I didn't intend to take such a long time to write this blog, but a huge case of Writer's Block and January melcancholia came over me this term.
The balance of January blues, cold weather, the enclosed nature of Etampes, (to give you an idea of how enclosed... Tinder doesn't work here),the fact our bathroom in our house resembles a venereal disease but tiled, outside work commitments, personal conundrums and the constant flops at the school led me to feeling sluggish and knackered like a worn down cart horse. Stress and anxiety seemed to have nestled their ways into my shoulders and set themselves there like rot. Every time it came to write it was as if a huge slate had been lowered onto my hands alongside an impenetrable grey fog making words and ideas disappear.
The tipping point came four weeks in when we were given the task to make three masks for the Mask Play module. After a four hour botched attempt at making these masks** resulting in a burst of frustrated tears at 2am, I decided to put down the super glue and step away from the paper mache. Instead, I put on my pyjamas, got into bed, buried my head and dealt with my frustrations with a comforting and low brain power mixture of eating, Stephen King novels and Daredevil on Netflix.
We all have our own ways of dealing with depression - and mine has been perfected through the experience of eight years at an all girls boarding school where you share everything with hoards of other pubescent, stressed, hormonal teenage girls. When times are tough I now hibernate away in my own private concoon... alone and content, until I feel happy enough to start speaking to people again and getting up on stage with excitement rather than with complete fear.
This leads onto the most memorable and pivotal part about the school... THE FLOPS: The moments when you don't feel happy, when you don't feel content to go on stage, when you don't feel strong enough to deal with Philippe.
Gaulier calls himself The Tormentor, and indeed he is. His tormenting seeps into the attitudes and confidences of many of the students in first year. We all have anxiety dreams about him now! Although we are all fully aware of the tough love approach of his teaching, there are only so many flops you can take before you start transitioning from 'taking it on the chin' to feeling 'truly bloody awful'.
The best way to describe Gaulier's method of teaching is as Emotional Chinese Water Torture. He wants you to discover your 'beauty' but he does so by slowly nit picking at your insecurities, your bad habits and the things that you are sensitive about, until at some point you 'break' . This moment normally involves you crying on stage in front of everyone with Philippe questioning you and then as you answer he reaches for his huge turgid camera and starts taking photographs of you... because you are 'beautiful' now, because you have 'given something'.
It's like the film Whiplash except with neutral mask.
One evident example is through the way he picks on appearance. If you talk with a lisp, he talks at you with a lisp. If you are fat he refers to you as 'the suitcase' or 'the potato', If you are tall, you are an 'Asparagus' or a 'Giraffe'. Often people laugh it off, but there will come a point when you or someone else will break. He almost encourages this. Sometimes in class, when working with a pupil he will encourage them to say "Fuck you Philippe Gaulier" and swear at him.
He focusses on stripping away the safety nets you have built up for yourself previously in life. It can be hard, you can feel incredibly vulnerable, but the important thing at the school which makes it work is that everyone is equal - there is no hierarchy - you are all in the same boat. There is a huge, as Tania in our class calls it 'pack mentality' in class. Everyone looks out for one another. This is good, because sometimes you can't help but feel totally humiliated when you've flopped for the millioneth time in front of your peers.
For me - my body has been my Achilles' heel. I'm incredibly insecure about my shape - and the school is pushing me to utilise it - as Gaulier once said to me "You do not want to be beautiful on stage". Stand-Up comedy has trained me over the years to see my body like a ruler - straight up and straight down - and I have been okay with that, as it means I can ignore it. Only through the school am I analysing my body more academically. I am learning about fixed point, about 'pleasure' with the body.
This leads onto my breakthrough this term. Whilst dealing with constantly feeling miserable and wanting to cry all the time, my breakthrough came in the form of discovering mime. Rene Bazinet, a previous student of Gaulier and now an esteemed mime and clown throughout the world, was teaching usthe techniques of mime. Through his movement classes the depression started to ease - I became excited, I started laughing more, his explanations of how to create a bicycle and ride a horse made me so childishly happy. When I went back home I practised, and despite how I was abit clumsy in class, when I practised at home I was rather good. All the things that Philippe picks me up on -I felt confident to play with in mime - I felt happy to showcase. I felt beautiful doing mime - even if I was making mistakes doing it, I was happy trying.
I went back to London last week to perform Being Barbarella for the last time. After finishing the last show several people came up and said "We love the way you move on stage". I wouldn't have been given this compliment six months ago and I was delighted. Even my dad, my lovely potato with a face, who has seen the show since its inception in 2014 said to me "You've changed a lot as a performer since you went to Gaulier - you move differently, you are more confident and self-assured, You are not apologising to the audience any more for who you are."
In the simplest sense, this is what the school does. Through breaking you down, Gaulier causes you to build yourself up.
I have sucked at almost every module at the school so far, with small breakthroughs at different points, but rather than seeing it as a whole method I have to get right I am seeing Philippe's teachings as a toolbox of methods which I can slowly test and work out which ones work best with me and make me happiest as a performer.
I am still rubbish 90% of the time. And I am okay with that. But crucially I am happy.
Until next week.
*** These masks, in hindsight, although Gaulier said that they were 'fucking awful', I actually believe were pretty good - and I would like to think artists such as Paula Rego, Jackson Pollock and Picaso would consider them 'good attempts'. As I didn't have any painting equipment with me - I ended up making my makss out of cardboard, hot wax from a ton of scented candles from Ikea, Tin Foil, and petals off a bunch of old dying tulips.