Category: “He Dreamed a Train”

Easter Sunday. A day of celebration. It is the first Sunday following a full moon after the March equinox…symbolic of rebirth and renewal…a celebration of the goddess of Spring…Easter to me is a day of reflection…of embracing what is to come even though in this minute I have no idea what that is.

In Sostrup garden there stands a crucifix...

In Sostrup garden there stands a crucifix…

Sitting in the old beautiful library on the first floor of Sostrup Castle I have been researching, preparing for an intense new creative development of EVE2, a play that had a brief season called EVE in 2012 in the delicious Sue Benner Theatre Metro Arts downtown Brisbane. EVE had a beautiful creative team with Leah Mercer in her usual role of director/devisor, Anna Molnar as Producer, Gabby Castle as Stage Manager (with Johnny Castle as ASM), Amy Ingram as Executive Producer and Stace Callaghan playing the role of Oscar, the storyteller, matched by Moshlo Shaw who played the musician/husband. Aaron Barton created a magical set and his partner Gen Trace designed the lighting while Travis Ash was sound designer. Daniel Evans was co-devisor as well as co-ordinator of the Independent Program at Metro Arts. Because of force of circumstance, the untimely death of Moshlo, we decided to return to Eve and do it differently, wedding some of the character of the Man in the third show of The Belonging Trilogy, “He Dreamed a Train” with Eve’s voice. This idea was an offer from Travis and when he suggested this I knew it was the right direction. Travis will now devise and play Musician/Storyteller/Man and Benjamin Knapton will direct/co-devise this new version with Freddy Komp and Nathan Sibthorpe creating visual magic. We have a decent task ahead of us these next ten days.

The library at Sostrup where I am working

The library at Sostrup where I am working

Being here, half way round the world in a town where I know one person apart from my partner Bill, provides an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be in relationship with the world. What it means to connect to others. What it means to live deeply. I see this residency as a pilgrimage of sorts.

So today my research focuses on what pilgrimages are for…I believe every artist is required to take a pilgrimage, not to achieve anything overtly, but simply to find the time to discover what they already know. A time to step out of my ordinary life in Brisbane, full of people and artists and homes and studios and rehearsals and plays and meetings and walks and galleries and…and…and…and to STOP. What is it that I long for? And if I understand this, then I will understand what it is that EVE2 longs for: in the original script she writes that she longs to be loved. But it is far more than that. She longs to belong though she does not express it in those terms. Yet.

My Muse accompanies...

My Muse accompanies…

David Whyte, the poet who writes about the soul’s journey talks about our ” longing to belong” and I think that this pilgrimage is the perfect occasion to discover what my longing is…I know I have a longing for story in order to belong. But is it more than that?

an image of EVE...always longing to belong

an image of EVE…always longing to belong

In my search, I came across this poem that sat well with me as I read it:

The Spirit of Longing
Tell me, men of learning, what is longing made from?
What cloth was put in it that it does not wear out with me?
Gold wears out, silver wears out, velvet wears out, silk wears out
Every ample garment wears out–yet longing does not wear out.
Great longing. Cruel longing is breaking my heart everyday
When I sleep most sound at night longing comes and wakes me

Excerpt from old Cymric (Welsh) poem
Cited in The Mist Filled Path by Frank MacEowen

If we see longing as a good thing, as a way of guiding us towards what is real, what is true, what is our calling, then I can hold it closer. And if I take on board what Phil Cousineau (http://www.philcousineau.net/_i_the_art_of_pilgrimage__the_seeker_s_guide_to_making_travel_sacred__i__18018.htm) suggests:

“The call to the sacred journey your secret heart longs for won’t come by expectation, will not arrive in a logical way. If you imagine that something is trying to call to you, try to practice stillness for a few minutes each day. Be still and quiet and you may be surprised what you start to hear”.

If I take this on board I listen, slow down. I reach for my phone less. I turn off my computer. I hear more. I change my posture: I am alert. Awake. Present. My two feet are planted on the ground. And I walk. For all creative thoughts can come from that step after step.

Sometimes its hard to step forward

Sometimes its hard to step forward

Phil Cousineau also quotes Bruce Chatwin. When I first arrived in Brisbane I worked on a piece of theatre directed by Doug Leonard and our primary texts were Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Eve Langley’s Pea Pickers…and here I am 26 years later still working through this material. Doug had a way of selecting the most potent texts and bringing them to life.

So Chatwin is quoted in Cousineau’s book:
“I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and the ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo); and that these trails much reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African Savannah, where the First Man opening his mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the opening stanza of the World Song “I AM”.

I AM

I AM

“I AM LONGING TO BELONG” is the cry for millions of people displaced, lost, or superficially surfing this thing called life. It’s as though many of us are caught up in a net not of our own making. We follow others rather than lead ourselves. And we do not know what our personal mythology is…that is what a pilgrimage can awaken…there is time to reflect on the stories, poems, journeys, relationships, dreams that make up our lives.

As I walk down the stairs in my house back in Brisbane I have written above the doorway in black “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin now. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”. We all know Goethe’s quote. We see it on people’s fridges, magnets, shop windows, gyms, bookshops. We see it, but do we take action? Do we begin what we dream? Some of us do and others of us put it off till it’s the right time, or the right place…I sit somewhere in between. I sometimes take action and other times I wait. I wait. I wait until I cannot wait anymore. I step out.

So I have stepped out. I am longing to belong in this new play, working title EVE2.

So I have stepped out. I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s “mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centres of life beyond the reach of the vocabularies of reason and coercion” (cited in The Mythic Path” (KIndle edition). I am here to rewrite my personal myth: to ‘weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story” (The Mythic Path). To create and re-create the map of belonging.

I am quoting David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner:

“A personal myth is a constellation of beliefs, feelings, images, and rules–operating largely outside of conscious awareness–that interprets sensations, constructs new explanations, and directs behaviour…your personal mythology is a lens that gives meaning to every situation you meet and determines what you will do in it. Personal myths speak to the broad concerns of identity (who am I?), (where am I going?), and purpose (why am I going there?)”.

“COMING HOME”

HOME…photo by Bev Jensen

HOME…photo by Bev Jensen

“Coming Home”, a performance that was described as beautiful, heart aching, whimsical and lighthearted has come to an end. Simon Tate, the head drama teacher at Queensland Academies of Creative Industries, where we were artists in residence, described it like this in his facebook post:

I’m just going to come out and say it – all my theatre friends should come and see Coming Home. I just love it so much I want to share it with people that will appreciate the storytelling, the simplicity and the empowerment of 21 young artists who are completely present – because they want to be, rather than because they are trying to prove something, or are suffering to be intense, or any other pretense. They just want to tell the stories they now own as a means of writing their own. Well played Margi Brown Ash – you can now fart, drop the mic and walk off stage to thunderous applause.

Simon Tate, FACEBOOK POST.

I love the irreverence that we all embraced while creating this show: we broke what rules we could break safely, we swore like troopers (just joking, Education Department), laughed, cried, yelled, danced and meditated. We reflected, we dreamed, we evoked the Muse of Theatre to come and visit us, we met and engaged with our Entelechy. Dr. Jean Houston, my mentor from Ashland, Oregon, teaches about how our entelechy can enrich our process: just as the oak tree is the acorn’s entelechy, our entelechy can be evoked to help us achieve our potential and possibility.

Six weeks of working in class time and two or three afternoons a week, we created a collage of texts from my The Belonging Trilogy, including Eve, HOME and He Dreamed a Train.

We adapted the performance so that 22 beautifully passionate 15 year olds could work the stage. They moved as one, stepping into role and stepping out again. We began with a list of scenes that the young folk really liked: we read the scripts and chose the scenes that resonated with us. The selected scenes did not dramaturgically belong next to each other, but our team (including Ben Knapton and Travis Ash) had faith that there was an underlining connector, all we had to do was wait for it to present itself. It took five weeks to find the path to re-map the core of all three plays. The core of the play, or the spine of the play finally became:

“How do we deal with, or how do we re-story long term grief and loss so that we can move on in our lives?”

Depressing theme for teenagers? Not in the least. The joyful exuberance that the young folk brought to the stage ensured that we did not tip into melancholy. The intense dramatics of the theme of death and dying also matched the drama that sat within these potent beautiful young actors.

I learn so much from young actors: they reminded me why I have stayed in the theatre profession for over 40 years. They reminded me of the importance of schools such as ‪Queensland Academy of Creative Industries (QACI), a performing arts senior high school that embraces creativity and accomplishment. They reminded me of the power of relationship. The power of story.

So after four performances, the show has closed. But there is big take-away. At the same time as we rehearsed the chosen scenes, we also learned processes to keep the actor safe and healthy. Why? Because acting is the only art form whereby the artists’ instrument is their body and their emotions. The brain does not distinguish between make believe and reality. Sadness is sadness. Anger is anger. The actor has to learn ways of de-roling after a show so that they can return to their world clear and lively, not weighed down the psychology of the character or the limitations of the world of the play.

How do we stay safe as performers? One way is embracing Relational Impulse Training (RIT). I devised the training a few years ago now (there is an article about RIT on this website www.4change.com.au ). This postmodern training is based on collaborative therapy principles, focusing on relationships, the space between, the multiplicity of selves and the multiplicity of stories. This is where the magic lies. We are relational beings and as such are altered by what is happening between and among each other. There is never just one story. There are multiple interpretations of everything that happens. For the young person to gain an understanding that their story is not necessarily THE truth, just A truth, will stand them in good stead.

The acting training also includes frameworks such as The Four Agreements, by Miguel Ruiz, four ways of being in the world:

THE FOUR AGREEMENTS BY MIGUEL RUIZ, ADAPTED FOR QACI YEAR 10:

1. Don’t take things personally: there are always multiple perspectives and multiple ways of interpreting.

2. Do not assume anything: stay curious, ask questions, stay alive to other interpretations outside of your own.

3. Use impeccable language: for us that meant we needed to be positive and affirmative when talking about others, always with the thought that they could overhear what we are saying and not get upset.

4. Always do our best and keep connected to the space between me and my fellow actor.

Simple principles that make a whole lot of sense… the actors leave the whole theatre making process with a deep understanding of self and others and how they fit into the scheme of things:

1. They leave with a knowledge of ritual and its importance within the creative cycle. They understand the creative cycle, the ebbs and flows, the ‘I am drowning/I am waving’ syndrome…one second it feels like you are drowning and the next second it feels like you are rejoicing, the highs and lows of the creative process…

2. They leave with a very fine experience of what it is to be an ensemble. That it is not all sweetness and light. That there are difficult times, difficult relationships, difficult decisions to be made. But, when the young actor looks into the eyes of her/his fellow ensemble member, they see themselves:

“I am only as strong as the smallest and frailest within the ensemble, so it is my responsibility, my duty to help my fellow actors achieve their potential”.

Only then will my ensemble thrive.

Our FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE team is hoping that this experience is the basis of a prototype which could be taken into senior schools as an Artist in Residence model, where the young folk choose the passages from The Belonging Trilogy and create a new story about grief, loss, re-dreaming their own stories and at the same time recognising their own resilience, joy, healing and friendship without the judgement that we so often witness in our culture.

The ensemble did thrive. They understood connectedness. They understood what it was like when they stepped out on their front foot, rather than leaning back waiting for things to happen. They understood the need to listen, to remain curious and to leave judgement at the door. To avoid what I label “car park gossip”, the talking about someone behind their back…a most damaging cultural practice that needs to be modified.

Here are some of the things that the ensemble wrote in “My Book of Myths” that they presented to me on our last evening together. It is a beautiful, handmade book and I will treasure it for a long time:

Photo of Book of Myths
My Book of Myths, created by Year 10 QACI

I have read my new, highly valued Book of Myths, beautiful personal stories about transformation, re-generation, learning and love and connection.

Here are just some extracts, the ones that will make sense in isolation.

Things our ensemble learned from the Coming Home experience. Sometimes I have changed pronouns so that it reads more easily:

1. “To believe in myself”
2. “To be generous with our performance”
3. “To be generous with our voice”
4. “We have so much potential, we are so much bigger than we thought we were, both on and off the stage”
5. “This experience has completely altered my existence and my views on everything”
6. Our ensemble is “stuck together with superglue, spirit and brilliance”.
7. “I made a promise to myself…that I would put all of my ideas forward so that I could grow as a theatre practitioner, and as a person, an individual”
8. “…permission to be alive and real in this space”
9. “Accepting constant change means it is far more difficult to hold onto the things that hold us back”
10. “I am a multi-faceted individual with tens of thousands of stories to tell”
11. “This is where I belong”
12. “The arrows are not what I thought they were, they are really seeds growing out of me”
13. “It was such a beautiful experience seeing everyone become a big and happy family and be able to show people our passion towards art”
14. “Car park gossip is damaging”

So another show closes, but the resonances and reflections continue on and on, because

Aren’t we are work in progress?
Aren’t we every story we’ve ever heard
Every place and time we’ve ever been
Every person we’ve ever met
Every myth we’ve ever dreamed

Our lives, my darlings, are huge
Who shall tell the stories
What stories shall we tell

(HOME, 2015).

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QACI students and MBA

I have had a very satisfying 5 weeks working with Year 10’s at Queensland Academies of Creative Industries (QACI), located at Kelvin Grove next to Queensland University of Technology (QUT). I was invited to work with Simon Tate and Stephen Matthais’ classes and create a scripted performance piece. I chose The Belonging Trilogy, a compilation of the three shows that I have written over the last five years: HOME, Eve and He Dreamed a Train. They have all had individual seasons at different theatres around Brisbane (La Boite, Queensland Theatre Company, Metro Arts, Brisbane Powerhouse and also The Blue Room (Perth). I believed that these plays formed the basis of a personal creative inquiry and what better way to test this hunch than to commit to 5 weeks of indwelling with 22 young artists. My job was to work out a process that would result in two things:
1. Personal and artistic growth for 22 Year 10 students
2. A succinct and powerful performance piece for the Brisbane
community.

I knew how important it was to “start where we are at”. So we did. We read the three scripts in one sitting. I introduced them to Relational Impulse Training (RIT), a training that I devised when working in the Drama department at QUT. Mark Radvan, artistic director of Imaginary Theatre, was a terrific supporter of the process and provided me opportunities to develop it within his company. Mark, who now heads up the Acting School at QUT, has gone on to do a doctorate about impulse training and its importance as a tool for creative performing. There is a link to Relational Impulse Training on this website.

Normally I start with stick work when working with a new and inexperienced group but I decided to return to the floor and allow the ideas to grow from stillness. We moved on the floor and began to wed Viewpoints with RIT. The QACI actors are very versed in Viewpoints. It is a pivotal part of their curriculum. We then introduced Body Voice, the name suggested by Stephen Matthais. It seemed to create an expectation that the voice does not just come from a breath but from the entire body: in other words the voice becomes embodied.

Time was of the essence. We took the pieces of the plays that resonated with the actors and we began to shape them, putting them together while working on the floor. We could see a pattern emerging. We had three mythological stories (The Myth of Er, The Selfish Giant and Queen Isis and Osiris). We had a handful of ‘domestic’ scenes, exploring daily life as well as ideas of identity and the concept of multiple selves.
The task was for the actors to go with what felt right. This meant that I did not ‘cast’ them as such, they actually cast themselves, which is the way I prefer to work. I believe the actor knows what role is right for them, even at this tender age.

How did it all come together?

I always choose collaboration over working alone. With like minded theatre makers, we can create something that can resonate with many. Benjamin Knapton, Associate Director at CIRCA and my key creative in “He Dreamed a Train” was my chosen collaborator. In Coming Home he has worked as provocateur, technical director, dramaturg and all round co-creator. We met at the FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE studio, Metro Arts, several times to create some sort of pattern, sticking the script on the walls, dividing the play up into three sections and building from there.

Some scenes that were dearly loved by the ensemble had to be cut. The actors learned the hard lesson that as theatre makers we serve the play rather than the actors within it. They were gracious, supportive and adaptable.

We are now about to do our first Dress Rehearsal. We meet this afternoon to bring together five weeks of solid work. The production is looking good. Ben, Simon, Stephen and myself…we are all excited about the way the ensemble has stepped up to embrace a contemporary, humanistic approach to theatre making. Yes, we had a script. No we did not have an order. We did not even understand, on a known level, what it was that we wanted to say. We had to wait, believing deeply that the core of the story would emerge when it was time.

And it did. One day, as we were working on the floor with the actors, it happened. Ben said something, I said something, Ben did something, I did something, the actors did something, and suddenly four weeks of work tumbled into shape. The story emerged. It had been there all along. We just could not see it.

Finally we convinced Travis Ash, who was co-creator for all three plays of the trilogy (writing/composing/performing as actor and musician), to join the ensemble as live musician. So we have lights, we have sound, we have surprises for the audience, we have 22 beautiful actor and we have a terrific crew (headed by Katie, Production Manager and Emma our Stage Manager).

So, once upon a time, a long long time ago and only yesterday there was a little boy and a little girl, Oscar and Eve…

PLAY IS THE THING, NOT SO MUCH ‘THE PLAY’, a reflection on theatre making and risk taking

Wedding the mythological with the domestic, Travis Ash portrays his version of The Myth of Er through the eyes of a 7 year old.

Wedding the mythological with the domestic, Travis Ash portrays his version of The Myth of Er through the eyes of a 7 year old.

Since early 2000’s Leah Mercer, based in Western Australia and I have been collaborators, working on show after show, writing, performing, producing, learning from each other. This last week she has been involved in The Directors Lab in Melbourne, including 9 directors from Western Australia and 0 directors based in Queensland.

I would have dearly loved to be there but I am working. Leah sent an article to all of us on FACEBOOK this morning and it has excited me: “Simon McBurney on devised theatre: its absolutely petrifying”, written by Dominic Cavendish. We learn more about the well established and well loved company Complicite and how their process incorporates writing, rehearsal, translataion, writing in this order. McBurney explains that usually the process is reversed in most theatre making: writing, rehearsal, performance, translation. In our company FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE and NEST ENSEMBLE it is a similar approach to Complicite: despite the fact that we may begin with a script, we end up with a lot of the writing happening at the end. Everything changes constantly. And that is why this process is ‘petrifying’ though I prefer the word ‘terrifyingly wonderful’. Petrify conjures up stuckness in my mind, rather than fluid terror.

What has really excited me in this article is a very simple explanation of process. I will quote the article so you get it straight:

“McBurney trained in Paris with Jacques Lecoq acquiring skills in clowning, mime and physical theatre and the ethos that “play” mattered more than “the play”.

Now this is what I have believed for over forty years. Play on stage is the most important element of theatre. The words come second. Now many practitioners would disagree with this statement. “Respect the writer they would insist”, seeing this as a lack of respect rather than an absolute respect of the fluid artform. One practitioner I have worked with for many years, Dr. Mark Radvan, who now heads the acting strand at QUT, embraces this idea of play big time, embracing impulse training as the foundational skill of the actor. Impulse work is all about relational play, first of all the relationship of cells within the artists body, then the relationship of the cells between the actors bodies on stage.

I deeply believe that the artform of the performer is to enliven and grow meaning in multiple ways, be it physically (on a cellular level), emotionally (not indulgent emotion but raw and deeply rooted), intellectually, spiritually. and most importantly: relationally… something that is rarely focused on…

Sometimes we get stuck in one of these rather than embracing all five aspects of what it is to be human….words are one thing. Life is another…and relationship is everything. The relationship among actors, their relationship to the set, their relationship to the audience, now that’s more interesting.

This all embracing relational philosophy is not so popular here in Oz (although there are some wonderful theatre makers who do embrace this including my latest experience with La Boite’s artistic director Todd MacDonald and “Prize Fighter” where he adopted a very fluid and impactful process) and it seems we are in good company overseas. Stella Adler, who I trained with many years ago seemed to uphold this way of being on stage although she worded it differently. As did my mentor Hayes Gordon, that great teacher who started The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney all those years ago.

Our artform as performers is to enliven, to awaken, to enthuse our audience. If we are awake, we can respond to hundreds of things going on in front of us…and at the same time play clean actions that are suggested by the script itself.

Most of all. Beyond all of this. Our job as performers is to inspire and after my immersion into Greek Mythology with the epic Dr. Jean Houston these last few weeks, I am well aware of the power that the mythic world can bring to the performer. We can inhabit our personal myth, wed it with the personal myth of the character we are playing and create an experience for our audience that is universal. And then there is the group myth: what is the group myth of the play?

The richness in this approach I think will give an epic dimension to the most domestic drama. Brisbane theatre wizz-kid (not so kid anymore), the generous and impactful Daniel Evans is great at embodying this in his work, wedding the universal and the domestic. It is what I aspire to do in all my work

“I will perform for you so that the extraordinariness of an ordinary life will be uncovered”
MBA in HOME, 2015.

Working at Queensland Academy of Creative Industries (QACI) with the year 10 drama students, collaboratively-directing them in a collaged version of The Belonging Trilogy (consisting of bits of Eve, HOME and He Dreamed a Train”) I am resonating big time with Robert LePage who, in the same article, describes his process as being like an explorer. He gathers his people and says:

“We are going to a new continent. How far is it? Are there monsters? I don’t know-all I know is there’s something there and I’m going to try and lead you there”.

This is certainly how I am feeling right now. We have large monsters, gods and goddesses. We have devils and angels. We have multiple worlds and multiple dimensions.

And we are all in the boat, but where we are going is stlll unclear. Benjamin Knapton joins us on Monday as we continue this path of adventure..Simon Tate and Stephen Matthias are also in this gloriously alive boat…or should I say train. a train without tracks…

“He Dreamed A Train”, a play about belonging: nominated Best Technical Design, Matilda Awards 2014

“It pushes the boundaries, creates a new kind of experience, a multi-media performance in which actors and technicians play with and off each other in a mind-blowing interdependency. Designer/director Benjamin Knapton juggles this kaleidoscope of form and function with firm control, never allowing the possibility of chaos, which is lurking in the background, to take over. For all its intricacy it’s a tightly disciplined production, with neither actors nor stage effects dominating the other”.