What have we been doing?
We’ve completed the first week of rehearsals. That’s over a third of the way through our progress to performance! (Many weeks of occasional planning precede rehearsal, and we’ve got three full-time weeks together to develop the show.) Part of the purpose of this site, this company, is to try and convey in hypertextual form our experiences of making theatre: to describe what we’re doing, explain what we can, mystifyingly demystify the black box of theatre production.
<<But an interesting thing happens to me, personally, when I’m in the rehearsal studio: spending so many hours exploring corporeal performance and being with others, interacting intimately, physically, mentally, emotionally, places me firmly in my body, my flesh, erodes my interest in the electronic and digital — in short, keeps me away from my internet lives. Whether it’s due to innate psychic needs or not, there is an opposition between the digitial and the corporeal, and, while we are all cyborgs, the more fleshly I get the less I seem to need to extend my body along wires and screens. Still: communication.>>
This first week has been marked “exploration”. At this point, we have little idea what our show will be, apart from a desire to be interactive and a fairly specific subject. Will there be scenes or sections? Will there be narrative or words? What is its tone? What is its content? What is its form? We don’t know. And for now we’re deliberately avoiding the questions, to prevent possible answers from guiding our investigations too firmly. We want to be, as far as possible, exploring unknown territory and discovering what lies there. Everything we do at this stage is an experiment aiming for unknown and indeterminate results. We’re doing, doing, doing, without trying, without judging too firmly. We’re building an intuitive sketchbook, drawing with our eyes closed, or asleep.
That’s the theory: the practise is pretty specific. We play games and devise performances. I will divide the actors into groups and assign them tasks: using this line, or this scene, or this news article, or this propaganda video, or this movement, or this image — create a performance. Usually I’ll give them about half an hour. That forces uninhibited creativity: they just have to grab the first idea that floats past and runs with it. This produces an astonishing diversity of mini-performances, and helps to widen our performance vocabulary. Each new scene gives us new ideas to work with; each changes the way the audience sits, or stands, or might interact. Some are representative, some narrative, some silent, some obscure, some hilarious. All or none of them may appear in the final production (if indeed there is a “final”).
Sometimes I have a specific concept I want to try out (or one of the actors does), and then I or another will conduct a performance. A musical conductor is an appropriate analogy here, although there is no score except that which emerges organically in the mind. So, for example, I might start three actors reading from a speech, and instruct the four others to echo any words or lines they feel moved to, in multiple languages. Then I might ask one of the speakers to increase or decrease in volume. Then I ask one actor to move between all the speakers fluidly, gracefully, extending her body to express her thoughts. Then I ask two other actors to perform a cycle of movements we’ve previously rehearsed. Soon there a musical, textual and physical performance emerges: one which is about a few concrete ideas, which has a tone, which has a form. We stop, and then we talk about what it was like to be in, what it was like to watch.
Talking, observation and feedback are important to us. After most exercises we will ask what worked, what didn’t, what was most interesting. Without a video camera (the most important piece of equipment for many devising companies), this is our record, along with our unreliable memories. We will come back to these discussions and arguments later as source material.
Another way of responding is a lengthy and extremely taxing exercise we use to reflect from time to time. On Friday, we finished with it; I call it a “free-form improvisation”, though really it is highly guided. The actors begin in zero position, or what is usually called “neutral” (I dispute the concept of neutrality, though that’s an argument for another time). To enter the space they breathe in and out, deeply, twice. Then I ask them to let their minds wander through everything we’ve done, and said, and seen. Beginning with either word or movement, I ask them to express what they are moved to express. it may take up to 5 minutes, but eventually someone will say a word, or stamp, or stretch, or cry out. The momentum builds as the group responds to itself, its thoughts, the room, the atmosphere. A performance happens; it is like a dream.
Only it is almost not a performance. It is something else instead, or as well. They are no longer playing characters or ideas. They are themselves, although the subconsciously-driven approach means that they perform intuitive aspects of their selves, rather than a rationally overseen complete persona. They are being in the room, in a heightened, hyper-aware sort of way. Every action and word carries the same weight it would if it were a performance, but has the motivation of being. This is not a performance which points to something outside of itself: it is itself, we are being in the room. (Me, too. Voyeurism is participation.) Sometimes it is boring for a few minutes. It is often heartwrenching. Yesterday, the actors wrenched themselves; I watched them struggling and suffering to come to terms with the very difficult situation and material we are working with. I found it extraordinary.
Where will it all go? What are we going to perform for you, our audiences? What will you perform with us? Starting Monday, we’ll begin to transition into the next stage, which is to analyse what we’ve done and make decisions about what we want to do next. We will begin to assemble, or grow, a complete performance. Some of it might be difficult. Some of it might be funny. We don’t know. We’ll see.