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Archetypal stories

I recently took my four old son to see Up, the new Pixar film.  It's very good - well written, beautifully (and expensively) made and very sophisticated in that rather slick way that Pixar seems to have nailed for making films that work just as well for both adults and children.  The opening of the film is an astonishing montage sequence that tells the life story of the central character Carl - voiced by Ed Asner - from his first boyhood meeting with his future wife Ellie to his present status as grumpy old widower in five minutes of beautifully observed animation.


The real story then begins, but everything in the opening sequence is necessary to our understanding of the rest of the film.  Without spoiling things for anyone who might be planning to see the film, I'll just say that there are several action sequences later on in the film that involve savage dogs. My son got quite upset at these scenes - particularly a night-time one where Carl, his young companion Russell and their canine companion are surrounded by the dogs, who are all under the malevolent control of the antagonist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).  I reassured my son that everything would be alright in the end and we settled down again, but the final showdown on the top of an airship was too much for him and we had to leave – him in floods of tears, me wanting to know how the inevitable ending would be played out. "Up" was clearly following a traditional narrative in which good would triumph over evil – Muntz would be defeated and Carl would find a new place to live - and we were at the stage of the final complication before the denouement.  But why would my son know this?  Archetypal story structure is clearly something that has to be learned, however inherent it may appear.  There are certain rules that must be followed for a satisfying narrative - and there is something satisfying about a well-told traditional narrative – and storytellers know that they mess with these rules at their peril.  It would be inconceivable for Muntz to triumph – there would riots in the cinema.  The skill in working with  archetypal genres is keeping us engaged with how the inevitable ending will be achieved.  We know that Gary Cooper will have to win the shoot-out in "High Noon" and that Catherine Bennet will have to marry Mr Darcy, but we don’t know how it will happen. Robert McKee has observed that satisfying films always have a scene that is made inevitable in the minds of the audience by an early occurrence – the showdown between Robert Shaw and the shark in "Jaws" has to happen from the moment he scrapes his nails down the blackboard.


I was telling a friend of mine (who also happens to be a storyteller) about the incident in the cinema and we got talking about context. He told me about some students who had told him that they had been to see “United 93” (about the hijacked plane that crashed on 9/11) with someone who hadn’t realised the context and was completely devestated by the ending – he had assumed this was a straightforward good v. evil film in which, whatever the odds, good would triumph in the end. 


Archetypal stories are a source of fascination for me, and Bruno Bettelheim writes persuasively  in “The Uses of Enchantment” about their purpose in fairy tales. Archetypes are necessary for us to discover things about the world and to understand how it works: we need the stories to answer the questions we don’t even consciously realise we have - Bettelheim was a  Freudian after all -  and what better way to find the answers than listen to stories?


 


(If you haven’t seen Up, find an excuse and go and see it - you can see trailers for it here http://www.apple.com/trailers/disney/up/.  If you’re interested in archetypes, try Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” or Joseph Crane’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; Robert McKee’s book on structure “Story” is very interesting, though primarily about film structure.)


 

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The cult of collaboration

In his review of choreographer Rafael Bonachela's new work The Land of Yes and the Land of No in The Observer Luke Jennings makes an interesting observation on collaboration.  His main point is connected with what he percieves as the lack of subject matter in much contemporary dance, but what interested me most was this observation:


"Bonachela is a generous, postmodern soul, who likes to spread the creative kudos and the subsidy money around, but the hard truth is that art is not a democracy. Multiple layers of collaboration don't generate multiple layers of meaning, and in this case they serve only to obscure, and to distance us from the quiet detail that is Bonachela's forte."


It was particularly the phrase "art is not a democracy" that intrigued me.  I spend a lot of time thinking about collaboration and how it works, not least because theatre is at its heart a collaborative art.  There has been a very clear move towards more collaborative modes of development over the last few years - partly, I think, because of an unease about hierarchy - though collaboration has always been there.  Diaghilev was a consumate creator of collaborations.  The phrase that always comes to my mind is Pierre Boulez's definition of a conductor as "a collaborator who decides" (quoted, I think, by Peter Brook though I can't find the reference right now) - I often repeat this to the young directors I work with at Glasgow University as it neatly sums up a director's role.


But Jennings raises the question of whether collaboration is necessarily a good thing, whereas current orthodoxy tends to hold that it is.  I think of myself as an instinctive collaborator, whereas there are other directors who find it difficult.  When I was working as a staff director in the 1990s, I worked with someone who is now one of the foremost opera directors in the world and he almost defiantly disliked collaboration.  He prefered to design his own productions, and when he couldn't, worked with designers who would realise his vision.  Collaboration for him meant everyone listening and  then doing what they were told and, crucially, doing it very well.  This director made sure he worked with top notch people, even though he didn't particularly want then to bring their ideas.  This was (and is) a technique that works well for him, but others prefer to draw together the ideas of those they work with.  I remember reading an interview with Tim Albery about a production of Macbeth he had done for the RSC and he described sitting reading the paly with the designer and seeing what evolved (the designer was Stewart Laing I think).  Wonderfull as this sounds, it is a surprisngly rare thing - too often meetings are hurried, constrained by everyone's availability.


The perfect collaboration, I've heard it said, is when you can't remember who suggested what.  My most recent production, Walden, was certainly the best collaboration I've ever had.  Part of this came from working with visual artists who didn't have the usual database of thearical solutions to draw on - this is not a dig at designers, just an observation that "theatre people" (myself included) have particular ways of looking at things, drawn from experience and tradition and sometimes its helpful to work with people who question the obvious solutions.  Mainly though it worked as a collaboration because we respected each other's work and opinions.


The real "elephant in the room" to use Jennings's rather tiresome phrase, is the question of who decides.  In an article on collaboration in The Guardian a few months ago, Katie Mitchell said of her collaboration with Leo Warner that "It's clear I'm the boss".  Daniel Kramer notes that "leaving the ego outside the room is a huge challenge", whereas his collaborator says more bluntly "the first week of working together was traumatic".  This is the real challenge and probably the thing that defeats more promising collaborations than anything else - go too far towards democracy and it looks a mess, go too far the other way and everyone's work is subverted to one vision.  There's no one solution, it's different for every group - I'm about to embark on our uber-collaborative Rough Mix programme, and one of its aims is to promote collaboration and it'll be aprocess of finding out all over again how to help a group of individuals work together.


 

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Anger Management

On Friday I had two encounters with extreme anger within the space of an hour.  In the first one, I saw a man and a dog walk out into the road in front of a car. The driver (a woman) stopped in time, but the man walked aggressively round to her side of the car and began shouting that she had almost killed him and his dog.  The woman said that he had stepped out in front of her and he became even angrier, and out his hands onto her half-wound down window.  as I was crossing the road quite close to the scene, I asked the driver if everything was OK.  She said "Yes, it's fine" and the man turned to me and starting shouting that I was a racist and walked off down the road shouting loudly.


About a quarter of an hour later I was at a counter in the bank and a man at the next window became incensed when the cashier asked him for identification.  He spoke angrily and said that it was his own business that he was cashing the cheque for, why did he need ID?  The cashier remained calm and said she had asked because sometimes businesses sent other people to cash cheques and she just wanted to check who she was dealing with.  The man angrily demanded his cheque back and said that he didn't like the woman's attitude - he stormed off in high dudgeon attempting to maintain dignity as everyone in the bank stared at him.


What intrigued me about both these events was the inability of either man to accept that they might be in the wrong, or that the other person might have a point.  The man at the bank had of course stitched himself up completely: he had come to cash a cheque - a relatively straightforward transaction - but had failed because of a sense of injured pride.  The woman behind the counter might have been briefly upset at being shouted at, but he had not only made himself appear foolish in front of several people, he had failed to achieve the main purpose of his visit and he would not be able to achieve it without further loss of face (this being the only branch of this particular bank in Edinburgh, and there only being two cashier's windows - side by side of course - in this branch).  As I left the bank a few minutes later, the man was sitting at a table by the window staring out, possibly trying to work out which was worse - not getting his money or going back sheepishly to the cashier.


This is the stuff of drama - people behaving foolishly on the spur of the moment and then living with the consequences - but there is something tricky about the sudden burst of anger over trivial matters on stage or screen. How can it be made to seem believable?  Mike Leigh has made these moments an essential element of his work - all of his plays and films contain a moment of embarrassing, irrational, angry loss of control - but, in less skilled hands, I sometimes find myself thinking "oh, I don't really believe anyone would do that."  The problem for dramatists is that, in real life, these eruptions often seem irrational to the outside eye, though they are obviously rooted in something much deeper for the person concerned - the fear of humiliation, the memory of an earlier embarrassment etc.  The skill of a dramatist in these moments is telling us enough about the character before the eruption so that we accept it when it happens - when Basil Fawlty beats his car with a branch because it has broken down, we accept it because the barely repressed frustration that defines his character has been carefully plotted to lead us to this point. Likewise Mike Leigh's characters - Keith's demolition of the campsite in Nuts in May, for example.  The other essential is the ability of the actor to show us the complexity of a character's make-up as simply as possible and this is where these moments often stand or fall.


Both events left me wondering why we do it  - why do we have these sudden rushes of blood to the head?  I'm sure everyone has experienced this at one time or another.  There is no doubt an evolutionary reason why we have this capacity, but most of the time we keep it suppressed I suppose.


 

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Terrifying the audience

I've been mulling over the relationship between the performer and the audience in the last few days. Partly it's because of the launch of this project, but it's also connected with seeing performances of Walden in different places and also reading what audience members have written in our comments book immediately after performances.


Anne Bogart (in her book A Director Prepares) writes about the necessity of Terror in the process of making theatre, and one of the thing she touches on is the need that she feels for an audience to be unsettled.  I was intrigued by this because the audience-performer realationship is so overt and essential to Walden.  Ewan (who performs in the play) has talked about the differing reactions from people to the direct eye contact he makes with them during the performance - most people seem comfortable with it (it's something many people comment on), but sometimes you can sense an unease.  It's possibly the latent fear of audience participation that probably lies within all of us (the feeling of "Oh god, please don't ask me to join in" as an actor approaches you with a gleam in his eye), but it's also perhaps a dislike of being somehow implicated in a performance.  Sometimes we feel more comfortable sitting in the dark while the actors perform in the light.  Tim Crouch explored this in England (at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh in 2007) by making sustained - and what I can only describe as Evangelical - eye contact with the audience during the first section of the show when you're still not sure what it's about.  I remember it being quite unnerving but also exhilarating.  Anne Bogart suggests that we should feel unnerved rather than comfortable as an audience as it means we're paying attention (I paraphrase).  


The other aspect of this is the nature of the material being performed, and this brings me back to the comments book.  A few people have commented on what they regard as a lack of "drama" in Walden, and this also came up when I was writing it - a few fellow-theatre people I talked to about the source material (in  the course of "what are you up to at the moment?" conversations) said "Yes, but what's the story?/where's the conflict?/where's the drama?" or other variations.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I read the comments from Findhorn - someone wrote quite a long comment which ended "I mean, where's the drama?"  To me, drama does not necessarily mean action (though it often does), though it should mean development.  There seems to me a very clear development in Walden, encapsulated in the moment when the narrator watches a solitary hawk playing in the sky above him as he fishes and realises that it represents something he can never be - truly free.  The story develops - he goes to Walden Pond to see if he can "confront life" and he leaves when he realises he's achieved something else instead.  From conversations I've had with audience members, it seems that a lot of people enjoy the absence of a traditional dramaturgical structure - one of the most important things to me about making theatre is that the form you use for a production is right for the content, and in this case I think it is right.  We could have made a more action-filled production, but that wouldn't have been what we felt Walden is about.  The key thing in relation to what I've been thinking about is that I understand that we have made a demand on the audience in the form we have used - they have to work to create their own understanding of what it's about, and it seems that quite a lot of people like that.  Maybe we should be challenging the audience more than we do?

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Open Source Is Up And Running

Hello to all new Open Source members.


Had a few technical problems with the site initially but they've been ironed out and we're now fully live.


As this is a brand new site, we're really keen to hear from you about how you're finding it- don't be afraid to ask us any questions or let us know if something could be improved.


The best place to do this is by posting on our Forums.


Don't forget, if you've got friends you think would like to sign up to Open Source, you can invite them by sending them a message from your Profile Page.


Hope you enjoy having a look around Open Source.

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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....