An Ensemble of Equals
I have been thinking a lot recently about how you create the right environment in a rehearsal room, in which performers from different cultures, experiences, abilities and training work towards presenting themselves as equals in front of an audience?
There is something very interesting and exciting about working with a mixture of professional, community and amateur performers from different disciplines, in the same room, at the same time. You can develop new ways of creating performance pieces based on the people you are working with, their stories, their knowledge and experiences. I am particularly interested in working with people who have little or no experience of theatre but who have lived interesting lives with stories to tell.
I suppose that means anybody – everybody.
Of course there are many people doing this kind of work. Notably Phelim McDermott and Improbable have been making theatre with peoples’ real life stories, for many years. I remember fondly their “Lifegame” at Northern Stage when the chef at Newcastle Playhouse’s life story was explored by a very talented team of actors/performers/comedians. Currently they are performing “Beauty and the Beast” at The Young Vic, combining the traditional fairy tale with the real life story of professional performers Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, who met and fell in love in Coney Island, New York.
Richard Gregory and his company, Quarantine, also explores this style of theatre very successfully. “Susan and Darren” , was an event with dancing, about the real life relation between Darren, a professional dancer, and Susan, his mother. The piece has toured extensively and had a London season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Co-founder Renny O’Shea recently made a piece called “The Soldier’s Song” , which was made with and about serving soldiers, developed over an 18 month period of conversation and questions.
I am currently developing similar work. We are building new performance piece with and about people who attend tea dances in Fife, Scotland who are in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The process will take a year and will end up in a theatre space and then, hopefully, tour.
It is important where you begin the process. My starting point is an exercise which I have devised over many years and which has now been done by, literally, thousands of people, young and old, over the last thirty years. It has also been revised and developed and been by others in the training of young performers. To my knowledge it has been taught at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Queen’s University Belfast, Northumbria University, New College Durham to name but a few. When I ran the Northern Stage Ensemble, the performers started every day with this exercise to prepare them for the day’s work. It becomes a ritual, a way to express one self authentically
I learnt it by watching and learning from meditation teachers, contemporary dance classes led by choreographers like Robert Cohan and Tamara Mclorg and others – and from watching performers like Lindsay Kemp and Yoshi Oida and others. There were many teachers, over many years, and each one added something to how I work today. Others practitioners have their own way into the process – their own way of working – this is mine.
Everybody sits on an upright chair lined up against the back wall of the room. It is important that the chairs are equal distance from each other. Not too close but not too distant apart. They should be straight and uniform and of the same style.
Each performer sits on a chair. The first time this exercise is done by a particular group, I will face them on a similar chair. I will talk through the exercise with them.
I ask them to close their eyes and breath out and in a few times to settle them. Then ask them to sit comfortably on their chair and place their feet parallel on the floor.
Teaching the Exercise
“Be aware of your breathing, close your eyes and just be aware of you breathing. Feel your breath going in and out. Don’t question it, just allow yourselves to breath as you wish – in through your nose out through your mouth is best, but if it easier to breath in and out of your mouth, that’s fine. You are sitting on a chair, your feet on the floor are parallel and you are breathing in and out. Nothing else, nothing more. Try that, be aware of that and nothing else. Concentrate on that and nothing else.
“I want you to imagine two lines travelling from your toes to your heels, your heels to your hips and then meeting at the base of your spine at the place we will call the coccyx (the tailbone).
Concentrate on that place called the coccyx. Be aware of your breathing. Don’t force it, just be aware of it. Let all the thoughts disappear from your head. Let any tension disappear from your body and just concentrate on the Coccyx and be aware of your breath going in and out. Nothing more.
There are lines travelling from your toes to your heels, your heels to your knees, your knees to your hips and then meeting at your coccyx. Breath. Let go of all your thoughts. Let go of all tension in your body.
The line now continues from you coccyx to your belly, your belly to your solar plexus, to your chest and then from your chest to the centre of your throat, from your throat to behind your eyes, from behind your eyes to the top of the head.
Sit for a while aware of your breathing, letting go of any tension in your body and any thoughts in your head.
In a moment I want you to open your eyes. I want you to look from that place that is behind your eyes and is connected to your coccyx, your belly, your solar plexus, your heart, your throat and the top of the head. Imagine your eyes are windows and you are looking out of them from the place behind the eyes which is connected to line running through your body from the coccyx to the top of the head.
Just look across the room to the opposite wall. Don’t stare just look. Looking from that place that is behind your eyes. Slowly stand up and take a single step away from the chair. Just stand. Feet parallel, bum tucked under, stomach tight, hands by your side, shoulders done chest open, chin parallel to the floor. The line still travels from toe to heel, heel to knee, knee to hips, hips to coccyx and then up through the belly, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, behind the eyes and the top of the head. Aware of your breathing, letting go of tension in your body and any thoughts in your head.
Very slowly start walking forward. Be aware of every step. Place your feet firmly on the ground as you take each step. Be aware of your breathing, be aware of the movements you are making. Step by step, slowly moving forward, one step at a time without thinking why, just walking. As you walk you are aware of the line travelling up though your body. Coccyx, belly, soar plexus, heart, throat, behind the eyes and the top of the head. You are looking forward from the place behind your eyes
The performers walk slowly across the room and then I ask them to stop.
“I want you to remember where you were sitting. Imagine you are back sitting on your chair. It was comfortable. You wish you could back sitting there now. It felt safer there. You felt ok there.
I want you to start to make a decision to return to the chair. Stop walking forward, stand still, imagine the chair behind you. Very slowly I want you to turn round and face the chair. Do it with sincerity, don’t embellish what I am telling you. I want you to move your eyes first then you head and then the rest of the body. Move your feet round to face the chair as you turn. Look at the chair and think to yourself – ‘Yes. I want to return to my chair’
Slowly you walk back to your chair. You want to sit down again. But …..
At the last minute you stop. You’ve changed your mind. You don’t want to sit down. Look at the chair and decide that yu don’t want to sit there any more you want to walk toward the opposite wall. Towards the place you were walking towards previously. You turn to check out that is what you want to do. Eyes first, then the head, then the whole body, moving your feet round to face the opposite direction.
Yes, you want to walk towards the opposite wall. So start moving slowly forward again. Step by Step. Every step important. Slowly making your way across to the other side of the room. You get further than where your turned back and now you have confidence that you are moving in the right direction. But don’t embellish anything, don’t interpret what you are doing just walk slowly toward the other wall.
As you reach a place close to the wall, a place where you believed you have walked far enough, you stop. Your feet are parallel, your bum is tuck under, your shoulders are down and your chest is open. There is still a line running from your coccyx to the top of your head and you are looking at the wall in front of you from the place behind the eyes as if the eyes themselves are windows. You don’t stare you just look.
As if by a miracle your right hand starts to move, by itself, slowly travelling upwards. You watch it moving amazed by its movement. Your hand continues to raise past your chest, past your shoulder towards the ceiling. You look away from it and it descends again to by your side. Don’t perform this, don’t interpret what is happening – it is just happening by itself.
You look towards the wall. You say the words ‘I wish’ or ‘I remember’ out loud and then you continue the thought in your own head. What you wish of what you remember is private to you. Nobody else will hear what you wish for or what you remember.
This is the end of the exercise and how it is explained to the performers when they first learn the sequence. It is a structure that eventually will become meaningful for both performers and spectators.
The performers will now repeat the whole thing in their own time accompanied by music, which I chose, depending on how I think the performers are feeling on any particular day. Sometimes they might need music that will make them smile, sometimes they might need music that will make them feel gently touched with emotion.
I particularly like the Roma singer from Budapest, Mitsou, who has an incredible voice. I like the song ‘Ederlezi’ a popular traditional folk song of the Romani minority in the Balkans. She sang it in a Northern Stage production, ‘Black Eyed Roses’ , that we made for a Gypsy Festival in 2003
Now every morning – the first thing I would do, with a company of performers, is the Slow Walking exercise. I wouldn’t talk about it much more, just let the performers do it and see how it develops. Maybe I would give little hints to some performers if I thought they were starting to interpret the exercise. I would remind them to do it sincerely and completely. Not missing any of the moments I’ve talk through with them. The exercise is for them now. They do it as ritual every morning. It becomes part of them. It is the moment before we start to work – when they present themselves completely and sincerely as individuals, ready to work – and I see them as beautiful human beings presenting themselves in all their strength and vulnerability. It is a powerful and moving start to every day.