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Keeping warm in cold times: (PIN)

November 28, 2013

P1010782I’ve been traveling for much of the last few months. With only the occasional couple of days back home, I’ve been in Southern France, California, Greece, Crete (which I know is part of Greece, but is so very different), Vienna, Munich and Stockholm. Mainly I’ve been running workshops, though there has been some performing and company-development work in there.

….and so many conversations.

It’s one of the pleasures of traveling repeatedly to the same place – I  meet new people and have a chance to catch up with people I’ve been working with for years. It’s very much a community, though it’s a strange one, for those in it often feel isolated and alone and mostly they are connected only through me –  they have engaged in my work at some point, and are connected because they are part of the strange, shifting, indefinable world of performance.

I’ve wanted for a while to see if I can be part of bringing people from all over the place into some kind of more direct relationship with one another. Julia Varley of Odin Teatret wrote in ‘Encountering Ensemble’, the book I published this summer, about the role of networks in encouraging artists to grow and deepen their work. She wrote: ‘How can a young person today find a teacher or a situation that demands they go beyond the known limits….? Theatre groups have provided this context before and maybe a network does now.’ She should know – she’s been working in the same company for over half a century now as well as being at the heart of The Magdalene Project, a network for women in theatre.

Something I notice in these rich and continuing conversations is how the same strands recur. From Delhi to San Francisco, LA to Chania, Thessaloniki to Stockholm I hear artists – young, established and very senior – contemplating and exploring similar things; how to have a continuing practice, how to find time (and mental space) to do work that fuels artistic growth and personal development, how to hold on to the passion and joy that first caused us to become artists, how to be connected (to oneself, to others, to the world), how to feel alive, how to feel needed, how to be part of community.

Many of us feel lonely at times. This is partly because all artistic pursuits involve some level of loneliness and introspection, partly it’s a result DSC_4774dupof the economic climate. All of us are underfunded and many of us are unfunded. However much one disciplines ones mind, this feels like rejection and failure. We are often not wanted, or so it seems. An Artist (by which I mean someone who has chosen to commit her life and livelihood to artistic practice) is a specialist  – but a specialist whom everyone thinks they understand… After all any one can act, right? Anyone can dance, right? Anyone can sing, right? Well… yes…. but an Artist is someone who (as Julia Varley wrote) seeks to ‘go beyond the known limit’. We are specialists. Anyone can give health advice but a doctor is a specialist. Anyone can teach someone how to do something, but a teacher is a specialist.  As specialists we are not only part of the wider community (and frequently passionately involved in that wider community), we also need and yearn for community with fellow-specialists, people to whom we do not need to justify or explain the sometimes strange and arcane practices that each of us engages in as we try to stay alive…. (‘you mean you just put music on and make up some dancing….? I mean ANYONE can do that…..’).

Two such specialists with whom I have worked for a number years, are Swedish dancers Asa Astrom and Kerstin Abrahamsson. We’ve been saying for years that we should do something beyond the ‘John turns up and runs a workshop’ thing. We have done some sharing of practice, but usually it has involved me being in the role, at some level, of teacher. This year things changed. Wonderfully. We simply went into the studio and played. Then we invited some people to the studio and we (and a few others) performed while being watched.

Asa and Kerstin have been trying to get to the studio together regularly to improvise. Life often gets in the way, but they had discussed setting each other small improvisational assignments, so that even if they could not share a time and place, they could share experiences. Their ideas about shared assignments and my sense of the possibility of trans-national community merged. We decided to create the Performance Improvisation Network.

It’s a simple enough idea. I have set up a closed Facebook group – closed because I want people to opt-in and I don’t want the group taken over by someone trying to sell fake gucci handbags. Once there are enough members, we will start to post a regular weekly assignment. They will be simple improvisational tasks. They will give ideas and a structure to people who want to go to the studio but do not know what to do. They will help people who might want to dedicate a bit of time to ‘being an artist’ to have something to do during that time. They will be simple tasks you can do in a living room, a studio, a park… They are intended as a stimulus. If you cannot do them as we suggest (some might require a partner, but you are alone, some might require a large space, you live in a small flat and it’s raining outside….), then you are encouraged to adapt the assignment. There are no rules, only provocations.

They are intended to remind us that all over the world there are people like us – artists trying to survive both financially and spiritually. Literally, if you choose to do an assignment that we set, there will be people in other places at other times doing the same as you. Others will be doing the assignment differently, because all artists are unique, as all humans are unique.

That’s almost like a definition of community – all different, all connected.

We hope that, if someone is able to, they report back on how the assignment went. A couple of lines of reflection. A photograph. A poem. It would be nice to see – if I have played with some performance structure in my hotel room in Brisbane or Bangalore – how someone else in Mexico City or Milan responded to the same stimulus.

Perhaps people will connect with each other. Already I have seen two people connect – one in Melbourne with another in Athens. Perhaps they will meet one day. If not, then at least they can be in community. From these thin threads, we weave a blanket to keep ourselves warm in cold times.

We’ll see how it goes. We have committed to running the page for 6 months. Then we will review.

If you want to join, please do:


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