Weekly reflections from our Stories from the Body workshops

How the creative process of developing stories through masks, drawing, writing, movement and performance can enable us to take leaps in our wellbeing.

We warmed up by finding movements which allowed the body to lead, rather than more prescriptive ways of moving or stretching. Beginning with tuning into ourselves and focusing internally, we then expanded our awareness to notice the movements of each other.

Being able to shift between sensing ourselves individually and other people is a useful skill to practice, both as creative performers and managing relationships in life.

Moving into the stories that the group have been working on, everyone identified two images from their story that represented conflicting energies. We then recreated these on two separate pieces of paper so that we could visual them and add as much detail as possible. These two images became Mask 1 and Mask 2.

As before, we tried to embody these characters, revealing the qualities of movement they each have, their point of view in the world, what is possible from their position and what is out of reach. Again we are showing the versatility of masks to develop our stories and enable us to think from different perspectives.

Following this, we placed images representing Mask 1 and 2 in relationship to each other, asking questions like how close the characters are to each other, whether they know that each other exists and whether there is any dialogue between them.

From a mental health point of view we are exploring the possibility that conflicts within us can develop more of a relationship, so that whatever story or experience they are associated with may eventually become more integrated. We don't shut down from engaging with them. It is where some of the therapeutic and cathartic benefits of our storytelling approach comes in.

Experiences that are unintegrated can create a feeling of being stuck in life, accompanied by problematic emotions or even manifest in our physical health.

From a theatre-making point of view, these explorations that we’re doing are generating the raw material for the very human stories and themes that are surfacing within the group.

What can the masks and their stories tell us about our own lives and emotions? Week 6

In this week’s warm up we explored how to ground ourselves through the whole body, individually and in partners, to create a dialogue of moving and responding to each other. There was an invitation to revise some of the options introduced in previous weeks in terms of considering level, quality of movement, sound and orientation.

We spent some time reflecting on the potential benefit of maintaining and developing a broad movement repertoire in terms of flexibility and spontaneity. The advantages of this lie in both our ability to act and respond as a performer as well as good evidence that it protects us from certain mental health challenges, particularly depression.

Participants reconnected with their stories and shared the compelling aspects of each. This week we encouraged participants to step into the stories of other group members through progressive stages of enactment. This really brought each story to life, allowing different textures, metaphors and energies to emerge and be clearly represented. It’s also a good bonding exercise, strengthening empathy, understanding and friendships within the group.

We began to place our stories within an imagined landscape which we visualised before exploring in a more embodied way wearing our masks. Afterwards participants communicated a summary of this by channelling their experience through three discrete movements.

In our journals we reflected on the layers of the process so far:

- creating the mask as an expression of impulses and sensations in the body

- building and embodying the mask

- finding a story that emerges from the point of view of the mask

- bringing the stories to life through different levels of enactment

- and the theme of polarity which has run throughout

It is amazing how much creative material has been generated through this process, and how much more meaningful and relevant it feels having stepped through these stages.

At this point some of our stories may seem quite abstract but we are at the level now where we may start noticing metaphors from the mask and story that have resonances with our own lives. This happens at different stages for everyone but can be incredibly useful in terms of learning things about ourselves, connecting with and understanding deep-seated emotions and feelings.

Next week – the penultimate session!

How might an audience interpret our mask characters? Week 5

We opened the conversation this week with asking how polarised or opposing energies are represented in our masks, in the process of making them and the projections of our feelings. Through improvised writing, we continued to explore this alongside developing our physical theatre skills to support a performance of our stories.

Expanding our movement repertoire, we focused our attention on the outer edges of our bodies and experienced how recognising these edges can evoke a feeling of containment. Experimenting with level, rhythm and the qualities of movement, our repertoire is benefiting both emotional resilience and the performances we’re developing.

Last week, we started thinking about the type of sound that might emerge from our mask characters. This week, we delved into that a bit deeper by seeing how sound seems to organically emerge from different body shapes and orientation.

How does our posture and the position in which our bodies are held affect the sound that our masks make?

How does the sound change if we focus on a particular body part, the audience, or a more spacious perception of the world?

How do these changes affect both our internal state as well as what the audience hears?

These kinds of questions and experiences are getting us to think about how our characters feel and communicate and how others might interpret them.

An exercise called ‘Present Yourself’ deepens this by asking each participant to embody their mask and reveal what they think is important for us to know about theirs so far. From this, we moved into improvised writing in the style of a fairy tale or legend from the point of view of the mask. We’ve found this to be another way of stimulating imagination, moving down further in the world of the mask and its characteristics.

Each story now has a title and we’ll continue to expand different levels of enactment next week, moving towards a more fully developed performance.

Sounding the masks: Week 4

Much of the check-in this week focused on participants’ experience of continuing to build their masks at home and the changing, conflicting emotions that emerged in the process of creating the mask. There is general agreement that the masks and the process of creating them are starting to have resonances with how everyone is experiencing themselves in different aspects of their lives. We also started thinking about how the personal themes that we’ve explored so far might have a collective interest for an audience.

As a warm up we followed pathways that opened up in the space, allowing natural encounters and movements away from each other. We played with nonsense conversations to wake up the imagination, which is always fun and reveals everyone’s individual creativity! This week, we explored a different way to ground in partners – one person placing their hand at points along the spine as their partner moves. Then we used a short Feldenkrais ATM (awareness through movement) to warm up the voice – tilting the pelvis, finding a sigh sound on the exhale, further supported by a partner placing their hands around the rib cage and encouraging a gentle oscillation and flexibility of the ribs.

As everyone re-met their masks, we asked ‘What is it like to meet the mask again at this stage of its transformation? Has the proximity to the mask changed? Has the dialogue with the mask changed or been added to?’ Some of us added charcoal marks to the surface of our masks to highlight certain features, encouraging them to emerge more fully.

We progressed on to ‘sounding the mask’ and beginning to find its ‘voice’. As we moved around the space, everyone held their mask close to a central part of their body and vocalised a sound that responded to the impulses evoked. The energy in the room soared as the masks head towards being more fully embodied.

To finish the session, everyone was invited to identify with their masks – to imagine the mask making ‘I’ statements about what it is, how it is in the world and the qualities it has. Participants noticed how these qualities might feel in their own bodies and what impulses are evoked in doing so. When there was a full sense of this, we re-introduced movement and travelled through the room with our masks on.

The masks are embodied and have arrived!

Identifying polarities and the neglected parts of ourselves: Week 3

We began with our usual check-in to share the range of ways the previous session has shaped our week.

This time our warm up included a short awareness through movement (ATM) lesson from the Feldenkrais method. Feldenkrais is a somatic movement education method developed by Moshe Feldenkrais which supports in-the-moment awareness enabling us to choose easier and more efficient ways to move ourselves.

We explored another body-based technique which involved gently slapping the skin to wake up the sensory awareness of the boundary of our body, which after all contains what we experience.

What accompanies these ways of relating to and connecting with the body? We noted shifts in energy, feelings of being more grounded, clearer vision and how they affect our perceived strength as a group.

We returned to the theme of polarity - opposing forces or different energies in the body; the stories that we carry and sometimes how we relate to each other.

Why are we interested in working with polarity?

Often we experience conflicting impulses, some we are aware of and others which lie outside of our awareness. For many of us, polarising is a natural way of organising what we experience. It may protect us from feeling overwhelmed or confused. But it can also play a role in denying us the ability to fully understand and process our memories and experiences.

From a theatrical point of view, discovering and playing with the polarities within us (rather than trying to resolve them) unearths very compelling stories – stories that can have a collective interest and common humanity.

Focusing on identifying these polarities, we invited the areas of our bodies that felt tense to take centre stage. What kind of characters form when these parts of the body are allowed to lead? Similarly, what characters emerges when areas of the body that feel empty or neglected are allowed to take centre stage?

Many people find through this playful engagement with polarised tight and flaccid muscles in the body that afterwards they are more able to move freely and experience a fuller awareness of themselves through movement.

Moving on to mask work, we introduced the Larval Masks with their beautiful, simple architecture. Everyone selected the mask that they were most drawn to and, through touch, noticed what it evoked in the breath and body. Putting on the mask, we attempted to embody its quality and share that character with the group.

The larval masks are a way of supporting our listening to impulses in the body, to explore how small movements in the chest, shoulders, tension of the arms can completely change the expression of the mask and bring it alive.

Returning to the masks we started designing ourselves, we spent time technically supporting our masks so that eventually they can be worn for a performance. This week the masks are travelling home with each participant, to return to the group more fully formed next week…. a story in itself!

The masks emerge! Week 2

We started by reconnecting with each other and reflecting on the past week. It was interesting to discuss how the process we started last week in the workshops has already begun to shape our wellbeing in subtle and obvious ways. For some there is a sense of things moving that may have previously felt stuck, for others a sense of reconnecting to an aliveness and a desire to be creative.

As we relaxed our bodies we let go of prescribed movement, efforting, pushing - things often promoted in wider society that eventually may knock us off balance and confuse a sense of who we are and what we need. Working in pairs, we listened to our breathing and felt the reassurance of a hand placed on the back, the ribs, the shoulders, without expectation. This is often experienced as deeply relaxing as it begins to soften the nervous system and builds empathy within the group.

We looked at how to reclaim flexibility in the body and mind which is reduced through stress and discovered how to circulate the energy which is lost when the pelvis is held and not allowed to move freely.

After thinking about the body as a landscape and the range of sensations that move through it, we started working with the clay on our masks again attempting to embed some of these into our masks.

Sensations and impulses in the body are how our implicit memories are stored – memories that we are not so aware of in everyday life. Noticing sensations in the body, responding and giving expression through the action of moulding the clay is a safe way of initially connecting to and expressing some of the deeper stories and memories that we hold, even if they are not yet explicit.

Why are we interested in connecting to memories and stories that lie outside of our awareness? Sometimes these stories relate to challenging experiences – times we've felt overwhelmed or unsupported. When these experiences are not made sense of they often create problems such as anxiety, depression or even physical symptoms. Other stories that remain hidden may hold more positive experiences and be resources we can tap into to support resilience and wellbeing.

The process of connecting to the unknown, retrieving what we have lost is a very human story which is why for performers also using material from a process like this has the potential to offer up compelling performance narratives.

The newly emerged clay masks evoke questions, surprise, sorrow, possibilities, fragility and strength. Each person in the group has produced something unique to them and we witness each other in an initial dialogue with their creation. In this dialogue, where is the mask placed - alongside them, far away? The next question is, do our masks have anything they'd like to say?

Introducing balance & mask work: Week 1

We’re at the beginning of our Stories from the Body workshop series and it seems that there’s a shared interest within the group to find a link between embodied artistic work and mental health. We’ll be asking how can we play with the different aspects of ourselves, allowing hidden parts to come forward and other parts to maybe work less hard? What is the story that binds this learning together? How can we use it to create compelling performance?

After everyone had been introduced, we explored simple body-based ways of grounding and centering to support balancing ourselves. We then took this balancing a step further by seeing if we could steady peacock feathers using just one hand. We explored whether we could move through the space allowing our attention to travel through different part of our bodies whilst balancing the feather in an upright position.

Next we moved onto the use of masks and explored how they can support freedom of movement, the noticing of impulses and generosity to respond to them. Can a mask be both a gateway and an obstacle? Masks have a rich history in performance and have many uses from pretence to play, disguise to protection. In theatre they can be used to express something without words, creating a visual rather than verbal performance. Masks can also foster a sense of openness, enabling performers to step into a new role and gain a new awareness in their physical movement, which is a more body-based approach to mask work.

To start thinking about what form our masks might take, the group experimented with creating landscapes with clay. First with our eyes closed we focused on instinctively moulding the clay in response to sensory connections – how does it affect breathing? Are there memories, images and emotions that arise from different levels of touch?

Everyone produced their own unique landscape and we started discussing as a group what it would feel like to roam around these terrains.

We’ll be using these landscapes as inspiration for our continued mask work in upcoming sessions, developing a landscape we can wear on our faces.

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