Observing Chaos in Rhys Bevan-John’s Lab

“People don’t go to the theatre to see you up on stage; they go to see themselves reflected back at the them up on stage.” I found myself unconsciously finishing this thought as it was spoken aloud by Rhys Bevan-John at the Chaotic Good Physical Theatre Laboratory Final Presentation tonight in Halifax. Such is a loaded statement. At once it reflects our inherent drive toward connecting with each other, alludes to our supreme self obsession, deflates any sense of exhibition and the desire performers have to “show off”, while insinuating that perhaps actors needn’t manifest any self consciousness and can liberate themselves from self-imposed censorship because the audience is not there to judge them.
Theatre is, in its essence, all about the connection that is created- the connection between the actors and the audience, the connection between the actors and one another, and the connection between the actor and him or herself. Artists, scholars, theorists, teachers, directors, actors, critics and playwrights all have different opinions on the nature of this connection and ideas about what should or can be done with it, and many people look for truth. In this quest for “truth”- for the origin of self expression- many turn toward the human body and its potential to be the physical embodiment of the human soul.
Several years ago Nova Scotian actor Rhys Bevan-John went to Maine to study under the world renowned mime artist Tony Montanaro and returned to Halifax fervent to share the knowledge of mime and physical theatre he acquired during his six months intensive with indigenous artists in Nova Scotia. Chaotic Good Physical Laboratory provides Bevan-John with a forum to facilitate workshops and provide a space for interested artists to play and learn by embodying the ideas that Montanaro, his teachers, disciples, and other theorists and artists Bevan-John has encountered in his plethora of reading have developed and cultivated. The workshop has been held weekly since January and tonight was the culmination “final presentation” of a special week-long all-day Chaotic Good Laboratory Intensive at “The Space” on Agricola Street.
As Bevan-John stresses, the Laboratory is focused on the actors’ process, and not the product, even when the concept of a “final presentation” and an audience looms before them. What the full, expectant audience that filled the serene bluish-grey box theatre “Space” experienced initially was pure, spontaneous process; a physical theatre warm-up for the actors (Steven Bourque, Mary Fay Coady, Michael McPhee, Kim Parkhill, Margaret Smith and Courtney Siebring). It was surprisingly guttural, intense, raw, and passionate and for me, was the most fascinating element of the entire evening. There is of course, much of the expected rolling around on the floor, screaming, yelling, panting and stomping, but beyond that, I found that some of the movements that emerged were like magic- brief, fleeting moments where the bodies defied gravity, sense, and natural flexibility with constant surprise. Then the voice began to move in the same way, crashing through barriers and jutting into the most peculiar, unexpected directions. Bevan-John called it Oblique Physical/Vocal Choreography and it led to some of the most interesting things I have seen people do outside of Cirque Du Soliel. How much of this is skill and how much is about letting go of the censorship and the rigid straightjackets we all wear to repress ourselves into society’s concept of normalcy? I have no idea.
It was extraordinary to watch the performers create characters from specifically altering the way they held themselves physically. Margaret Smith eased into a fascinating characterization of a troubled man as though he had been festering within her, forever bursting to come out. Courtney Siebring attacked the same process with much more inner reflection on her movements, her breathing, and slowly, precisely gave birth to this woman who unfolded one characteristic at a time. Once she found her voice, she communicated with the audience with such ease it was difficult to tell whether she was speaking as herself, acting, improvising, or had channelled some other part of her consciousness, or indeed some foreign person living deep within her body. The first half of the laboratory felt personal, and watching felt like almost an invasion, as though we were witnessing some inner truth, something deep and repressed that had been hurled up as a sort of artistic purge or cleanse. Nothing was ever anything. Everything just was.
The second half of the laboratory was what Bevan-John called Physical Theatre Sketches. These scenes had been “rehearsed” and developed through the warm-ups and exercises. They were an attempt to fashion the rawness into something that made sense theatrically. As the workshop was only six days, these were also very rough and still in their early incarnations, and thankfully they still retained that element of surprise. At one point, the performers “attacked” the front row of audience members which caused howls of laughter and squeals of delight (granted, this was the right audience for such an experiment). One sketch, “Evolution, was particularly mesmerizing and seemed to be the quintessence of physical theatre’s potential as a form of storytelling. It captured the sense of naivety, of play and joy and the limitlessness of this experience.
In reference to something completely different tonight Bevan-John said, “I didn’t know it before I learned it,” and here I think he naively captured the reason why Chaotic Good Physical Laboratory should and does exist. There are very few new ideas anywhere, and across the country and around the world people are developing the same principles and applying the same theories and playing the same games in search of a way to express themselves. But, we don’t about any of it until we learn it, and it is our responsibility to continue the cycle to teach that which has inspired us in hopes of inspiring others, and to imitate in hopes of building on what we already know and discovering something new, which can then be taught. So, if you are interested in developing characters, if you enjoy theatre that is rooted in the body instead of the mind, if you enjoy strange movements, self reflection, mime, improv or if you feel disconnected from your body, or afraid of your power and long to liberate yourself, and if you’re anywhere near Agricola Street in Halifax, I would highly recommend searching “Chaotic Good Physical Theatre Laboratory” on Facebook or emailing Rhys Bevan-John at rhysbevanjohn@gmail.com for more information. This workshop teaches the foundations on which brilliant theatre is built.

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