Comedy Spots!

A while ago I lent my “dulcet tones” to a comedy podcast titled “The Chop House” which has been steadily gaining followers since the first teasers were posted on YouTube at the start of year. The show has also gained some success so far in being aired on a few different British digital radio stations. I am happy to announce that I have been entered into a comedy competition along with Jim High. The animated “Wave” sketch we put our vocals to can be found on the Comedy Spots Competition page here: http://www.comedyspots.tv/watch/mAjbdG0X0C. Feel free to vote, repost, like on YouTube and generally tell all your chums!

Watch it here:

waveyoutube

VaclavHavel - A mirage of Havel

A mirage of Havel

VaclavHavelEarly this morning I was waiting for the tram near my home in Vinohrady, Prague when I saw a man pass me who looked just like Vaclav Havel.  I felt I  had to readjust my eyes, to make sure I was seeing things clearly. He was wearing a blue suit and carrying a suitcase in his right hand. But you see, it wasn’t just that he looked like Havel, but he had something about him – an air of intellect mixed with a beautiful childishness. As he walked, I noticed he had the same kind of bumbling gentleness about him too. A car jutted out of a driveway and Havel mosied around it offering no apologies and expecting none either. The tram arrived right at that moment and as I stepped onto it I then realised I would get the chance to take a proper look at the man again as the tram caught up with him and passed him. But instead, I turned my back and looked the other way. Who knows, maybe it really was Havel, having returned from a giant vortex in the fabric of time, from the same parallel dimension where Einstein and Da Vinci are still living and breathing. Maybe, or maybe not. At least in my imagination this will always be the case.

Déjà Vu Promo Film!

Here is the recent promo film we shot for the play Déjà Vu which will be performed for four nights at the Prague Fringe Festival, Divadlo Kampa, in June 2012.

Here is the summary of the play:

“A young couple’s love is threatened by infidelity, a vague feeling they’ve seen it all before, and the mysterious appearance of more and more oranges. Why? It has something to do with Spain. But every time they try to expose the juicy truth, all is forgotten. Why? It has something to do with…

Charming, funny, surreal… DÉJÀ VU is a timeless comedy you’ll want to see over and over again.”

nick cave - Nick Cave's work ethic

Nick Cave’s work ethic

Nick CaveI take a lot of inspiration from Nick Cave. I have a lot of trouble with discipline for and I can therefore learn a lot from Cave’s work ethic. Cave treats writing as a 9 to 5 job, and this approach has made him incredibly successful. His idea is that ideas do not come out of nowhere, but from working hard at it. Nothing appears from thin air. Indeed, I agree that creativity does not come completely from nothing, but personally I like to think it’s a combination of inspiration and work. What I love about Cave is his humility. He works hard, and attributes his success to this. It is interesting that the word genius comes from the word genie, and also from jinn (the invisible ghost-like people of the Arabic world) who are credited for the seeming genius that some artists seem to pluck out of nowhere. In the romantic era especially, genius was something that helped to create humility. It was not necessarily the writer or artist themselves who were to be applauded for such brilliance, but they were the channels of something more divine. An artist can never be a genius – they have a genius.

Nick Cave’s genius is created from hard work. It is through this ethic that he channels his own creativity. And he therefore doesn’t sit around waiting for inspiration to come to him. He goes after it, which is to be admired. I’ve been watching a lot of interviews of Nick Cave on YouTube recently, and I found one in which he talks about life in Berlin, Paul McCartney writing his lyrics on toilet paper, and buying his first desk. He also talks about how he approaches music as a writer and not a musician, which is something that I find really interesting because I like to play guitar and to be honest I have never really thought of myself as a musician but always as a writer foremost. Cave gives me a lot of inspiration to keep writing music for the purpose of story telling. Cave is certainly a prolific artist, novels, poetry, music, films.

I haven’t blogged on this website for about a month, and the reason is that I’ve had blogger’s block, but also because I’ve been focusing on many things at the one time. I have just created the basis of a theatre company in Prague called “Wild Mint Productions”, and so I have been working very hard on this, as well as writing the script for the play “Deja Vu” which i have applied to perform in the Prague Fringe Festival 2012. Fingers crossed that the application is approved! 😀 So I have been working hard, and the blog has fallen a bit behind. Part of what I learn from Nick Cave is how to balance doing many things. Obviously Nick Cave is diversely talented, but he focuses on one thing at a time and that seems to be his secret. In the last month I believe I’m finally getting the hang of doing the same thing. If I put my energy into too many things all at once, it’s like juggling 7 balls and I end up dropping everything, but if I just juggle one thing at a time (well it’s not really juggling anymore) and I don’t drop it.

Here is the video:

Analogy as the core of cognition

Here is a video I found recently of a lecture at Stanford University by Douglas Hofstadter. It absolutely fascinates me, and helps not only my writing but also my teaching. The idea of the lecture is that all learning is based on analogies.

Check it out:

(skip to 13:30 for the start of the actual lecture)

The hills are alive with the sound of English

english_flagHave you ever wondered what English sounds like? I do. Sometimes when I’m sitting on a train or a bus hearing English around me I try to “blur” my ears so that I can imagine what it sounds like to be hearing the language as a foreigner. It’s similar to the way sometimes I blur my vision when looking an artwork and then refocus. It can help sometimes to see the composition in a new light. But with sound, it doesn’t completely work, because it is near impossible to separate meaning from the sounds. You can close your mouth, your eyes, nostrils, and avoid touch, but you can’t avoid direct sound. Likewise, you can’t avoid meaning. You can in fact saturate a single word with meaning until it is just a sound, but to do that with a whole language is an almighty task. So how can us English speakers hear our own language without understanding it? It’s difficult, but there are ways.

I’m interested in the sound of English because first of all I’m a writer and I love words. I’m also an English teacher, and I have a passion for music and therefore the melody of language. I’ve studied linguistics and a bit of Italian, Dutch, and Czech. I even wrote a short story about a Scotsman who develops a sudden case of xenoglossia. What is xenoglossia you might ask? It is the phenemona of a person forgetting their own native tongue and adopting a completely different language that they before had no understanding of. There are reported cases of people having a remarkable new fluency in another language after severe accidents involving an impact to the head. It makes you wonder about the possibilities of the brain. It seems these people have somehow subconsciously absorbed the foreign language, and in their head it has laid dormant until the accident has reset their balance of their subconscious abilities. When I hear romance languages such as French or Spanish I have an idea of the people and the culture based on the sounds of the language. I have an image based on sound. To me, these languages sound beautiful, just like music, and it makes me wonder what English sounds like. Is it just as beautiful? I think of it as a mongrel language, a mix of many influences – then does it sound more German, or French, or Latin? More and more it is absorbing other versions of itself like an out of control amoeba, and the sound of English is changing. What does it really sound like? I wish I could develop a sudden case of xenoglossia to see for myself.

Of course the sound of a language is to some extent up to personal taste. I’ve heard a lot of people comment on how ugly the Dutch language is, but personally, I think Dutch is beautiful. I actually like the guttural “ggggghhghghghhhhhrgrggggg”. Dutch is relevant to English because of it’s close similarity. Yet even closer is Frisian (spoken in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands). It is the closest language to English (think of them as twin sisters) and in general, people who speak Frisian can understand more of a text in Old English on sight than modern native English speakers. Old English is what our language used to sound like before it became the monstrous lingua franca that it is today. English sounds closer to Frisian than any other language, so to get an idea of the sound of English it is a good place to start. To me that’s not a bad thing, but considering the amount people who baulk at the Dutch guttural “gggh”, and the fact that Frisian is directly in between English and it’s cousin Dutch, this may mean that non-English speakers think our language is not inherently beautiful.

Seeing as the chances of developing xenoglossia are (thankfully) quite slim, it is necessary to find another way to hear English as a foreigner. I stumbled across a video recently on YouTube that originally aired on Italian television, and it gives an example of what American English sounds like to a foreigner who can’t speak the language. The lyrics are complete gibberish designed to replicated the sound of the language. The weird thing is that the brain naturally tries to make sense of nonsense and so at times I feel convinced that I can hear actual sentences in the video. I think everyone has had a time in their life when they got the lyrics to a famous song hilariously wrong. I recall the song “Blue” many years ago – the chorus is so indecipherable that everyone that heard it had their own personal mistaken interpretation of the lyrics. In fact, the chorus is not really words but sounds “da ba dee da ba di”. Other songs that are open to lyrical interpretation are Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, and Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends. Interestingly, in 1965 the FBI began an investigation into the song Louie Louie amid allegations of the lyrics being obscene and after two years reported that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”. In a short story I wrote titled “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (which was coincidentally a recent blog post) the main character has the interesting quirk of getting the lyrics of songs very wrong, and I used the song Louis Louis in the soundtrack I created for it. I love these songs, but I have to admit the lyrics are mostly gibberish when sung. It gives you an idea of what (drunk) English sounds like, but not what fluent English sounds like. At least with this Italian video, although it is gibberish, you can feel free to hear whatever you like in the lyrics and no one will blame you. The song is actually really catchy, and the choreography is impressive. But do Italians really dance like that?

Shedding Tears

cryingI cried yesterday. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been so keen to tell you that but I’m now proud to say it because for the purpose of acting crying is a good thing. Any actor needs to know how to cry in front of people. The trouble is, that especially for a man, it is very difficult to get over the barrier of being stoic. For a while now I have been able to cry when I am alone in my room. All I need to do is think about something very sad and I can force the tears. Music helps a lot. There are a few songs in particular that help me to cry. Everytime I listen to the song Blood by The Middle East for example I cannot help it. And while Roy Orbison’s Crying doesn’t make me cry, it definitely reflects the emotion, and is stuck in my head while writing this post. But still, in acting class, even if I am feeling an intense feeling of sadness my eyes dry up and I can’t show it. In the real world we don’t show vulnerability for a reason. To see a man crying is a rare thing. If a man starts crying in front of people it’s seen as a sign of weakness. That’s why we don’t do it. The last thing we want to do is reveal the chinks in our armour. In fact we go to great lengths to hide any chinks, why on Earth would we want to publicise them to the world?

I have tried for a long time to actually cry tears in class, and in one class a couple of months ago I actually broke down when I couldn’t get the tears to come. I ended up walking out of class in a storm of confusion. But in yesterday’s class I finally managed to shed three whole tears. As the tears ran down my cheek I felt an odd mixed sensation of sadness and joy. I was sad because of watching my partner break down into tears in front of me, and at the same time I was relieved that I was crying! Imagine how nerve wracking it is to talk in front of an audience, to perform in front of people, and then imagine how difficult it is for a man to cry in front of others watching your every move. This is the first step in letting out all my sadness, and I know I have a lot of sadness to let out. But it’s a great feeling to be on this path. Crying is such a beautiful thing, and it should not be feared. Our vulnerability is what makes us human.

The whole acting exercise was amazing. At the start of the exercise both Begum and I were struggling to get on track and completely connect with each other. We were in the white water rapids of emotion and both of us were desperately hanging onto the rocks to keep ourselves from going under and losing ourselves in the experience. Usually in any normal acting exercise like this, if two students are hanging on like that, nothing is going to change unless the teacher steps in and tries to pry the students from the rocks. Like barnacles in a rockpool students can be stubborn! But good acting moves with the flow of the moment like a leaf in the rapids. The amazing thing is, that if you go with the flow you don’t get hurt. Sure, there are rocks, and there is shallow water, and you get thrown about, but if you give yourself to the experience you can’t lose. A leaf in the rapids will not break because it is moving with the energy of the currents. But if you hang on to the rocks for dear life and fight the rapids you get bruised and bloodied, and like a leaf, ripped and torn. Luckily however, something amazing happened in this exercise because without the teacher stepping in, Begum and I both let go of our rocks and drifted like starfish that had left their cosy reef and ventured into the far distant ocean. For that second half of the exercise everything became oddly serene. The rapids became the sea, there was no battle anymore and without any struggle there was no need to hide our vulnerability.

I liken acting to playing the piano. Everyone has notes that they play. Some people tend to play the same notes over and over again. Some people will be inclined to play deep notes, others high notes. A good actor can play the the full range of the piano. A really good actor can play the full range and make it sound beautiful. And an exceptional actor can play one of those double level organs you find in churches and make that sound beautiful. In yesterdays exercise Begum and I both struggled to play the scales at first, but managed to hit a few of the right notes at the right time and in the right place, and from there, our song came to life. We both shed tears, and it was beautiful.

So yes, I cried. And I’m proud of it!