Imagine. A man lives on the tenth floor of an apartment building. Every day he takes the lift down to the ground floor to leave the building. When he returns home, he takes the lift to the seventh floor and then proceeds to take the stairway up to his apartment on the tenth floor. Unless it is raining. On those days he takes the lift all the way up to the tenth floor. The man hates to walk and feels no need to work on his fitness. How do you explain this?
[This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #60 – September 2019 // Author: Liv Laveyne // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
The riddle prompts the reader to exercise lateral thinking, and that’s also the premise upon which LINEAR is built, the new performance from TeaTime Company. Hannah Rogerson (IRL), Bavo De Smedt (BE) and Pieter Visser (NL) set out to research the tensions between colouring inside the lines of linear thought, and a more lateral out of the box way of thinking, together with one Chinese pole and 19 carbon sticks. By the way, the solution to the riddle is this: the man is a dwarf with an umbrella. He cannot reach the buttons in the lift above 7, except on rainy days, when he can use his umbrella to reach the button for the 10th floor.
Lateral thinking is a way of solving problems by thinking creatively, in ways which are not immediately evident. In the case of ‘LINEAR’ the problem is a line in itself. It led TeaTime Company to put material, technique, uniformity and the organic into question. Because if a pole is essentially a straight line and the human body a vertical line, how are you going to deviate from the line? “We don’t realise how accustomed we are to thinking in a linear fashion in our daily lives, in concepts of time and space. And the same holds true for the process of creating a performance,” Hannah explains. “Each performance has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. A character is obliged to develop from point A to point B. That is a structure that we know will work, but what if we leave that which is familiar and walk outside of our comfort zone? What if there is no begin and no end, and characters are only abstractions? What if we don’t think in lines but in circles?”
During the research they discovered how greatly they differed from one another in their ways of thinking. Bavo, the pragmatist who searches for the most logical solution and quickly deduces what must and must not be done. Hannah, the critical borderline between dream and reality and Pieter, the most lateral thinker of the three. Bavo laughs, “Often Hannah and I will be discussing something while he’s in a corner trying out all kinds of bizarre stuff. Then our discussion dies out, we end up transfixed by what he’s up to, and our discussion ends with: ‘hey yeah, let’s do that!’” “Sometimes I will come to the same conclusion via a detour, or I follow their line of thinking but end up with a different conclusion,” Pieter adds. He even managed once during a math test to assert that 3+5=9. Although he was a brilliant math student it seems he had gotten all the answers wrong. “It turned out that with each question, I had added the number of the question into the equation. So question 1. 3+5 became 9.”
If LINEAR offered a chance for TeaTime Company to think ‘outside the box’, the performance challenges the spectator as well to let go of their accustomed ways of thinking. “Much too often I see performances which do the thinking for the audience. If you are supposed to be sad, they put on some sad music. We want to give our audience complete freedom of interpretation. But how can you allow that freedom while still commanding the audience to come with you on the journey? How do you find humanity in the abstraction?” Hannah asks herself.
They tell the story of being on tour in Portugal, visiting a castle together, where their attention was drawn to an abstract painting, and how wonderful it was that they each had their own interpretation and derived their own completely different story from the painting. Hannah compares ‘LINEAR’ to the page of a colouring book where the lines have been drawn but where each member of the audience will colour it in differently. Though they have their own ways of referring to the different sequences in the play, with evocative names like ‘the seagulls’ or ‘the donkey and the carrot’, a spectator probably sees something completely different. “We noticed that during our first try-outs. There is one sequence that we call the ‘the icicles’, but someone in the audience kept referring to the moment as ‘the fire-pit’.”
Pieter goes on, “As abstract as an image may be, you can’t not interpret it. Even something as abstract as a stick; put a big stick next to a small stick and you immediately start to assign different qualities to them, imagining a story between them.” Hannah continues, “And that’s also beautiful, how we humans each individually unleash our creative thinking. I’m immersed at the moment in the book ‘Homo deus’ in which Harari sketches a rather unromantic picture of our future, in which artificial intelligence has made human beings superfluous. Where we can still make a difference is in our creativity, our ability to make unexpected detours in our thinking, outside of the logical structures. It means the artist may be the ‘last human standing’ in a world where humankind is no longer a collection of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but reduced to one collective organ, governed by algorithms.”
A collection of individuals. That’s also how the company functions. Akin to many young companies today, like BOG and the NWE Tijd, TeaTime Company is redefining the concept of the collective. There is no longer the need to make everything together. “We see it more as a collection of work, from the three of us together but also as individuals. There has also been room, next to their debut Stick-Stok, for each their own (solo) projects. Pieter is working on a solo, a combination of theatre and juggling with the theme ‘ideals’, directed by Eva van Boxtel. “TeaTime Company is a platform where we support rather than obstruct each other’s ideas.”
Each is accomplished in various disciplines: Hannah the Irish dancer, the juggler Pieter from the Netherlands and the Belgian Bavo who’s expertise is Chinese pole. They met one another at the Fontys Academy of Circus where a strong connection between the circus and dance departments already exists, as the two departments share a teaching staff, open workshops and tryouts. “Bavo and I connected when we discovered a shared obsession for ‘Lord of the Rings’,” Hannah tells us. “I got to know Pieter when he came to see a play of mine where I was juggling shoes. Well, actually it was more ‘throwing about’ than juggling. Then he promised me: ‘If you really want to juggle, I will teach you’, and he kept his word. But even if we know each other from the school, these two years since graduation have been the real education, where we’ve really gotten to know each other. If in the beginning we were gentle when it came to criticism, we can now be pretty hard on each other. We are past the ‘puppy love’ phase,” Hannah laughs. But like any long-term relationship there is a comfort in knowing that you can count on each other. “The way we have begun to work on LINEAR, throwing our normal thought process to the wind, has been a harrowing experience. It’s stimulated our creativity, but it’s also frightening. We’ve hardly been working together for two years, have only made one play together, we couldn’t begin to talk about an oeuvre, and now we are radically taking things in a different direction. So the fear of failure is never far away,” Bavo explains. “People are already a bit suspicious when a new young company arrives on the scene. There is not a lot of room to fail in a circus landscape where all research has to deliver a successful result. How do we avoid being immobilised by fear? We talk a lot and that’s how we find our confidence back.” They call it TeaTime Therapy.
Where did they get the company name? “Tea time is the moment to pause, to lean back and think about what you have done and what you can still do. A moment which lends itself to reflection and coming to one’s senses. Let’s say it has more to do with the French tea time of Marcel Proust, nibbling on a madeleine, than it does with the English tea-party of Alice in Wonderland.” Hannah explains. “And it’s not like we are crazy about tea or something,” Pieter laughs. “I prefer a good cup of coffee. Unfortunately ‘thecoffeecompany’ already existed as a domain name.” Or how lateral thinking continues to open new perspectives.
Lateral thinking is based on re-organising or differently organising existing information, which in doing so creates the possibility for new information to emerge. The term ‘lateral thinking’ was introduced by the British psychologist Edward de Bono.
A problem often has a beginning situation and an end situation. The thought process is the process of determining a path which leads from the begin situation to the end. A human being will be inclined to follow familiar paths, and travel in as straight a line as possible to get there. If along the path one meets a (seeming) impossibility, many will throw their whole solution away and search for a new one. Someone who is thinking laterally continues along the same path with the thought: ‘imagine that this is possible’. That can lead to completely new insights.
Lateral thinking is often used during brainstorming sessions. For those occasions De Bono developed various exercises. Here are four examples you can try out if you get stuck during a creation process (and that we’ve already tested with TeaTime Company).
Formulate your problem as a question and then turn the question around. Then hold a mirror up to your solution. An example from LINEAR: in the performance there are icicles that look like dangerous spears. The question ‘how can the artist avoid them’ gets turned around to ‘how can the artist actually use them?’. You see it when Bavo makes a mental switch, and ceases to avoid the icicle/staff and starts to use it as a tool, as a means to assist himself.
Formulate your problem, think of animals that would be confronted by the same problem, research how they would solve the problem and translate that solution back to the original problem. Example from LINEAR: Pieter is stuck to a staff like a fly in a web. How do flies react when they are stuck? First they explode in a series of rapid movements attempting to yank themselves free. Then follows the moment of surrender. TeaTime calls this movement ‘Pieter’s entanglement’.
Choose a word out of the dictionary by determining a page number, a line number and position of the word on that line. The word has to be a noun. Attach this word onto the problem you have formulated. Example from LINEAR: ‘water’. In order to humanise an abstraction it happens in a silence. A silence in which you actually can hear sound-waves that resemble the sound of breathing in and out.
The action hero
Choose an action hero and formulate their particular powers. How would they deal with a particular problem? Translate this to a solution for the problem. Example from LINEAR: Pieter’s action hero is Deadpool. This comic book hero often ignores the fourth wall, directly addressing the reader. “It’s not in the show yet, but this may be a solution if we get stuck in a particular movement.”