Sunday, January 2, 2011

Some thoughts on the workshop for "Hit the Mat"

So the day of the workshop arrived and what had been looking promising was beginning to look bleak. Two people who had promised to be there (including one with his girlfriend) got called for work, one got sick, several others, it turned out, had decided to go to Santa Con.

Fortunately two friends came through, and I called on another originally to hold the camera, but he wound up participating in the workshop as well. Then, while we were waiting for the workshop to begin, two separate people literally walked in off the street to find out more about East Coast United BJJ. Jojo Guarin, the owner, was not present, so after I gave them what little info I had about it and told them that he would be back later, I decided to tell them about the workshop and invited them to participate. They both agreed. And while Jojo wound up getting called away on family duty, he was good enough to call in Walter, one of the ECU black belts, to lead the BJJ instruction portion of the workshop.

Walter led the six of us, a group diverse in age, size, and experience, in basic instruction in forward and backward rolls, breakfalls to the front, back and side, and the basic positions of BJJ, as well as how to do a rear naked choke. We then took a short break and I asked him to show us the proper way to do a leg-sweep takedown. We adjusted the takedown to allow the “victims” to control their own fall by executing a breakfall.

After the group had gained familiarity with that move, I spoke a few words about what we were doing here. To me, theater is like BJJ in at least one way: it is about “position to submission.” In both you are trying to get your opponent or partner into a position to submit them to your will. Everything in a play is designed to set the audience up for the emotional climax. If they laugh when they are supposed to, cry when you want them to, and give you a standing ovation at the end, you know you have made them tap out.

So we got started. I began with an exercise known as the “grid.” It involves the performers walking in straight lines and right angles as if on a grid. When two people are about to bump into each other, they must make a choice to engage or avoid engagement my moving on the grid. With these directions, the workshoppers seemed to avoid contact. I then told them to make a choice of an attitude. They could be confident, insecure, aggressive, or even a dick, if they wanted to.

With this new direction, they began moving with more purpose, seeking out engagement. Then I said that when two people came in contact, they could choose to engage in a takedown, and that they would have the option of deciding between themselves as to who would be taken down.

Here is where things started getting interesting. The people’s individual personalities began to come out, frequently influenced by their level of skill. Some people were more aggressive, some were more passive. Some avoided contact. One of them made a point of using as many different modes of ambulation as possible. One of the fellows allowed himself to be taken down each time. I told him to take down the next person he saw, which he did. Then he turned around and someone else took him down.

In a later episode, that same guy got trapped against a wall by three others and went down without anyone touching him.

Next I said that everyone who was taken down would stay down. Soon all of those down ganged up on the one person left standing and took him down.

One of the attendees happened to have their grandfather with them. I placed him in the exercise as a “force of nature.” He was allowed to roam in any manner he wanted, while the others had to avoid him. When once again the scenario led to all but one on the ground against one standing, he was quite effective in interfering with the pursuit.

After all this was done and we took a short break, I lined everyone up and explored some very brief, very simple choreography.

This whole workshop helped me blow through some preconceptions. I had been thinking that the grid would be an exercise in exploring the relationships of bodies in time and space like a modern dance or movement study, and that any stories told with it would be silent and subtly dramatic. I discovered that watching people’s personalities, people simply being themselves, is incredibly entertaining and fun. It gave me the idea that the performers should let their individual personalities shine forth in this show far more than I had originally conceived. Exploring the relationships of the personalities may be even more interesting than simply exploring bodies in motion. In fact, the motion of the bodies can be the tool by which we discover the personalities.

And in the category of “well, duh,” having a group of people do unified precision choreography requires a group of people with skill and precision in the movement vocabulary of the choreography.

There have been further developments in the concept of “Hit the Mat” since the workshop. I will elaborate on them in my next post.

Video coming sooon.