The Wardrobe Ensemble: Working as a Collective Part 2

This is a continuation of the article The Wardrobe Ensemble: Working as a Collective. It takes the form of a diary, loosely following the process of making our new show Education, Education, Education. In tracking our progress through this creation and rehearsal period, I hope to identify some of the techniques we have developed over six years of working together.

 

Week 2, Day 1– Technology and polishing seeds

It’s around this time in the process that our reliance on technology becomes most apparent: this is the time that we start to look back at material we’ve made over the past week in order to start developing ideas.

As I touched upon in Part 1, we make a lot of material. Let’s say there’s an average of three groups per devising round, and we have three of these rounds per day. Add to this individual writing tasks, where every person will produce a separate piece of material, and you’re looking at 50-60 separate fragments. And we record every single one.

All these recordings are then put into cloud storage, so that any of us can access them at any time. This got me thinking: How does this ability to so easily revisit old material affect the creation process? When Complicite or The Wooster Group started out they wouldn’t have been able to do this to such an extent. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Does it make us more thorough or does it make us less intuitive?

Undoubtedly, this constant self-assessment represents an interesting aspect of our training, one that has undoubtedly always existed but perhaps one that artists of our generation are able to do more than ever before. Re-appraising material you’ve made so recently is not always easy, and it requires a certain level of discipline to watch as a detached observer, to remove your personal investment from it.

We are most definitely reliant on technology as a company. Working with laptops in the room is all we’ve ever known, and I’d be fascinated to go back in time and see how companies used to work without them. For us, they’re completely indispensable. We use them for ongoing research, quickly editing or recording pieces of sound, putting together videos or images to interact with. In many ways, technology is our 11th member.

And it’s true that our work must reflect this reliance on technology. People often comment on our work’s speed, its quick cuts and its frenetic energy, which is no doubt indicative of a group of people who spent their formative years on YouTube.

A good example of this arose in a devising task that was created today, where a group was able to, in a matter of minutes, set up a projector with school photos of our younger selves. We took it in turns to tell the photos off with real-life anecdotes from our school days.

What we soon discovered was that whilst using these photos, whether the anecdotes were real or fictional, a theatrical space was created that captured the terror, embarrassment and shame of being shouted at as a child. The photos were an integral part of this, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to download and project them so easily.

 

Week 2, Day 2– Roles

It’s interesting to think about roles within a company that considers itself to work in an egalitarian way. Roles can take many different forms for many different situations – sometimes they’re named and sometimes assumed, but the navigation of this is crucial in maintaining discipline within the ensemble.

A few years ago, when we found this discipline starting to slip, we came up with two new roles: Bernard and Jane.

Bernard referred to the 90s CITV kid’s show, Bernard’s Watch, which was about a child who owned a pocket watch that could control time. Therefore Bernard is the timekeeper, in charge of keeping an eye on the clock for warm-ups, devising tasks and break times.

Jane referred to Jane Fonda – this person was in charge of running warm-ups with the ensemble at the start of the day. We found that this new emphasis given to the warm-ups reinvigorated the whole process, and introduced us to ways of warming up we wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

Ben for instance, who trained with Philippe Gaulier, took a morning warming us up with clown exercises. Emily, who trained with Jasmin Vardimon, has led us in contact improvisation. Not only did this keep the room fresh, but it also served as a brilliant reminder of the breadth of experience in the room; being an ensemble is as much about recognising the value of the individual as it is about the group.

The roles of Bernard and Jane would rotate daily and were a great way of ensuring every individual remained personally invested – that extra ounce of responsibility means you can’t really disengage with the process. Even now we’ll revert to the naming of these roles, more often than not in the latter part of a process, when tiredness sets in and discipline becomes more difficult.

But the naming of roles applies more broadly than just Bernard and Jane. Some of the company would now strongly identify as directors, some as writers, others as actors. We have choreographers, performance artists, people with an interest in academia and others with an interest in outreach. This was not the case when we first formed (I was 17, I barely knew how to cook pasta). As we get older our personal identities solidify, and we have to work harder to retain the plasticity required to work as part of an ensemble.

In some ways its not as fluid as it used to be. I guess there’s always this tension as the company gets more well-respected and well-known, the roles have to formulate because the reputation is there to uphold. So someone who’s already directed a show before should direct the next one because we might be scared with someone else experimenting with directing a show. But that’s at odds with creating an egalitarian organisation.

-Emily Greenslade, company member

I suppose the challenge is to allow these roles to support each other, and not slip into a hierarchy. This show represents a big step up for us as a company: it sees us moving from small-scale to mid-scale venues, and with that comes a new level of responsibility, a renewed pressure to make something commercially successful. The challenge comes in retaining the structure that’s made us successful up until now, and not surrendering to more rigid forms of organisation, which may make for an easier process but could come at the cost of what makes our work unique.

 

Week 2, Day 3– Tim Crouch

Ideas of audience participation become very keen for me…in all the pieces, not, as in, come up on stage and make an idiot of yourself, but how you get an audience to actively participate in the fabric of the piece.

-Tim Crouch in conversation with Dan Rebellato, Royal Holloway, 19th March 2011

Whilst training during our Made in Bristol year, Tim Crouch brought The Author to the (now demolished) Bristol Old Vic Studio. This show undoubtedly was a huge influence on forming our collective ethos and has been a massive, ongoing point of reference for us – the fact that two members of the ensemble would write their dissertations on the play three years later is testament to that.

The Author is one of the first pieces of theatre we all saw together that was outside of our comfort zone at the time when we were doing MIB. It sparked quite big discussions about the way that you can make theatre. [The Author] gave us a lot to talk about, because it was both provocative and conversational, and played with this idea of truth and what truth was.

-Jesse Jones, Company Member

There’s one particular Tim Crouch exercise that we used a lot during the making of 1972, the flavour of which I’ve noticed popping up again and again in this process. We just call it “Tim Crouch”:

  • One person stands in the space. They are the character.
  • The remainder of the ensemble remain as an audience. They are the narrators.
  • Narrators take it in turns to issue simple narrative instructions and details, always being careful to build upon what’s come before:

 “This is Jacob;” “Jacob is 49 years old;” “Jacob is sad;” “Jacob does not know why he is sad, but Jacob is most definitely sad;” “He walks into a bank;” “He asks to withdraw 500 pounds.”

  • The person playing the character does very little in the way of acting. They may respond to narrative beats with a simple action, such as a turn of the head, a step, raising an arm.

It’s an amazing exercise for exploring both the action of a character, as well as their internal narrative, and it’s clear that the exercise has been internalised into a lot of what we devise. It’s incredibly effective for us in that it allows us to create extremely detailed worlds out of virtually nothing, a very useful tool for any devising company.

In a way, our exploration of this exercise reminds me of my time studying at Rose Bruford. Our first year was organised into subjects, such as feminism, postmodernism, and Marxism. We would spend a couple of weeks studying the theory, learning the techniques and then we’d have a week in smaller groups to make a piece based on what we’d learned. In the case of this exercise, we learned it around three years ago and have been continuing to investigate it ever since.

I have a feeling we get on with the Tim Crouch exercise so much because of our nervousness around acting as a company… What we’re really good at is making up stories, and that allows you to do that without “acting”. It feels safe.

– Jesse Jones

 

Week 2, Day 4– Structuring

Week 2, Day 4. This is frequently the time when we start referring to our brains as soup. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a creative process knows this stage, the part when it feels like you have so much material but no way of fitting it together. It feels like all of these little fragments are just floating around your head whilst you helplessly grab at them.

A frequent criticism of devised work is its lack of coherence, the feeling that too many creative voices makes for something that lacks narrative drive. This is something that we’re very aware of, and we’re extremely fortunate that we have a couple of members who possess an excellent understanding of narrative: Helena studied English at Cambridge and Tom Brennan is an accomplished writer.

I think something that makes our work successful is that we always take care to make a strong backbone…once you’ve got that initial story in place you can start to hang other things off it. I often like to think of our plays as live Pixar films: you create the fun, the silliness, the characters, then you can really earn the emotional moments.

– Helena Middleton, company member

 The start of our structuring session involves “killing babies”. We keep a list of every scene we’ve made so far, and go through it one by one. We colour-code into main narrative strands, physical sections. We debate which babies we don’t like and we get rid of them. Sometimes its an easy decision, sometimes kids are fought for.

We then arrange our scenes into a structure that looks like this:

After much deliberation, swapping, editing and changing, we eventually settle on a version of the structure we can agree we’d like to try. In a lot of ways this is the part of our process that I find most difficult: my brain is very much geared towards form and composition, so to have a story broken down so visually into its constituent parts is an excellent way to begin to understand the mechanics of a narrative. 

 

Week 2, Day 5– Wrangling with form and training Flow

It’s Week 2, Day 5 and show time is looming. In many ways it often feels like this is the least structured element of our process, the moment where all discipline goes out of the window and we surrender to chaos in order to try to get something together.

There’s no magic formula. We’ll take time to improvise the entire show with the structure spread out on the floor – this is the skeleton. We then have a group of bodies, a laptop with music, and often a side list of moments that we haven’t yet found a place for. This is the time that we start to find the magic ensemble moments that we couldn’t have planned for.

But really, those improvs are just a dress rehearsal. When crunch time comes around, it’s a simple case of working through from start to finish, building it all together as we go. It is chaotic, it is time-consuming and it’s the time in the process when we spend the most time together as a whole ensemble.

Arguably though, this is the stage of the process that best embodies our ensemble ethos. The rules that we so strictly enforce earlier in the process are, in a sense, there to enable us to get to this place. To trust that when we get to a time when we have to follow our instincts and put this thing together as a group, the principles we’ve been following up until this point still remain intact: respect, rules, listening, playfulness, silliness… the list is endless.

In many senses this part of the process reminds me of Flowball, a warm-up game we developed whilst touring 1972: The Future of Sex. As lots of our games do, it emerged very organically. Two people started playing with a ball whilst this song was playing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtAITPpMzWI), the group gradually joined and the boundaries of the game were worked out later:

  • Keep the ball in the air as a group
  • Maintain a sense of flow, no drops or stops in motion.

This same sense of “flow” can be found in “Aeroplanes”, an exercise from Bristol Old Vic Young Company that still informs our approach to ensemble movement:

  • Move through the space with the sense of an aeroplane: thinking in curves, no sharp turns
  • When you pass another person allow yourself to be pulled into their journey. Travel with that person for a while before mutually finding a time to peel away from each other

Both of these games are means towards forming a group dynamic for performance. Much like Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, they create a simultaneous awareness of both the group and the individual. They encourage the group to become aware of breath, tempo, levels, dynamics and most importantly, play. One of the main things I think people enjoy about watching our company is the fact that we are, essentially, a group of friends enjoying playing together. The rules, games and exercises we devote so much time to are essentially training devices to develop the way we interact together onstage.

The final stage of putting together a show is draining and completely uneconomical, but the sense of delirium you reach when spending this intense period of time together is often when the best moments are found. I think there’s a certain creativity to be found in exhaustion, when we’ve got no choice but to let go of the thinking side of things and trust that the shared language we’ve developed will find those final magic moments.

There’s quite an exciting bit very close to the end of a process that’s a bit like “ooh just do that because fuck it no one cares any more” that is really nice. “That’s the answer, let’s just have a bouncy castle.”

-Hannah Smith, producer

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