2015 March: Galleri Fisk, Shyness and Performing

Now is the time to get writing my essay and writing my proposals. My essay, Galleri Fisk proposal and funding proposals all need to be done within the next month. There is the Mead Scholarship I am applying for (offered by UAL to outstanding proposals by 2nd years, with broad specifications as to the proposal itself). I am also applying, without any hope to receive it, for the Franklin Furnace fund, awarded to proposals for works of ‘major performance art in New York’, and I am applying for the Charlotte and Dennis Stevenson Award, hoping that it might go to supporting my upcoming trip to Norway.

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Live Improvised Storytelling for Classmates in the Studio

Recently I’ve begun to suffer from spontaneous episodes of acute shyness. It sounds ridiculous and that’s because it is, but according to my doctor, there appears to be a medical reason for it. Sometimes, when I talk to people, I suddenly feel unbearably embarrassed and shy, and there may be no apparent reason for it – this is a very recent development but it keeps happening. And it has made the prospect of performing my stories live even more difficult. Whatever qualms I had before about performing in front of people are now heightened with a greater sense of anxiety. What makes all this frustrating is that I love telling stories, I love being characters, and I love the idea of that dynamic between performer and audience. I want to be in a place where I am comfortable acting in front of people as I act in front of them mirror, and that sounds like a long way to go in terms of psychologically conditioning myself to handle certain situations.

I feel that it is not the case that I need to change something about my approach to my work, to better suit ‘me’. My shyness and fears (though I can’t understand where they are coming from) are getting in the way of what I feel is me, artistically. I have a strong feeling that if I were to miraculously remove those qualms, that telling stories in a performer-audience setting would be very natural to me, and that I might even be successful in ‘writing orally’ in front of others. The reason for this is that when I am comfortable, perhaps telling somebody a story one-on-one from my life, I become very animated and revel in that storytelling space where I can conjure up anything. I feel most at home telling stories like this. And they are retold differently every time. This interests me very much.

In my video performances my initial angle has always been to start from a fresh slate and think up a feeling, a person, an agenda, that results from notions that have long simmered in my observations of others. And I have enjoyed what has come out of this – stories were born: of a perpetually halving husband reduced to atoms, a village that monetises on its own destruction, and most recently, a lonely castle-dweller who becomes friends with a ghostly artificial intelligence that slinks elusively along the shadows of her basement walls. I seem to have a certain style, and by telling the stories, clear motifs arise and intrigue me. But they always remain half-baked. It is as if, while improvising, I am holding my breath trying to get through the narrative with convincing continuity, before I cut off at some acceptably conclusive point. I seem to be able to come up with an interesting framework quite spontaneously, but they remain suggestive, rather than weighty and considered. I think the answer to this concern of mine is to retell the story. A lot of writing is involved in retelling itself, and I can perhaps reach more complexity using a narrative where I have already set the basic foundations.

Somebody suggested I do this retelling in front of a couple of trusted friends, to give a crack at live performance. I thought this was a great idea, because performing in front of people seems to make the story real to the teller. If you are, as the storyteller, focused on the world and the logic of the story, focused on telling it right, then performing in front of people actually removes risk of self conscious behaviour. I know this from presentations I’ve had to do at school and uni, for assignments or crits. I have stage fright, but when the concern for telling the content correctly overrides the concern for how I appear, that fear is removed and I am absorbed in the content, the content becomes a reality for me.

This is the attitude I am relying on, to get me through enough sessions of public storytelling that it becomes somewhat normalised, so that live performance itself can become something of an arena for me to work in.

The studio T and I recently moved into at uni is a very pleasant space. I love working in there every day. But I also notice that people enjoy socialising with us in there. I think it could be a good space for holding little arty get-togethers. We could have a film night in there maybe. But I also thought I could hold storytellings in there, whenever I feel I have a story to practice. The idea is to make it a recurring little event in which I get to practice retelling and public speaking in front of familiar friends, and in which the audience can enjoy a 10 minute break and maybe some tea/biscuits while sitting on comfy cushions. Something pleasant like that. It admittedly took courage to ask even a couple of friends to listen to me tell a story. I feel so worried that I will forget everything and have nothing to say. I got a bunch of 5 to come to the studio, and I began retelling a story that I had come up with in a video a couple of days prior. I was alarmed at how nervous I actually was, even in this comfortable environment with people I see everyday. I had one of them film my performance.

I certainly don’t think I did a remarkable job. But at least it wasn’t disastrous. It hopefully marks the beginning of my moving my comfort zone towards the public. I need to tell this story, and all the others, at least ten times, so that it is almost like telling about something from my own past. Even the past, with its supposed fixed historical facts, is retold in infinitely diverse ways. Improvisation will remain core to my practice, it is the breath of life given the characters, because improvisation elicits from me exactly what I want to be in the moment. It encourages wholeheartedness.

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An attempt to chart out one of my improvised video stories. This mnemonic device turned out to be of no use to me, but it looks purposeful!

Certain words, or images, seem to pop out and interest me particularly. And I am trying to organise these images in a chronology, so that I can just talk around those images. The image of my husband as an unzipped jacket heaped on the ground for instance, or the idea that his situation embarasses me in front of the distressed local witnesses, stands out as ideas I enjoy saying and illustrating to listeners.

I took this timeline, and filmed a couple of takes of my retelling of this story. I am relatively pleased with the fluidity of the telling, but I am afraid that I am instinctively rigidifying the framework of the story, and becoming obsessed with remembering these keywords like lines, saying them at the right time. I think it is key for me to enjoy being the Widow. I cannot be distracted by my own performance. The difficulty of all of this is to really settle comfortably into she who tells this story.

So I tried to retreat from this timeline a little, and encourage entirely new notions to slip into my new takes, keeping that improvisation alive. I thought it might be useful to approach it by analysing the character herself. She is seductive, glamorous, yet has a certain vulnerability and oscillation in her voice. She is in fact shy and petite. She comes off a naïve housewife, whose attraction is innocence and modest appreciation for un-modest gifts (from her husband). Yet with this naïve air she talks quite articulately about quantum physics, matter-of-factly, relating the story of her husband’s passing away as if it were a cake recipe.

There is of course something disconcerting about her demeanour, which is rather ambivalent and even jolly. It is not so sinister that it suggests menace, or guilt on her part in her husband’s killing, but she speaks as if she is teaching us about a vice distanced from us by history, like old wars or extinctions of ancient species. Natural facts untainted by any emotional bias other than curiosity.

Perhaps musing around her general character will allow me entry into her ability to tell this story, while having a vague idea of the ‘timeline’ above. The costume will probably help. Making eye contact with the audience and imagining that they really need to understand precisely ‘what happened to me’. Realising the priority that accuracy of delivery has over my fears might help me overcome them.

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