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.


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.


August 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Posted in creative process, creativity, Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, pleasure, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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We ran the first two-thirds of the script on Friday morning – about 40 minutes worth of material. I thought it was great – and enormously exciting. The style is awkward and confrontational, nothing settles for very long before something very different comes along and blows it away. High energy and wild movement mutates into tight choreography. Silence is slaughtered by an onslaught of noise. The grotesque and the introspective challenge each other for primacy. Everything is continually shattering – as is only appropriate in a piece about a shattering man who shatters his universe.

Some of the material is a little over-sombre and reflective at the moment – I need to rough it up and inject more grotesque humour into the structure and the performance. But there’s plenty of time yet.

There are sections throughout the piece that are – and will remain – improvised. this is not a simple ‘style’ choice, it is designed to alter the entire feel of the piece each time the cast run any or all of it. If we are TRULY to be live, then if one thing in the piece is different to how it has been before, then everything, in subtle ways, will be altered. So to push this ‘idea’ to its logical conclusion, I want to integrate the essence of unpredictability – improvisation – into the core of the dramatic journey. Not only are some small sections improvised, but I am asking the cast that all sections, however tightly directed, are performed AS IF improvised. So if an improvised section is particularly energetic in one show, what follows, however tightly structured, will contain echoes and will be influenced by the energy of what preceded it.

There is a kind of madness here – we spend months generating material and then aspire to make it appear as if we are making it up as we go along. It is not the only perversity at work in the process. I ask performers always to aspire to appear absolutely effortless. However complex, challenging or frightening a move or a moment, I ask that it appears to the audience as if it is effortlessly achieved. So we work incredibly hard so that the audience thinks that what we are doing is easy…..

This coming week I will try to create, with the ensemble, the final third of the material. It is a descent into madness. Macbeth is King and is worshipped. Banquo is dangerous and must die. There will be a feast at which corpses will dance. Macbeth will choose to fight the fabric of the world, and will be destroyed in that fight. Lad Macbeth will try to hold it all together and will find that, at her core, is an emptiness into which she will collapse. Her end is silence. Conquerers, no better than those they conquer, will take control and slaughter all those who stand between them and safety. Our protagonist, the invisible Porter who opens gates for those more famous than him, will slip away from a burning castle and become an outcast in an unforgiving world.

Everything will shatter.

In the midst of all this madness we, the artists, must be sane. In the midst of the danger, we must be safe. In the midst of the horror, the slaughter, the shattering despair, we, the artists, must find joy, community and coherence.

Think of us – for this week we go to the heart of madness.

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.

more thoughts on funding

June 23, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Posted in arts council, arts funding, arts promotion, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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It’s not unexpected, especially in the current climate, and I guess we are not the only people in the UK and beyond who will be feeling the absence of government support for things they once thought were important.

I need to be careful about how much we spend. Money will be found for the things that money must be found for and the project will happen – partly because that’s the commitment I originally made and partly because the team that has assembled, with or without government support, is exceptional.
One area I would appreciate help with is this. We need to promote the show to two distinct audiences:
the first is the sorts of people from the arts world who we want to come and see the show so that this type of work moves more onto the radar and they find it harder to turn us down if we apply for money in future. This includes promoters, critics, people from other companies, people from funding bodies, people who might be able to help in the careers of all or any of the participants etc etc etc. In other words the ‘movers and shakers’ from the arts world.
the second is the audience of people from around the country who are excited by this sort of work and might actually buy a ticket to see it. This includes friends and colleagues but also accessing the sorts of communities of interesting artists who might not otherwise hear about us.
It strikes me that one way of accessing both these communities is via social network sites – ‘facebook’ I guess. It’s a world that I know absolutely nothing about – I have to date always refused to register with any social networking site. Maybe it’s time I took the plunge. I’m talking about trying to set up some kind of structured campaign of promotion via such a site that could develop between now and september and perhaps remove the need to print publicity (which I always hate doing) and might even replace having to employ a publicist.
Does anyone on the team know about this sort of thing? Anyone willing to suggest how we might go about using social networks as a way of getting this show out to those people we want to get it out to. Ideally, I’d like to see some kind of ‘community’ building up not just round this show, but the idea of this sort of project created by a group such as we are.
I just returned from running a lovely performance and workshop week with Aliki in Thessaloniki. It was in part that experience that got me thinking about whether social networking might generate the sort of ‘community of people who are looking for something different in theatre’ that I so strongly experienced among participants and audience in Greece.
Any ideas?


June 23, 2010 at 11:29 am | Posted in arts council, arts funding, Ensemble, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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So. I applied for funding for the project from the Arts Council England. Only a bit of funding, as the majority of the cost of this project is met through the commitment of the participants to work unpaid. The Arts Council assessed the project as ‘a strong project’ which deserved funding. However, they have no money, so they rejected the application. It’s frustrating- even projects that meet all the criteria, are deemed strong and are only seeking a bit of marginal support to supplement a huge investment from the artists are unfundable because there is no money. Unless you are a bank. And bankers still seem surprised when people doubt that a meagre £1,000,000 bonus for their year’s work is justified….

On the other hand, the project goes ahead anyway. The money will be found because the project needs to happen and a lot of good people have committed themselves to it’s existence. We are free of having to justify ourselves to any government or bureaucracy and we are face to face with the reality of the new world we are all living in. We can justifiably claim that we pursue our vision and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it, rather than only doing what the state permits through its largesse. On balance, that feels good. Good enough, at least.

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