Training as a Ground for Creating Community

Stephanie Arsoska is a theatre maker and facilitator living in Scotland. She is currently studying towards an MEd in Teaching and Learning in the Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland with a focus on ensemble theatre practice and has attended residencies with DUENDE for the last three years.

‘We must find the conditions that make it possible to grow, because so many things in the world conspire against growth.’ (Chaikin, 1991, p.80)

I wanted to start with the above quote because three years ago I found myself in a place where I was failing to find the conditions that would make growth possible.  For ten years I have worked in the youth theatre sector and have run several youth companies. I love young performers, their curiosity, their energy, their willingness to try out all the strange stuff that I throw at them, and yet I always felt a sense of dissatisfaction at the space I was creating with them.  It did not seem to matter how seriously we took our work together, and I have been lucky to work with some very highly committed groups, the space still felt superficial.  I could never quite create the conditions where the qualities of risk, permission and playfulness could fully emerge.  Yet when I looked back into my own training for a way of working with them that might help generate the openness, trust and creativity I was looking for, I found my own foundation had been very poorly constructed. In fact my own training had left me full of feelings of fear, insecurity and failure. It was therefore hardly surprising that I was unable to generate the conditions of growth with my youth theatre, I had never experienced them myself. It was from this place that I found Self-With-Others.

For the past three years I have attended residencies with DUENDE, training with John Britton in Self-With-Others, an approach to building ensemble through collective improvisation.  When I enter into the studio at Au Brana, France, or walk onto the olive grove in Lesvos, what I am entering into is more than just another training opportunity, I am also entering into a way of being.  Both a way of being with myself as an artist and a way of being creatively with others in the space.  This work is not about learning what to do, this is about learning how to be. In each of the three residences I experienced a sense of creative community that generated those conditions for growth I had been looking for.

In my first encounter with Self-With-Others it became clear to me that damage done through a very poor drama school experience had left me in a space where I was entirely unable to give myself permission to play.  Risk was terrifying, dangerous even. Real vulnerability was to be avoided at all cost. Through the principle-based approach of Self-With-Others I found an ethical framework that enabled me to begin to unpick this obstructive way of being with myself.  Using the principles taught me  how to pay attention to myself in ways that were actually useful to me. From this place I could begin to learn how to pay attention to others, the work, the audience.  I knew after that first residency that I had found the ‘ethical language’ (Britton, 2013, p.317) that I had been searching for.

What excited me most about Self-With-Others was the genuine feeling of creative safety the principles had generated in the space. My original drama school experience had been rooted in fear, competitiveness, criticism and unkindness. These seem to me to be rather odd building blocks for creativity but I don’t think my experience is unique. Indeed Emma Rice describes aspects of her own training as punishing, controlling and ‘full of fear’ (Rice in Radosavljević, 2013, p.105). If, as Seton asserts in his paper on ‘Post-Dramatic’ stress,  actor training is, ‘committed to enabling actors to be intentionally vulnerable’ (Seton, nd), then surely the conditions of growth that Chaikin seeks require some attention to the ethical framework within which we are working? Seton (2010) describes actor training as an ethical matter because of the, ‘extraordinary potential actor training has to profoundly affect students’ (Seton, 2010, p. 16).  I speak anecdotally when I refer to my own negative encounter with acting training, but there is no doubt that it left me in a poorer place creatively and that I came out of it with a practice that became unsustainable very  quickly.  In other words nothing about my training had provided me with conditions in which I could either start or continue to grow.  In contrast to this, the core principles of Self-With-Others provides me with a way of working that feels safe, healthy and sustainable.     

After this first encounter I tentatively introduced Self-With-Others to my senior youth theatre. I was unsure how a room full of teenagers would respond to requests to move/dance together, indeed in our first session they were so shy that we could only proceed after I agreed to switch out the lights so we could literally dance in the dark. Despite this initial nervousness they quickly expressed a desire to continue the work.  And so we worked that year with one night for rehearsals and one night to train together. Over the course of that year it was exciting to watch the difference that the practice made to our time in rehearsals. Not only were they no longer ‘dancing in the dark’ they were taking ownership of the movement work in our pieces, offering to devise and choreograph sections themselves. When I asked about this they were clear that the ensemble practice had enabled them to feel more comfortable with each other and less afraid to try new things. One student, after creating a movement piece for our performance, told me specifically that she would have been unable to make it if we had not trained in the ensemble work together.  She now has plans to become a theatre director.

Three years later that core group is still with me. After ten years of youth theatre practice I know this to be unusual. While I stay in touch with most of my students they have to move on and my time with them comes to a natural end. But not this time. While my senior group have technically moved on, they are training to be actors, or artists or at university, they are still very much with me.  One by one they have all returned to the studio with me, to the practice. We have established a way of being together that sustains us both in the space in spite of the youth theatre itself ending.  Through the sharing of a principle-based training we have created community and through that community we have created a sustainable studio practice together. We have the conditions within which we can grow.

Through the training I have also connected to my own sense of creative community — an international group of performers who understand a particular ethical way of working. In Self-With-Others I have a place within which to situate my own practice, a way of being with myself, with my work and, when I am lucky, with others.  I live in a rural area, and so am practically often alone, and yet now I no longer feel completely disconnected creatively.  I am part of something bigger than myself and I have a framework that enables me to sustain my practice.

Increasingly I am asked to work with young actors who are at the start of the their own training journey.  We work on many things, but at the heart of it I hope to help them find an approach that enables them to consider what is that they need to sustain themselves as young artists. I hope to cultivate within them a sense of self-care, curiosity and autonomy that goes beyond ticking boxes to pass courses, or get cast. I share this practice with them not because I hope they will take it on themselves but because I hope they will seek out their own practice, their own principles, their own sense of creative community.  I hope that they will view their training as being about more than just the transmission of technique but an opportunity for constructive, creative connection both with themselves and with each other, that they can begin to build their own sense of creative community that will help them to sustain their practice in the years ahead.

Britton, J. (ed.) (2013) Encountering Ensemble. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Britton, J.  (nd) Core Principles.  [online] Available from: https://ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com/research-scholarship/principles/ [Accessed June 19 2017].

Chaikin, J.  (1991) The Presence of the Actor. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Seton, M.  (2010) The Ethics of Embodiment: Actor Training and Habitual Vulnerability. Performing Ethos 1, (1), pp. 5-20.

Radosavljević, D. (ed) (2013).  The Contemporary Ensemble. Oxon: Routledge.

Seton, M. (nd) Post-Dramatic Stress: Negotiating Vulnerability for Performance. [online]. University of Surrey.  Available from: https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/2518/1/ADSA2006_Seton.pdf [Accessed June 19 2017].

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