Audiences and Ensemble

September 20, 2010 at 9:14 am | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The second week of performances start today. Six shows in six days. A couple are sold out, a couple will be relatively quiet I suspect.

I wrote sometime ago on this blog about the role of improvisation in the performance, how I aspired to a production where each performance was different in tone, pace, intensity to every other performance. It was part of an idea that every performance should be a unique live event, bringing together the work we have created over the last months with the particular audience who have turned up to watch on a particular night. In other words, the performance is not a fixed thing that we ”do” regardless of who is watching, rather that the performance is a living entity that we create, live and un-repeatably, every time we do it. Of course this puts particular demands on the performers, for they can never ‘coast’, never do a show (god how I despise this phrase) ‘on automatic’.

One of the questions that came up at the symposium last week was whether the audience were, however temporarily, part of the ensemble. My answer is that they might be. For the duration of each performance, if that performance is being made uniquely for a specific audience, then the composition of that audience – both its size and the quality of attention each audience member pays, will alter the nature of the performance. As such the audience is contributing to the making of the unique event that is unfolding in front of them. The audience is not made up of consumers but of collaborators – co-creators even.

Does this make them part of the ensemble? It depends of course on how exactly you choose to define ensemble, but it does make them a significant factor in the work. If they are not part of the ensemble as such, then certainly the audience are part of the community that is forged within the theatre for the duration of the performance, and that community is underpinned by the same ethics, courtesies and languages that underpin communication within the performance ensemble. As such, perhaps we can see the audience as part of an extended-ensemble.

This became very clear in the performances at the end of last week. On Friday we had a tiny audience – only five people. I spend enough of my time making and watching experimental and unconventional art to know that it can be very uncomfortable for both audience and cast when the event seems to ‘fail’ because hardly anyone has turned up. This especially possible when there is an ensemble of nine working at high physical intenstiy to an audience of about half that number!

Yet Friday was a wonderful performance. The cast performed the show entirely appropriately – they did everything the show required of them but at a level of intensity and engagement that allowed the small (and therefore exposed and vulnerable) audience to  feel as if they were being talked with rather than shouted at. It did not feel as if the audience was too small, rather that the scale of the audience and the scale of the performance matched. In the moments after the show, the five members of the audience all began to talk with each other, to discuss, enthusiastically the experience they had just shared. They were comfortable being in the theatre and felt able to remain there, to own the space, after the performance had ended. Temporarily it was their home.

The next night we had a bigger audience. So the cast made the show bigger. It was more intense, more forceful. In the moments after the show, no one spoke. The audience sat in silence and experienced the performance space and the echoes in the room after what was an intense and powerful experience. They too felt that they belonged and were able to sit quietly until they were ready to leave.

Two audiences. Two different shows, underpinned by a common way of human individuals choosing to be with one another. The audience may or may not be part of the ensemble, but they are integral to the community that is forged by an ensemble performing. Not because we give TO them, not because they take FROM us, but because we pay attention to one another and find a way of sharing our stories. We work together.

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Do I belong to this ensemble?

September 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Am I a member of the ensemble? Was I ever? If I was, am I still part of it, now the nine performers are delivering a show each night?

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly when I train groups for extended periods. I have a particular role, for I initiate, guide, pace and respond to the training. As such I have a leadership role. When/if the ensemble moves from a training group to a group delivering a performance, I become the director, the person who sits outside the group and observes, comments on, structures their work. My role is different to theirs. Though we collaborate, that essential difference cannot be ignored. It is not to do with power or hierarchy, but with function within the group.

In some ways, obviously, I am not a member of the ensemble as it now exists. I could not easily improvise within the group – certainly not with the same effortlessness and sensitive responsiveness with which they work with one another. If I tried to join in with an improvisation, it and I would feel clumsy, awkward, stilted. Yet I ‘know’ the work as well as anyone in the group – in fact better than anyone in the group, for I both understand in huge depths the principles that we work from and I have explored them in practice over twenty years of physical performance work. All of my work has grown from my practical experiences.

So, if I know the work intimately, and have been working alongside the ensemble every day for the last two months, in what way am I NOT a member of the ensemble?

The question was made more complicated by a conversation we had last night after the first performance (which went very well, I have to say). A friend who had been in the audience came for a drink with us. She’s someone who has trained with me in the past, and has trained with me in an ensemble several members of whom are in the current DUENDE ensemble. She knows the work well, both in theory and in practice. She has established performance relationships with a couple of the current ensemble. Yet, she is clearly not a member of this ensemble, any more than I feel that I am.

As part of preparation for a symposium at the University tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can describe what ensembles actually are. One description of them is that they are like a family. I like that, but wonder whether we have to differentiate between the nuclear family and the extended family. The nine current DUENDE performers are the current nuclear family. They make things work.

People like my friend in the pub, other people who have trained with me, people who have perhaps had other similar, related trainings, are part of an extended family. They know, understand and are (not necessarily uncritically) supportive of the work of the nuclear family, but are not actually part of it. Then there are those who are not part of the family, extended or nuclear. They do not know how (or perhaps why) we work as we do. They are often interested and supportive, though sometimes hostile, as is often true in the relationships between distinct social groupings with diverse agendas.

How does one move from being part of the extended family of ensemble-type performers to specific membership of a given ensemble? Certainly background training helps, A grasp and acceptance of the basic shared principles helps. But there is also the necessity for regular, physical work. Someone could become part of this performance ensemble only if they worked as a performer with them regularly. It might take me only a few days to integrate because I know the work well. Someone who has never encountered these ways of working would probably require months.

However, working with the group in itself is not enough. For if someone worked with the current ensemble without sharing the underlying principles and protocols that underpin the work, they would never become part of the ensemble, however long they stayed.

It seems to me that to be a functioning member of a specific ensemble, to be a member of the nuclear family, requires both an understanding of the shared rules and principles of that ensemble, and the daily experience of working in detail with the other members of that ensemble. Ensemble membership is about embodied understanding of self and others.

September 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Am I a member of the ensemble? Was I ever? If I was, am I still part of it, now the nine performers are delivering a show each night?

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly when I train groups for extended periods. I have a particular role, for I initiate, guide, pace and respond to the training. As such I have a leadership role. When/if the ensemble moves from a training group to a group delivering a performance, I become the director, the person who sits outside the group and observes, comments on, structures their work. My role is different to theirs. Though we collaborate, that essential difference cannot be ignored. It is not to do with power or hierarchy, but with function within the group.

In some ways, obviously, I am not a member of the ensemble as it now exists. I could not easily improvise within the group – certainly not with the same effortlessness and sensitive responsiveness with which they work with one another. If I tried to join in with an improvisation, it and I would feel clumsy, awkward, stilted. Yet I ‘know’ the work as well as anyone in the group – in fact better than anyone in the group, for I both understand in huge depths the principles that we work from and I have explored them in practice over twenty years of physical performance work. All of my work has grown from my practical experiences.

So, if I know the work intimately, and have been working alongside the ensemble every day for the last two months, in what way am I NOT a member of the ensemble?

The question was made more complicated by a conversation we had last night after the first performance (which went very well, I have to say). A friend who had been in the audience came for a drink with us. She’s someone who has trained with me in the past, and has trained with me in an ensemble several members of whom are in the current DUENDE ensemble. She knows the work well, both in theory and in practice. She has established performance relationships with a couple of the current ensemble. Yet, she is clearly not a member of this ensemble, any more than I feel that I am.

As part of preparation for a symposium at the University tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can describe what ensembles actually are. One description of them is that they are like a family. I like that, but wonder whether we have to differentiate between the nuclear family and the extended family. The nine current DUENDE performers are the current nuclear family. They make things work.

People like my friend in the pub, other people who have trained with me, people who have perhaps had other similar, related trainings, are part of an extended family. They know, understand and are (not necessarily uncritically) supportive of the work of the nuclear family, but are not actually part of it. Then there are those who are not part of the family, extended or nuclear. They do not know how (or perhaps why) we work as we do. They are often interested and supportive, though sometimes hostile, as is often true in the relationships between distinct social groupings with diverse agendas.

How does one move from being part of the extended family of ensemble-type performers to specific membership of a given ensemble? Certainly background training helps, A grasp and acceptance of the basic shared principles helps. But there is also the necessity for regular, physical work. Someone could become part of this performance ensemble only if they worked as a performer with them regularly. It might take me only a few days to integrate because I know the work well. Someone who has never encountered these ways of working would probably require months.

It seems to me that to be a functioning member of a specific ensemble, to be a member of the nuclear family, requires both an understanding of the shared rules and principles of that ensemble, and the daily experience of working in detail with the other members of that ensemble. Ensemble membership is about embodied understanding of self and others.

Continuing the process, right to the end. Ethics & aesthetics.

September 13, 2010 at 9:02 am | Posted in creative process, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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I think of this summer’s work as breaking into three phases: ensemble development (which took place during the residency at Whitestone Arts); rehearsal (which took place in Huddersfield); performance (which starts this week).

Stage two, the rehearsal process, ended on Friday.

The show is ready for the public. The lighting is rigged, the studio tidied so it looks like a theatre space, the structure, energy, performance details,  all tweaked, re-tweaked, reorganised, reconsidered. Yes, we’re ready.

So is that it? Is the creative process complete? Is the product of our work ready for consumption by those interested enough to come along to see what we’ve been up to? Can I go home now and leave the show to look after itself?

It’s a thought I resist with every cell in my body, not because I want to hold onto what we have experienced this summer, but because I reject absolutely the thought that there is a ‘product’ for us to share and I reject the thought that the process of being with an audience should be a different process to the one we experienced in being with one another over the last few months.

It’s making me think about the relationship of aesthetics (the form that we use to communicate our art) and ethics (the behaviours that govern how we interact with one another).

Lev Dodin, director of The Maly Theatre, one of the world’s great ensembles, was asked about the work of Stanislavski.* He said of the actors of The Moscow Arts Theatre, where Stanislavski worked:  “(this theatre is) the place where people search for spiritual values and where the theatre production is a sort of by-product, but spiritual life, spiritual exploration and spiritual research are the main thing.”  I never really understood this until now. It felt a little abstract or rarefied to me, for my focus is on the practical details of developing individuals and ensembles and on the forging of those ensembles into public performances. But on Friday, as we met for the last session of the ‘rehearsal period’, suddenly it made sense. Deep and absolute sense.

What we have created, the aesthetics of “The Shattering Man’, are the concrete embodiment of how this particular ensemble have learned to behave, to co-exist. If the ensemble had developed different ways of being together – which inevitably would have happened had there been different individuals within the ensemble – then the ethics of our interactions would have been different and the work that emerged from those interactions would also have been different. The aesthetics of “The Shattering Man’ are intimately an expression of the bonds that bind the performers one to another. It that sense, ensemble theatre is profoundly a community theatre, the unique expression of a unique community, formed in a specific time and place.

Certainly the principles I introduce to underpin the development of the ensemble are a significant influence on the ethics and aesthetics that emerge from the process. However all of those principles are encountered, challenged and altered by each of the people who comprise the ensemble and in that process of personalising my initial principles, the unique identity of this unique ensemble is born.

What does this mean for us as we move from the rehearsal period to the performance season?

Strangely enough, my sense is that it means that nothing should alter. At the root of “The Shattering Man” is not a text, or a lighting plan or a story or a message or even a concept. At the heart of what we have made, what we offer to our audience, is the details of how we interact with one another. The rules governing human interaction are called ethics.

Our obligation, in full respect for our audience, is to behave ethically and to include the audience in that ethical behaviour. The show is not a ‘product’, it is something that emerges from the details of the interactions within the ensemble. It is a process that the ensemble engage in, live in front of the audience, every time they perform the show. If we lose the quality of the behaviours between ourselves, if we start treating the show as a product to be shown rather than a creative act to be undertaken, if we stop looking for the unique quality of every moment of every performance, if individual cast members allow their individual concerns to shatter the sensitivity of their connections with other cast members, or if the ensemble treats the audience not as collaborators but as consumers, then we have lost our ethical base and what we have made is so much noise and movement, signifying nothing.

I hope that each performance of “The Shattering Man’ will be a joyous ethical act.

Of course, none of this is fashionable, for it doesn’t leave much room for detachment or irony. Nor is it ‘conceptual’ or ideological. We treat the audience with the same ethical perspective as we treat one another. We are inviting them, for a brief while, to be as open to us as we are to each other and to them. We are neither flattering not seeking to distract our audience, we are inviting them, however briefly, to be part of our community.

* You can read this interview in “In Contact With The Gods: Directors Talk Theatre” ed. Delgado & Heritage, MUP (p.71)

Making it up as we go along.

September 5, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We ran the show for the first time on Saturday morning.

It’s always exciting for director and cast to experience, for the first time, the journey from start to finish. The flowing sections, the bits that feel right, are evident. So are the bits where scenes or moments rub against each other in awkward, clumsy, inappropriate ways.

First runs can be painful, but this one wasn’t. Quite the reverse – it was exhilarating. Though it’s over a week until we open, I would not be particularly worried if we had to open this week. There are things that need looking at and much that will benefit from being taken to pieces and put back together differently. But nothing is bad, nothing fell to pieces, nothing looked or sounded as if we were lost and bewildered. Everything can use more detail and every action, every sound, needs more detailed embodiment by the performers. But, already, there are moments of real power, madness, weirdness, some moments that are highly theatrical, some are very moving. Undeniably there is a sense of a coherent journey, an arc, a crafted shape.

For me, one of the most exciting results of watching the first run was seeing how the ‘idea’ we have been working on of an aesthetic, a style of performance, has found concrete form. I am trying to direct in a different way to how I have directed in the past. Though I am building on my experience of working in a huge range of styles and contexts, and though I am developing the work from the physical training processes that I know well, I am trying to let this show find a new form, a new style.

Essentially I am working to integrate improvisation much more deeply into the fabric of the performance than I ever have in the past. There are improvised sections dotted through the structure of the show, ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. The ensemble have a ‘score’, a physical language, but no fixed structure or movements. I ask that, each time they come to one of these sections, they pay deep attention to each other at the very moment the improvised section begins and that they build the section from what they find in paying attention, rather than simply recreating what they made the last time they did that particular improvisation. This puts huge demands on a performer as she has to move from paying precise attention to the details of fixed movements and relationships to suddenly having to find her material from reacting to an almost limitless set of impulses.

It also means that the section following an improvisation, however short that improvisation was, will start from a different place each time – even if that section is itself tightly choreographed or directed. In other words, as soon as you integrate improvisation into the structure of the piece, it demands that the performers are flexible about how they approach the non-improvised sections. While in non-improvised sections WHAT the performer does may be fixed, HOW she does it will be affected by the energy and material that she invented, spontaneously in the improvisation that preceded it.

If a show is truly live, one moment of improvisation in it means that the whole show, at some level, becomes improvised.

The reason I am doing this is quite straight forward in theory. I want the entire show, notwithstanding the fact we are working in huge detail on every element of what we are doing, to feel as if it is being made up as we go along. The best way I know of giving the sense that the show is being created spontaneously is to make sure that it is in fact being created spontaneously.

Although much of what is in the show is ‘abstract’ and ‘experimental’ and nothing is ‘realistic’, the show itself is absolutely real. What you see is what you get. The audience will see nine highly skilled, utterly connected performers creating the journey through the script, live and differently every night. Some parts they will be making up WHAT they are doing, always they will be inventing HOW they are doing it.

Will the audience like it? Those who are excited by live performance and live performers will. Those who are open to going on a journey with the cast will. Those who have strong ideas of what theatre ‘ought’ to be might not. Those who think theatre should be safely caged behind a fourth wall will not.

But I do. Absolutely.

Excitement. Work. Fear.

August 26, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We’re deep in the heart of the rehearsal process. The work is developing rapidly – both in terms of the scenes and number of pages we are covering and in terms of my/our understanding of the style or aesthetic that is emerging. It is a time of rich excitement, of very hard, disciplined work and of fear.

The excitement manifests in many ways. It is extraordinary to see the developmental work we did in Whitestone (a time that feels so long ago now), underpinning the rehearsal of scenes. Two, three pages of complex work can be rehearsed in half an hour because the ensemble can work quickly, wordlessly and in full trust to discover how to make a piece of text, an image, a sound world come to life. There is deep excitement in seeing individuals in the ensemble making personal breakthroughs, suddenly seeing weeks of disciplined, painstaking self-exploration coalesce into moments of practical realisation – not realisation in the mind, but embodied realisation, when an individual suddenly experiences themselves as being able to do things they never thought would be possible for them. There is deep excitement in collectively finding solutions to seemingly intractable script problems. There is – always – the deep excitement of improvisation when I get to watch (and the performers get to experience) the spontaneous eruption of extraordinary moments of collective or individual expression – moments that erupt and evaporate in the blink of an eye.

Yes, there is excitement in every hour of the long rehearsal day.

Hard work? People arrive between 9.00 and 9.30 to start personal warm-up. We work collectively from 10.00 until around 5.30pm.   Usually I leave the building at 6.00 to go home and prepare for the next day’s rehearsal. The performers are still there, working with full attention on their personal physical scores. During the long working day we train, physically and vocally, we improvise, we sing, we develop complex physical images, we rehearse scenes, we develop personal elements of performance, we work on physical characterisation, we dance wildly….. . In the evenings there is always line-learning or remembering the details of physical scores. It is gruelling work, requiring the full attention of the self on every aspect of our psychic and physical being. It is emotionally tough, physically tough and gloriously relentless. How did actors get the reputation of being somehow lazy or self-indulgent?

And fear? Yes there is fear. Each of us has our own fears and only some of them do we share with one another. I find myself up against old and ingrained habits which I desperately want and need to break. Though my work as a director is generally ‘experimental’ (unless I’m working to a specific directorial brief), nonetheless I have a strong desire to ‘please’ my audience. Often that comes at the expense of ‘pleasing’ myself – or rather I should say, at the expense of following my vision or instinct. Perhaps I do not trust my instinct enough. Perhaps I am afraid that I am too strange, too idiosyncratic and so instead of making the work that I really want to, I make work that I think the audience wants to see. Generally that’s successful enough as a strategy – people mainly like the work I make. But….. What if I really follow my vision through to it’s logical conclusions? What if I did not seek the approval of the audience but instead do what I really admire in others – pursue a vision and allow those who like it to like it, and those who don’t, not to. What if I really work as an artist (pursuing a vision), not as an entertainer (seeking approval from an audience)? There is no value judgement implicit in those two terms – both artist and entertainer are to be respected for both do difficult jobs – but they are, sometimes, different jobs. So my fear is of risking disapproval from my audience by pursuing my vision rather than second-guessing what I think those who will come to see the show will want to see.

Excitement. Disicplined work. Fear.

In training performers I ask that they boldly confront, embrace and work through their fears to realise the untapped potential they possess as artists. As we enter the crucial stage of development of “The Shattering Man’ do I have the courage to do that too?

Change and Continuity

August 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Well, we left Whitestone. We had a couple of days rest aand then reconvened in Studio 2 of The Milton Building, University of Huddersfield where, next month, ‘The Shattering Man’ will be performed. The shift of space – indeed the complete change of environment  that was involved in leaving Whitestone – raises questions for me about the relationship between change and continuity.

This Duende ensemble met, made preliminary contact, grew and flourished, in a beautiful, small converted barn in a rural setting. Our soundscape was the wind, the birds, the sheep. Our rehearsals were book-ended with a shared breakfast and a shared evening meal. We were our own community. The ensemble comfortably filled the space we worked in. If we chose to be loud or highly energetic, we could dominate, almost threaten the space. We were free  to take the work outside the studio and into the natural world, where we could not dominate but we could be part of the landscape and the soundscape.

Here, in Milton, there is a different rhythm. Our days are bookended with ‘real’ life – travel to and from rehearsal surrounded by people who have nothing to do with ‘The Shattering Man’. Breakfast and evenings are spent in our permanent (or temporary) homes. Though the University campus is quiet, as is the building we are working in, it is inhabited. We are a small part of a bigger community. The studio is a beautiful converted, huge, nineteenth century church hall – immensely high and with a huge window at one end. The set is already constructed and so the space is assymetirical. We have to bend our training round the performance space.

Training exercises that had one flavour in Whitestone have quite another one here. Here we can fill the space – aurally and physically – but we do not dominate it. Here we cannot take the work outside – it becomes a constrained experience, more theatrical and less environmental. The feeling is different.

So what remains? What have we brought with us from the first part of the process into this second part? As so much of what I ask of an ensemble is to do with responsiveness, about being able,  in the moment, to respond to changes in the performance environment, it is inevitable that the experience of the work changes here. That’s necessary. If things felt the same here we would not be responding to the changed circumstances we find ourselves in. Paradoxically, if we were to try to hold onto how the ensemble was in Whitestone, we would be betraying the very essence of the ensemble we constructed there  – an ensemble of open and responsive, interconnected individuals. It is only by letting go of what we had there that we can preserve the spirit of what we made there.

Yet some qualities remain constant. The connection between the ensemble is pretty much intact. The nature of people’s individual struggles changes but has continuity. When the group improvises, certain languages and energies that have become familiar between us re-emerge, though often in new and unexpected ways. We still listen and respond.

When things change, when fantastic periods of time are over, we want, naturally, to preserve what we made and experienced. We want to keep the past and continually relive it. But we are making live theatre here. Live theatre does not exist in the past, it must vibrantly and boldly exist in the present, otherwise it is no longer live. So at the heart of what remains of the experience of being at Whitestone, the very essence of the ensemble we formed there, is our willingness to change, to grow, to build.

Things change, and the only continuity is our willingess to change with them.

Fundamentals, spirals, endings, beginnings

August 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The residency has ended. Though this is only the conclusion of the first part of the creative process, it feels like a significant (and quite painful) milestone.

The work really peaked a few days ago so I focussed the last couple of days on consolidating, reflecting and revisiting experiences. Often this involved going back to exercises or explorations the ensemble had undertaken earlier in the residency, revisiting fundamentals. As there is such a rich process of individual and collective growth going on through the residential process, the act of revisiting is powerful and revealing.

I often think of learning, or ensemble development, as a spiral rather than a linear process. Neither individuals nor the group simply learn one thing, then the next, then the next, with each discovery building on top of the previous one. It simply doesn’t work like that. Any process of training or ensemble development requires elements of repetition. In my training approach, there are only four or five core exercises, each with an infinite number of variations that serve the particular needs of the ensemble at specific stages of its development.

Sometimes the most useful way to run an exercise is to return to its most basic form, to touch base once again with its fundamentals. If people think of their development as linear, this might seem like going back to the beginning. However, if people think of their learning as spiral, then although going back to basic forms of an exercise means returning where the training started, it acknowledges that people have changed. We have improved, deepened, unlearned some bad habits. So we cannot go back to the beginning, we can only spiral back to somewhere close to the start, and, in doing that, notice how much we have been changed by the experiences we have undertaken.

So the last few days of the residency involved some spiralling back to the start, both as a way to reflect on the enormity of the journey we have each undertaken and to prepare us for relocating to the rehearsal studio in Huddersfield next week where work starts in earnest on the creation of the show.

This is the first time I have run such a prolonged residency. I have run longer training processes (up to 3 months on the MA course I teach) and I have run rural residential workshops before (particularly at Au Brana Cultural Centre in Southern France). However this has been a new experience for me. There is much to reflect on and I want to chart how the experiences of these three weeks blossom in the rehearsal studio. However, standing on the step of Whitestone this morning as people left, even though we are to reconvene in only four days, I experienced a sense of loss and knew that something extraordinary had happened. In and out of the studio, in front of the living room fire together (or last night in the hot tub in the garden) or searching for moments of solitude on the moors, eating together, training together, singing, laughing, walking, chatting together, we forged a community.

Though we live in a cynical age, where such sentiments are unfashionable, I feel proud and honoured to have spent three weeks in a community utterly and passionately committed to making art. It was a community of rigorous, disciplined, generous and excellent performers willing to push themselves beyond their limits in pursuit of the development of themselves in relationship with others. We became an ensemble.

letting go

August 8, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, flow, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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The couple of days during which I broke some of the bonds that have established in the ensemble – which I wrote about in the last post – were difficult. People felt separated, exposed, confused. Yesterday we spent a training session in which we went right back to basics. We ran the core training exercises focussing on the fundamental principles – detail of task, flow of impulse, attention to the shifting energetics of each moment of each exercise and, above all, pursuit of personal pleasure within each and every moment of each and every task.

It was a great training session during which the ensemble reconfigured in deeper and hugely exciting ways. It ended up, after three hours of training with one of the best group physical improvisations I have even seen.

It has made me consider the process of forming and breaking habits. Whenever an individual encounters an exercise for the first time, she works out how to manage it. She develops strategies for working at the level necessary for her to be able to survive within the exercise. Often these strategies have strengths and weaknesses in them. As she improves in the exercise, she becomes better and pursuing her strategies, but still they contain the same strengths and weaknesses that were there in the first place. Eventually the strategy that has enabled her to get to a certain level in an exercise becomes exactly the same strategy, or habit, that is preventing her from getting any further.

An example: As anyone who has worked with me knows, I spend a lot of time standing in a circle throwing  juggling bags. When a performer first encounters the exercise she usually grabs and holds the bags before passing them on, ensuring that she catches more bags than she drops. It is her way of controlling the apparent chaos of the exercise. Eventually, as there are more bags being thrown in the circle, and they are flying faster and harder, it is no longer sustainable to grab and hold each bag. The initial strategy she developed has reached the end of its usefulness and she needs to learn another. So she gives herself to the flow of the exercise. She develops fluidity of motion and her reaction to impulses improves. But still, often, at some level, she attempts to control the exercise and when she is faced with several bags flying at  her at once, she will revert to snatching at them, or batting them away. The weakness of her first strategy – the desire to exert control over the exercise – is still embedded in her work.

So this is when we need to practice letting go. We need to let go of control and give ourself to reaction. We need to let go of our competence, and give ourselves to reaction. We need to let go of our strength and power and give ourselves to reaction. We need to give away the security of having ANY strategy and trust ourselves to be able to react appropriately to any and all situations. In the end that is the only ‘strategy’ that always works – to know that we will be able to react well whatever is thrown at us. It is the strategy that allows us to stay ‘live’ as performers because it is one based on paying attention to whatever is real in an exercise rather than attempting to exert control over that exercise.

This letting go of the ‘controlling self’ requires deep levels of self confidence and even then is not easy, for it requires the confidence to trust to reaction rather than to planning. This reservoir of confidence that a performer needs if she is to penetrate to deep levels of ‘liveness’ is one of many reasons why I insist on the pursuit of personal pleasure within each action. Performers will let go only because and when they want to.

breaking and mending

August 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Once a group has been working together for a while, it begins to find its groove. Initial reservations dissolve, people come to trust and delight in each other. The mutual respect that is generated encourages people to venture from their safe places into areas that are more challenging to them. People take risks. People even learn to like taking risks. As people learn to dare to face up to their personal struggles, they also learn that fear will not kill them and that even when something breaks, what emerges is usually stronger that what it is replacing.

In the main training exercises – the ones we do pretty much every day – people find  now that they can daily achieve, without thinking or undue effort, things that initially seemed impossible to them. In group improvisations, certain vocal and physical languages repeat, certain rhythms or types of inter-relationship or energies reoccur.

The ensemble begins to find a collective identity. It finds its groove.

Around that point, the groove needs to be smashed. What we have made requires breaking so that it can reconfigure and then reform in new, more sophisticated forms. Otherwise the groove, the ensemble identity, becomes not a creative but a complacent place. Exercises are undertaken without real attention because individuals can work at a high level while paying more attention to their distractions than to the details that make the exercise a unique experience every time it is undertaken. Improvisations become familiar – enjoyable certainly – but undemanding.

Today I messed around with our core exercise, which involves throwing juggling bags in a circle (those who have never worked with me might, at this point, wonder how that most common of exercises can be seen as a core training exercise, as an exercise that we do for at least 90 minutes each day, but that’s a topic for another post, though you can get some idea here: http://www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.com/John_Britton/Blog/Entries/2009/8/16_The_Bag_Game.html)

We have spent two intensive weeks achieving a very high level of competence and concentration in this exercise and today I deliberately broke everything, all the ways of concentrating we have built up, the embodied actions we have learned. It can lead people to frustration, anger, insecurity, but will also, when we start again tomorrow, allow people to experience this exercise as if for the first time, having to relearn its basics and recommit themselves to its process.  Similarly in group improvisations, the ensemble needs to learn to recognise when it is in a groove. Sometimes that groove is yielding fruit (in which case they should keep doing what they are doing), and sometimes the ensemble is stuck in their groove (in which case someone needs to be bold enough to smash the groove and see what emerges from the rubble)

This process of development and dismantling is at the heart of growing an ensemble. It is also the model for the development of the self. We learn how to work at a certain level then we must confront and shatter our habits. We risk chaos, we experience failure, we make ourselves vulnerable, so that as our competencies reform, they do so in richer, more sophisticated and more resilient forms. Without the breaking, there is no growth. Without the failure, no success.

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