Practitioner Study: Karen Christopher and the Authenticity of Blusters
(Originally written for my M.A Advance Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, 2014)
Whilst studying the processes of practitioners I have been encouraged to reconsider my own practice. The work of Karen Christopher led me to look into my approach to authenticity, spontaneity, failure and the skills needed to access and apply these in my work. When working with Christopher, we were asked to design performative directives within groups to quickly create material to explore, a process she has used frequently in her collaborative work. Our explorations were then infused by other tasks, for example, a walk outside of our studio with observational directives suggested by Christopher. What particularly caught my attention was the last task we were set. This related to Christopher's recent explorations into memory and being unsure within a performance, inspired by a moment when she found herself and her duet partner, Sophie Grodin, not knowing what came next in an early performance of Control Signal. She named these small moments 'blusters' and instead of seeing them as a blocks on her performance she saw them as moments for opportunity. From these blusters, 'brand new material and new ways of approaching and arriving at already established material could be produced' (Carrack 2014). Embracing what this offered, Christopher was looking for ways to structure these blusters into performance and this opportunity was extended to us.
My group was made up of three English-only speakers and two native foreign language speakers, Spanish and Chinese respectively; together we were intrigued by the act of translation. Our initial performance directives focused on variations of expressions, for example:
Find a sentence in your native language
Translate it into a random language and write it down
Our group created a small bluster from not knowing what our foreign languages speakers were saying, as they covertly provided commentary, narrative and instructions throughout our showings. We were fascinated by the confusion this caused an audience of speakers and non-speakers of our languages and how they reacted. As a non-speaker and performer, I had to respond spontaneously and search for clues for what reality was being created around me. The idea of blusters resonated with me as an engaged and 'authentic' moment for a performer. However, when repeating our performance with the same bluster, the same moments felt lacking and 'inauthentic'.
The subject of authenticity is one that I am challenged by. To clarify what type of authenticity I mean to address I will be using two definitions: 'nominal authenticity’ which relates objectively to a piece's historical context and authorship and 'expressive authenticity' which relates more subjectivity to artistic intension being realised (Dutton 2003).
My current practice is characterised by tackling sensitive social issues with sincerity, through the 'recycling of reality' (Martin 2013: 4), by reproducing stories from my own and other's biographical material. However, when dealing with theatre of the real, there is a danger of it becoming inauthentic. My concern is with both my work's expressive authenticity and the natural dissipation of this authenticity. Much in the way that Walter Benjamin describes a work of art's presence or authenticity being 'depreciated' through mechanical reproduction (Benjamin 2008), so can a performance's authenticity slowly depreciate through repetitive reproductions performances. By encountering blusters, I can begin to readdress what my 'relationship with reality' (Martin 2013: 5) is within my practice.
Christopher and Grodin used metaphors to convey the idea of what a bluster could be or the right attitude to approach it. One way they described this moment, is being 'in a corridor with many doors along it, there is the choice to open any door, that could lead anywhere, but without knowing where they lead to. Once a door is opened one commits to what is found inside' (Carrack 2014). This is very similar to 'the Gap', an idea outlined by dancer and improviser Nancy Stark Smith. To her the Gap is 'a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else'. It is through 'a momentary suspension of reference point' (Smith in Johnston 2006: 96) that a performer can allow new material to be created spontaneously. Both ideas suggest the same moment of space and uncertainty; yet both offer freedom of choice set within an accommodating framework. Christopher's work with the company Goat Island has always been driven by challenging impossibility and failure, often setting themselves Impossible Tasks to discover the range of what is possible in performance (Goulish & Bottoms 2007: xiv,xvi). This is something that appears to still influence Christopher today, along with her use of performance directives. The potential of confronting impossibility and failure encourages material to be contaminated with imperfection. The result, is described as a 'preservation of a slower, more deliberate style of delivery ' (Bailes 2011: 111). This suggests that depreciation of expressive authenticity is evaded by the performers themselves, who are forced to stay spontaneous and present within each performance.
In comedic improvisation, the sense of impending failure drives performers to be at the top of their game and watching this risk being taken, actively engages an audience (Johnston 2006: 75) (Anderson 2014). However, without the right techniques and attitude, rather than finding the possibilities in making small mistakes, creativity can be blocked and performance made impossible. I have looked towards the training methods of comedic improvisation to find ways to develop my performative relationship to the real, authenticity and blusters.
Most exercises taught in improvisation focus on developing a good sense of spontaneity. Spontaneity is important because it has the ability to blur 'the real' and 'the illusion of theatre'. Carol Martin describes how the blending of 'the real' within 'the theatrical' creates a 'double vision' that is particularly engaging for an audience. (Martin 2013: 6) The spontaneous performer, brings his real impulses and creativity and structures them immediately into a theatrical form, allowing the audience to see both at once and as separate building blocks brought together to build reality in front of them. Being spontaneous enables a performer to channel their creativity immediately, playing with their expressive authenticity in the present. Viola Spolin comments that spontaneity is 'the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly... It is the time of discovery... of creative expression' (Spolin in Johnston 2006: 33-4). Structuring points for blusters within performance allows a performer to shift from devised certainty to a spontaneous moment of exploring expressive authenticity.
Although I understood the concept of blusters during my time with Christopher, I felt slightly unskilled to get the most out of the opportunity of choice. I noted in my journal that I did not feel 'creatively free' (Carrack 2014) despite the intended freedom of the tasks. I felt the need to be guided by more detailed exercises, which were lacking from Christopher, rather than relying purely on my performative knowledge. Uncertainty is an authentic emotional reaction, however the balance of performance and the real can be tipped too much towards the real. Both the 'nominal' and 'expressive' authenticities are lost. When the illusion of theatre is absent, the very context of a piece being performance and what an artist wants to convert through the lens of performance are also absent. Nevertheless, this resistance with the authenticity of uncertainty may be an example of the way Goat Island's Impossible Tasks can challenge concepts, proving its expressive authenticity.
It could be argued that by structuring moments of blusters into a performance, you yet again run the risk of depreciating the piece's authenticity and the temptation to repeat the most expressively authentic moments from a previous performance. However, much in the way comedic improvisers are likely to receive the same suggestions frequently for a scene in different performances, (Anderson 2014) they are able to return to 'the Gap' or bluster and approach the next moment with the same spontaneity. It seems very possible to structure several blusters, as reflected in the practice of long-form structures in improvisation for instance the Harold, a form detailed in the book Truth in Comedy. However, for my own devised work of 'recycled reality' in storytelling, I intend to take on more performance based research, to find its expressive authenticity.
Blusters are rooted in the energy and creativity of an ensemble; the idea itself formed during a collaboration between Christopher and Grodin. Two performers need to work cohesively together to find the expressive authenticity of a moment swiftly. Teachings on improvisation emphasise how good group dynamics are essential for good scene work and these teachings can be applied to even the early work of new companies. During other explorations, myself and the MA group found the concept of 'Yes and...' (a common improvisation exercise) 'very powerful' in fledgling collaborations and helped to establish a 'group's language...memory and personality' (Carrack 2014). I plan to take these exercises and attitudes into devising work during the Practices Module, in order to form a shared common expressive authenticity with an ensemble.
Karen Christopher's blusters have given me some interesting viewpoints on my own work. I find myself wanting to look more into presence, how it is established through the overlap or the real and illusion (Powers 2008: 2-3), what it means for a performer to be present in the present and how it can be accessed. By researching improvisation, I now have a skill-set for devising and delivering new work that can channel the real into a performance form, that feels expressively authentic to that material. I am excited to find moments of choice and uncertainty within performances and to react spontaneously to stimuli, in an creatively intelligent way that helps to express an authentic version of my performed self.
Anderson, C. (2014) Interview with Off The Cuff Artistic Director Calum Anderson
discussing Improvisation 10.01.15 (link to Soundcloud file, Appendix A)
Bailes, S. (2011) Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, Oxon, Routledge
Benjamin, Walter. (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
(trans. J.A. Underwood) Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?
%20mechanical%20reproduction&f=false (accessed 29.12.14)
Bottoms, S. & Goulish. M (eds.) (2007) Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology
and Goat Island, Oxon, Routledge
Carrack, J (2014) Journal (Unpublished)
Dutton, Denis. 'Denis Dutton on authenticity', http://www.denisdutton.com/
authenticity.htm (accessed 29.12.14).
Halpern, H. Close, D. & Johnson, K. (2001) Truth In Comedy, United States of
America, Meriwether Publishing
Johnston, C. (2006) The Improvisation Game, London, Nick Hern Books
Martin, C. (2013) Theatre of the Real, Chippenham and Eastbourne, Palgrave
Power, C. (2008) Presence In Play: A Critique of Theories of Presence in the
Theatre, Amsterdam, Rodopi
Appendix A: Interview with Off The Cuff Artistic Director Calum Anderson discussing
Link to Interview on Soundcloud - http://soundcloud.com/jrcmaatp/interview-with-offthe-