Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Improvisation Workshops: Week 3

We were without G, K, and M this week, but our group was enlivened by the addition of K (who’s done a series of Theatre Sports workshops taught by one of the licensed companies but alas, won’t be able to join us very often) and J, who’s performed professionally and has had perhaps the most rigoorous physical training of any of us (in one of the classical Indian dance traditions, I think it was Kuchipudi).

I was determined to be more rigorous about the work and we certainly were, with very little casual talk between exercises. Only once did someone talk during an exercise, but we all ignored it and it didn’t happen again. I wanted to continue with the complicity work and the new sense of focus allowed us, I think, to find more in it than before.

The Counting Up Game

This one is so simple, I’m not even sure I can call it a game. The idea is that a group of people count up to 100 (there were only four participants so I decided on 50 instead) without prearrangement and in no particular order. If two people speak at once, you go back to 1. That’s it.


It worked well, and we didn’t have to go back to the beginning, though of course, there’s less scope for error the fewer participants you have. I was going to do it again at the end of the session to see if it made any difference, but since the first try went so smoothly, there didn’t seem to be much point. Also, I forgot.

Throwing an invisible ball

See week 1


I’ve used this exercise every time and should probably retire it for a bit. Still, it’s so good: it teaches complicity, consistency, timing, concentration . . . This was by far its most successful outing. With no chitchat and a lot of focus, the ball stayed mostly the same size and weight, and, with a few exceptions (two of them mine; I couldn’t resist getting involved in this one) both the direction (it got caught by the person it was thrown to) and the timing (it traveled at a speed consistent with the force of the throw) were pretty good.

The Jumping Game

This is another John Wright exercise and yet again, it’s about complicity. The group wander about the space. Two people make eye-contact, then jump up in the air, at the same time. The idea is both to try and fake each other out AND still jump at the same time.


This worked quite well for us, pairs mostly jumping in time. I couldn’t observe it as well as I’d have liked, because I joined in, again. This was mostly because with only four people, each had only three potential partners, at least, that’s my excuse. In any case, like a lot of the very simplest exercises, this is one I’d like to try over a long period of time, at least half an hour, to see how the wordless negotiations develop.

The One Person at a Time Game

Another John Wright complicity exercise and another one I’d love to try over a longer period of time. The idea is that all
participants but one stand still. The exception is free to move around as long as she wishes, but as soon as she stops, someone else has to start moving. There must be one person moving at all times, there must never be more than one person moving.


I played this one too. The gaps between people moving were noticeable, but short. More obvious were the several occasions when two people started to move at the same time.
As we played it, the game was about how attentive the still members of the group were to when the mover stopped. Interestingly, just the following day I was given this exercise in the improvisation group I’ve started attending in Liverpool (I’ll write more about them once I’ve checked that it’s ok). There, the woman coordinating the exercise told us to think about how the stopping and starting were negotiated, how the role of mover was passed from one person to the other. This put more of the responsibility (and also choice) on the mover.
Back in Lancaster, we tried a variation on the game in which the people who were still kept their eyes shut, relying on their other senses (overwhelmingly hearing, of course) to tell them when they could move. I’m interested in this, because I think it sharpens awareness of others, the sounds they make, and their proximity.
One participant seemed to think the point of this version was to make a sound when it was your turn, rather than merely to move, as before. The mistake seemed to really dent her confidence. In fact it wasn’t a mistake. “Move” doesn’t mean walk about the room (that’s just what most people do), and the scratching noise she made was certainly a result of movement. Even if it had been a mistake, making mistakes is, well, kind of the point. In order to improvise happily, creatively, productively, you have to let go of the fear of doing it wrong; embrace your errrors. It took me many years worth of classes to learn this imperfectly; I wish I knew a shortcut for teaching it.

The Proximity Exercise

This one made a huge impression on me when I first did it in my teens, in a BADA summer school class taught by an actor whose first name was Norman, and whose surname is lost among my neurons. A person stands at one end of the space. Another, blindfolded walks towards them from as far away as the room allows, as slowly and sensitively as she can manage, stopping whenever she feels it appropriate. The stopping places are marked, and the walker proceeds forward until they reach or pass by the stander.


As I remember it, this exercise was meant to demonstrate the ways, other than sight, that we perceive each other in space. When we did it when I was a kid, everyone stopped several times on their way to the other person, and the places they stopped were closer together as the target was approached. At the time, I took it as a very strong indication that we have a “proximity sense” which perhaps could be tuned. I still suspect this to be true, though I wouldn’t care to hypothesize what the mechanism might be (pheromonal? Sub-auditory? Electromagnetic?). I’ve tried the exercise twice this year, and on neither occasion has it been anywhere near as impressive as I remember.
People stopped two or three times, and always veered away (on one occasion very distinctly) from actually touching the standing person. That’s it. I suspect I’m doing something wrong and I wish I could remember that long-ago workshop better.

The Museum Game

This is the last complicity exercise from this session, and another one I can’t attribute properly. I learned it in a workshop taught by Anton Adassinski and he did say where he got it from, but I don’t remember. The participants are divided into pairs. The two stand about arm’s length apart, facing each other. They are instructed to imagine their bodies as museums, each containing a single exhibit., and offered a choice between an exhibit on volcanoes and one on glaciers. They are to visualize themselves as museum buildings in detail, focusing especially on the front door, which is closed, padlocked, guarded by security folk, whatever. Inside, they are to construct their chosen exhibit, imagining it as hard as they can. When ready, one of the pair opens her eyes and the museum; the other must guess which of the two exhibits is on display. They take turns a few times, keeping score of how many they get right.


As I said above, I don’t want to get into discussions of the possible mechanism here. The point is to develop the subtlest senses of nonverbal communication through practice, not to argue about what they might be. When I’ve done the exercise before, certain pairings have had a near 100% success rate, others the opposite. As the game is repeated, everybody’s accuracy tends to improve, though there usually individuals who remain erratic in their readings or their readability.
In our group, the success rate at reading each other in this exercise was pretty low. It’s an exercise I’d like to revisit throughout these weeks, to see f there’s any change in that.

Sculptor and Material: A scene out of a tableau

This is an adaptation of an exercise I was taught as an undergraduate. In this version, one person is responsible for setting the scene, putting the others (3 in this case) into position along with any scenery or props. Ideally, the performers should be placed physically where the sculptor wants them, rather than told. This way, they don’t get any verbal clues about what’s expected of them. Once everyone is placed, the scene begins, the performers adapting to where and how they find themselves placed.


This exercise is about how we understand things about characters from their posture and proximity to each other, about how stage pictures look and can be made more interesting or appealing, it’s also just another way to fool performers into improvising instead of planning. It is in this last sense that I wanted to use it, and my motives weren’t pure. I find the simple, technique-building exercises fascinating; I’m afraid that the workshop participants won’t. I try to put scene work into each session because I'm very conscious that I have very few participants and they have no reason to keep coming if they're not enjoying themselves. On this occasion, I also wanted to see what our new additions could do: quite a lot, I’m pleased to say. I don’t really know what else to say about this exercise, though. I really don’t have enough of an eye yet to be learning much from these scenes. I enjoy watching them enormously, I’m certain that they could be improved, but I don’t see them clearly enough to improve them.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Workshop Documentation: What have I learned so far?

Now that I've written down what I've been doing with the improvisation group it's easy to see what I've been doing wrong. Some of it, anyway. No doubt continued documentation will uncover further errors.

1. No matter how much fun it is to join in, I need to stay out of the exercises and observe. How can I analyse anything when I'm in it up to my eyebrows?

2. I need to keep it simple, and explain the rules of a game very clearly.

3. I need to give each exercise time to breathe, not move immediately on to the next.

4. I need to know, at least roughly, what each exercise/game aims to develop so I can assess how well it's working for us.

5. I need to slow down and pay more attention.

6. I need to be in charge. Friendly and informal, yes, but not wishy-washy.

7. I need to establish some ground rules, some discipline, about how we work together. The more seriously you take it, the more fun it is.

Improvisation Workshops: Week 2

We were five this time, including me.
G couldn’t make the second week’s session, but K and T were welcome additions. K studied theatre as an undergraduate and is doing a Masters by research in contemporary performance. T is an independent filmmaker, who’s done some improvising before. She’s quick-witted and open-minded, though her posture suggests a degree of physical inhibition.
We started with a basic physical warm-up. I need to think a bit more about these, it’s only week two and I’m already bored of my “rotate everything” routine.

Developing the Movement : Group

This is an exercise from John Wright’s Why Is That So Funny? The group stands in a circle, one person makes a small, simple gesture. The next person copies the gesture, then develops it further. The third person copies the second, develops still further, etc.


I really messed this one up, conflating it with another exercise where you copy a gesture and make it bigger. I wish I’d reread what Wright says about it. Like so many of the best impro exercises, it’s about finding out what you’re doing in the doing of it. Our hesitations and chitchat along with my confusion, meant that we never really wrestled with it on its own terms. In the course of this exercise, I noticed that Tina wasn’t making eye contact, except very briefly, so I decided to work on eye contact and complicity with the ball-throwing exercise from the previous week.

Throwing an invisible ball; Group

See Week 1 for a description


It did get everyone thinking about communication, but this sessions poor focus continued.

Eye contact meetings: Group

We did this in my undergraduate course, or at least, I think we did. I may be lumping more than one exercise together. Participants circulate around the space, catching each other’s eye without going out of their way. When gazes meet, they decide whether or not to acknowledge each other.


This is about complicity again, obviously, and about making choices in the moment. I guess all the exercises I chose for the early workshops are about that, and avoiding self-censorship. I think there’s something else this exercise teaches that I haven’t sussed yet. We didn’t get a lot out of it. I think that’s because we didn’t take it too seriously. I’m noticing a trend here.

Eye contact meetings: variation

When the exercise above descended into chaos, I changed it, imposing a new rule. You had to greet someone if they made eye-contact with you, but could choose the manner and warmth (or otherwise) of your greeting.


I’m honestly not sure why I tried the exercise this way. People were ducking greetings too often, I think. Improvisation is about accepting the challenge of the exercise, and I wanted to make it impossible to duck the greeting. Of course, once they had to meet, there was less to negotiate, and the encounters, while more flamboyant, fell flat.

Brief Encounters

I’m fairly sure this is one of Keith Johnstone’s exercises. The idea is very simple. Two performers set off across the room on an intersecting trajectory. They meet, and begin interacting. The important thing is that neither should have any preconceptions about their character or the upcoming encounter. They simply react to each other and proceed to build up a scene.


This is where it all fell apart for me. Noticing the hesitant body language of some participants, I tried to throw in some of Johnstone’s status markers. Frustrated because one pair were playing a scene in profile to us, I interrupted to show them how to cheat open. I introduced props, I honestly don’t know why. All in all, there were so many different things going on that I lost track of what I was looking for, what I wanted to do.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Improvisation Workshops: Week 1

I’d planned some ice-breaking exercises and group complicity building ones, and I had to adjust slightly as we were only four, that first time. All the same, we were fairly representative of the mix of participants I expect to be getting. We had H, who’s never done any improvising or performing before, G who studied theatre in university and does a lot of improvising as a musician, and M and myself who have studied theatre and take workshops every chance we get, but are not expert improvisers.
After a very basic physical warmup, we stayed standing in a circle (well, square) and tried a couple of exercises that I’ve done in so many workshops that I’ve got no idea whose practice they come from originally.

Throwing an invisible ball : Group

In this exercise, players stand in a circle. One player mimes holding an invisible ball, and, by eye-contact alone, signals to which other player she is intending to throw it. Once the other player is ready to receive, the ball is thrown and caught. The player who has received the imaginary ball makes eye contact with a new person and the process repeats until everyone has thrown and received the imaginary ball.


This is a great game for starting to work on complicity, and I’ve seen it played, by a large group, for over 10 minutes. Because there were so few of us, and because I was keen to stress the fun, rather than the discipline of the game, we moved on very quickly to a variation. Too quickly, I now think.

Throwing an invisible ball, variation

As before, only this time the ball changes after being caught. Thrown and caught as a baseball, it might be thrown again as a basketball, a ping pong ball, a hockey puck, whatever. It’s not about being explicit in miming the new ball, it’s about the conviction with which you imagine the new ball.


We had fun with this, but, in retrospect, we were being pretty slapdash and slapstick about it. I want to try both these exercises in a more focused way, concentrating on the imagining of it and on keeping the communication minimal. I suspect, as well as working more directly on the skills we need to develop, that this would be more fun.

Packing my suitcase: Group

This is a verbal game, it’s about imagination and memory. The first player begins by saying “I’m packing my suitcase, and I’m taking” or words to that effect, then naming an object that starts with the letter “A”.

EX: I’m packing my suitcase, and I’m taking an ant farm.

The second player repeats the first player’s sentence, adding something that begins with the letter “B”.

EX: I’m packing my suitcase and I’m taking an ant farm and some bluebells.

The game continues around the circle, the list of things packed getting ever longer until the letter “Z” is reached.


The idea, as with all improvisation games of this type is to not leave players enough time to come up with something clever or original, but to have them say the first thing that comes into their minds. We didn’t always manage to keeep it at this speed, but one indication that we got it sometimes was the “Foo-foo machine” packed by H. We all loved the Foo-foo machine and I’m plotting ways to use it again.

Packing my suitcase, variation

Because I tend to work too much from the head, I didn’t want this to just be a talking game, but one in which the whole body was involved. So, I added an illustrative gesture to each alphabetical object.


The gestures were a lot of fun, but they got pretty sloppy pretty fast. We were much better at remembering words than gestures.

One word, one step: Pairs

This is an exercise I remember from my undergraduate study at UCLAN. The partners alternate in making a story together by speaking one word each. At the same time, they walk through the space, taking one step for each word spoken. They are not to walk without speaking or speak without walking.


I guess it’s about building complicity again, and about restricting the opportunities for being clever. You can’t think too far ahead, and you can’t duck the responsibility of coming up with something. Because the something is so small, a single word, the responsibility is small enough for even the newest improviser.
Because I only had thee participants, I was in one of the two pairs, so don’t have much in the way of observation to add. U think the exercise helped in the evening’s overall goal of short-circuiting the “I look/sound so silly” reflex that inhibits new performers.

Giving/receiving a gift: Pairs

This is a Keith Johnstone exercise, from Impro for Storytellers. One partner mimes giving a gift, the other receives it, with pleasure, naming the gift as the take it. For me, one of the crucial things about such exercises is that participants should be encouraged to imagine the gift as vividly as they can, but not to go out of their way to establish it with mime. The giver provides a gesture which is the impetus for the receiver to name the gift; they create it together.
EX: A approaches B, arm loosely up in the air, fingers bunched. Perhaps she is imagining a balloon on a string, or holding a giant by his thumbnail. He extends the arm towards B, who, following an imaginary line up from A’s hand exclaims, delightedly: “A llama, thank you!”


Johnstone has several variations of this exercise and we moved among them pretty chaotically, again, in part because I had to form half a pair. I want to go back to it, concentrating on the different ways the gift can be established and negotiated. Even with the half attention I was able to spare the others, it seemed to me that our energy was all over the place instead of focused within a given pair, so I decided to apply the granddaddy of pairwork complicity exercises.

The mirror game: Pairs

If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you’ve probably played the mirror game. I don’t know who used it first and I don’t remember ever not knowing it. A and B face each other, palms outspread and held to either side of their face and slightly forward, as if rested on a mirror. There should be a few inches of space between the palms. A begins to move, slowly, B to copy her as close in time as she can, to achieve the illusion of a mirror. Once a pair is working well, they can trade who leads and who follows back and forth in silent communication, their movements can become more extravagant.
The mirror game, variation
A pair with good complicity can move quite far apart and remain each other’s mirrors. I’ve even seen people mirror each other standing side to side, with only the barest of peripheral vision to work from.


Peripheral vision is the key to this game, along with a kind of openness. It’s about picking up all the hundreds of tiny cues that your partner’s body is constantly giving off about its intensions and responding to them without consciously processing. Similar things must happen in a fight, or a sparring bout.
We did this for only a short period of time, and I didn’t really enforce the discipline of it. Next time well do it for longer, and in absolute silence. I want to get to the place where neither in the pair is certain who’s leading, where the cooperation of it and the competition of it are seamless, and equally playful.

Many storytellers, one acter-out

This is another exercise I remember from my first year at UCLAN and don’t know the provenance of. The group collaborate to tell a story, and one member has to act it out as they go along.


I wanted to finish with an exercise where everybody was working together, and we had fun with this. A larger group might have had a broader imagination to draw on, certainly we got a bit bored by the time the last person performed.
This is an exercise I should have reviewed before trying it. It’s only in writing it up that I’ve seen what it was about. The joy of it lies in the group trying to wrongfoot the soloist, and in the soloist’s ingenuity in depicting the impossible. I’ll stress that next time, and derail the attempts of the participants to have the story “make sense”.

Improvisation workshops : Introduction

I’ve started holding weekly improvisation workshops, not because I think I have a lot to teach, but because I have a lot to learn, and nobody around here seems to be teaching it. I’ve done it because I love the playfulness of theatre, of even very serious theatre, and the human communication of it, and I agree with those practitioners who find the wellspring of that in improvisation , the secret name of which is play. I’ve done it because I love playing like this, with others, more than most things, and I’ve missed it terribly since I’ve been making shows on my own.

I’ve taken many acting classes, masterclasses and workshops over the years, but I’ve never led any before. I’ve read books about actor training, full of games, exercises, and improvisation techniques. I’ve cherry-picked exercises here and there for my rehearsals, to achieve complicity and release inhibition, to build specific skills or illuminate a particular scene, but I've never thought very hard about putting a program together. I’m vain enough to want to present myself as someone who knows what they’re doing. Like anyone, I hate to appear incompetent and, like everyone else in the arts who has a blog, I’m trying to use it to get myself more paying work.

I don’t want to tell you about my ignorance, my confusion, my mistakes. But I’m doing a Master’s degree, and I’ve chosen to organize improvisation workshops as part of the work towards that degree, so it seems only right to attempt to document the process of those workshops. I’ve always been better at making theatre than at documenting the process, but I understand that documentation allows not just those assessing my academic work, but also me to chart where I’m coming from and where I’m going. It allows us to analyse, to suggest changes in direction and point out patterns. This, very public way of documenting this work serves two further purposes. It lets the workshop participants add their own impressions to the record, and it keeps me from procrastinating too much about the documentation. This is the second week of workshops, and the first time I’ve posted about them. From now on, I’ll be updating weekly, so help me internet.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

That pesky fourth wall

I have an aesthetic objection to much of the contemporary performance I see. Actually, I have several, one of them to the term “contemporary performance” itself; but I’ll save those for another day. I’ll start with one of the two things that really bug me; the relationship between performers and audience.

It is a truism parroted by graduates of every university theatre course that the fourth wall associated with “slice of life” drama, or more generally with naturalism, has been broken. The convention that staged action cannot make reference to the existence of the audience is often regarded, along with other conventions of the theatrical past such as the well-made-play and the notion of character, as toxic; part of the stultifying bourgeois respectability that the innovators of the last century were reacting against. I’m not going to take issue with that idea. Not yet, anyway.
Many companies have taken the implied injunction to acknowledge and interact with the audience to heart. Some do it quickly, almost casually, by a visual or textual reference, by walking out from among the seated viewers, or greeting them as they come in. For other companies, it’s becoming increasingly central to their work. Entire sections of shows are directly addressed to the audience, comments are solicited, volunteers asked for, challenges or affirmations issued. In some cases, Gob Squad’s Kitchen was the example I saw, audience volunteers take the place of the performers, following a set of commands that the company members issue over earphones.

This sort of thing, I am told, is fundamentally postmodern, a challenge to theatrical convention, a destabilization of the relationship between audience and performers. Now, I am not at all sure that challenge and destabilization are good things in and of themselves, but I’ll get back to that. I’m interested in experimentation, so I suppress the thoughts that stage magicians and hypnotists have been using audience volunteers for centuries, that textual asides predate Shakespeare, and that some of the companies that address audiences directly have been doing so for more than twenty years. I’ll look, instead, at how I, as an audience member, feel about such techniques: More often than not, I feel shut out. To the extent that I am invited to engage, I am invited to do so intellectually, or aesthetically : to question my assumptions, to take home the message, or to just experience, without analysing or identifying.

When I watch a show though, I don't want my primary engagement to be intellectual, or even aesthetic. I want it to be visceral; I want to feel deeply. When actors play characters, when they ignore my existence, I am drawn in to the imaginary world they create for my pleasure. I become involved emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, even to some extent physically. Because I am also an actor, I know that my involvement is something the performers are aware of. In the simplest terms, they know when to drag a moment out for my/our delectation, when to speed things up because they’re losing us. The ebb and flow of audience involvement is the life’s blood of the experience.This is true in almost all traditional performances, particularly true in things like pantomime, or theatrical improvisation, where audience participation is explicit. The performance changes, subtly or grossly, depending on audience reaction, what actors call “the feel of the house”.

In the newer audience interaction forms, it seems to me that the performers are often not particularly interested in pleasing us. If they wish to please anyone, it’s the tiny group of academics, programmers, journalists, and bureaucrats who are the source, directly or indirectly, of their funding. I understand how this dynamic works. If you can’t expect to so much as break even from ticket sales, of course the audience’s pleasure becomes less important to you than that of the people on whose approval you depend. Since the image of artist as rebel, of good art as something that makes people uncomfortable, is much treasured in these circles, they seek to please them by discomfiting the audience. The irony that their anti-establishment, difficult, work is funded by the establishment appears lost on them.

There’s more to it than that, though. I get the impression from a lot of this work that the companies in question simply don’t like the audience. They like each other, they like the work they’re making, but their affection doesn’t extend outward to encompass us, no matter how openly they appear to address us. They do not allow their audience to have any sway over them. They are not malleable; they set out to challenge or persuade, not to be challenged or persuaded. When they solicit participation, it changes nothing in the performance because the performance is designed to be unchangeable, remaining opaque to audience influence even as audience members take the place of the performers. When we interact, as prompted, we have become props, scenery, actors with no agency or responsibility for the success of the show. Paradoxically, much (not all) contemporary work that is concerned with audience participation disenfranchises the audience far more thoroughly than anyone from the much-maligned naturalist tradition ever managed.