When Holly met Igne

Jun 04 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Igne Barkauskaite by Aaron Davies

Hello! This is the second in a series of blogs called, “When Holly met....” In the first one, I met art-clown Jamie Wood. This time, I'm chatting with Lithuanian-born, Bristol-based clown and physical theatre facilitator, Igne Barkauskaite.

We met in the colourful garden of The Greenbank pub, where we slurped delicious soup on a hot sunny day in May and learned about each other's work. We explored what the similarities and differences are between our approaches and outlook, meandering our way through stories of our own training, thoughts about effective collaboration, how we keep our own creative practices alive, what's required of us as teachers / facilitators, the cross-fertilization of having professional and non-professional performers in our groups and how we work with creative blocks. 

Igne first came to Bristol in 2008 for her drama degree. She moved to Paris to study at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (Often shortened to “Lecoq”, or just “School” by the people who've been there). She came back to Bristol in 2015 and set up The Bristol Physical Theatre Project, now based at Space 238 in Easton.

We've been orbiting each other for a few years, and this was the first time we've sat down to talk. So come, pull up a chair and sit with us as we talk about clown and clowning, bring your own soup, mind.

Holly: Did you love your training at Lecoq?

Igne: It was a tough school, to be honest, but I have a huge respect for what I learned. It was hard, but it was very inspiring at the same time. A lot of things fell into place after School – which made it all make sense, even if it didn't make sense while I was there!

Holly: Do you think it gave you the skills to be able to collaborate?

Igne: Yes, I think Lecoq is all about collaboration and devising, it's probably one of the most difficult elements of the school – to collaborate with people, because of different backgrounds and languages and then competition kicks in...

Holly: Do they give you a map of how to deal with that sort of stuff? Do they give you strategies for how to resolve conflict? 

Igne: Absolutely not! No, the School doesn't give you any kind of strategy or ways to prepare yourself other than just – you go straight in. You kind of dive in and you see what happens.

Holly: Does Lecoq encourage you to devise from the inside, where you don't have a director or a facilitator, but you're all equal in the devising process?

Igne: Yes and no, it's great if we can be all equal in the creative process, that definitely gives so much more than just one person deciding on everything, but in some ways, it's not always helpful. In Lecoq we all competed and argued so much more when we were all supposed to be equal. But then we found a way of saying “I'm good at this thing and you're good at that thing,” working in a more modest way, with humility. When you really authentically realise what you're good at, it's just easier to work and you don't waste time for unnecessary things.

Holly: Is that something that you worked out for yourselves or did your teachers implement that way of working?

Igne: No, they don't tell you anything. In Lecoq they will not tell you how you should do things, they don't teach you how to move, they don't teach you how to create, even when you go to do certain exercises, they would not tell you what the point is in doing them. That keeps people in a very grey area, not understanding. Some people get really angry about it and very lost, but actually, because you spend two years there, it's enough time to start making your own conclusions about creative process. I think that's what I learned – that non-definition and non-attachment to certain concepts, it's not goal oriented, it's process oriented.

Holly: That's interesting to hear! I'm exploring collaboration this year – it's my theme of the year. I've been involved with a lot of gangs in my life... I left my own theatre company in 2014 and I've been operating as a lone wolf ever since and I think it's been really good and really important – I feel like in these last 5 years I've really refined my creative vision and my creative voice and my creative process. It's been really good for me to get clear about what I want to put out into the world, and now I'm clear about who I am and how I work, now is the time when I'm starting to welcome the idea of collaboration. I know myself and I know what I need and I know how to ask for it, which I didn't 5 years ago... I'm on a research mission, extracting from everybody I meet – what does collaboration mean? What does it look like? Is healthy, equal collaboration even possible?

Igne: What Lecoq gives is the common language, so say, I could meet someone who graduated from Lecoq 20 years ago and we'd still find links and we could communicate in the same kind of language of movement – or at least some foundations would be very very similar and that is a structure, in some ways. I still didn't figure out what the School was all about to be honest! And I realise I don't even have to do that anymore. But I realise that one of the purposes is to provide people with some very practical and pragmatic understanding of movement and the body and space and then put it in the context of collaboration and creativity...

Igne: The School is changing a lot, it's a good thing that it evolves, it's definitely not a school that stagnates in any way. There are some schools that really teach a method and then - if you don't do it right, if you don't fit in that method, then you are an outsider. Whereas I think Lecoq is so much more than a method. There's no method, really.

Holly: Do you describe your training as Lecoq-based?

Igne: It's Lecoq-based, in that my foundation is rooted in the Lecoq kind of language, but then it is only my foundation and equally I'm trying to evolve and find my own ways of approaching theatre.

Holly: On top of the physical theatre and clowning training that you're offering, are you also creating your own work?

Igne: Yes, I've found myself more in the capacity of a writer and I always found that, even in Lecoq... Writing scripts, writing poetry and seeing then how I can physicalise visual images through the movement. I do a lot of research. When I moved back to Bristol in 2015, I took a break from theatre, working with an agent wasn't going in the direction I wanted to go in. So I stopped and when I started again, I really rooted into my body, into my creative process, working and collaborating with people, drifting from one project to another, doing a bit of movement direction, a bit of facilitation and now I'm trying to find the time and space for my own creative work to come out and I don't know what that is yet.

Holly: Wow, that's exciting!

Igne: The Bristol Physical Theatre Project has been my main preoccupation for the last few years because essentially, I want to work in an ensemble, but working in an ensemble, you need to be with people who share similar [performance] language to you – so I thought I'd create them. How about you? Are you creating your own work?

Holly: Yes I'm writing, same! But I'm writing a book – a handbook for using the techniques that I've been developing through the workshops. It's for other workshop leaders. I do bits of performance, only really to stay connected with the process so that I can stay empathetic to my students. But I don't have a burning desire to get back on tour, I did 20 years of performing, all around and I don't have a desire to get back on the road in any way, shape or form. I kind of do performance as research – I set these projects up for myself so I can feel it from the inside, it just improves my teaching.

Igne: I think it's important to be able to go on stage yourself, because how can you evolve in your practice if you lose that connection with performance? It's a different state of mind then when you are facilitating.

Holly: Did you see that thing on one of the clown facebook groups – somebody had posted something about wanting to see footage of his clown teachers performing, floating the assumption that those who can't perform, teach? I got really cross about it, because actually teaching is such a...

Igne: It's a performance!

Holly: Well yes, teaching is a performance, but also there's such a lot of skill goes into teaching, it's not the easy route! For me, teaching is my passion, it's what I want to do, it's what I really care about, I've been studying it for a lifetime! Learning how to be a good teacher really is not the easy path, it's not straightforward, it takes time and it takes work.

Igne: To be a facilitator (I don't call myself a teacher, I find the word 'facilitator' sounds right in my own context) it's a very specific skill and some people think great actors and great directors are also great teachers, they go and teach at the drama schools, and it's clear that they can't really observe in that same way and they can't guide people into the learning process, they know how to do it, but there's no other way they have to communicate to people other than “do like me, be like me.” but that's not really finding the potential in each person.

Holly: Is that important to you in your teaching? Is your facilitation making space for people to make their own discoveries? 

Igne: Yes, it is very important, I kind of approach my facilitation as personal research. I never thought I would do it, it just kind of naturally happened – I would be asked “Can you come and teach some movement” And I was like “What? I don't know how to teach movement” and then I got all these little jobs, I didn't look for them, they came to me and I thought maybe there's something I don't see in myself and I should maybe just embrace it and that became my sort of research. I facilitate a process where that research is possible and what people learn from it and how they use it – it's not up to me anymore, I think.

Holly: What I'm hearing from our shared students, we've got loads of students in common and I've been asking what they've been getting from doing both styles of training and what most people are saying is that in your room, it's not about the emotional stuff, it's much more about the clarity of expression and I think combined with what I'm offering, it seems a really good combination, because I'm all about freedom and play, I take the lids off, I'm like “come on, let's have a look inside!” I help people step into the spotlight and allow themselves to be seen, but I'm not interested in teaching finesse. I came out of the circus wanting to celebrate imperfection, messiness, rawness and authenticity and that's what my work is based on. It feels like I'm there to take lids off, “Go on! Yes, yes yes” give them a whole heap of “yes!” Then they come to you and they're finding precision and shape to their expression – it's much clearer, more measured and more accessible, actually, so it feels like a really good combination. I think you're looking at the body as a vehicle for expression, in a very different way to how I am. I'm all about the heart “What's in your heart? Let's let that out with a bit of messy expression, a bit of sound...”

Igne: I am not all about finesse, because there's no point in teaching something that's empty for the sake of a good image. There's a lot of this at Lecoq, but eventually they ask, “What are you creating? Does it have meaning in your life and other people's lives?” So for me it's the same thing, I know that you are a trained dramatherapist and you have skills that I don't have. That's why I start with something shallow – not shallow in the sense that it has no meaning, or just a shape, but we start with simplicity – to create a certain structure in which people can navigate and then over these last few years, with the people who come and train together, we kind of try to go a bit deeper and do some devising work where they can explore their own ideas and of course- they create what they want to create and I'm happy to hold that space, but only because the safe space was created, the safe relationship was created. I don't know how your workshop runs in that sense... but I'd be scared opening the lids in that context! I still open the lids but in a very contained, very specific field – movement or space or timing.

Holly: Both approaches have their place and in my opinion, both approaches are fundamentally the same, in that we're about trying to help people take their space in the world. I mean, fundamentally, that's what performance is, it's people saying “I'm here, look at me.”

Igne: Yeah, I suppose, I was reflecting on that. In the Lecoq school they were always saying to us “You don't have to feel what the character's feeling” You have to make the audience feel something and that requires certain skills and connection. I suppose your workshops are really revolving around that way of being able to connect to yourself and others. There are different ways perhaps of guiding people into connection. But basically the Lecoq school taught me that you have to reach certain mastery of something to be able to connect. Reflecting on my practice, I want to make sure I am sharing certain skills I have with fellow performers in the realm of movement, which is very specific, because there are so many different styles of performance – clown is one of them but tragedy could be another and realism and I love absurd and surreal, that's my favourite, people find out what works for them. If I feel people have learned a skill from me, I've done my job. It's great if people leave my workshop and feel great about the world, but that's their job, not my job.

Holly: That's what's different. The centre of my practice is about the human experience and performance is a bit of a by-product really! I mean I do train professional performers, but I'm very interested in keeping my work open for people from all different backgrounds and I think it makes for a really interesting learning experience when there's people from all different backgrounds – I never ask people what they do for a living in the workshops, so people don't know who they're playing with - that can bring exciting results. You get trained actors that come into clowning, you must have seen this, they can be so affected by their training, they've got so many rules that they have to drop in order to experience clowning and then you get people who've never done any theatre training before who just come in and naturally pick it up. I find that the two types inspire each other because actors have stamina and professional standards and then you get these newbies who just wonder in off the street and they are hilarious because they're not trying, because they haven't been taught yet that they should be trying. I love that cross fertilization...I love how they inspire each other. The heart of everything I do is connection – “can you connect and play with everyone in this room? Can you find a way that suits you both?”

Igne: Absolutely, I couldn't agree more, the idea of “professional actor” is a weird term for me, I think acting is something everyone can do. It's condensing life. So if you know how to be alive, you should know how to do it on stage as well. It's just professional actor works full time and has the tax return and all the admin around it and all the stresses about it and non-professional actors – the qualities of their performance can be very, very similar... In my courses I want people to see each other as equals. It's nice to have both types in the room, I am there to share my skills of how to make a show.

Holly: I love what happens in the rehearsal room, I love what happens in the teaching room and I've never managed to fully translate that energy to live performance, unless there's elements of improvisation within the show that keeps the performers alive on the stage, alive to this audience, alive in the moment, so I think I might have made the decision that I'm no longer going to direct shows unless the performers are willing to explore creating improvisation structures and to go on stage with just that.

Igne: [Shows are] never perfect, [they're] never finished and if you're mostly working with [the theme of mental health], it's probably the perfect medium to keep it like that. Is [your directing process] inspired by fooling? Let me explain how I understand fooling, I might be completely wrong because I have not done it …. it's your personal material, it's autobiographical and you improvise on an aspect of yourself, a voice, a narrative or anything?

Holly: Yes, it can look like that, it's rooted in authenticity, so you come into the empty space and you find a feeling, a thought or a physicality and you turn it up and you let it take you into a story and sometimes it can look autobiographical. A lot of the stuff that I do looks that way because it's what I'm interested in, but my fooling teacher, Franki Anderson, uses a lot of fantasy, so you'll take the seeds from something authentic but then you'll create a fictional character and they live in a world. Because I'm so interested in personal story, I guess that's what I draw out in the people I work with. But they don't all work in that way, each one of the Fools of Beyond The Ridiculous has got a different style – some do it all through movement, some are very clever verbal improvisers, some are much more into physical characters, for some people it's really abstract and for others it's much more concrete, it's different for everyone. 

Holly: I trained with Franki in my early 20's for three months and I learned so much about myself through the process that it's underpinned everything I've done since. I've been using fooling in the rehearsal room, in the devising process – especially if someone has a creative block - I might say “OK, embody the block, what does it look like? Show me and let's dialogue with it and find out what it's come to say. Are there any other characters around that could help you with the block?” this kind of thing.

Igne: I'm fascinated in this area of your work, the block removing thing. I think it's so important to be able to guide people through their blocks and there are so many techniques, I think mine is to give the performer the time to be in the shit. It just dissolves somehow. I think one thing about Lecoq school – no-one gave you the time to be in the shit, you had to move very quickly, it's a very intense school and I am a slow learner, I need to break the thing apart and look at it from different angles, spend time, but in school it was constant, like a metronome. So when I run my own training now, I want to give people the time to be in the task, especially when they hit the block that usually comes through the work with the neutral mask – it's a tool that really removes blocks eventually, if you have the patience to stay in the training. There's a lot of discomfort, but I realise if you stay with discomfort for just long enough, something magical happens.

Holly: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! It's another central aspect to my training - learning to tolerate discomfort, especially the discomfort of vulnerability, I think it's really key for clowning and improvisation.

Igne: Probably it's key in everything, even your life! 

Holly: Yeah! I think it's hard and it's getting harder – you know the culture we're living in is so fast and it's so immediate, it's “I want it, I order it, it comes this afternoon.” you don't have to wait, you don't have to be patient anymore, everything comes straight away without any effort and I feel that tolerating discomfort is a real traditional skill that we're losing..

Igne: ...and we're losing resilience at the same time.

Holly: Yes!

Igne: If we only want everything “now and quick and give it to me” then when we are not given something – then tragedy! 

Holly: Yes!

Igne: I do notice that. I am training as a yoga teacher now and that slowed me down and slowed down my practice. Yoga is a great discipline or philosophy of how to stay with discomfort, how to stay with yourself, with your body, in stillness. It's really made me see the world in a very different way. It changed my perception of time: I realised that I have time! I have lots of time. The same sort of thing started happening when I started at Lecoq – the actual material was very quick but the study made me see the world, that's why I respect the School so much – it made me see colours and textures and rhythms and people as animals and animals as people... 

Holly: I was at an improvisation conference last week, I got really speedy for the first 2 days, trying to be everywhere, then I did a Feldenkrais session, basically rolling around on the floor for an hour. Afterwards I felt different, grounded, I realised I can make choices, I don't have to do everything that's on offer. We are in that age where we need held spaces where we can stop or pause because we don't know how to do it by ourselves– everything in our world is set up for us to not pause.

Igne: Yeah and more and more and more and more... it's related with capitalism, capitalist society doesn't see play as any good, play is just a waste of time for children and crazy people!

Holly: Yeah!

Igne: ...and they don't value play, but I think there's so much in it that is actually quite productive – not in a capitalist way of course.

[I've cut a section where I talked about my comedy degree module, because I've written about this elsewhere. Here we are, back on the subject of clown]

Holly: With all of my work, it's always connection over content, I'm really of the mind that material is arbitrary - it doesn't really matter what you do because it's so much more about your relationship with the material and your relationship with the audience, you could pretty much do anything on the stage. For me the message of clown comes really strongly in the connection – that open connection.

Igne: I agree with that, for me it's the central thing. I work more in the context of the ensemble. There's lots of individuality in clowning, first you see what the person communicates, how they are, what's the energy, what's the clown.... Because the School is all about ensemble, it made sense that I would explore ensemble clowning, it's a different set of skills from the individual performer – you see some performers who have a really good connection with the audience, but you put someone next to them, another human, and that just breaks immediately! At the moment I'm seeing how my practice can give people skills that they can use in those connections, on stage and in the community of an ensemble. 

Holly: I'm only recently coming back to the clown ensemble – I started running weekly clown courses 13 years ago – I was teaching ensemble skills, but in adult education, it's normal that people miss sessions. Coming from a background of professional training, I was mortified that people were missing my sessions, so 6 or 7 years ago I started focussing on solo- thinking whoever's here this week will learn these skills. Ultimately, I'm a solo performer and I mostly direct solo – but as with Beyond The Ridiculous, the soloist needs to feel supported by an ensemble. So three years ago, I developed a 5-day clown course called Deepening Clown, so I could bring the ensemble back. This way I can keep a group together for 5 whole days and it can be a real group journey. On the last day, we go out to play on the streets of Bristol, making friends, with no material whatsoever, just the clown state, and a clown partner, they have a lot of ensemble language they can use, but they're often more interested in hanging out with the pigeons and dogs and splashing around in the water fountains.

Holly: I think my training has really been formed by the limitations of adult education... in adult education, people have got lives, they can't come every week and I feel like my training really found it's shape and power through it's limitations. But in the last few years I've felt strongly that I want to take people through deeper and deeper journeys, so the way I do that is to keep people in the same room for 5 days! ... I'd love to set up a school and be able to provide a substantial experience, to take people through a deep, embodied process. I think it will look very different to Lecoq.

Igne: I don't think there's anything like Lecoq in this world. It's great, I think every artist finds their own way and their voice and that kind of sea of voices, there's no right or wrong way, it's just the right way for you. 

After we finished the recording, Igne and I started talking about how great it was to make this connection and how great it would be to curate a joint symposium / taster-day with other Bristol based performance teachers, perhaps in the Autumn... Watch this space for developments...

Igne leads a Physical Theatre drop in class at space 238 in Bristol on Monday nights, weekend workshops in clowning and physical theatre in Bristol and London, weekly clown classes in Bristol and in August she'll be running her own 5-day clown lab. For more info about her courses click here.

I will be running a 4-week summer school in collaboration with Dominique Fester this August, with 5-day modules in clowning, foolingcomic storytelling and physical theatre.

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