of taking a big risk or making a change in direction is something you maybe feel you'll do next time.  The idea of Rough Mix is to take away the fear (or at least lessen it) by allowing space and time to play.

The other crucial element. from my point of view, is that it's also an opportunity to meet and spend time working with artists from other artforms.  We can often get trapped in our own self-referential way of working, and there's nothing like seeing the way other people approach their work to make you think more carefully about it.  When I worked with the visual artists Sans facon on what became Walden at Rough Mix in 2006, I was fascinated by the way they looked at props not just as things to objects to be used to tell a story but as purveyors of meaning in their own right.  By contrast, when I was working with the artist David Shrigley last year, he was always concerned that an object on stage would read as what it was and nothing more - if it was a fridge, it had to read as a fridge.  Both approaches have had an effect on the way I work.

This is one of the best things about Rough Mix: finding something new and learning from it.  Which reminds me of a phrase that is in itself a sort of Two Things for how to continue to work fruitfully: "The more you learn, the less you understand" - this is a painfully simple but vital lesson to understand, or perhaps to just know.
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SITI week 2

The train ride from New York city to Saratoga Springs is a beautiful journey up the Hudson valley towards the Adirondack mountains.  The place names are evocative: Yonkers - birthplace of Ella Fitzgerald,  Schenectady - where Edison founded the General Electric Company, and Poughkeepsie, which is probably also famous for something but just has a great name as far as I’m concerned.  Saratoga is in the middle of a wide plain and I can see trees for miles from my room.  The other day I had a Walden moment when I saw a beautiful light brown hawk circling over a clearing in the trees.  It floated about while I watched it, not quite with the joy of just being there that Thoreau observed, but a beautiful sight none the less.  There were obviously no pickings for it so it flapped elegantly away after a while making me feel very earthbound (even on the 7th floor).

In the work with SITI, we’ve been moved up a gear this week.  Further parts of the Suzuki form have been taught to us – Kelly, one of the core SITI members, made a very important point to us on Friday afternoon when she reminded us that the purpose of the Suzuki method is not to master the form, because you never can.  The important thing is the discipline you derive from the effort  to master it, as well as the skills with which it equips you, such as a clarity of focus on stage. 

On Wednesday evening Leon and Ellen gave a talk on the origins of both Suzuki and Viewpoints and how the SITI company came to work with the two approaches.  Suzuki had begin training his actors during the 1960s, developing the form from a variety of sources, including Kendo, Katakali, Flamenco and Sumoh as well as the Japanese theatre styles of Noh, Kabuki and Butoh.  During the late ‘70s he began training other actors in the method, including a group from America that would form the ore of the SITI company in the early 1990s.  During the 80s Anne Bogart happened to work with some of these actors and couldn’t help noticing how much less they moved their feet than other actors.  Intrigued by this, she asked them why and was introduced to Suzuki.  At the same time, Anne had been developing her own version of Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints as a means of quickly building an ensemble when she was working on productions at theatres around the States.  As she worked with the Suzuki actors she began to realise that these two seemingly opposite approaches were very complimentary.

This week in Viewpoints we’ve been doing quite a lot of open viewpoints, which is an improvisation in the space using all the viewpoints.  This is quite heady stuff as you get to know the group you’re working with and start to discover the risks you can take moving about a space – sometimes at high speed – while maintaining a connection with everyone else in the space.  One of the viewpoints is Kinesthetic Response – which is about how you decide “when” (when to move, for instance, or be still, turn, look, or when to speak etc) – like all the viewpoints it can only operate in conjunction with the others (such as duration – how long you might move for  - or tempo – how fast you might move).  Kinesthetic Response is quite a “back brain” action – you allow yourself to move almost instinctively in response to an external stimulus, rather than with a thought-through motivation.  The purest, or maybe most minimal, exercise is Flow.  In Flow you have only 5 pieces of vocabulary: stopping, moving through gaps, turning, following, changing tempo.  When it works, it is an incredible feeling – as if you are connected to everyone else who’s up there with you.

This morning, while researching some things for our composition assignment (each week we make a short performance piece in small groups) I found a clip of Pina Bausch dancing to the aria “When I am Dead and Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas in her piece Café Muller (you can watch it here).  I’d seen this a couple of months ago in Wim Wenders’ film Pina and had been affected by the story she told about it.  When she came to revive the piece for the first time she couldn’t work out why it didn’t feel right, and then she realised that, even though her eyes were closed throughout, where she looked was essential to how she performed it.  The first time she did it, she always looked down but the second time she’d been doing it without paying attention to where she looked.  At the time I remember thinking that the lesson here is “no detail is too small to ignore”.

Now I have to go and learn some lines.
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Working on Viewpoints with SITI company

I’m in Saratoga Springs, New York for a month’s training with Anne Bogart and her SITI company.  At the core of SITI’s work are two approaches: Viewpoints (an approach first developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and then adapted by Anne Bogart for theatre) and Suzuki (a method of actor training developed by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki).

Viewpoints was the thing that brought me here and I had little knowledge of Suzuki, which meant that the first Suzuki class at 9.30 on Monday morning came as something of a shock.  We had been told to wear shorts or tight leggings (“So we can see the bend of your knee”) which might have served as a warning.  Suzuki, it turns out, is very different to Viewpoints.  It is a form (in the way that tai chi or ballet are forms), which makes it very different to any western style of actor training.  There is a series of movements to be learnt, and the whole approach is designed to create a sense of control over the body, built from the centre.  It is physically demanding and highly disciplined, not unlike a martial art.  Viewpoints is much more freeform, and what is fascinating is starting to understand how these two quite different approaches to performing work together.  The schedule is this: in the morning we do two 90 minute classes, one in Suzuki, one in Viewpoints, alternating daily which is first.  In the afternoon we do related classes – dramaturgy, speaking, movement and composition.  For the last two days of each week we do two Suzuki and two Viewpoints classes each day.  Today is the end of the first week and its fair to say there’s quite a mix of physical exhaustion and physical exhilaration at play.  The exhaustion comes from the sheer effort of learning a new discipline, the exhilaration from the accumulation of this effort over a week.

In the first week we have learnt the first two parts of the Suzuki form – Basic no. 1 and Basic no. 2.  No 1 is a sideways movement, no 2 is a forward movement.  In both of them there is a sequence that involves weight shifts and controlling the body so that you don’t fall over.  Different members of the SITI company have taught each day and it’s been fascinating hearing their slightly different takes on the form.  Yesterday, Leon (a big bear of a man with an imposing presence and a beautiful lightness) said that the point of learning Suzuki was not to be the best at Suzuki but to develop an understanding and control of your body in order to be able to perform to the best of your ability.  Today, Bondo focused on the separation of the elements – in one exercise we were pausing the sequence to recite a speech from The Cherry Orchard (Ranyevskaya’s “Oh my childhood, my innocent childhood” from Act I) and he emphasised the need to separate the elements: first finish the movement (which also involves taking the breath for the line), then making the gestural action (in this case a movement of the arm) before speaking – each element separated cleanly so there is no bleed from one to the other.

In the morning class on Friday, Stephen made a really helpful analogy for working with the Viewpoints.  He suggested thinking of them as a horizontal plane, with all of the elements at play at any one time, but that at different times we could turn the volume up on one of them to examine its effect.  In Bogart’s version there are nine Viewpoints, divided into two groups – Time and Space.  The viewpoints of time are duration, speed, kinaesthetic response and repetition; the viewpoints of space are shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture and topography.  As is frequently pointed out, the viewpoints have always been there and have always been used, this system is merely a way of codifying them in order to use them more effectively.  What is important is that Viewpoints is post-modern in structure so there is no hierarchy – all the viewpoints are of equal importance (hence Stephen’s image of the horizontal plane).

Over the weekend we are all busy with our first composition assignment.  In groups of 4 we are creating 10 minute site-specific compositions using texts from a number of plays by Charles Mee (a regular collaborator with SITI) and a number of given elements that must be included (a slap, a kiss, 3 movement sequences).  For me this means an unusual discipline – learning lines, something I have not needed to do since I was a student.  I’m enjoying the structure this imposes and it emphasises to me the muscular nature of the brain – the act of learning makes further learning easier, much like lifting weights (or practising Suzuki some to that). 
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The sound of silence

Most people will have heard by now about the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33” to be the Christmas no.1 single ahead of the X Factor winner.  Last year a similar campaign managed to unsettle Simon Cowell’s plans by getting an old track by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas top spot and this year’s campaign has honoured this by calling itself Cage Against the Machine.  As a friend of mine tweeted yesterday “we have to make this happen, it’ll be the best thing ever!” and I share his enthusiasm for a number of reasons. First of all, what on earth will they do on the chart countdown?  Radio silence is anathema to broadcasters as it means that anyone who turns on during it will re-tune on the assumption that the station is down.  Secondly, I share a dislike for Simon Cowell’s apparent mechanisation of the music process – popular music has of course always been susceptible to a purely business-led approach (and the results have sometimes been great) - but I get the feeling that he does music because that’s where he sees the greatest financial returns are possible rather than because he feels any great need to produce great music.   It seems that it could just as well be films, widgets or software if any of those thing had the same potential for cross-market selling.


But the main reason is that it’ll bring an iconic and very important work of art into the mainstream.  Conceptually, 4’33” is as important as Duchamp’s Fountain, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in its gamechanging importance.  Like all of those works of art, Cage’s piece changed the way people thought about art; similarly it attracted criticism along the lines of “I could have done that”.  To which the obvious response is “well maybe you could have done, but you didn’t”.  4’33” can initially appear rather crass, but like all great art, the strength of both the idea that underpins it and its execution shine through.  Before Cage wrote “Tacet” and nothing more on a piece of manuscript paper, silence had been a punctuation – the thing around which music was formed – but Cage’s brilliant idea was to show us that there is actually no such thing as silence, only less noise.  If you sit for 4’33” and listen you discover that the world is full of sound, but we rarely give ourselves the opportunity to really listen to it.


In a sense, 4’33” has finally come of age – we are now so surrounded by activity that the opportunity to just stop and take time (even if it is less than 5 minutes) to just be is a gift in itself.  For that alone, Cage deserves this unusual accolade.

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J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....