Sunday, October 24, 2010

'After you left, I felt dead...completely empty...'

...says Tilly in a letter to Frank.

I've just finished the final performance in this, Tilly No-Body's first incarnation. Before the show started, Miles had already left Davis to drive back to LA, and as I watched the set being taken down after the performance, I felt dead, completely empty.

Incarnating a character is a curious, mysterious and somewhat unsettling experience. Although I know we're performing the show again in a month's time at a big conference at UC San Diego - the UCIRA's 'State of the Arts' conference - I feel bereft.

I am back in my apartment. Dead. Completely empty.

I could barely walk the mile home, my bones were so weary. I was too tired to eat, yet managed to sup on a piece of lovely fish that Miles had left in the fridge. Did I want to take myself to the movies? Not really. Did I want to compile a list of all the things that I have to do next week, now that the delicious and overwhelming distraction of Tilly has gone? I suppose so. Get some order into life. Did I want to contact my folks? Yes, that would be nice. A short email, just to let them know I'm here. Did I want to take down the pictures of Frank and Tilly that have surrounded my desk for the last 10 months, since I started writing the play? Uh-uh! Not yet. Not ready to wipe the slate that clean yet.

I can however share a few secrets with you now - things I didn't want to say before in case they spoiled the moments...

I start the play in a big trunk on stage. The only way into the trunk is through its lid. That means I have to be in the trunk before the audience arrive. So for 15 minutes before the play begins, I am scrunched in a trunk - in 5 costumes (a body stocking, a trapeze artist's outfit, a pierrot costume, a ringmaster's woollen jacket and boots, a huge fur coat and a hat ). When we first tried this in the technical rehearsal, I was worried I might get claustrophic or just simply too hot. I had a flask of ice cold water, which - even if I didn't drink it - I could cool my sweaty palms on. What I discovered, however, was that it was blissfully calming. It's like a womb in there. I can hear muffled sounds as the audience arrive. A few footsteps. The odd laugh or cough. But it's dark and cosy and zen. Often, backstage chatter before a show can be a little unsettling, particularly if you have a role involving a lot of concentration. Here, I could just be with my breathing, my imagination, and Tilly's story. The first I knew that the show was starting was the announcement to switch off mobile phones, and then...the first few notes of the opening music and we're off... Out I crawl, like a bewildered animal...

The other secret I want to share with you is the moment in the show when I....

No, maybe that should still remain a secret...

As for walking on the 28" acrylic circus ball - yes, I am as terrified as I look. In the rehearsal room it was easy to balance as there was full light, so I could spot a place out front and focus on that. Here on stage I'm blinded by bright lights and gazing out into the total darkness of the auditorium. Added to which, the sprung dance floor in the Vanderhoef Studio means that walking on the globe has a slight bounciness to it that wasn't there with the harder floor of the rehearsal room. And as for Miles, Reed and Sabba suggesting that I also play the lute and sing a song while walking on the globe...why did I ever think that was a good idea? There is no acting required at this moment. I repeat: I am as terrified as I look.

And yet, what wouldn't I do for that fear now...?

Back to the silence of my apartment. The sound of cars on the rain-drenched street. Fall has arrived in Davis, and it's as wet as it is back home in England.

Miles has phoned me a few times in the last hour on his way back to LA. But the network keeps breaking up. Communication is down. Dead. Completely empty.

I think it's time for some quiet contemplation. Although (I repeat) I'm not yet letting go of Tilly and this is just the beginning not the end, I do find as an actor that a little part of your soul is relinquished whenever a run of a show finishes. Energy, time, emotions are expended at vast rates. And then suddenly...nothing. No 7pm adrenalin kick. Instead... A minor bereavement. A brief time of mourning.

Acting and Creating Identity Symposium

Friday October 22. The day was spent hosting and partipating in a one-day symposium springboarding off Tilly Wedekind's life into issues of how we micro-manage and create our own identities. Participants came from across disciplines, campuses and countries. From 10am in the morning till 10pm at night, discussions of who we are and why we are abounded. We also addressed issues of practice as research.

Session 1: Creating and Acting the Wedekind Identity was chaired by Simon Williams, Chair of Theatre and Dance at UC Santa Barbara. Himself a Wedekind scholar, he was eager - as indeed was I - that he should be part of the event. The colorful and eternally insightful Gail Finney (Professor of German and Comparative Literature) gave the first presentation on Wedekind and Lulu: A Cultural Context: here she put the specifics of Frank and his writings in the much broader context of sexual politics in the Western world at the turn of the 19th-20th century. The second presentation was from my German collaborator, Margret Greiner, who had flown with her husband (Professor Bernhard Greiner) all the way from Munich. Her evocative, passionate and intellectually witty contribution - Frank and Tilly: 'Marriage is the most relentless of human addictions' - provoked questions of whether Tilly was a victim or a colluder in her own situation: nothing is black-and-white in gritty drama. As the third contributor, I addressed Tilly No-Body as a piece of practice-as-research, and how I had striven to turn archives, biography, letters, plays and original interpretation of events into theatre, song and present-tense experience of the researched material.

Session 2: Creating Identity: Performative contributions from writers exploring Practice-as-Research brought together three professional writers - playwright Lucy Gough, poet Andy Jones and novelist Lucy Corin. All three are also academics, Andy J and Lucy C here at UC Davis, and Lucy G at the University of Aberstywth in Wales, UK. Lucy G led us intimately and honestly into the processes she adopts as a writer incarnating numerous personalities through her one imagination. She described how she 'walks' her way into characters, revealing that writing is far from a sedentary, head-locked activity, and she compared her experiences of writing for theatre and radio with writing for day-time TV soap (which she did on a weekly basis of 10 years). Andy Jones blended poems from Browning and Eliot with his own original poetry, illustrating how personalities are incarnated and dialogues created through condensed imagery and language: indeed, both of his own performed poems took a dialogue form between two characters in a very intriguing manner. Lucy Corin demonstrated through her readings of her own prose work the way in which she changes narrative voice - from first person to third person - while always playing with her own 'presence' as the writer in a narrative. Listening to Lucy reading her various characters, I was struck by her changing rhythms and the naturally shifting placement in her voice: having described herself as 'not a performer', her performative self was embedded and intuitive, and so I would have to disagree with her own description!

Session 3: Shaping Identity: A discussion panel was chaired by choreographer and Chair of UCD Theatre and Dance department, David Grenke, whose own choreographic work resonates with autobiography and expression of identity. The discussion opened with a virtual presentation by Bernadette Daly Swanson of the Shields Library, who is an infectious energy when it comes to propounding Second Life, the online virtual world where people re-structure and recreate their identities through avatars. This was fascinating. Bernadette was sadly not well enough to appear in the flesh, but her virtual appearance was extremely appropriate. Her introduction to Second Life - and the disparity between people's avatars and their actual faces, contrasted with the appropriateness of their avatars to their own voices - was extremely fascinating. It of course raised issues with Dave and his fellow panel member, actor Miles Anderson, of the role of the body in expressing and performing identity. Both Dave and Miles had incarnated Hitler at various times in their professional careers, and they had both encountered issues of their own shifting personalities when finding themselves afraid that they might empathise with some of Hitler's rationale. Miles also discussed performing Peter Pan at the age of 30-something, and finding his own inner child activated by the role while also being intrigued at Peter Pan's dark side. I was particularly struck by his connection to Pan's statement that death would be 'an awfully big adventure'. Fourth panel member, David Orzechowizc - a PhD student in Sociology - gave some fascinating insights into how actors in theme parks micro-manage their emotions and identities, not only in response to the 'feel good' factor of daily life in a theme park, but also in terms of gender portrayal and a sense of liberation behind the larger-than-life characters incarnated there. One of the recurring themes with Tilly No-Body is the paradoxical way in which we often reveal more of ourselves when we adopt masks and characters, or hide behind veils (and Tilly loves veils).

Session 4: Acting and Performing Identity: Examples of Practice-as-Research brought together four very inspiring PhD students from across the campus. Daniel Grace (English) raised issues of what it signifies to call yourself 'a writer' and how he feels in the process of writing. Dylan Bolles (Performance Studies) and his talented wife combined music and story-telling to open up issues of moving from Korea to the USA. Claire Maria Chambers (Performance Studies) looked at the performance of religion on the streets of San Francisco during Ash Wednesday and the crossing of lines between performance and reality. And Nita Little (Performance Studies) - an immensely gifted choreographer who specialises in improvised dance - demonstrated her use of actual body and virtual body (using quite a different definition from Bernadette in Second Life). She also described the dancer's desire to keep moving forward, as - in the moments of stillness - the present-tense can be too potent for the dancer. This raised some very interesting questions for me in terms of the actor's desire to be 'in the moment', and what stage fright might mean to a dancer.

The symposium culminated in a performance of Tilly No-Body and a post-show reception, which brought together the contributors and the sponsors of the event (Carolyn de la Pena and Jennifer Langdon from the Davis Humanities Institute; Laura Grindstaff from the Consortium for Women and Research; as well as representatives from the Departments of German, English and Theatre and Dance). The whole day was very filling and fulfilling, and I felt that seeds had been planted for further interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations. This for me is the true harmony of practice and research, of performance and pedagogy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Week 6: Entry 4: What the reviewers said...

'Resurrected soul: Exhilarating play explores the nature of acting, identity... The magic begins the moment one enters the Mondavi Center's Vanderhoef Studio where set designer, John Iacovelli, has created an old-style circus ring... Composer/sound designer David Roesner's jazzy music fills the air... Watching the talented Merlin at work is a privilege. She's a consummate performer: under Miles Anderson's direction, she thoroughly embodies the character of Tilly... Costume designer Maggie Morgan has done a masterful job with the layers of Tilly's wardrobe... The mood is greatly enhanced by Thomas J. Munn's lighting design... I cannot leave out the wonderful puppet creations of John Murphy... In Tilly No-Body, Merlin gives Tilly Wedekind a body again: the result is entertaining, informative and utterly delightful.' (Bev Sykes, The Davis Enterprise)

'Tilly No-Body is now Tilly Some-Body: Thanks to the versatility, energy and spot-on acting by star Bella Merlin, Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love, presented by the Theatre and Dance department is truly spectacular.' (Lea Murillo, The Muse)

Star rating: **** from Jeff Hudson in the Sacramento News and Review: 'Bella Merlin sings, plays the lute, manipulates puppets and even does a circus trick'.

Week 6: Entry 3: It's all in the timing

Time on stage is utterly strange.

As an actor, I've always liked to know how long a particular night's show runs. Fluctuations in minutes can be very revealing. Partly because of the importance of rhythm in acting: our emotions are very alterable through changing rhythm, and finding the appropriate rhythm for a scene can be exactly how to unlock its inner and outer life.

In a solo show, you become even more aware of time, as you're the only one governing and guiding the audience's journey. There was one performance this week which felt as if it was three hours long. And yet when Reed gave me the timing, it turned out to be 70 minutes - our shortest show yet. Indeed, he suggested that it actually felt rushed. For me, it was like swimming through treacle. I suspect there's a piece of research in the study of experiencing time on stage and in an audience, if I can work out how to articulate, monitor and evaluate the findings intelligently.

One piece of timing this week which was wonderful was the publication of the reviews... (While I'm not great at blowing my own trumpet, I suspect that should be another blog entry in its own right.) With regard to timing, there are only 5 shows left, and we really want to be sure as many people get to see the play as possible, given the amount of time and energy that so many creative beings have put into this. Although I don't tend to place undue weight on reviews, a good review can certainly boost audience numbers. And just knowing you're going out of stage with a good energy surrounding a production is infinitely more pleasurable than feeling that you're in a dud. Every actor on stage wants to have a good Time, as indeed does every audience.

Week 6: Entry 2: Captured forever

Tuesday night. Pick-up call (i.e. the rehearsal after a break in a show's run). As it was, we'd only had the Monday night off, and so it had been planned that this rehearsal would also be a perfect occasion to have the play filmed. Under the wonderful auspices of Joseph Rodriguez from the UCD Media unit, three camera operators and a truck, in which Joe undertook a live edit, appeared at the Mondavi Centre.

There was such a wonderful, calm atmosphere in the auditorium. Last week had involved four performances, at which reviewers had been present on every night. The natural excitement and adrenalin had obviously impacted on my inner rhythm. For some reason, tonight as we recorded, I seemed to open out into the show, to take my time, to let moments breathe. And indeed, we ran at 75 minutes, whereas the usual running time for Tilly No-Body is about 72. I'll talk about stage time in another blog, but the strange thing here was the paradox of an empty auditorium and the sense that I could expand Tilly out into that space. It was really fun.

I had mistakenly thought that if anything went wrong, we'd be able to go back and re-record. As it is, that's not Joe's remit. Since the University recordings serve as educational resources, then nothing is edited: if something goes wrong, then that in itself serves as a useful learning experience for the viewer and the educator to comment on.

As it was, only two things went wrong: the champagne bottle failed to magically appear, and the follow-spot went off at a noticeable moment. Neither of these was hugely detrimental to the show, and fortunately I didn't stop to try and correct them, or that would have formed part of the final film. Which wouldn't have been that great for my purposes. Not only do I want this to be an educational resource, but I also want to be able to send it out to prospective venues, symposia, and conferences, for future tours. Not to mention my overwhelming desire to share the play with my parents back in the UK. My mother and father have been devoted supporters of my own and my siblings' work all our lives. Indeed, the three shows I've done here at UC Davis - Elephant's Graveyard, The Seagull and Tilly No-Body are the only three productions in my life to which my parents haven't been able to come. I suspect that's something of a disappointment on both sides of the pond.

Knowing, therefore, that the film was capturing the production forever and for various purposes, actually gave me less anxiety than I'd anticipated and, curiously, more presence. A paradox, but a pleasurable one. Joe has informed me that the film will be sent to UCTV, a service run from UC San Diego for all the UC system. He has also told me that hits can run into the millions! Well, that would be a treat and delight. But for the time being, just knowing my family can share this enormous journey with me will be satisfaction enough.