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.

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