The Wardrobe Ensemble: Working as a Collective

Background

In January 2017 The Wardrobe Ensemble began work on our fourth full-scale ensemble show, Education, Education, Education. The company occupy a fairly unique space in the UK’s contemporary theatre landscape due to our size (nine-strong, plus a producer and a large pool of associate artists) and collaborative way of working – we have “directors” for project, but the “artistic direction” of the company is shared by all of us. This stage of our creation process, with all or most members of the company Researching and Developing (R&Ding) a large-scale show, is one that comes around roughly every two years.

The company was formed in 2011, the result of the pilot year of Made In Bristol, a training programme run by the Bristol Old Vic (BOV) Theatre. This entailed training for two days a week, culminating in a week-long slot in the studio at the end of the year. The programme aimed to serve as a stepping stone from the BOV Young Company (of which we were all previously members) to the professional world.

Education, Education, Education (EEE)will be our fourth large ensemble show, after RIOT, 33 and 1972: The Future of Sex. The show deals with 1997, the rise of New Labour, history, nostalgia, community, Britain and Britishness (among many other things).

The following is an attempt to articulate some of the artistic process that we’ve developed over six years of working together, including warm-ups and exercises, influences, our use of rules and limitations and how we transition from R&D to ordering and editing material. I’ll be following the structure of a diary, using our progress over the creation of EEE to try to identify our techniques.

The devisers in this process were:

Tom Brennan

Tom England

Emily Greenslade

Jesse Jones

Kerry Lovell

Jesse Meadows

Helena Middleton

James Newton

Ben Vardy

Edythe Woolley

Producer: Hannah Smith

Intern and Photographer: Clemmie Haynes

 

Day 1– Getting to know each other again

One of the great joys and challenges of working in such a large ensemble is the sheer amount of time needed to create shows. In a practical sense, it’s very difficult to pin down a time when so many people can be in the same place at the same time, and once we’re there it takes a long time to tease out the issues – everyone’s voice is equal.

I must admit to always entering this stage of the process with a certain level of trepidation. There’s a voice in my head that says, “It’s been 2 years. What if you’ve forgotten how to do it? What if everyone’s changed too much? What if the previous shows were flukes, results of everyone’s set of circumstances at the time?”

This voice was even louder than usual venturing into Education, Education, Education. When we started working on 1972: The Future of Sex half of us, myself included, were fresh out of studying for our BAs, which gave us an understandable level of confidence. In the time between then and now I lived in Berlin for a year, worked as a waiter, took part in couple of workshops, and performed with The Wardrobe Ensemble. That was about it. It felt as though I had barely any new experience to bring to the table.

It’s safe to say then, that a large part of our devising process itself is our training. Our original shared language is our workshop-style education from BOV, and our R&D technique still reflects this: a series of time-limited tasks and exercises designed to initiate conversation, rebuild the group dynamic and redefine what our common voice is.

We use Free Writing a lot as a company, and have done since our Made in Bristol days. Aside from the odd snippet, we use it less for generating material and more for blowing out the cobwebs. So we kicked off with a series of one-minute Free Writing tasks with the following prompts:

  • I have a student who…
  • They are my…
  • My fellow teachers are…
  • The best thing a student can say is…
  • The worst thing a student can say is…
  • My relationships are…

It’s the way that we share the material that I find interesting, using a technique called The Chair Game. Jesse Jones introduced this to the room a couple of years ago. We each take a chair and spread ourselves across the space, taking it in turns to jump in and share snippets. The form is fluid, there are overlaps, the result is essentially a huge montage of sounds and ideas.
It’s a performative sharing that is overwhelming and quite exhausting but is ultimately reflective of us and our process. It’s a solid reminder that there are ten creative voices in the room, that they’re often conflicting, and that when we make work the issues are massive, complex and incredibly hard to stay abreast of. Ultimately it’s a great reminder of how difficult we like to make things for ourselves.

Day 2 – Devising Tasks and Limitations

There is one thing that is key to the way we make work, which is the sheer amount we create. We begin the week with pouring out the entire content of our heads onto paper. We cover our walls with an ever-changing collage of sheets: ideas for characters, scenes, scenarios, themes, questions. These visual points of reference are vital and act as a sort of drip-feed of inspiration for our devising work over the course of the process.

Our devising process is all about limitations. We split the day into small, portioned-off amounts of time – anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. Choosing what to make is quick-fire and individual-led. “I want to make a celebratory cheesy 90s dance, I need 3 more people.” Go. “I need two people to make a scene about a teacher who’s struggling.” Go. “I have an idea for a monologue I’d like to go and write on my own.” Go.

It’s a practice of undoing and intuition…it never feels to me that you can draw a direct line from a craft, it’s more like a confidence in intuition. That feels uniquely Wardrobe.

-Tom England, Associate Artist

It’s a fluid process. For every show we make, we probably leave two show’s worth of material behind. Generating so much is a form of training: it allows us to get our default modes of making out of the way early and to push to find new ways of creating. In a way we’re just playing a game of averages. Create loads and something, eventually, should be good.

Seeds of characters and storylines start to emerge. Some nuggets of gold start to come out, as well as some hilariously dreadful ones  these are usually my favourite. It’s a unique environment to make work in: silly, caring and a lot of fun.

(I spent a long time trying to articulate exactly how we devise, but it somehow didn’t seem to work. So I put together a video, which I think works much better)

 

Day 3 – Dancing About

Training for me is about development, or allowing yourself to change. So one thing is this idea of people bringing in an exercise. For the past two shows we’ve used two exercises that have dramatically informed the way we’ve made the show – the Gob Squad exercise and the Tim Crouch exercise. Both have really obviously found their way into the shows.

­-Tom Brennan, Company Member

 

We’ll get to Tim Crouch later, but now seems like a good time to talk about Gob Squad. The exercise Tom mentions above is something is based around their show, Dancing About (http://www.gobsquad.com/projects/dancing-about) and is something I picked up during a Gob Squad workshop in Berlin. I’ve run this with the company before, but have never been able to see how it could be adaptable: it’s so distinctly Gob Squad. But I asked if I could have a morning to run it regardless.

The premise of Dancing About is quite simple: performers make a true statement about themselves, but using “we” instead of “I”: “We drink too much,”; “We are scared of the dark,”; “We have never been to Australia.” If you agree with the statement, you dance.

 

There’s no guarantee it will lead to anything. However, we allow time for these training exercises because we know from past experience they often do end up informing the work we make. But perhaps more so because we understand how valuable learning something together is for rebuilding ensemble.

In a way you’re creating a bank of exercises you’re stealing from other practitioners and then it becomes something to free up the habit… the exercises push us to think about different styles and different ways of working that then pepper their way through the work. There’s things we know how to do and then the training aspect pushes us to find a different way of articulating ourselves.

– Tom Brennan, Company Member

The “freeing up” this exercise allows us essentially comes down to the new limitations it offers. We’ve always used large, rule-based improvisations to generate material, and this offers us a new set of rules that we can use and adapt. When we became more confident with the exercise we began to add our own rules:

  • On top of personal beliefs, add historical moments. If someone knows about that moment, they dance,
  • Assume a different character and do the exercise from their perspective, and
  • Bend the rules. Find moments to rebel against the authority of the exercise.

Dancing About was so useful in helping achieve a sense of abandon. The catharsis of dancing helped us articulate our relationship to Britain, Britishness and of jumping headfirst into a terrifying future, better than words ever could. This flavour eventually found its way into the climax of the show, and is something I’m sure we’ll continue to develop.

 

 

Day 4 – Conversation

We talk. A lot. Huge portions of our days are given over to discussion, I would say at least 50% in these early stages. I come from the background of European Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford, where over-talking was a cardinal sin and “get up and do” was paramount, so this can be a challenge for me. But it’s clear that the value given to discussion is something that makes our company what it is.

I think it was Helena who once described our shows as poking at a theme from lots of different viewpoints, throwing up lots of different questions as opposed to answers, and I think that’s very true. The “Ensemble” in our name applies just as much to our process as to our shows, maybe even more so, the key principle of this being that everyone’s voice is equal. With so many people, this means that hearing everyone’s take, and letting the conversation meander and take you to new places is essential. It’s these conversations that put us all on the same page, that allow for nuance, that allow us to interrogate what we’re making extremely rigorously and ask what the point is in making it.

It strikes me how making work with this group of people is like a kind of therapy. The show is a by-product of the process and it’s about creating a space where you can have in-depth conversations.

-Tom England, Associate Artist

It’s also so valuable in throwing up little points of stimulus. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of one of these discussions, when Edie shared a story about a relationship between a teacher and a pupil at her old school. This then provided the seed for an entire storyline. It’s important to let the conversations play out because you never know when that fruitful moment will come

In France we have collectifs and compagnies. A collectif is when everyone has an equal role, whereas a compagnie is much more director-led. I think you work more as a collectif than a company, because you’re always allowed to give your opinion, it’s always valued.

Clemmie, Intern

The way that we talk is something that we’ve had to work on over the years – conversation management with this many creative voices can be a nightmare. There was a time when we’d pass around a pen to which gave us permission to speak. Thankfully the pen’s gone, but the space and consideration given to people has, I hope, remained intact.

 

Day 5 – Young Company Roots and Killer Tick

It’s been interesting being in this process whilst having my hat on for this article. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our journey in the past six years, where we started and how we still relate to that today. And really, the way we work is still so reflective of our Young Company background.

We’ve all grown up through a workshop-style training. Of appearing in a room, not for any particular purpose other than to enjoy that two hours of play and discovery. So if your introduction to theatre was to produce a musical or play at the end of the term, you would go about your relationship to making in a very different way. It would be more end-product orientated… If your end goal is to create something at the end of that fifteen minutes or that two hours, then you’re making with the materials you have in that room.

-Tom Brennan

So there’s a resourcefulness, which is plain to see in RIOT when we did everything: we built the set onstage from only IKEA furniture, we lit the entire show with IKEA lamps, all the sound and music was created by us onstage. And this element of total control is something we’ve had to gradually relinquish as we’ve grown: our associate Tom CT’s music in 1972 is a good example of this – we simply couldn’t have done that element as effectively on our own.

Killer Tick is a game that we play for our warm-up every day. The majority of us have played this game since our teens, where it was drilled into us weekly at BOV Young Company. Tid and Miranda, our mentors, drilled in the rules to us as if they were gospel, and insisted that the game be played with the utmost seriousness. I cannot convey to you just how many hours of our lives have been dedicated to playing this game.

The game is a variation on the playground game “Tick” (or Tag, Tig, Touch) rules are as follows:

  • One person is “it”,
  • If they go to tag someone, that person calls somebody else’s name. That person is now “it”,
  • If a person is tagged, everybody actively freezes. The tagged person “dies” with an open-mouthed “ah”. Everyone else supports with a close-mouthed “mmm”, and
  • If you make a mistake, don’t freeze on time etc. You are responsible for killing yourself.

I think so much of our style can be related back to this one game. Just go to 1:30 of our early 1972 documentary (then called The History of Fucking– changed for obvious reasons!):

 

 

It’s the same concept: lots of frenetic movement from a large ensemble of people, which is then undercut by a sudden switch of tempo, a slow-motion zoom in to one person.

And ultimately we see this process, of training exercises directly feeding into the material we create, happening again and again. The youthful, energetic basis of our style originated in years of workshop-style training and our style has been allowed to evolve through the new exercises that have been brought to the room.

I think that’s been a part of our maturing process or a slowing down of our artistic metabolism. Before we had to do everything and we had to sweat, because then the audience would know that we’re doing the work. And that’s really impressive when you see people doing that, but it’s a bit like a magic trick… now it seems like we’re less fussed about contriving kineticism if it’s not serving what we’re talking about. We’re much more interested now in discussing the thing.

Tom Brennan

 

 

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