POINTS OF VIEW: Multi-Roling Performance in Ireland in the 1990s, Part 1 (Layering)

The 1990s in Ireland saw a series of highly successful theatre productions in which actors played a multiplicity of roles. This has often been attributed to the economic exigencies of the times, but it also depended on the availability of flexible actors with the physical and psychological capacity to embody a wide range of identifiable characters within the one production. The collaborative work of dramatist Tom MacIntyre, director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey (most notably their non-verbal stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem, The Great Hunger) had established, in Ireland during the 1980s,  an appetite among both artists and audiences for an increasingly physical style of theatre performance. But it was the emergence of a new generation of performers from the burgeoning youth theatre movement, bolstered by the return to Ireland of the first wave of young actors to have experienced a more physical theatre training in Paris , that created the conditions for a new genre of Irish theatre performance.

This series of posts will consider the acting techniques required for this style of performance with reference to four productions from the 1990s in which two actors took on multiple roles: Frank Pig Says Hello (1992), Co-Motion’s stage adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel; The Butcher Boy, Corca Dorca’s production of Disco Pigs (1996) by Enda Walsh; DubbleJoint’s production of Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones (1996) and its subsequent award-winning revival which I produced at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 1999; and Kabosh’s production of Mojo Mickybo by Owen McCafferty (1998). The discussion will focus primarily on my own empirical exploration of the demands multi-roling places on an actor through the direction of recent revivals of Mojo Mickybo for Belfast’s Chatterbox Theatre Company (2013) and Bedlam Productions (2015).

This first post will identify the precise nature of multi-roling in these productions, and the psychological demands this places on an actor. The second post, due to appear next week, will look at the physical requirements of distinguishing role from role.

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“Sequence of Four Exercise-Actions” (physical training led by Ben Spatz)

“Sequence of Four Exercise-Actions” is a dense linear video document based on an extract from a session of physical training held at the Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research, University of Huddersfield (12 August 2015). The session was led by Ben Spatz, Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance, and is based on a form of physical training developed by Massimiliano Balduzzi, which Spatz previously documented and analyzed in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5:3. This training can be used to enhance a performer’s physical precision and sense of musicality as well as the ability to integrate dynamic movement with interpersonal awareness and imaginative associations. Also participating in the training session are Sobhia Jones (undergraduate alumna) and Chris Lomax (second year undergraduate).

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“Yoga and Actor Training: Four Body Mind Dialogues”, by Dorinda Hulton from the DVD/Booklet “Yoga and Actor Training” by Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali (Routledge 2016), DVD filmed and edited by Arts Archives.

This series of video clips offer glimpses of the six Workshop Approaches documented in Dorinda Hulton and Maria Kapsali’s Yoga and Actor Training (Routledge 2015) DVD/booklet that focusses on ways in which the practice of yoga may be applied towards actor training purposes. Six Workshop Approaches are proposed, and contextualised with a historical overview of the use of yoga in the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, Jerzy Grotowski and Joseph Chaikin.
Within the six videos, as well as the publication as a whole, two key perspectives are proposed as being directly, or indirectly, helpful to actor training: the first is an understanding of yoga in relation to actor training that does not prioritise, or pit, ‘interior’ against ‘exterior’, ‘mind’ against ‘body’, ‘mental’ against ‘physical’, but recognises their interdependence and interconnections. The second is an understanding that the ‘internalization’ of attention, which may be perceived in aspects of yoga, is not inimical to the creative processes of a contemporary actor, but can contribute to the cultivation of an attitude of ‘alert receptivity’ that is particularly relevant to processes within actor training.

The first video clip derives from Workshop Approach 1, led by Dorinda Hulton and filmed by Arts Archives, and  focuses on four body-mind dialogues inherent in the safe practice of the yoga postures and proposes correspondences between these and processes relevant to first steps in actor training. Continue reading

The Stranger by Baudelaire: Embodied Techniques in Youth Theatre Training

In this video clip I seek to show how young non-professional actors make use of embodied techniques by minimizing the expressive vocabulary in the performance but still retaining traces or echoes of extensive training techniques that preceded the rehearsals and shooting of the act. The video was filmed during a series of training sessions that aimed at studying how certain training ideas – developed within the research project Actor’s Art in Modern Times at the Theatre Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki – could be applied in the context of youth theatre training. This work has also been presented at the TaPRA conference 2014. The project did not involve any public performances .

The two actors, Victoria Godden and Jarkko Lehtiranta, had been training with me using a set of embodied techniques, mainly working with ‘states of being’ and transitions between them. The actors were offered signposts for the creation of these states of being in the form of ‘frames’, such as ‘the carrying/being carried’ frame (that establishes the contact between the actors and “embodies” the ethics of care during training), ‘the network’ frame(that highlights the actor’s awareness of the outer world) and ‘the somatic’ frame (that focuses on subtle movements of the body, the ‘feel’ in the body that makes a movement meaningful for the actor). The extensive movement training the actors had had before the rehearsals was organised around the above mentioned frames (that tended to appear simultaneously, as a mixture). For example, the actors were resting on each other’s arms (carrying/being carried frame) but were still very aware of any changes in the situation (network frame), and sensing the subtle feel in the upper torso when making changes in breathing patterns, for example, as if taking a cold shower (somatic frame). The actors used certain techniques at certain points in the text, for example, at the line “Gold?” Victoria “strikes” Jarkko and Jarkko strikes back, immediately, by saying “I hate it”. When rehearsing these lines they actually hit each other with an invisible bat (network frame). In the end, when Victoria asks, “What then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” Jarkko uses the technique of in-between-ness, hence saying, “I love the clouds” as if he were on his way to some specific thought but not quite there yet. In the video performance the use of these techniques were almost entirely hidden, leaving only traces or echoes to be perceived.

The text used is The Stranger, a poem by Charles Baudelaire.

Video: Otto Färm


Body Weather Manipulations No. 1 & 2

The Manipulations were developed in the late 1970s by a group of young artists under the leadership of Japanese dancer/choreographer Min Tanaka. They are one of the main elements of Body Weather performance training practice, frequently (but not always) placed between what is called the M/B (‘mind/body’, ‘muscles/bones’), a rigorous physical work out, and a third section that is variously referred to as ‘workshop’, ‘laboratory’, or ‘groundwork’. This latter part consists of a broad range of exercises and scores that explore the body’s capacity to move with an altered perception in relation to itself and to other (imagined or real) non-/human objects and phenomena.
This video registration captures the beginning of the practice, Manipulations No. 1 & 2. The complete series consists of approximately 90 touch-based hands-on operations structured into a fixed sequence from 1 to 7 during which the roles of giver and receiver alternate. Most of the touch-operations are conducted by the ‘giver’ directing body weight through the hands into and through the body of the receiving partner while audibly exhaling. Usually, the whole practice takes between one and a half to two hours to be accomplished.
As a whole, the Manipulations can be construed as a technology to alter the mental and physical configuration of the body in order to enhance its performability and affectability. Thus, the practice may not only function as a tool for preparing the performer’s body for artistic performance, but, from a research perspective, it can also provide a frame for studying and observing the effect of performance training on the performer’s process of perception and modes of knowing.
This recording was taken in 2008 at Studio Overtoom 301 (Amsterdam/NL) with Ema Nik Thomas and Joa Hug.

Closed Laboratory to Open Laboratory: Examining the Process of Making Training Public

My own practice is influenced by laboratory traditions, informed by contemporary performance and ‘devising’ methods. I am working with an emergent performance ensemble using task-based methods of training and performance.

An underlying dilemma that faces my practice is the process of taking work that has been formed in a closed environment into a wider and open context: making the private public.

Within my own practice I have been, as a member of the ensemble, working in a closed environment for an extended period of time. Until we held a participatory work demonstration, open to the public to enter and interact with both us and our work.

Within our closed environment we use objects such as paper, string and balloons. These objects are then utilised to create task-based fragments of performance, these tasks are detailed with complex and meticulous rules and sub-rules. One such task involved the use of homemade paper aeroplanes.

The ensemble are in the closed laboratory throwing the paper aeroplanes from one end of the room to the other whilst following complex and unnecessary rules and sub-rules detailed here:


When this task took place in the closed laboratory the ensemble became immersed in the task, following the rules and sub-rules. The ensemble were working interdependently, mutually dependent on each other to complete the overall task, whilst independently moving through their own stages of the task.  During this task the ensemble demonstrated an intense and focused state, as their body(ies) repeatedly moved through the task concentrating on the task in the present moment. As a member of the ensemble, I was able to observe them loop though the repetition, continually throwing, aiming and repeating.

However, when this task was demonstrated in the open environment the ensemble’s approach and method for completing the task shifted unexpectedly.

It was noticeable that the ensemble were now individually driven to show their own skills, they were no longer moving through the task, they were performing rather than doing the task. Even breaking away from the task to explain the rules to the public, this direct interaction created a distinct division between the public and the ensemble and suggested that the rules and sub-rules had become fixed rather than remaining open.

This highlights that when in the closed environment, for me, the focus is on the functional actions, enabling the focus of the task to be on doing. The emphasis in the closed laboratory is on the process not the product and the act of creating one singular participatory work demonstration resulted in the process becoming a product. In order to make the sharing of work part of the process, we might be led to believe that this sharing should not take place in one go but use multiple platforms for continual sharing, never fully closing the laboratory (door?).

Jennifer Willett