Puppetry in Performance Masterclass: Reflection Journal by Hairi Cromo
This journal is penned by TFP Fellow Hairi Cromo. He is one third of TiTam Co., a space and theatrical designer, as well as a performer with background in Malay, urban and contemporary dance. With his eye for spatial analysis and deep love for movement of all genres, Hairi is on a continuous journey to expand his creativity and boundaries in movement art, dance theater and theatrical design.
This documentation is intended to be an open resource to share insights to the training process of a theatre performer and puppeteer. We would love to hear your thoughts, and can be reached at email@example.com.
I was very nervous but excited. I never thought in my life that I would attend an acting masterclass. I used to only observe practitioner friends during the process of their work. I would chat with them after
So for day 1, I was glad that we started out slow by sitting together in a round. We did a simple ice breaker by giving a short introduction. I’m bad at remembering names. And it took me a while to remember.
First lesson was about Neutrality and we did the neutral stance. It was very awkward for me to go into the neutral form. As the lesson progressed, it got harder and harder. Internally, we are constantly checking if every part of our body is executing the stance right. I feel like there was a mini-me running around like Mario. Constantly fixing and adjusting to the right settings.
Next, we did neutral walk. Walking around the space, keeping the neutral, and at the same analyzing our walk. It was a lot of fun for me because while doing the exercise, in my mind, I’m having multiple conversations – a part of me is thinking about how interesting the exercise is, another analyzing and adjusting my neutral form, and another keeping up to the different speeds of walking as instructed by Oliver, and yet another going back and forth between our habitual walk and the neutral walk.
Next, each of us has to pick 2 people to observe their habitual walk, analyze it and remember the way each person walks. As we go around the space, instructions were told to us to swap into the specific walks. Swapping around from neutral walk to my own walk and into the other 2 that I pick. Switching and analyzing. How does the walk make me feel? Which part of the body is leading the walk?
We would gather and share our thoughts and discovery after every exercise we did. I love this part of the workshop very much.
Everyone took turns sharing who they picked and shared their discoveries. I remembered one of the participants, Angel, shared her discovery when she observed my walk. I was surprised when she said that she felt a certain humbleness when she tried to recreate my walk. Never have I heard from someone who is imitating my walk would give them a sense of humbleness. I was touched by that observation and shall treasure it.
(When I reached the space, I set a goal for myself to remember the names of at least 4 of my classmates. So at least I will remember everyone’s name by end of the 1st week. )
So for day 2, we start the class by playing a game. The game had no name but I choose to call it “The Awareness game”.
The game was simple. 5 players with 5 chairs. 1 chair at each corner of the square and 1 chair in the middle. Each person will sit on 1 chair. The ones who sits at the corners are the “prey”. The person who sits in the middle is the “predator”.
The role of the prey is to try to swap places among each other. 1 point is rewarded for each successful swap between the prey. If all 4 preys managed to do a simultaneous swap, it will be an instant win for the preys.
The role of the predator is to capture the seat of the prey. To “remove” the predator, preys has to accumulate a certain number of points that is set before the game starts.
Once a prey is captured, the points accumulated will reset to zero and the prey whose seat was taken will become the new predator.
Here is the catch:
- Preys aren’t allow to give direct signals to each other when doing a swap. i.e. No eye signals or hand gesture. It’s all about opening up our awareness and reacting to the situation.
- Once you leave your seat, you can’t go back to your chair, and you will lose your role and become the “predator”.
- Predators don’t have to sit all the time but both hands must be in contact with the chair.
AND SO… LET THE GAME BEGIN!!
All of us took turns becoming the prey and predator. So many rounds were played and so many strategies were used in the game. It was so much fun and it reminds me of another game I played that is similar. It was called “Space Invaders”, where similarly the predator role has to capture an empty space.
It was quite a good game for us to play to break the ice further between us. We got more comfortable and friendly with each other. More pockets of opportunity to talk to each other were presented.
Next, we when back to neutrality. What was different from Day 1 is that we had to pick 2 different people to observe, and then to exaggerate the walk to the point it was so difficult to walk.
After the activity, we gathered and discussed our discoveries. I shared that when I was imitating one of my classmates, it was quite a struggle as the way she distributed her weight as she walked was different from mine and this requires additional effort to replicate that.
I felt discomfort while exaggerating her walk, so much so that the pain and emotions that followed triggered a memory, a memory of my pain when I had a back injury. I could relate to her, the discomfort and pain we have waking up from a sore lower back.
The next exercise we did was to set certain conditions for our neutral walk.
1st condition: To walk through water
The water level started from the ankle, the knees, waist, and chest and lastly fully submerged. While walking, we had to keep a constant speed and also how do we hide the emotions during the neutral walk.
2nd condition: To walk through muddy water
It was tough to hold on to the fiction that we are moving through muddy water.
I discovered at one point that I was not able to hide my emotion. Because I did not realise that my left hand was half-clenching. Oliver said that was fine. And it is interesting to see that. Then the audience will be engaged and see calmness from me but my hands are half clenched. Why is the character behaving that way? What emotion is he /she feeling?
I asked if depth could be another condition, for example falling into the deep sea. He asked if this fiction will give a physical or psychological condition, and that what matters is that we pick which condition is best suited for the role.
Another thing that stuck with me is when Oliver shared about neutrality
“There is an ideal option, but we follow our habit or emotion”.
“Once we know what is neutral, whatever else is a choice or can be chosen”.
I felt some gears in my brain start to move and work. To me, what he said was something not only on neutrality for actors but more than that. It felt like a certain sense of revelation.
The first exercise we did was body part isolation led by Oliver. From head to toe, we tried to isolate body parts or joints to understand the range of mobility. After that, we were free to try on our own. Letting a body lead the way or draw. It’s almost like doing improvisation which was hard for me because I had the tendency to want to look nice. But I tried my best to keep the focus on the objective of just exploring the body.
We were told to go in awkward shapes or positions that we don’t normally do. And be comfortable in those awkward positions by spending some time in them. We were also allowed to take a step back to observe others if we are at a block with our movement. So we observed and also imitated people.
The next exercise is one of my favourites. We learned how to fall safely and quietly. Front, back and on either side. I liked it because I don’t mind throwing my body around. Learning the technique of falling was a lot of fun. With proper technique, I can execute falls better, faster, quieter, and definitely safer.
After lots of falling around, we get to lay flat on the floor for the next exercise. We were required to flip our bodies over. In my head, I was like, this is a relaxing exercise. We going to just flip around. I was wrong about it.
We had to isolate a body part and only that part is allowed to move and flip the body. It was tough.
We started out with:
- One side of the Shoulder
- Both shoulders
- One side of the hip
- Whole hip
- One leg
- Both legs
- Both legs and stomach.
Only when we did number 8, most of us managed to flip our bodies and stand up.
The last exercise of the day, we did some wall exercises.
- We leaned on the wall with our back. And we started to “marinate” our body into the wall.
- Figured out ways to push off the wall.
- Throwing body part to lift off the wall
- Combination of 2 and 3
- How do we throw or push or a combined of both, just enough to lift off the wall
- How do we land back to the wall safely?
Next Oliver taught us the class S.O.P. At the start of every class, we would do it together.
The set consists of 3 exercises.
- Spine rolling
- Breathing exercise
- Sun Salutation
In the next half of the class, we played with balance.
- With holding our feet at neutral stance, can we keep ourselves balanced? For example, how far can we lean forward and still keeping balance. It was fun to try all ways to make our body imbalance to find the limit of our balance. By doing so, I discovered what my body would do to counter the imbalance.
- We also tried to push our body to maintain balance. The moment we lose balance, how can we stop that and fall back to balance? It almost felt like being I was a drunk person. For example, we lean forward so much so that we just tip forward. In the moment of the tipping, how can we use the momentum to go back into balance?
The week did not start well for me as I had to skip the class as I wasn’t feeling great so I took Monday off to rest and recuperate.
I came back to space, feeling better.
Since I miss the previous day’s lesson, the others became my teacher. They had to explain to me what Biomechanics and teach me how to do Biomechanics walks. It was interesting to observe them trying to explain to me what they understood from the lesson so that I could get a good grasp of the lesson. Oliver also introduced the principle
s of Biomechanics – otkas, posil and stoika.
From what I understand of the principles is that:
- Otkas – the preparation of the action and at the same time reversal of the action.
- Posil – the execution of intended action, using the store or collected energy during Otkas.
- Stoika – the end of the action that requires a complete stop like a full stop to the flow of the action.
After hearing the explanation and watching the demonstration, I questioned myself in my own movement practice. There were so many questions bombarding my brain. One of the question was, did I not fully understand the movements I have been learning thus far in my own practice?
So in order for us to understand further of the principles, each of us was given a tennis ball to throw up in the air. For such a simple task to be executed well when applying the principles was a challenge. It took me some time to understand the principle, register them in my head, and at the same time to do the actions in one smooth motion.
When doing the task, Oliver pointed out that I wasn’t fully utilizing my lower body and therefore not getting the full range of the motion when throwing the tennis ball. This made me question myself again – As a mover, do I understand my own body mechanics and am I using it to its most efficiency? So I kept trying to break it down so that I can understand better.
After that we also tried throwing the ball side to side in a flow of a figure 8. This task was easier for me to execute. I had a better understanding of the movement flow. With the added understanding of the principles, I felt that I’m executing the movement better. It’s almost like playing basketball.
At the end of class, I ask Oliver, “Why do we need to learn about biomechanics?” I was told to go home and think about it and share my answer with the whole group. My answer has to be my own. No textbook answers are allowed.
It was time for me to share my answer.
Biomechanics is like neutrality. Once we know what is neutral, whatever else is a choice or can be a choice. In order for us to make choices of movement, we need to understand the fundamental of our own body mechanics. In the awkwardness of relearning the basics, that’s where we find the most natural and efficient way to move. So once we find that, then we can understand whatever else is a choice or can be a choice.
Oliver asked if I bought my own explanation.
Yes, I said.
After, we also tried balancing a wooden pole on our hand. Our challenge was to balance the stick while staying at a spot. It was a fun as it was similar to a childhood game that I would play with my friends. During the exercise, I observed that some of them had a hard time balancing the stick on their hand. I also saw some used their palms or the tip of their fingers to balance the wooden pole. I was one of the few who used the tip of the finger to balance, as I find it harder to balance it on the palm of the hands as sense the pole as much and be able control it.
During our sharing after the activity, most of my classmates shared that they tried using the tip of their fingers and found it easier to balance the stick. Oliver also shared how we can apply the biomechanics principle in this exercise.
So with the balancing wooden pole we played a few games.
- As a group – While balancing the pole, we had to take turns saying out the lines of the monologue that was given to us and how many times we can do it without dropping the pole.
- Individually – we took turns to say the monologue while balancing the pole. If the pole drops, we restart. I’m not that great in multi-tasking and memorising lines. So to balance the pole and at the same time trying my best to remember the monologue was hard, I struggled.
- In groups of 5 – While balancing our own wooden pole, one person in the group will attempt to complete his/her monologue. The other 4 would have to move towards the person speaking the monologue and to knock his/her stick down. There were so much laughter while playing this game.
To end day 3, we did improvisation. We were told to bring specific items
- Oversized shirt or jacket
- Cap or hat
Each of us were also given a chair. Our task is to use the 4 items and string up a set of movements. Also, we had to keep our movement simple and to fight the urge to look “beautiful”.
We did more tennis ball exercise and we tried throwing wooden pole to each other. It started with:
- As a big group, we would throw a ball around. Then the number of ball thrown around increased.
- We switched to
- Then the chaos (but fun) started – We started throwing both the tennis balls and the wooden pole at the same time. We had to be super aware of our surrounding, making sure what was being thrown around and if we were receiving or throwing the ball or pole.
After that we proceed to gather and talk more about “Cool Blue Eye” (How can we place ourselves in the eyes of the audience viewer eyes to observe and critique ourselves.).
From there we did Viewpoints. I enjoy doing these exercises because I get to observe what kind of images the rest would come out with. And I would make my own interpretation of the images. And when I do join in the images – How can I contribute to the existing image or initiate an image?
When discussing about the exercise, there were so much observation being shared. All of us tried different things when being one of the handers. Because we had to make the visual and space balanced, some aimed for symmetry or A-symmetry. For me, when I’m contributing, especially when I decide to contribute last, I had to make a few considerations –
- Location of the others in the space.
- Shape of their bodies
- Direction of their body
- Direction of their face
I was more focused on providing a balanced view for the audience around me but so I decided to not pay too much attention to the balance of space, and the overall visual. However, I was surprised that my classmates said they still saw balance in my contribution and that I had made interesting choices.
For the last day of week 2, we did some mask work and puppetry. We started by exploring the different planes and tilts our body has, and then the combination of these planes to give different postures and shapes to our bodies. Oliver gave us a challenge to strike a pose using the various combination of tilts and planes. Every time he claps, we have to change pose. But the hard part is that we cannot repeat the same pose. All the pose had to be different. I think we did so many poses, that I cannot count how many we did or even remember if I repeated any poses. I felt like a super model doing a photoshoot.
Next we moved on to working with a mask. We played around with the combination of the mask, planes and tilts. From the play, we get to see what kind of character comes out
After that Oliver introduce us to Commedia dell’arte. The commedia dell’arte is a form of popular theatre that emphasized ensemble acting and the use of mask. He demonstrated some of the characters. Each character has its own distinct combination of planes and tilts, as well as its own unique walk and distinct mannerism. It was a lot of fun to see each character being played out by Oliver. We also tried all the characters. My 2 favourite characters were Capitano and Innamorati.
For the last week, I was so stressed while memorizing my monologue, knowing we had to present it, as I’m not so great at memorising lines and I have a fear of public speaking. To speak with friends is alright but once I have to address to an audience, that’s where the fear kicks in.
We started out with learning the Suzuki method. During the process of learning the form and trying it out, I felt that the default shape for Suzuki was similar to Malay dance.
Unfortunately, I had to miss some of the sessions and so Oliver and my classmates summarized the learnings and did a little demonstration for me as well.
Oliver also shared with us about a well-made play structure, and some of the crucial factors to a well-made play structure.
- Intensity of story through time.
- Point of rising tension
- Character wants/fear
- Character’s obstacle/conflict
- Character’s action
- What happens to the character
He went on to share about the need to understand the character’s action or his/her super objective, and strategies taken by the character to meet that super objective.
He also talked about the five stages of grief that could help us in charting the character’s journey:
With all these information, we had to study and analyse our monologue. We had time to prepare and plan out how we going to do our monologue. We also had to consider how we want to present it. Props? What kind of audience sitting? And other things to consider. I chose to go to the carpark to prepare myself. I was so scared and nervous for the showing. I just told myself to remember the monologue and keep the showing simple.
So I decided go for a site specific location to do my showing. When time was up, it was nerve wrecking for me, I didn’t want to go first or even last. So I just waited and watched the others go first.
I calmed myself and just went for it. The moment I was done, I felt so relieved. Although it wasn’t such a great showing, but that was my first time being able to do a monologue for an audience. I told myself that I’m going to build this sense of confidence so that I’m able to do it better in the future.
After the showing, we had a long discussion on each and every showing. From analysing objectives and strategies to what was our super objectives. We also revisit the “cool blue eye”. We even talked about the choices we made about the props and where the location sit and etc. There was so much information that I felt a certain rush and excitement to just listen to the knowledge and process it. I could not sleep that night because my brain was still processing.
Some of the things mentioned by Oliver during the discussion were:
- Be crystal clear about your objective
- Pauses have to be precious and to be earned. The longer the pause, the harder to earn it.
- Smile and laughter can become a powerful weapon.
- Shouting can be a nuisance to audience. Pick one moment that you should blast but not all.
- Look and speak if talking to one person
- If target is moving while you talk, make sure it’s clear
- Understand the main point so that we can find the sub points to support the main point.
- Find hints in the text to create the tension graph of the play structure
On the last day, we had to do the monologue again with the notes we got from the previous day, improving on our delivery, objective of the character and strategy(s) the character employs to achieve the objective. I kept going through my lines, making sure I can remember. Because the last round, I only manage to read 3/4 of the monologue and the rest just flew away from my brain.
All of us did our 2nd round and it was interesting to see how all of us played and took more considerations to the objectives and strategies. For me, I was glad that I managed to complete the monologue.
After the showing, we discussed about what we did different for this round.
Some of the things mentioned by Oliver during the discussion were:
- How can it be powerful when the piece is being done with a fourth wall ?
- If we do not have much vocab/movement, then the audience will focus on just listening. Therefore the delivery of the line has to be clear and executed well.
- If there is some stake involved, how can we make the audience feel the amount of stake?
To end the class, we played with some puppets. Using the puppets, we had to deliver our monologue. So I teamed up with my classmates, Angel and Shanice to control one puppet. I controlled the hands. Angel did the feet and Shanice did the head and the voice of the puppet. A lot of communication was involved to direct the puppet to be on the same page. It was a lot of fun.
And that concluded my journey in this Puppetry in Performance masterclass.
At the beginning, I was asking if I’m ready to dive into such an intense masterclass. But at the end of it, I felt this dive I took was worth it.
I have learnt a lot and at the same time, discovered that there are many more I would want to continue learning. The concept of Neutrality and Biomechanics intrigued me. I hope to use these concepts more in my own practice.
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