Sunday, 23 June 2013

On getting creative...

I have a theory.  Well, it's not so much a theory as a commonly accepted idea.  The idea is this: we all start off as creative children.  But as we grow up, our creativity is slowly beaten out of us.  We are told what is right and what is wrong.  What is normal and what is weird.  What is tasteful and what is trashy.  What is acceptable and what is embarrassing.  We are hit over the head, consistently and brutally, with these rules and conventions.  Slowly they begin to seep into our subconscious, until we know no other way to function.  We follow the rules we have been taught.  We do not act until authority tells us how to act.

I do not believe this is simply something that adults do to us.  I believe we do it to each other as well.  As we reach adolescence, we develop ideas about "cool" and "uncool".  Peer pressure becomes a tyrannical force.  Our freedom of expression is suddenly inhibited by a painful self-consciousness.

I was a creative child.  I loved to paint, write poetry, sing, tell stories.  I remember the sense of pride and satisfaction I used to feel about each of my creations.  The way I used to read aloud in class with dramatic expression, making funny voices for each of the characters.  I was fearless and free.  And then adolescence set in.

Suddenly, I was aware of being judged.  By teachers' grades, yes, but also by other kids' opinions.  I realised that what I was doing could be seen as "lame" or "uncool".  But it wasn't only that.  Every time I created something or performed to an audience, I was putting myself out there.  Not just my creation or my performance, but my entire self.  Like a prisoner in the lions' den, I was exposing every inch of myself to a potentially vicious attack.  I will never forget a time, in sixth grade, when I told some classmates I would be performing in the talent show.  I was excited to sing in front of an audience, but all they could see was an overweight eleven-year-old inviting their judgement.  "YOU're going in the talent show?" they said, "what are you going to do, EAT??"

"You're not an artist, you're just a fat kid!"
These are the kinds of put-downs we all experience growing up.  And we come out of it feeling closed-up and afraid.  Cowering in the corner, following the rules, keeping our thoughts safely within the box.  This is how we lose our creativity.

I'm painting a pretty bleak picture here, and of course it's not that bad.  Not everyone puts us down and stifles our creativity.  There are the good friends who encourage us to be artists, and there are the good teachers who nurture our sense of innovation.  But for the most part, I really do believe that we lose our creativity as we grow up.  And many of us spend our entire adulthood trying to get it back.

Last week I had an audition for a contemporary music theatre project.  So far so good - I've performed lots of contemporary music, and I'm no stranger to atonality and extended technique.  The problem was, they wanted me to improvise in the audition.

Now, I haven't improvised anything since high school jazz choir.  Amongst my peers, I was often the only one brave enough to try my hand at scatting.  Well, I say I was brave, but in fact I was always terrified.  I have very clear memories of standing onstage, my mic trembling in my hand, my face turning a deep shade of magenta, as I came up with some random syllables on notes that fit with the rhythm and the bass line.

"Scoobidy-bop... bee-dop.. dah??"
But this was something completely different.  There would be no rhythm or bass line in the audition.  They wanted me to make something up on the spot, all by myself!  And there were no rules or structure to guide me.  I could do anything, absolutely anything.  The canvas was completely blank - a terrifying prospect.

Luckily, I had a friend at the opera studio who was more than willing to help.  Alexey is a baritone who has done several workshops and masterclasses in improvisation, and he's an enthusiastic devotee of contemporary music.  He agreed to meet with me every day to help me learn how to improvise.

We began slowly, improvising together in simple games and exercises.  At first we tried humming the same note and taking turns to change pitch.  Then we tried repeating a cycle of notes, called a "loop" and taking turns to improvise over the loop.  This felt similar to the type of improvisation I had done in jazz choir.  Gradually we did more challenging exercises together and began to really communicate, responding to each other's melodic ideas and harmonic shifts.  It was a great exercise in listening.  After a while we could almost anticipate what the other person might do next.

But now it was time to take off the training wheels...

Now I had to learn to improvise alone, without the influence of another musician's ideas.  Again, I found myself overwhelmed by the idea of the blank canvas.  It was too much freedom to handle and I found myself freezing up.  Knowing that I could do everything, I did nothing.

I was also held back by self-consciousness.  I'm only accustomed to performing alone when there is a score to follow.  I can feel confident in this situation because I've prepared the music.  But there is no way to prepare for improvisation.  You have to perform freely, in the moment.  There is no composer to hide behind - it's just you and your instrument.

I told Alexey that it felt like there were two sides of myself fighting each other.  There was this crazy creative side who wanted to be free - and there was this strict, shy side that wanted to play by the rules.  He suggested that I could do an improvisation about this conflict.  So I began singing, and I introduced two musical ideas: one rigid, timid and rhythmical, the other crazy, impulsive and free.  I alternated between the two, envisioning a confrontation and a battle.  Finally, the music became more fluent and colourful.  I let the creative side win.

As we worked, I realised that I found it easier to improvise if I had an image or a story in mind to guide me.  So I tried "painting" other pictures with my voice.  Once, I improvised the story of a cat I always see outside my window.  This cat likes to stare at me from the neighbours' roof.  Sometimes I try to be friendly and wave hello to him.  But being cautious, as most cats are, he hides.  Then he slowly comes back, peering at me suspiciously...

I'm not sure about you...
Eventually I became bolder in my improvisation and began to take more risks.  Alexey encouraged me to explore thousands of sounds and effects.  He pushed me to try out as many different ideas as possible.  We played a game where every time he clapped his hands, I had to change to a different idea.  It was really hard, but it definitely helped me to keep the creative juices flowing.  The aim was to sing freely and intuitively, not to overthink anything.  If I stayed for too long on one musical idea, I might start thinking too much and get stuck.

By the time I arrived at my audition, I felt I had opened up a lot.  I had made all kinds of crazy sounds in the practice room, and I felt confident that I could improvise something interesting in front of the audition panel.  But an audition room is very different from a practice room, and it's always hard to perform under pressure.  When it came down to it, I didn't go nearly as far with my improvisation as I had in my practice sessions over the last few days.  I came up with a melody or two, I experimented a bit with vibrato and vowels, but overall I played it pretty safe.  Afterwards, I was disappointed in myself.  I couldn't stop thinking of interesting things which I could have done in the improvisation, and which I hadn't.  I was sure my improvisation had been really boring.  I walked home feeling like this...

*sad Charlie Brown music*
But the funny thing is, those interesting ideas kept coming to me.  It was like I had opened the floodgates, and now I couldn't stop creating.  I found myself coming up with little ditties in my head all the time.  Some were silly, some were annoying, and some were kind of good.  The difference was that I had stopped blocking myself.  I no longer worried so much about how good or bad my ideas might be.  I just let them flow.

In time, I realised that I was being far too hard on myself about the audition.  It didn't matter how well or badly I had improvised for the panel - the fact was that I had done it!  Before I did all that work with Alexey, I probably would have been too scared to improvise anything at all.  Now I was brave enough to create something in front of an audience and not worry about looking stupid.  For someone who always worries about looking stupid, that was a pretty big step to take.

We are all born creative, and then we learn to judge and fear.  But our creativity never leaves us completely.  It's still there, waiting in the corner, hoping to coaxed out and brought back to life.  So stop listening to those teachers who want you to conform.  Stop listening to those kids who tease you for being different.  Let yourself go and rediscover your creativity.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Being Romy: Ich bin so müde...

And just like that, it's all over.  After six weeks of rehearsals and four performances, it's time to say goodbye to Romy Schneider.

The last few weeks have flashed by in a blur.  As we got closer to opening night, I did a lot of last-minute research.  I spent hours with Romy's diaries and a German-English dictionary.  I read about her break-up with Alain Delon, her break-through with the director Luchino Visconti, her tireless filming schedules.  I watched more films, including Orson Wells' The Trial and the four-hour epic Ludwig - in which Romy played a very different kind of Empress Sissi under Visconti's direction.  The closer we got to the first performance, the more desperately I tried to get inside Romy's head and understand her completely.

Romy playing Empress Elisabeth of Austria ("Sissi") in Ludwig, 1972
We worked hard in the run-up to the shows, and we also had a lot of fun.  I was VERY excited about the costumes - maybe it's because I watch too much Mad Men, or I spend too much time browsing vintage stores, but I just loooove this kind of thing.  The day I saw my 60s housewife dress, I literally screamed.  The day the hairstylist arrived with her hairspray and rollers - well, I practically had an embolism.  From the rollers to the petticoats to the liquid eyeliner, I loved getting dressed up as Yellow Romy.  It was basically my idea of fashion heaven.

I mmmmay have started wearing a lot of headbands after this production...
Personally, my favourite part of the show was a strong idea introduced by the director.  Inspired by one of Green Romy's lines in the third act - "Je ne veux plus faire de l'art, je veux faire de la confiture" - the director decided that I would have a bowl of strawberries.  As I was playing the role of the perfect housewife and telling the press how happy I was in my marriage, I would slowly begin to take strawberries and crush them on the table.

There was a lot of discussion about what the strawberries symbolised.  Some people said the strawberries were life.  Others said that they were love.  For me, the strawberries expressed the truth.  Crushing the strawberries gave me a physical outlet for my feelings of anger and frustration: while I smiled and sang about the virtues of domestic life, my hands were telling the real story.

Also, FYI, squishing strawberries is a lot of fun.  Seriously, you should try it sometime.
The strawberries made an enormous mess, and, as the audience remarked, they also had a powerful smell.  Not necessarily unpleasant, just... very fragrant.  I don't think I'll ever be able to see strawberries the same way after this opera.  I squished them in my hands, I smeared them onto people's clothes, I danced on them, and I even fell on top of them.  By the end of the show I was completely covered in pink mush.  Many damp towels were needed.  I did not envy the costume lady, who was in charge of getting rid of the stains in my clothes every night.

So... many... strawberries...
As I mentioned in my last post, by the end of the show I was not only covered in strawberries, but I was also half naked.  At the end of the second act, I had to drink lots of liquor (ice tea, actually) and dance around like crazy while people stripped me - all of this while singing.  I don't have any pictures of myself in my underwear at the end of the show (probably for the best, really).  But I can say that for me it was a powerful moment in the show.  I had begun the performance looking composed, with perfect hair and makeup and a prim and proper-looking dress.  To lose control like this and get stripped down - both literally and emotionally - was an enormous transformation.  Especially for me - I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I'm a bit of a control freak.

Losing control at the end of Act 2
Now it's all over, and I have never had a worse case of the post-show blues.  I feel exhausted, drained, empty.  There's a dull kind of lingering sadness.  I don't want to do anything.  I struggle to get out of bed.  I can't think straight.  I do stupid things, like scanning a whole load of groceries at the cash register before realising I've left my wallet at home.

If you're not familiar with this phenomenon, I should say that the post-show blues is a pretty common affliction.  It happens to a lot of people, albeit not always to this extent.  I guess it's a combination of exhaustion and grief.  You put all of your adrenaline and stress into one project - and then you crash.  You dedicate yourself to a show completely - and suddenly it's gone.  There's a big empty space where it used to be.

This is pretty much how I've been feeling all week.

Luckily, I have new projects to focus on.  And it's a good thing too.  If I wasn't motivated to learn all this new music, right now I would probably still be in bed eating Nutella with a spoon.

As it is, I'm now trying to get back into a normal sleep schedule (staying up until 2 and sleeping in until 12 is no longer acceptable), and trying to get my energy up again with lots of exercise and healthy food.  And I'm taking it all in.  It's been a week since we finished the show, and it's only now that I'm beginning to see the whole picture.  It's only now that I'm able to take a step back and reflect on everything I've learned.

Tree... tree... tree... Oh wait, it's a forest.
Perhaps the reason I'm taking so long to process this, perhaps the reason I've been feeling so much sadness, is that I'm not only saying goodbye to an opera.  I'm saying goodbye to a person.  A person with whom I've become very intimate in the past two months.  When I first heard that we would be doing an opera about Romy Schneider, I didn't think much about it at all.  I didn't know who she was, and I didn't think it really mattered to me.  After all, as a mezzo I was certain I would only get a minor role in the opera - a reporter, a friend, or maybe the mother if I was lucky.  But from the moment I was cast to play Romy, I resolved to learn as much about her as possible.  I immersed myself in her world, reading her diaries and letters, watching her films and interviews.  I had never been so fully involved in a role before.  It was a life-changing experience.

How can I put into words everything that I have learned from Romy?  In many ways she was like me, in many ways she was completely unlike me.  And in many ways she was everything that I aspire to be.  Romy always lived in the moment - something which, as a chronic worrier and overthinker, I hardly ever manage to do.  This was what made Romy such a powerful actress.  Whatever she was feeling or being in that moment, she would throw herself into it completely.  It's easy to see this from her diaries.  Every time she started a new film she would say "this is the best film I have ever done", or "this is the best character I have ever played", or "this is the best director I have ever worked with".  And for her, in that moment, it was.  There was no past or future for her - there was only the present.

When I watch Romy in her films - especially her later ones - I get the feeling that she is not acting or playing a role.  She is being the role.  Every emotion, every bit of text, is completely genuine.  This, to me, is what true acting should be.

Romy in L'important c'est d'aimer, 1975
Actually, I think my extreme case of post-show blues is a good sign.  It shows that I am mourning the end of something truly significant.  I wouldn't be this exhausted if I hadn't thrown myself into the project so fully and recklessly.  Normally I play it safe.  Normally I hold something back.  I'm too afraid to dive in completely, to go all the way.  But with this role, I stopped protecting myself.  I let go.  I allowed myself to get lost in a character, in a feeling, in a moment.

Channeling Romy's intensity onstage.
This is what I have learned from Romy Schneider - to stop thinking, stop controlling, stop doubting, and just be.   It's an invaluable lesson for an actress, and one which I hope I'll never forget.  Romy had a short life, a life full of mistakes and achievements, successes and failures, joys and tragedies.  She may have died young, but you could never say that she didn't live wholly.  Thirty years after her death, there is still so much to be learned from her passion and commitment in everything she did.

As I say goodbye to this opera and to the actress who inspired it, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity this project gave me to grow as an actress and a singer.  I will never forget the experience of playing Romy Schneider onstage.  And I will never forget what Romy taught me: to give myself - my entire self, and nothing less.

All production photos courtesy of Emilie Lauwers