This post is not about handstands 🙂
It is about the process of making a performance and about the creative process that accompanies it.
– To give you a bit of context: I am making a new performance! It is going to be an outdoor show, I am aiming at 30 minutes length and the preliminary or “working” title is “Stones and Water”.
Previous to this performance I have made two full length shows, each one hour long. Both performances have toured in theaters and at outdoor theater festival. The first one was “Selfie with eggs” a solo show and the second one was “Natalie Inside Out” which digital artist Mark Morreaux and I made together. –
I wanted to share the process of making this new performance because the act of creating something new, from scratch, deserves a close up. We often have to create raw sketches of something radical and new: a vision for the future, a vision for our life, a new mental attitude. We have to venture into the unknown and start an education, a family, or a job. The act of reinventing life can be scary. From the vantage point of the present, the future seems chaotic. Navigating this task well is crucial to development and the artistic process is a prime example.
I want to make art, I know that much, but when I start to create I really haven’t got a clue what is going on and that is the point of it. So here I am on day 1 in an empty studio. I am in a total state of panic. Every doubt in the world torments me.
I am about to start my residency at Jacksons Lane theater in London to be continued at the Lyric theater in Bridport in Dorset. (An artistic residency means that a theater or arts organization gives you their space for free. This greatly helps with writing an arts council application to further fund your artistic activities, meaning that you can pay yourself a weekly salary for the time that you are spending creating a project. You can pay for materials, travel, accommodation and most importantly you can pay other professionals to help and inspire you, for example a choreographer, or set designer or an acting coach. The other good thing about a residence is that it takes you away from home, helps you to press pause on your normal life and provides framework for you to actually start making stuff.)
I had procrastinated until the last minute to even think about what I was going to do on day one in the studio. I had ordered a bunch of plastic sheets and tarpaulins, some acrylic glass sheets, shaving foam and food colouring. As a rough starting point I wanted to do something with those materials. I also knew I wanted to write texts, make handstand choreographies. I wanted to reflect on my life and my art and the times we live in, in order to find a suitable topic to base the new performance around.
You cannot work towards a creative goal in a structured way, as in having a plan and then ticking off all the stages to get to a desired result. At least, I cannot work like that. If you are too focused on quick results, you are only going to repeat yourself and not make anything new. In order to make something new you have to embrace the possibility that it might not be good, or interesting or novel. You need to face the possibility that you may not be able to come up with anything at all, in other words: that you may fail! Without accepting that failure may be one possible outcome, you will not create the void in your brain that allows something novel to fill the space. You are then more likely to create something that is very similar to what you have made before because that is “safe”. Without facing the blank canvas you don’t have the chance to create. That blank canvas is mighty scary and frightening! So you need to find ways to distract yourself from the task at hand.
You cannot work towards a creative goal in a structured way but you can structure you exploration time. You can set yourself games and tasks. My morning task would for example be:
- Make five arrangements with the plastic sheets and take a picture of them. Then name the pictures.
- Give each of the plastic sheets a name and write a three sentence description for that sheet as if it was a person, taking into account its unique qualities.
- Write a page of something based on the word “plastic”, anything is valid as long as words are on the page, meaning it does not need to make sense.
I also like to set daily tasks for myself. For example:
- Write down ten questions, any type of question. They don’t need to be about the piece.
- Get distracted by a random thing that really fascinates you and get lost on Pinterest or Wikipedia.
In the afternoons of my residency time I do a proper physical warm-up and practice handstands. I play the funnest music and try to move to it in a handstand. My guideline for the afternoons is that I do not have to be original. This is a good way to remember the things I am naturally good at, which may not be original but they are the foundation of my work. It is important to remember that when you are trying to make something original not every single part of it has to be truly novel. I don’t have to reinvent myself entirely, I only have to make a new performance. I am still Natalie the handbalancer who is doing the performance. When you try to radically change it is useful to know which parts are not going to change as they form the core of what you are doing.
During my creative tasks I frequently get confused, I get stuck, I have doubts or I don’t know what to do next. I then listen to whale singing on YouTube. This somehow helps me through the confusion and then eventually I come up with something. This is a trick I learned from my friends at Collectif and then. For a good week I continue in this way. I try to give myself tasks that distract me enough from the goal of making interesting art. Which is when I start to explore with an open minded curiosity. During this first week I listen to whale sounds a lot!
At some point my initial panic subsides and I start to remember that I am good at this: when I explore with an open mind I quickly stumble upon things that interest me and that I want to change into something more striking, or essential, or vivid. This is why I am an artist. I am fascinated by arrangements of movements, words, spaces and situations that create a feeling or an experience in a spectator. This is my trade: I assemble symbols, situations and actions in unusual ways. Thinking about these assemblies and arrangements and what emotions and thoughts they might cause fascinates me. An idea for a scene, a piece of music, or a text fragment can haunt me for years. It will keep popping into my mind and I will wonder what it is about and what it means to me. My mind won’t rest until I found out what it means to me and that is why I want and need to make these performances.
When your art becomes your profession, it stops just being about you and your thoughts though. There is an art industry around you. You need to make things that tour or sell. You get confronted with opinion and judgment. Your friends, teachers and parents all have something to say about what you made. The pressure to succeed (whatever that means) starts to make it very difficult to make any kind of art at all. What you used to do quite intuitively, becomes laden with heaviness, fear and worry. The hardest thing for me in my entire career in the arts is to silence the voices in my head, the expectations, including my own, of what anything is or needs to be. I find this harder than making the performance itself. The harder I strive towards any notion of “success”, the harder I try to grab it, the less likely I am to achieve anything.
As I continue to work in my residency and the days pass with me trying to keep a daily rhythm of creation time and handstand practice my mind wanders in many directions. I think about what brought me here, how and why I started to be a performer and I think about the previous performance that I have made. Gradually this continuous dialogue with myself in an empty room crystallizes around the themes that really matter to me on stage: control and loss of control, biographical stories, making a big mess that contrasts with the perfection of the handstands and giving the audience a “behind the scenes” view of a circus performer. I “stumble” upon things, I don’t know if I blindly found them or if the imaginative part of my brain let loose has conquered this new territory. It does not feel like I am working because I cannot see any structure or pattern. For sure it is exhausting though.
At the end of two and a half weeks I have written a dozen texts and made 5 scenes with the plastic sheets and handstands. I filmed a long improvisation session in Bridport where at 10pm one day I decided it was the right time to make a gigantic mess with shaving foam in the quiet and dimly lit beautiful old theater. On the video I am throwing myself around in the foam, sliding and falling and laughing like a kid.
I eventually remember what I forget every time I make a new thing: When you start to make a new thing you don’t know what the thing is just yet. You need to venture into the uncertain. Then when I made the new thing it becomes such a sure item in my artistic repertoire that I forget about how once upon a time this thing was unknown to me. Like for example robotic movement in a handstand or that I talk about my body in a handstand. I discovered this once, it was brand new and exciting at the time. Today it feels like I have always done this, always known this material, but that is not true. Once upon a time I was in an empty room doing stuff and then I played this really glitchy electronic music and then I tried to do a handstand as glitchy as the music. Then I looked at the video and thought “Wow, this looks great, it looks like fast forwarded movement!”. That is how I discovered the glitchy handstand move.
I need to remind myself of this.
Everything I am doing now has once been discovered because I ventured into the uncertain.
I need to keep stepping into the unknown in order to evolve and move forward in my art and also in my life. It is terrifying and rewarding and it takes courage.
“Stones and Water” is supported by Arts Council England, Jacksons Lane theater London and The Lyric theatre Bridport.