Children, theatre, death and climate change

I recently went to see The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, an award-winning one-man children’s show that blends puppetry, multimedia, animation, technology, projection, and live and recorded music.

Alvin Sputnik tells the tale of one man’s journey to save a post-apocalyptic world in which rising sea levels have killed billions of people, Those who are left live in a sort of uber-Venice, where farms perch precariously on top of skyscrapers and their inhabitants sit on their verandas and fish the seas all day long. Scientists have tried everything to ‘save’ the earth: floating islands (sank), space-probing the universe for inhabitable planets (we are alone), giant sponges (rotting), chemically altering sea salt (epic fail). In a last effort they believe there may be a ‘second earth’ inside the earth’s core, an idea reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The scientists recruit crusaders to journey into the sea and activate a volcanic eruption that they believe will force the second earth to the surface.

“Many of you will die,” the brave crusaders are told by their Commander; “In fact, you will all probably die, but that is a risk I am willing to take.”

Alvin signs up as a crusader, so that he may swim in search of the soul of his dead wife, which, represented by a bobbing light globe, has slipped into the sea and down into its depths, away from Alvin’s life.

Alvin Sputnik is cute and funny – a little foam ball atop of the puppeteer’s hand, with fingers for limbs. He can swim, walk, dance, hug, and even do the moonwalk – he is the perfect hero for a children’s show.

And yet, despite the charm of the central character, the issues this show is dealing with are profound, particularly given its status as a children’s show: climate change and the extinction of much of the world’s population, the death of a loved one, the continued living presence of a soul, the self-sacrifice of an individual, and lack of acceptance of death of a loved one.

One of the interesting things about attending artistic shows with children (and live theatre certainly has more resonance here than a pre-recorded film) is that they have not developed a ‘theatre-etiquette’ of behavioural rules while watching a show. As such, they often vocalise feelings and questions which most adult-going audience members internalise. Normally, I find vocalisation from audiences frustrating and distracting (self-entitling and self-righteous members of artistic institutions, complaining or doddering elderly, or too-cute children) but in this instance I was fascinated to see how much of the youthful audience (about one third of which was under the age of ten) responded to these themes.

I was particularly moved by a small boy sitting behind me – let’s call him Tom, for the sake of ease.

At one point Alvin rows from house to house, trying to find the scientist’s headquarters. Tom asks, “where is that”, to which his mother replies, “that is earth”. “What is earth?” “That’s where we live.” “Why is there so much water Mummy?” “It’s just pretend, honey.”

Although really, with the ever-present and increasingly-accepted reality of climate change, island states preparing for their eventual submersion, and the creation of new human rights laws to deal with environmental refugees, how much of this story really will be just pretend by the time these audience members have grown up?

Further questions arose from Tom as to why Alvin is crying, what the bobbing light is and how it relates to Alvin’s wife. The mother explains that the light is the soul of Alvin’s wife, but that although the soul continues to live, Alvin’s wife herself is really dead. “It’s just pretend,” the mother repeats.

Tom’s response perfectly captures way art can blur the boundaries between what is real, what is ‘pretend’, what is a depiction of what is real, and how to tell the difference between these, or indeed whether there even is a clearly defined difference.

How confusing would it be, at eight-odd years of age, to discriminate between an alive person, a dead person, and an alive soul; an earth where we live that is simultaneously a pretend version of where we live; and why you would accept to go on a mission in which you will probably die.

Probably, at eight years of age, many of these concepts are beyond one’s immediate comprehension. While I am no psychologist, I would hope that recollections from this performance would perhaps be stowed away for future grappling, or as reference points for the inevitable dawning realisation of the meaning and impacts of death.

There have been many studies and documentation about the role of entertainment to educate children about death, and in particular the reaction children have toward death in Disney movies. Certainly in my own experience I have vivid memories of crying profusely during Bambi at the point in which Bambi’s mother dies, and of the relevance it had for me in coming to understand that my own mother would one day die too. I remember that it was not the way that Bambi’s mother dies (spoiler: she is shot) that particularly got to me, but rather the very extended amount of time it takes Bambi to realise that his mother has been shot. He thinks his mother is also escaping with him, running just behind him, and is elated upon reaching a hiding place. When he turns around to share his excitement with his mother it seems an age before he finally comes to realise that his mother is dead.

While I was doing some research for this blog I re-watched this scene in Bambi, and his dawning realisation only lasts for a couple of minutes. Nonetheless, to me as a child the points of realisation appeared to take forever: the mix of excitement at reaching safety, of the expectation of sharing a feeling of happiness with your mother, the confusion at the absence of your mother, the excruciatingly slowly dawning awareness of what has happened, and that he must come to his own realisation without the guidance of another loved one. It was that slow and detailed process of Bambi’s realisation which really hit home on the reality of death and what kind of an impact losing your mother could have. In fact, from the research that I did it, Bambi and The Lion King are costantly referenced as the two hardest-hitting Disney shows for young audiences, and which seem to have most resonance for those in their twenties. All of which is to say, that entertainment and performance has a crucial role to play in educating children about the reality and inevitability of death.

While much of this post is a review of Alvin Sputnik, I particularly wanted to explore the importance of performances such as this for children: not only to understand the reality of death, but also its educative and preparatory value in exposing children to the reality of climate change, the changes that may happen to the planet, the ceasing of the earth as we know it, and the deaths which are likely to occur as a result of this change.

It seems to me that in a world in which the extent of climate change is still much debated, and in which at a political level the establishment of measures to mitigate climate change is glacially slow (pardon the pun), it is really in the arts and in performances such as this, particularly those which reach a young audience, in which education about and preparation for the reality of climate change is able to happen. This will hopefully make some difference to the way humanity develops response measures during this coming generation’s life-time.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is created and performed by Tim Watts. It is a Weeping Spoon Production, currently produced by the Perth Theatre Company.

http://www.weepingspoon.com/AlvinSputnik/Welcome.html

Presence

Presence: the fact or condition of being present

I’ve been thinking about presence quite a lot lately, for two purposes that are interconnected but from quite different perspectives; one psychological and philosophical and one in regards to performance. So I thought I would attempt to nut that out a little in words…

I have been seeing a psychologist about issues I have with anxiety, something that comes and goes in my life and which is occurring often at the moment. Anxiety is generally triggered for me by uncertainty, and much to my dismay I have learnt that I’m calmer when my life has a routine, so being a freelance puppeteer and sometimes not knowing where the money for my next rent payment is going to come from isn’t ideal… My psychologist has introduced me to the psychological theory of mindfulness, which uses techniques with roots in Buddhist meditation. There are many aspects to it, but a focus on ‘the present’ and ‘being present’ has piqued my interest in a way that connects elements of my art practice with my mental health.

A good definition I found is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who is an authority on how to use mindfulness techniques to address clinical psychological issues. He says that mindfulness is: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. For my own purposes mindfulness has been about trying to pay more attention and engage more fully with the present rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It is about observing what is going on in my mind and body, noting my thoughts and feelings as they happen but not trying to change them. I have been meditating as a one way to learn how to be mindful. At this stage I’m simply sitting for 10 minutes in the mornings and observing my breath going in and out, noting how it feels and what happens in my body as I breathe. Also noticing when my mind wanders and then bringing my focus back on to my breath. It is so simple, and sometimes so difficult! It is hard to be truly present because it is something we don’t do often in life. We spend so much time multi-tasking and letting our minds run away on us, it seems like the moments when we are fully aware of ourselves are few and far between.

And this is where the connection to presence in performance comes in. It is extraordinary how engaging it is to watch someone who is truly present on stage. A big part of being a performing artist training to achieve this state, and the history of this training is something that theatre theorist and director Eugenio Barba has spent much of his career researching. He wrote a book called the Paper Canoe, which talks a lot about the similarities in training between dance and theatre in many different cultures. He coined a term called the ‘pre-expressive state’, which I would call in more simple terms: stage presence. He observed that performers the world over train to be able to be present on stage, and this training always includes a focus on “certain physiological factors – weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space – produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically “decided”, “alive”, “believable” and manifest the performer’s “presence”, or scenic bios, attracting the spectator’s attention “before” any form of message is transmitted. (Odin Teatret)

In his book he gave an example of Japanese Noh theatre performers who learn how to perform with their weight shifted unnaturally to the balls of their feet. The effect of this is that the body is always full of energy and ready to (re)act at any moment, and it makes a performer interesting to watch because as an audience we feel like something is about to happen. You don’t want to take your eyes away in case you miss something. You could say the same about the position a sprinter might take before the gun goes, or a fencer’s light-footed dance before they strike.

For me the close relationship between the training I do as a performer, all those strange and obscure exercises that sometimes seem a little-self indulgent, and the mindfulness techniques I have recently been introduced to has been a revelation. I have gained a stronger understanding of why performing and rehearsing make me feel so good and calm, performance training is often time spent being mindful, being aware of my body and focusing carefully on very specific actions. Just like I do when I’m meditating. Mindfulness and performance both demand that I am truly present, and one of the best things about that is that there isn’t much room for being anxious when I’m focusing on my experience of the present. And the more I think about it the more I see sport in the same light. The best sports players have learnt to put themselves into ‘the zone’, which, just like stage presence, allows them to perform at very high levels. I’m sure that anyone who has played a team sport has experienced those sweet plays where it seems like everyone shares one mind and you barely have to communicate to pass the ball and get it in the goal. I have a hunch now that the euphoria afterwards comes in part from the exercise and in part from spending that time being present and aware.

If you want to read more about mindfulness check out: http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/mindfulness and this video

In My Language

In Lyall Bay this afternoon, over cups of tea and dominoes, a bunch of  got talking about art and communication. Which lead to discussion about language and how much is communicated by the way things are said rather than what is said. I think we were talking about acting exercises where you repeat the same phrase with the stress on different parts of the phrase, thereby changing it’s entire meaning each time. Anyway… autism came up. And we remembered this video made by an autistic woman to try and explain her experience of the world.

When I watch it I can’t help but think that her direct communion with the physicality of life is something I look for when making theatre. Only it takes hours and hours of exercises and experimentation in order to “let go” enough to be able to do what she can so naturally. And then put that communication into a context that will make sense to an audience. There is something to effortlessly truthful about responding physically to your surroundings without the filter of language to change and reframe experience. I love the way dance can do that.

Royal de Luxe in Santiago

Royal de Luxe make me believe in the magic. How inspiring…

They have recently taken their Little Giant to Santiago in Chile where she has a cult following. He uncle the Giant was there too. I saw her in 2005 in Nantes, France and can say that it was the most extraordinary performance I have ever seen.

Little Girl Giant (Pequeña Gigante) Santiago Chile

I can’t wait to see their show in Wellington in March. They are bringing their Revolt of the Mannequins show here. series of crazy stories played out in 10 different shops in downtown Wellington.

See: NZ International Arts Festival and Revolt of the Mannequins