This post has been compiled and edited by Eilon Morris with contributions from Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi and Fabian Wixe.
Each night, prior to performing Gaudete with OBRA Theatre Company, my last task before vacating the stage was to tune my dulcimer. I needed to be sure that the wires had not loosened or tightened, that the strings would ring true in relation to each other when I came to play them in the performance. In much the same way, the last thing we did as an ensemble was to ‘tune’ ourselves; to the space, to each other, to arrive in that particular moment and place, to rediscover a shared quality of being together.
Founded in 2006, OBRA is an international company in residence at the Au Brana Centre in Southern France, a space which they have built and which is dedicated to the exchange of performance practice and the support of emerging artists. OBRA make theatre rooted in the relationship between language and the physical life of the performer, adapting texts not originally destined for the stage.
In 2009 OBRA began work with an ensemble of international artists (Rachel Alexander, Eilon Morris, Oliviero Papi, Ed Richards, Caitlin Rose Smith, Gemma Rowan, Ixchel Rubio Martinez and Fabian Wixe) to make a stage version of Ted Hughes’ poetic novel Gaudete. Alongside OBRA’s foundational actor training, we developed ways to make material that responded to the particularities of the chosen text through extended periods of research and training. This was a collaborative process which drew upon the experience and research of all of the team, with Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi, Fabian Wixe, and myself, Eilon Morris, teaching and exploring our combined work in response to Ted Hughes’ language and the creation of performative material. As the ensemble built a shared language through periods of training and research, we developed an approach that was underpinned by a precise and rigorous physicality and highly attuned listening. Having secured copyright from the Hughes Estate, OBRA created the Prologue and Main story of Gaudete and performed the first 2 parts of the trilogy at four venues in the North of England in March 2017 with the support of the Arts Council England.
Director Kate Papi comments:
The performance sought to strip back to essential staging elements without an over reliance on technical effects and was founded on the relationship between ensemble, language and audience. This demanded a particular sensitivity from the performers as they were required to not only maintain the complex actions, spoken language and choreographies, but sustain a high level of listening and complicity throughout the performances.
Gaudete required that we not only worked with very precise sequences of choreographed movements and spoken text, but also that we work in relationship to recorded voice-overs, sound designs and musical compositions. Paradoxically, working alongside these non-responsive and mediated elements meant that the variability – the liveness of our actions – became more, rather than less significant. For although these elements themselves remained stable throughout, in the making of this work, we seldom directly fixed the relationships between our physical actions and the sonic compositions in which these were performed. Many elements corresponded (speaking to one another) but the precise timing of an action in relationship to a word or a sound was rarely set in stone. This small freedom allowed for a certain play – infinite degrees of nuance to occur within a limited set of parameters. With each repetition came greater variation. Coming up against the rigid nature of this material, demanded an approach that could match this with a sense of nuance and immediacy.
The journey from preparation to performance
‘Tuning’ is the way we described the part of our company’s warm-up process that proceeded each performance. As company member Oliviero Papi explains:
Tuning is, at base, a simple warm up for the Gaudete company to arrive in the performance space as an ensemble. It comes as the final preparation before clearing the stage and getting into costume. The company always spend at least oune hour in the performance space before the show, so after we have all had individual time for personal warm-up, then a forty minute physical warm-up as a group (this is a combination of elements from Ashtanga Yoga and strength training) then a twenty minute voice warm-up, the tuning begins.
The object of the tuning work, from a technical point of view, is for the company to breathe together, to arrive in that particular moment in that particular space and start listening. The structure allows the company to drop into the kind of open listening state required for the performance to live and breathe.
I consider these preparatory process as a liminal space, existing between the training of the company and the performance itself. From here, we looked forward in anticipation of the events, imminent on the horizon, while also looking back to the experiences that built to this moment. This plateau marks the border between preparation and performance; the place where the company meet in order to collectively arrive at a state of readiness to perform; a time in which to (re)discover the ensemble in relationship to the particularities of the moment; a familiar ritual that marks the transition from the technical process of getting ready, to a mode of performing.
The metaphor of ‘tuning’ also describes a process of deepening the listening and responsiveness of the ensemble. It relates to both the long-term accumulative process of training together as a company, as well as the need to re-discover this connection again and again. As with many aspects of ensemble training and performance, the ties between theatrical and musical practices are very apparent here. Discussing theatre director Peter Brook’s own use of ‘tuning’, Lorna Marshall and David Williams explain:
‘Tuning’ here is a musical or orchestral metaphor. It represents a quality of listening and interaction in which the personal (individual instruments) needs to serve the supra-personal (the orchestral collective). Paradoxically, the recognition of the primacy of the whole over its individual parts – the team over the player – can enable a deeper ‘individuality’ and sense of self to flourish (Marshall and Williams, 2010: 190-91).
As an orchestra consists of multiple instruments who each have their own timbre and parts to play, so to a theatrical ensemble is made from a collection of individuals. In forming an ensemble, our job is not to merge into a single entity, but to find ourselves in relationship to one another and the group as a whole. For me, being ‘in tune’ or ‘in time’ is not about giving away my individuality, nor is it about being selfless. Curiously, the moments that I notice the strongest sense of interaction are often those in which there is some form of counterpoint or polyrhythm within a group – the elements rubbing up against each other, weaving, pulling together and apart. Finding these qualities of simultaneity requires a very strong capacity to sense, as well as the ability to combine this with action. To be moving while also seeing, to be speaking while at the same time listening, to be touching while also feeling.
For OBRA ‘tuning’ is more than simply a philosophical notion of togetherness or readiness. It is a practical process of building a condition from which we can effectively perform together as a company. Oliviero Papi explains:
‘Tuning’, as a term, arose because it best described the desired outcome of the exercise; for the ensemble to be highly tuned to each other, like an orchestra. It is a response to the need I felt for the company to remember what is at the core of the work we have made, and to operate as an antidote to the somewhat complicating energies and emotions that are stirred up by an imminent performance.
Company member Fabian Wixe explains further:
For me the tuning served its purpose as a listening exercise, a way to get into a state, but also (sometimes principally) as a ritual for us to come together, however briefly. … In French there’s a good way of talking about this space. We say ’vestibule’ which means the room where you hang your clothes… The transition between inside and outside. The tuning for me is this … a buffer zone where we acknowledge that we need a space to detach from all the other practical stuff and stress and come together, to re-focus our attentions.
Each time we warmed up as a company, I had a sense that I was recommitting myself to a project which I had been involved in over the last six years, a project that was not just about performing this particular work, but also about sharing a stage with this group of people. On the cusp of each performance, this time for ‘tuning-up’ together and ‘tuning-in’ to the ensemble and the space, became, for me, a critical moment in linking us back to the training we had undertaken together as a company, as well as a way to of laying down the foundations for what was to come.
Having initiated this tuning process, the production itself became a further means of connecting, finding moments to listen, to breathe together, to see one another. Wixe talks about how certain moments in the production, became opportunities to reconnect to the ‘breath’ of the ensemble. Describing the moment where the chorus walked onto the stage to deliver the ‘argument’ of the piece, he explains:
…it was our first moments on stage together, and where we could (at least attempt) to breathe as a group, and to lay the foundation for how we would follow each other afterwards when all the actions started. But the ’simple’ thing of walking in together, stopping and turning gave me a feel as to where we were as a group.
Building on each moment of connection, the piece itself became an ongoing tuning process. At times, something might break the focus for a moment – an unexpected pause, a technical disruption, an adjustment to working on a different sized stage – but having developed the capacity to tune, we could easily find our way back to the flow of the production and the ensemble.
Tuning became a way of cultivating a quality of awareness and relationship that supported us throughout the production. This was something that we, as a company, approached in a number of ways. The following sections will present three accounts of the key exercises used by the company in preparation for each performance: ‘bouncing’, ‘balls’ and ‘kinaesthetic/tuning’. While we seldom did all three of these, most nights involved a combination of either balls or bouncing, followed by tuning. Consistent to all these exercises is the fact that they are self-led – there was no external voice directing these tasks. Each of these practices has been introduced and facilitated by a different member of the ensemble:
- Bouncing – Fabian Wixe
- Balls – Eilon Morris
- Tuning – Oliviero Papi
Bouncing – An account by Fabian Wixe
I first came across ‘bouncing’ in a workshop with a dancer called Milan Herich. When I first tried it, we bounced for fifteen minutes one day. And then later I kept bouncing on my own, first short sessions and then during a period for about forty-five to fifty minutes a day. It became my principal warm-up. It served as a great moment to take time for myself. At that time, I was in a process that demanded a lot of energy, mentally and physically. So I used to come in earlier than everybody else and bounce for a long time, to get warm, but also in order to feel that I could keep up a practice steadily that wasn’t linked to what I was doing at the time. Only doing for myself; it gave me time to breathe, as in calming emotions and to let go of shit so that I then could give and open more.
This is a practice that is used by a lot of dancers, but after attending a workshop in Thailand where we also practiced Qi-Gong, I’ve started wondering if it probably comes from this tradition. The practitioner I worked with in Thailand, Vangelis Legakis, recommend bouncing as a way to generate more energy and make it flow in the body. I find that it has a great effect on my energy levels, if I pay attention to it. It’s very easy just to bounce, stop and then leak it all away. That’s why the moment after you’ve reduced the bouncing until you stop, when you take a moment to feel any sensations it might have provoked, to observe this, is so important. It is very important to take this short moment to actually feel what is happening in your body. Without this moment of reflection, you can remain oblivious to a lot of things and never learn anything new. Also, doing these check-ins I find is a very important part of avoiding injury.
Before starting to bounce, I place my feet under my hips, in parallel. I like to start by feeling the verticality of my body, the line of my spine, the alignment. Then I open up my arms slightly, rotating from the shoulders, to keep a slightly more open position, allowing energy to flow. Now I lock my knees for a moment, and then release them and start to bounce. I do this, so as to feel the release more clearly after. Like tensing in order to feel when you relax.
I play with different rhythms of bouncing and the amplitude of the bounce, small, large, fast, slow etc. I often start with a steady bounce in order to let the movement settle in me before I go into more intense, faster movements. Here intense doesn’t necessarily mean speed or muscular tension. The aim is not to bounce with the muscles, but to find the release and movement without contracting. I try to find a way to bounce my whole body, not to just bounce with say, just my thighs.
If I have pain in certain areas of my body, I focus my attention there and ’shake’ the pain out letting more energy flow into that area. This is not about actively shaking that part of my body, but rather guiding my attention, my focus to that part, and in doing so letting it release. I guide my energy (whatever you want to call it) to an area and leave it there until something eases (or not).
When we finish, we let the bounce slowly die down until it finally becomes stillness, and then take a moment to just feel. Feel the vibrations in our bodies, tingling sensations, the feel of our feet against the floor. I observe the alignment of my body, what goes on inside, how it is different from before.
Music and the group
We mostly bounce with music playing. I find it helps because it allows me to disconnect a bit and just follow. There’s a beat, a rhythm and you just go with it, in whatever relation to it you want of course, but it’s there as a help (or not if you happen to dislike the music of course). Equally, however, it’s interesting to do this without music. Without music, I tend to have a different attention, possibly more refined since I have more time to listen inwards than outwards. My own rhythms and sounds become more apparent.
It’s the same with the group. It all depends where I lay my focus. If I close my eyes and focus only on my own experience, I will sense and feel things that I wouldn’t if I opened out to the group, and vice versa. Opening out to the group, bouncing as a group is interesting because I can connect and build from a shared energy. Connecting without commenting, keeping the focus but also feeding off each other’s energies, finding energy when I’m tired, feeding someone else who is tired.
I like it to be playful, but without losing the focus on the exercise and my own listening inwards even if I’m with other people. If my enthusiasm with the external makes me disconnect with myself, I’d say I’ve gone too far.
I like it as a practice because it’s an opportunity to check in with my body. Since the action of bouncing isn’t difficult, but steady, it leaves a lot of time to scan down the body and to identify areas with issues, fatigue, pain etc, and work through them. It’s also a good check of the breath and where it sits that day. It often helps me to get going on days when I feel like I have nothing, and on good days it boosts me. Before going into whatever I’m doing afterwards, I take the time to ’talk’ to my body and ask it how it is right now, if there are fragile points to look out for, if there’s a lot of energy to tap in to, or if I need to generate more. And for the breath: to notice if I’m breathing deeply, or more shallowly, long or short breaths, if I’m feeling out of breath or like I could go on forever. It’s essentially a little conversation with myself to establish where my limits are that day. A conversation that is important to keep going during whatever I do afterwards as well, I find, in order to prevent injury.
When done for longer periods, at least twenty minutes or more, it also becomes a great mental exercise, because with the longer duration it becomes tiring and you have to surpass yourself, your urge to stop and the feeling that you can’t continue. You face your pain, and you get past it. Or not. The ‘pain’ can be many things. It could be physical pain, but equally it could be mental – wanting to stop, finding it too hard and wanting to give up, finding it stupid or pointless or scary, feeling silly etc. It’s basically finding a way around your own resistance, in whatever form it manifests that day.
Balls – an account by Eilon Morris
In its basic form, throwing and catching an object in circle is an activity commonly used in a wide range of actor training practices including the work of Jacques Copeau and Suzanne Bing, as well as Michael Chekhov and Jerzy Grotowski. My own experience of this practice has come from my training with John Britton, whom I’ve worked with since 2000. John Britton has adopted this game as one of his core training techniques, developing numerous variations and applications within ensemble performance training. For Britton, the ‘ball game’ is about encountering and shaping the ways we behave and respond in relationship to others, hence the name he gives his training approach, Self-With-Others.
Standing in a circle, we take a moment to arrive together as a company, letting the business that has come before settle, and we take some time to simply see each other and be seen. When I feel the group is becoming focused, I introduce the first ball that gets passed between us – freely with no fixed pattern or set rhythm. Each person catches and throws the ball, looking to find a continuity in their actions and the flow of the exercise. Once the first ball is established and the group’s focus has settled again, I introduce a second ball, and eventually a third, fourth and sometimes a fifth or six. When it feels right (normally once the group has re-found its flow and a clarity of focus) I start to remove the balls one by one, gradually working back down, till just a single ball is being passed between us. Eventually I remove the last ball, and after sometime of stillness, bring the exercise to a close.
My primary aims throughout this process are to keep the balls in motion and to be relaxed while also being open and attentive to what is happening around me – to the flow of the balls and the dynamics of the group. This exercise is not about learning to throw and catch. For me, it is about dealing with things as they happen – the reality of the moment, not what I imagine should be happening or what I wish was happening, but what is actually happening in each instance. In observing the ball, I come to see what my body is doing, moment by moment. As much as noticing what my body is doing, this game also lets me observe my own thoughts. I notice moments of self- criticisms and apology: ‘why did I drop that ball’, ‘that was a terrible throw’, as well as moment of self-congratulation, ‘what an amazing catch that was’, ‘ I’ve been doing this exercise for a long time and I am so good at it’ and other forms of distraction ‘how long have we been doing this?’, ‘what are we doing next?’. This exercise offers me a chance to notice these divergent thoughts and develop my capacity for refocusing my attention. While overtime, I do notice that I have gotten better at throwing and catching, the primary skills I gain from this exercise, are the capacity to be present and tuned into the ensemble, to be part of creating something without the need to control every aspect of that creation, to be open to the unexpected and to be open to the group while also being aware of myself.
For me, one of the most significant experiences within this work is the sense of ‘flow’ that is established between the members of the company. Sometimes I have the sense that space between each throw and catch, is like a spider web weaving us together. My throw, its velocity and arc affects the next catch and the subsequent throw and so on, establishing a thread linking each action to what came before and to that which follows. The throws become a manifestation of the ‘invisible network’ that links the ensemble together. When the group is strongly tuned into this exercise, even when someone drops the ball, it does not feel like this continuity is broken, just displaced for a moment.
Multiple flow lines
This sense of continuity, of something being passed between the group, relates strongly to how it felt to perform Gaudete. And as with ‘the ball game’, often there was not just a single line flowing, but multiple – at times seemingly discrete elements – weaving through the performance. I felt that by taking the time, within our warm-up, to focus on this sense of flow and continuity, I was better able to access this within the performance itself. There was also something reassuring and grounding about doing this activity before a performance. Having trained with the balls over many years and having worked with them regularly as part of OBRA’s rehearsal process, this activity felt deeply familiar. In all the confusion and dispersal of touring a production, getting into a new venue and preparing to perform on an unfamiliar stage, the simplicity and familiarity of the balls helped us re-establish a sense of a shared practice and link back to our training. Inversely, the simplicity and familiarity of this exercise also helped highlight for me the uniqueness of each night.
The balls continuously demand my presence while simultaneously requiring me to relinquish control of what is happening outside of me. The moment my mind drifts off task, I am gently (or often briskly) nudged back into the reality of the situation by a ball or two or five flying towards my head. If my attention becomes too fixated on actions outside of my control, if I become focused on the way another performer is throwing or catching, or on pushing the group in a particular direction, or on trying to help others, then quickly I notice my own throws and catches begin to lack precision and clarity of intention. These two principles speak directly to my experience of performing with this ensemble and help me to identify tendencies for distraction and strategies for re-tuning to a specific performance task and to my relationship with the ensemble.
Tuning – an account by Olivero Papi
We begin from a shared stillness, time for each ensemble member to arrive in themselves, in their breath, in that moment; time to ‘tune’ the internal listening and connection with their inner life. Then the attention expands out to take in the other members of the ensemble and the performance space. Through breathing and simple eye contact with the rest of the performers, the ensemble strikes the balance between listening to their inner life and to the others in the space. From this point on it is essentially a spatial and rhythmic physical improvisation, but always with the focus being the listening, via the breath, to ensure that the ensemble are ‘tuned’ to each other.
The ensemble have limited physical possibilities within the tuning structure (walking, running, falling, rolling and stillness) and the essential element is that the imaginary world of the performance is present. As a practice it embraces the duality in performance of the performer being aware of themselves and their partners as they are in that moment (a man/woman of X age, with X history, ie I am Oliviero, there is Eilon) and simultaneously suspending disbelief and generating together a shared imaginary landscape and characters which we can inhabit and move and breathe in relation to. It is essential that the ‘imaginary world’ is present in the work as that is what lifts it and the ensemble out of the daily. If we can sustain this listening and build a shared world, then a piece can fly.
This imaginary layer is enriched and strengthened by the music in the piece, which is present as another layer within the tuning. Often when we ‘tune’ as a company, Eilon would begin the work physically in the space with the ensemble, then at a certain point would shift behind his instrument structure and improvise in relation to the ensemble, using the sound worlds and motifs created for the performance.
This exercise taps directly into the practice which lies at the heart of OBRA’s principles; the ‘kinaesthetic training’. This body of work is the closest thing to practicing what it is to perform, without having an audience, as it fundamentally trains how to ‘be in the moment’, or how to, with each breath, be alive to the constant renewal of self and the space. It is a listening training. As a company we have spent many hours honing this form of listening, at first using the work to be the means for building the ensemble itself (as we started working together), then throughout the creative process it was used in devising, improvising and exploring the performance material. The practice owes an enormous debt to Lindy Davies’ practice in ‘impulse’ work, a complete approach to heightened language from devising to staging, as experienced by myself (Oliviero Papi) in my training at VCA drama school, Melbourne.
Earlier I talked about tuning ‘through’ or ‘via’ the breath because here the breath is a conduit for the listening. Saying ‘tuning to the breath’ invokes a space in which loads of people are making loads of noise with their breathing, which is awful and manipulative. The conduit for the work is the breath, simply letting the breath drop in through the mouth and down into the core, and ensuring that with each exhalation one fully lets the moment end. In linking it to a way of thinking about your breath as more than just oxygen I am trying to build a doorway into a flow. If you can really let go of what has just happened to you in the exhalation, then with the next inhalation you are open to the shifts and differences in this new moment, and so on.
Personally, during the tuning work, I am concentrating on bringing myself constantly into the present moment, letting all else slip away until I am here and now with my fellow ensemble members. I am trying to simply see and let myself be seen, to not know what is going to happen in the next moment and not to worry about what will happen during the performance. I am checking in with myself, gauging where I am that day, physically, emotionally and mentally, where my breath is, where my attention is. All this is not to change anything, but to acknowledge it all and be aware so that I can be sure I am ready to allow myself to be changed via the contact with my partners. I am plugging in to my partners, re-connecting with the deep pool of shared work and material.
What do we take forward?
As we move forward as company, beginning new projects and taking new directions in our work, the question arises as to what we take with us from our experiences of creating and performing Gaudete. Through this process we have developed a wealth of devising approaches as well means of working with poetic language and ensemble choreography. We have explored means of layering live and recorded sound, as well as text over physical scores. As a musician, I have generated an array of new musical instruments and polyphonic and polyrhythmic musical compositions. Yet beyond all these creative achievements, perhaps the strongest element that we take forward with us is the deep quality of listening that we have achieved as an ensemble and the means to approach this in our work.
Having trained together as an ensemble over a long period of time, I can sense how our ability to connect and respond has deepened and developed, becoming increasingly refined and nuanced. In touring this piece, I have also come to realise that this is a capacity that needs to be re-established, again and again. As Brook points out, the ensemble is made up of ‘a shared awareness that is easily lost and has to be constantly renewed, to bring together the separate individuals into a sensitive and vibrant team’ (1993, p. 107). Similarly, each ‘tuning’ and performance of Gaudete, became a search for this ‘shared awareness’, as well as a discovery of the particular musicality of that performance. This was an ever-changing negotiation between the company, taking place within a tight set of parameters.
For me, doing these exercises also became a means of connecting to the sources of this material. As I stood on the stage about to bounce, to throw a ball, or take a step, I was reminded of the familiar feeling of being together in a barn in the South of France, building this piece over the last seven years. Coming back to these familiar practices, in a way connected us to the body of work that lay behind us – years of training, exploration, devising and rehearsals.
While ‘tuning’ is something we must find again and again, I also have a sense that it is something that grows within us. With an instrument, if I keep tuning it to the same notes, eventually these resonances will become part of the instrument itself – somehow the instrument becomes accustomed to its own tuning. Similarly, I feel that we as a company, learned how to exist in relationship to each other, we learned to sense more easily when we were out of ‘tune’ and discovered the pathways leading us back into ‘tune’. While it might be tempting to think of ‘tuning’ as being something rigged and fixed, my sense in all these exercises and experiences, is that it is a highly adaptable and fluid process that is as much about discovering and playing with dissonance and fractiousness as it is about finding harmony and union. Ultimately, tuning is not about finding ourselves in a particular relationship, but rather, simply finding our-selves in relationship. This is something very easy to write, but endlessly challenging to realise on stage.
Brook, P. (1993) There are no secrets: thoughts on acting and theatre. London: Methuen.
Marshall, L. & Williams, D. (2010) Peter Brook: Transparency and the Invisible Network, In: Alison Hodge, ed. Actor Training. Oxon: London: Taylor & Francis. pp. 184–198.