Aims & Objectives
For more than forty five years I have been performing, directing and educating in the various theatre arts.
PERFORMANCE DYNAMICS presents a series of basic tools for students and professionals to further their understanding and practical use of developing their skills and awareness as visual communicators.
My goal is to equip participants with the necessary basics in group work and visual and aural ability:
-the idea of self learning as an approach to real learning – using experience and empirical understanding of it to grow as a performer
-the idea of sharing and support – the actor as healer for his contemporaries (as opposed to the norm of the showbiz world of elbowing one’s way to the front);
-the idea of caring for the audience that one plays for – the actor as healer for his public (especially in reference to clown with such diverse potential audiences as deaf, blind, handicapped, pensioners, very young children, prisoners etc);
-the idea of developing a deep connection and awareness to the environment one is performing in, both with subconscious awareness and actual participation – to reach real improvisation
-the idea of developing new neuron pathways in the brain to access wider possibilities in action and to crack the dreaded human/actor cliché of mechanical conditioning;
-the idea of understanding the concept of Ki and applying it to the actor’s world – using physical and mental fitness and finesse to apply that naturally to character work and ensemble work, whether it be theatre, film, circus arts or clown.
-the idea of contacting one’s inner child to provoke the joyous elements of play
-the idea of self healing, societal healing, planetary and cosmic healing to be applied by the actor to himself and all he comes into contact with.
- PERFORMANCE DYNAMICS
- THE SACRED AND THE UNSACRED
- STAND-UP COMEDY AND FALL DOWN COMEDY
- CLOWN & COMEDY FOR THE STREET
- SPECIAL ACTION WORKSHOP – THE CLOWN AS ACTIVIST
- PUSHING YOUR LIMITS
- COMEDY & CONFRONTATION
- PERSONAL PROGRAMS & REDEFINING THE SELF
Two main events in 1971 affected my approach to life. One was the I year stint as a teacher in a Scottish secondary school, the other was the reading of a book by Ivan Illich called DESCHOOLING SOCIETY.
I had left Edinburgh University with a social studies degree and had no idea about what to do in terms of a job. I had gone to University as the prospects of working afterwards seemed more secure. Certain of my contemporary school friends had gone to pursue courses in drama colleges in London and I had toyed with the idea but had opted for the ‘safer’ course.
Sitting in Edinburgh after graduating I was still unsure of what to do when another safe option veered me towards the world of teaching. A year later I was qualified and employed as an English teacher in a rough overcrowded school in Edinburgh. I soon became very disillusioned with the system of schools and the Ivan Illich book opened a whole new portal into another way of life.
Within a few months of reading Ivan Illich ( and writing a controversial critique of the book for an Edinburgh underground magazine) I had left what I had come to believe was an unjust and sterile system, had become an educational anarchist and had moved to London to find work in theatre. To change the world……
Some weeks later I was working with the best English experimental theatre company called Freehold in which I learnt the trade of lighting and touring organisation. I also worked at Oval House London, which was a rich and thriving experimental centre for new and varying style of groups with some of the most innovative directors in Britain at the time. (Pip Simmons, People Show – whose Mike Figgis became the famous film director – Incubus, Lindsay Kemp and Jeff Nuttall.)
I was invited to teach children’s games to problem-teenagers, and then later clown workshops to aspiring comedians. I had no idea what to teach as it was not my intention to be a clown – my idea was to present political and experimental work nearer the style of Grotowski. Every Tuesday I would go to the pub near the centre and after three pints of Guinness, I would have my special brand of teaching technique and exercises. This somewhat chaotic way of preparation soon became more structured as I worked on various other kinds of projects at the Oval House Theatre, and the confidence I was gaining from performing with my clown company SALAKTA BALLOON BAND in the various unlikely places in London and the UK. (children’s playgrounds, pensioners homes, hospitals, and for certain special projects like the Prison service and in the street.)
This period in London was rich for theatre. Local and national government provided moneys for small and large festivals to spring up all over the city. It was my performance learning school. At that time there were groups of clowns, musicians and theatre groups working in small communities and performing all over the city at numerous and beautifully naive street- festivals. My group SALAKTA BALLOON BAND was prominent for three years, working sometimes alongside another clown group called FRIENDS ROADSHOW led by an American hippy called Jango Edwards.
The group grew in stature in London and soon many projects were underway. It was in 1978 that another important event helped shape the focus and structure of my work. Warner Brothers had advertised for mimes and dancers to prepare pre-production on the film GRAYSTOKE. I went to the audition with Hollywood stardust in my eyes.
Forty of us got the job, but unfortunately only one of us went to Hollywood: it was not me! Later 20 of us were selected to finish the full distance of the training. The film was postponed and the training suddenly stopped, but what was left for me to salvage and use was a fantastic physical method for actors
I was also fortunate to accumulate a learning of a multi layered education from the various disciplines of the other participants who had come together from the various worlds of dance, tai-chi, gymnastics, acrobatics, aikido, Decroux mime, and circus arts.
In 1979 after about 5 years of learning how to deal and manipulate audiences who never expected theatre, I broke with SALAKTA and formed KABOODLE, a group more dedicated to physical theatre than clowning. However the elements of this group were firmly based in Grotowski mime and mixed with the modern version of clown which I had developed the years before. The first performance was a production of the Buddhist story MONKEY, which I directed for the Edinburgh festival where all those elements were used to create the magic of the imagery through the actor’s range of style. Scenography was a simple gymnastic horse and nothing more.
It was during the time of KABOODLE that another experience added another new dimension. Matt Mitler, the American mime, had studied with Grotowski for 6 months and on his return to the States he met KABOODLE on tour in Germany. His and our determination to go beyond limits as actors both physically and mentally brought us to work in various institutions for the mentally ‘sick’ and the ‘disabled’. Working up to 6 hours with patients who lacked faculties to see, hear or speak, sometimes at the same time, brought unbelievable emotions and feelings, created a series of unforgettable experiences and presented a whole spectrum of possibilities for communication.
(Matt now leads DZIECI, a group in New York who still sing and DO ‘hands-on’ with patients in hospitals as part of their work. In 2001 I performed with them, playing the role of Cardinal Richelieu/Satan in the Grotowski styled epic THE DEVILS OF LOUDON. One of the conditions of the group was that we had to also perform in various hospitals in the city before our residence at LA MAMA THEATRE began.)
That same year (1979) a certain lady arrived with great power in British politics, and much of the energy and light of the 70s disappeared overnight. Margaret Thatcher squashed many alternative and progressive projects by her demands that business and not government should support the arts and by the end of the year I had moved out of the country.
The Festival of Fools period in Amsterdam had started in 1975 and had grown like a wave across Europe. It soon spread through a Germany and Scandinavia hungry for new comedy and until the end of the 80s work in Europe for many clowns, fools and the like was abundant.
There was more money in Europe and therefore more opportunities to create festivals and special projects work and a workshop boom arrived with it. Workshop projects were springing up all over the continent from Stockholm to Rome, Amsterdam to Vienna.
As the need arose I realized such workshop groups were perfect try-outs for performance and so after each workshop I always took the students out into the street. An army of performers sometimes united by a theme or sometimes abstract.
Co-operating with EARTH CIRCUS of Sweden introduced me to another dimension in workshop processes – peace work. In 1982 in Aarhus a huge peace play was activated after 2 weeks of an intensive course with peace workers from all over Denmark. Cruise missile deployment in Europe was imminent and the peoples of the various NATO countries began to protest about the idea of armoury in their back garden. The play was a brilliant happening using the railway, and the main streets of Aarhus ( with police escorts !! ) and the city hall. Six months later across Denmark on the same day the same performance was staged in 80 places, each performance led by one of the participants in our course.
I was asked to do projects in Berlin at the Kunsthalle on Ferdinand Leger, and in the huge Prussian Exhibition in 1981. These were workshop based projects which explored the possibilities of performance in formal institutions like art galleries and museums where it was completely unexpected. (My group was actually banned for some days in the Prussian exhibition because we presented another view of the Prussian reality which criticised the glory portrayed in the content of the exhibition).
In 1992 in Barcelona I co- directed a group of animators in the Vila Olimpica with Tony Alba, famous now for his political impersonations on TV. This period was for 2 months working with the Olympics Games and Para-Olimpics Games.
Each day we were performing in the village for the athletes and volunteers. This for me was one of the highlights of group work. Amongst the performers were then-unkowns like Sergi Lopez, Loco Brusca, Leandre, Caroline Dream, Caspar…..and with a series of prepared animations the group accessed the absolute heights of leader-free improvisation. I don’t think I have witnessed such brilliant and fun and free natural-spontaneous group-improvisation ever. It was a joy to be a part of.
At the entrance to the athlete’s registration office we stood in lines (17 0f us) dressed as bell-hops, and welcomed the competitors as they arrived jet-lagged from their various countries. At times a large group would wait due to the bureaucratic delays involved. One day about 300 journey-weary Iranians sat waiting in the burning July sun, at first confused by what we were doing, then overjoyed by the comedy created. As athletes arrived over the weeks, they would tell of how they had seen us on their TV networks and how muchg they looked forward to the fun. Despite this animation being broadcast on every TV channel across the planet, I am sad to say that I have no video documentation of this event.
It was shortly after this that I met Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism which was to gradually began to focus more clearly my life’s work themes. I have practised this buddhism since the summer of 1993.
In the late nineties in Holland I formed a workshop performance team called JAB ( Johnny’s Action Brigade) and after a series of workshop courses, created a pool of performers which I could use in various formations. At four different occasions I directed JAB in projects for THE OEROL FESTIVAL on Terschelling Island, Holland. These were street and/or open-air stage-projects with intense group improvisation and audience confrontation. To see pictures of these events check out : HYPERLINK “http://johnny-melville.com/JAB.htm” http://johnny-melville.com/JAB.htm
OEROL FESTIVAL I directed a 45 minute movie called IT’S A WOMAN’S WORLD . This film used scripted material but also a lot of textual and physical improvisation between the actors and between actors and technicians and the public in the streets of the island. It will have its premiere at the OEROL FESTIVAL 2006 which is marked by a 25 years anniversary of the festival.
In the recent years I have been leading workshops in all across Europe and South America.
We learn to communicate with each other as kids with games. Games can be fun and at the same time a rough ride to reality depending on the need for control, power and dominance of the egos involved in the play. When games are used with adults there is a breaking down of the masks that people usually adopt for new meetings. It is also a chance for participants to relive the inner child and let him express the joy of fun again, and without the pain of control dramas. The ‘inner child’, a healing definition, can be translated also in theatrical terms as the person’s ‘clown’.
GEORGE ST. PROJECT GAMES
During the early 70s the George Street Project in Liverpool researched the concept of game as a healthy learning experience and new games were created. These were to try to combat the influence of the school ethic of competition and success by being designed to fuse the energies of members of groups in an equal, spontaneous way, with the accent on co-operation, support and group consciousness. This kind of experience opens up many new horizons for students and professionals as the games are set up as improvisations with some serious problems to solve. Such situational improvisations require concentration, care and attention as they can be dangerous to the participants. Some of these games put the participants in states of discomfort or with deprivation of one or more of the senses. Trust games also fall into this category. They are experiential ways of discovering how the body works without the full capacity of one’s senses – this experience can be invaluable when working with handicapped or psychiatric patients…. There is usually a process of realization and enlightenment for those at some point in the game, and the penny drops. The rewards can be very beneficial both for individual and group cohesiveness.
IMPROVISATION & SPONTANEITY
Peter Brook talks in his book THE OPEN SPACE about the deadness of theatre. Mechanical patterns in performance is one of the worst things to see on stage. It comes up repeatedly in workshops especially when categories are introduced, like for example …”lets do an improvisation” which will immediately spark a picture in the student’s/actor’s mind of how it should happen. I try as much as possible to keep categories away from the work to ensure that the mind is always being challenged to create new ways/new styles/new possibilities. There do exist a whole range of exercises created for the brain to be constantly inspired to lose the mechanical cliché. Joseph Chaikin the director of the OPEN THEATRE in New York came up with some very useful techniques to push the actor to new directions and more spontaneous action.
ACTION & REACTION
The most important element for me in theatre, especially working with comedy/ clown is the principle of reaction. The exactitude of timing, style, and meaning is vital. These virtues (which I believe are not really teachable, only demonstrable) with years of experience and the inner knowledge of ‘what is funny, what is tragic’ combine to create the great comic masters and actors, whether it be in movies or in a late show. I try to work with how far the emotional range can be expressed or to extract the student-actor’s willingness or bravery to expose his or her deeper/darker sides. This together with the qualities of the inner feelings translated to the outer mask of the actor- and the hiding of that inner feeling translated into the outer mask-, and the exploration of the actor into different parts of the body with such emotions as fear, anger, jealousy, ecstacy etc into new forms of expression which go beyond the cliché. For example how do you show jealousy with your back turned using only your left foot as an expression.
An essential aspect of the body and mind for all actors and musicians. Various exercises to attain differing feelings or emotions in the body. Gurdjieff in his search for the total consciousness of the body, studied and gathered a whole series of games and structured patterns of movement from secret rituals (for example the Dervishes) to learn how to push the individual to extend his limits of body awareness and ultimately mastery.
Peter Brook’s amazing work with actors centres on Gurdjieff principles – for example reciting a tragic Shakespeare text, while the right had plays a rhythm in 5/4 time, the left hand juggles two balls, and the legs perform the joy of winning 1 million dollars in the lottery.
FLUENCY & AWARENESS OF MOVEMENT – Aikido/ Tai chi / Chi gong
As I am not qualified to do so, I do not teach any of these arts as subjects in themselves but use basic movements, techniques and concepts to demonstrate to the actor the power of relaxation and breathing. They relate very specifically to archetypal rythms and frequencies of the planet on one hand, and provide certain insights into the use of KI (Japanese) or CHI (Chinese) and their relevance to the actor’s craft. It gives the student a chance to understand how to project energy whether it be voice or emotional power far beyond his apparent potential. To do this it behoves a looseness and relaxation in the body structure and breathing which is needed to perform the function required at optimum best. So instead of tension creating the movement or action, it is coming from relaxation through breath, which together gives more dynamic of the projection. Chi Gong is a useful tension finder in the body but it is strenuous and the student needs to enter quite an ordeal at times to attain any useful results. Those that do always enjoy some ridding of tension and/or emotional release. Aikido is fast and acrobatic, helps with falls and slapstick and works with the principle of the absent or present sword in the hand. It is therefore also a useful stage fighting technique. Tai Chi on the other hand is slow and grounded and gives the actor a chance to feel more meditative states and develope movement work like slow motion or statue work.
RELAXATION IN MOVEMENT- The Chimpanzee
After doing 12 weeks chimpanzee training for the Warner Brothers project in 1978, I discovered my all-round abilities as a performer had almost doubled in very subtle ways. It had grown in so deep working a full 8 hours a day, five days a week, improvising, participating in intensive warms ups of the various actors’ disciplines involved, watching films of Jane Goodall’s studies in the African Savannah, and playing with real chimp babies….I realized the benefits immediately to the actor, clown , dancer, whatever…..
The world of the chimpanzee is almost childlike, with a desperate need to be comforted from fear by being hugged, an innate joy of play, a keen sense of curiosity, but with the added
animal power of complete relaxation and enormous strength. A chimp can pull off a man’s arm with a simple tug and there are those still alive to prove it. The chimp’s ability to travel at astonishing speeds through the branches of tall trees is unparalleled in nature. To achieve this his evolution has led him to absolute relaxation in movement and he realizes perfect harmony of mind and body.
This is something which all of us performers need to consider : power and projection come only come from tension free beings. The way chimps roll around with their arms and legs like floppy woollen dolls is something that is almost impossible for us humans to manage but we can get very close to it with the right amount of training. This is of great benefit to clowns, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, musicians etc. Buster Keaton, the master of visual comedy does a brilliant chimp in
The chimp also holds some very important lessons in body language for the actor.
The palm of his hand for example is always faced to himself, making all his hand functions soft and gentle since it is the outside of the hand which contacts; his way to be with other chimps whether it be flea-searching or aggressive hitting always is with the back of the hand. This is a very helpful way for a clown approaching a nervous hospital patient or very young child – it is approach-friendly since it is no control grip and can bounce away gently if contact is still repelled. It is also very useful for stage fights or the like, as it is possible to hit hard with the back of the hand on someone’s back without any pain or injury.
Another excellent item for actors from the chimp repertoire is the ability they have to glimpse something in movement, apparently store the scene into their memory banks like a foto, then still can return without looking at whatever they have seen and take it by the hand . This is how they can swing through trees at such break-neck fashion. An actor can train himself to do this quite quickly to develop a kind of magic for stage-work or even more useful movie work, where he can judge his perspectives with a look and then easily pick up something like a glass of water without looking at it.