Comeback to the Bench Game

Since the original Bench Game blog we’ve played the game around the UK, again in India with the 2017 ‘Indian Steam’ tour, and elsewhere on our travels. Recently I was in Milan performing one of our Prodigal Theatre shows “The Tragedian Trilogy” at Teatro Della Contraddizione. I also led a three day workshop at TDC’s school. The workshop examined characterisation techniques in connection to our show in which I play multiple characters. Changes of character are played within the action, in front of the (in-the-round) audience. In particular I was looking at character through the lens of Social Learning theory. In discussing social learning theory and communities of practice, Etienne Wenger describes an ongoing process in which learning and identity are inextricably bound: The focus on the social aspect of learning is not a displacement of the person. On the contrary, it is an emphasis on the person as a social participant, as a meaning-making entity for whom the social world is a resource for constituting an identity. (Wenger, E. 2012) I was intrigued to see if we could apply this theory to character creation.

In the context of the workshop, we looked at three processes. First we established what Wenger might describe as a ‘Community of Practice’. This is more usually referred to in dance training as a ‘shared vocabulary’. We agreed a set of normative behaviours, in this case principles of scenic behaviour. I ran an exercise we call ‘The Waiter’s Tray’ which focuses on group movement in a space. The Waiter’s Tray is a core Prodigal Theatre practice that begins with the simple work of evenly distributing a group where everyone is moving constantly, and then adds levels of sophistication to this through numerous additional tasks. Again, using Wenger’s terminology, we are agreeing a level of competence that unifies all the members in our community of practice. Simply put we’re working on the fundamentals of stage craft. Once a general level of competency is achieved and shared we can move on.

So in the second phase of the workshop we looked at individual behaviour as we worked on the physical construction of character. Here we start to build upon the shared, group practices – stagecraft or scenic behaviour – the agreed level of competences that make it possible for us to all be working together and inhabiting the same space together. We add a second layer of individual behaviours and these additional, personal, physical ‘tasks’ are what forms a character. Here we are moving from focusing upon the agreed competence that allows us to be considered a member of the community of practice, and we are focusing on the unique identity of the individual. As Wenger discusses at length, the interplay between the individual and the community is part of what defines identity. A community of practice will regard a particular person within that community as ‘an old master’ and another as ‘an apprentice’ based on their interplay and relationships with those individuals. Wearing a badge that says ‘old master’ does not in itself confer that status upon you, and this is critical when we think about playing characters because it moves the work of conferring status, for example, from the individual to the ensemble. Put simply, and as has been discussed by many practitioners many times, the king is made not by the actor announcing ‘I am the king’ but by the ensemble reacting to the actor as they would (or as their character would) to this particular king, now.

Having worked through the first day establishing a shared language of stage behaviour, and having then worked individually on developing and defining individual physical characters, we then looked at ways of bringing the two together. The participants in the workshop were not all working on the same production, and in choosing characters to work on they had not discussed a common genre or play script. Within the room I had eleven students each representing a character from a different source, and I did not discuss those characters explicitly with them. In a later exercise students spoke the names of their characters indicating to me that some as old as Greek Tragedy might be sharing the space with Brecht’s and Kane’s creations. Our work was focused on a process we term ‘listening’ in the company but which might be better understood here as perceiving or reflecting. The aim is for the actor to discern their relationship with the characters around them by discovering together how these characters can find a balance within a space. This work falls somewhere in between a pre-expressive language of sharing space purely on the principles of how an actor exists upon a stage, and the later dramaturgical work of setting a score of actions. In this stage we’re trying to find a way of interacting which is discovered mutually. It was in this part of the process that I introduced the Bench Game.

Looking around the TDC venue I couldn’t find a bench of the simple stye that we’d used so successfully in India, or the kind of generic block that we often tour with in the UK. Instead I settled on a set of treads – the absolutely generic three step rise that take us from stage to auditorium in theatres all over the world. It proved to be a great asset to the game. For starters, the potential for status games is increased exponentially when you add these few extra levels into the mix. In addition to sitting on the floor, there are three step heights to choose from and the back and sides of the treads offer great ‘leaning’ possibilities. To begin with we played the bench game ‘neutrally’ and as described in the original piece. We explored games of cooperation and non-cooperation, and we played with various numbers of players. We then went back to the characters we had developed and brought them into the game. Now, each player was entering the game both with the tasks that define ‘The Bench Game’ and another set of personal tasks which for them define ‘The Character’. There is of course a whole other set of articles to be written on that process of building characters, but as long as you are working with a defined physical characterisation the exercise should work. Taking one character from our Tragedian show for example, I know that in the character of Mr Elliston my feet and knees are turned in, my weight low, back forward with elbows out and chin tucked. My hands are held in fists with thumbs extended. My motion is sideways, like a crab, moving forward and backward only on the diagonal and my breathing is raspy, up at the top of the chest and in the throat. I don’t want anyone too close to me, but won’t hesitate to invade another’s space and I’ll stand my ground rather than give way. Its a character I’ve been playing for years, so I know this set of behaviours well enough that there is a particular rhythm to all of Mr Elliston’s actions. One of my main purposes in running this exercise was for students to start discerning the particular rhythms of their characters.

Essentially the Bench Game here was used to discover characters through a process framed by reacting, rather than acting. The results were fascinating and bridged us nicely into the third section of the workshop. From looking at group sharing of space, to individual characters, we were now looking at the role of the audience in jointly creating our characters. In the context of the workshop, participants formed audiences to each other as we worked in small groups. One character would enter the space, find a place to sit on the treads, and as they began to settle I’d send in the next. After a few goes I didn’t need to direct this, as the actors became very good at judging their moment to enter.

The bench game demands near constant movement, but with characters in play this becomes too repressive. The character must be given enough time and space to exist, or the demands of the Bench Game will overpower actors who are not yet fully familiar with their characters. So I borrowed from the late, great Torgeir Wethal (Odin Teatret), with whom I was led through a character exercise where, in order to restrain some of the wilder improvisational impulses exhibited by young and adventurous actors, he asked us to remain ‘Within the bounds of anything you might witness in the Doctor’s Waiting Room’. Obviously when we think about such a setting, there is still a huge range of activity, but its enough of a restraint just to slow us down a little and give us the space to observe what is actually happening. I always felt Torgeir used this particular setting in that improvisation because it was ubiquitous for an international group of actors, but also because within that context people tend to restrain themselves somewhat.

I also asked my students to ‘disguise the game’ from the audience. It is not the game we want to see, the game is a language through which we get to discern the characters. And so it went on. Very soon we added a chair set at a right angle to the treads, and raised the numbers from two up to three and four players. The interplay was fascinating. In this context the audience begin to focus on a very fine level of communication. The actors become concerned not with broadcasting their own character – its status, its habits, its behaviours – but in discerning those of the players around them. The layered activity of playing one’s own character, playing the game, and attending to the audience’s reactions requires this extended sense of ‘listening’ which is our object. By focusing on reactions distinct character rhythms also begin to appear.

When the work goes well what follows is something of a revelation. The tiniest stirring of a hand or foot or the smallest turn of the head, the eyes, can shift the whole balance of the space and a relationship between two or more characters can coalesce and disappear in seconds. The audience projects its own stories on to the action, too, and the listening actors perceive this level of reaction in the audience and attune themselves to it. To illustrate this, the final part of the game comes when we share a context not with the performers, but first with the audience. I say to the viewers ‘Let’s now watch these three players and see them in a sauna’. The players, however, have no idea of this. What follows is a bedroom farce of betrayals and secret negotiations. The actors on stage are still concerned only with their own characters, and the game, but the audience is in hysterics and the actors cannot help but be effected by this. When I ask the audience afterwards ‘What did you see them wearing?’ they all shout ‘Nothing!’. So a group of fully clothed actors are convincingly naked without even knowing it. In another round of the game we watch spies engaged in espionage, in a third its Lear dividing his kingdom. When we give the actors this context, the game is changed entirely. They cannot help but try to tell us ‘where they are’ or ‘what they are doing’ and it gets in the way of the purity of action that communicated their characters so clearly when we kept the context a secret for the audience.

This is another aim of the exercise: to illustrate the audience’s creative role in the game. Character, understood through this game, becomes more clearly a social construct. It is an ongoing interplay between the actor, their colleagues, and the audience. The bench game, or now, better, The Treads Game, provides us with a space in which actors can begin to discern their characters through the reactions of their colleagues and their audience. Rather than imposing a pre-existing notion of the character upon the space, they discover their character through a social activity in which the group collectively understands each character and each character changes and effects the group.

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