Comeback to the Bench Game

Since the original Bench Game blog we’ve played the game around the UK, again in India with the 2017 ‘Indian Steam’ tour, and elsewhere on our travels. Recently I was in Milan performing one of our Prodigal Theatre shows “The Tragedian Trilogy” at Teatro Della Contraddizione. I also led a three day workshop at TDC’s school. The workshop examined characterisation techniques in connection to our show in which I play multiple characters. Changes of character are played within the action, in front of the (in-the-round) audience. In particular I was looking at character through the lens of Social Learning theory. In discussing social learning theory and communities of practice, Etienne Wenger describes an ongoing process in which learning and identity are inextricably bound: The focus on the social aspect of learning is not a displacement of the person. On the contrary, it is an emphasis on the person as a social participant, as a meaning-making entity for whom the social world is a resource for constituting an identity. (Wenger, E. 2012) I was intrigued to see if we could apply this theory to character creation.

In the context of the workshop, we looked at three processes. First we established what Wenger might describe as a ‘Community of Practice’. This is more usually referred to in dance training as a ‘shared vocabulary’. We agreed a set of normative behaviours, in this case principles of scenic behaviour. I ran an exercise we call ‘The Waiter’s Tray’ which focuses on group movement in a space. The Waiter’s Tray is a core Prodigal Theatre practice that begins with the simple work of evenly distributing a group where everyone is moving constantly, and then adds levels of sophistication to this through numerous additional tasks. Again, using Wenger’s terminology, we are agreeing a level of competence that unifies all the members in our community of practice. Simply put we’re working on the fundamentals of stage craft. Once a general level of competency is achieved and shared we can move on.

So in the second phase of the workshop we looked at individual behaviour as we worked on the physical construction of character. Here we start to build upon the shared, group practices – stagecraft or scenic behaviour – the agreed level of competences that make it possible for us to all be working together and inhabiting the same space together. We add a second layer of individual behaviours and these additional, personal, physical ‘tasks’ are what forms a character. Here we are moving from focusing upon the agreed competence that allows us to be considered a member of the community of practice, and we are focusing on the unique identity of the individual. As Wenger discusses at length, the interplay between the individual and the community is part of what defines identity. A community of practice will regard a particular person within that community as ‘an old master’ and another as ‘an apprentice’ based on their interplay and relationships with those individuals. Wearing a badge that says ‘old master’ does not in itself confer that status upon you, and this is critical when we think about playing characters because it moves the work of conferring status, for example, from the individual to the ensemble. Put simply, and as has been discussed by many practitioners many times, the king is made not by the actor announcing ‘I am the king’ but by the ensemble reacting to the actor as they would (or as their character would) to this particular king, now.

Having worked through the first day establishing a shared language of stage behaviour, and having then worked individually on developing and defining individual physical characters, we then looked at ways of bringing the two together. The participants in the workshop were not all working on the same production, and in choosing characters to work on they had not discussed a common genre or play script. Within the room I had eleven students each representing a character from a different source, and I did not discuss those characters explicitly with them. In a later exercise students spoke the names of their characters indicating to me that some as old as Greek Tragedy might be sharing the space with Brecht’s and Kane’s creations. Our work was focused on a process we term ‘listening’ in the company but which might be better understood here as perceiving or reflecting. The aim is for the actor to discern their relationship with the characters around them by discovering together how these characters can find a balance within a space. This work falls somewhere in between a pre-expressive language of sharing space purely on the principles of how an actor exists upon a stage, and the later dramaturgical work of setting a score of actions. In this stage we’re trying to find a way of interacting which is discovered mutually. It was in this part of the process that I introduced the Bench Game.

Looking around the TDC venue I couldn’t find a bench of the simple stye that we’d used so successfully in India, or the kind of generic block that we often tour with in the UK. Instead I settled on a set of treads – the absolutely generic three step rise that take us from stage to auditorium in theatres all over the world. It proved to be a great asset to the game. For starters, the potential for status games is increased exponentially when you add these few extra levels into the mix. In addition to sitting on the floor, there are three step heights to choose from and the back and sides of the treads offer great ‘leaning’ possibilities. To begin with we played the bench game ‘neutrally’ and as described in the original piece. We explored games of cooperation and non-cooperation, and we played with various numbers of players. We then went back to the characters we had developed and brought them into the game. Now, each player was entering the game both with the tasks that define ‘The Bench Game’ and another set of personal tasks which for them define ‘The Character’. There is of course a whole other set of articles to be written on that process of building characters, but as long as you are working with a defined physical characterisation the exercise should work. Taking one character from our Tragedian show for example, I know that in the character of Mr Elliston my feet and knees are turned in, my weight low, back forward with elbows out and chin tucked. My hands are held in fists with thumbs extended. My motion is sideways, like a crab, moving forward and backward only on the diagonal and my breathing is raspy, up at the top of the chest and in the throat. I don’t want anyone too close to me, but won’t hesitate to invade another’s space and I’ll stand my ground rather than give way. Its a character I’ve been playing for years, so I know this set of behaviours well enough that there is a particular rhythm to all of Mr Elliston’s actions. One of my main purposes in running this exercise was for students to start discerning the particular rhythms of their characters.

Essentially the Bench Game here was used to discover characters through a process framed by reacting, rather than acting. The results were fascinating and bridged us nicely into the third section of the workshop. From looking at group sharing of space, to individual characters, we were now looking at the role of the audience in jointly creating our characters. In the context of the workshop, participants formed audiences to each other as we worked in small groups. One character would enter the space, find a place to sit on the treads, and as they began to settle I’d send in the next. After a few goes I didn’t need to direct this, as the actors became very good at judging their moment to enter.

The bench game demands near constant movement, but with characters in play this becomes too repressive. The character must be given enough time and space to exist, or the demands of the Bench Game will overpower actors who are not yet fully familiar with their characters. So I borrowed from the late, great Torgeir Wethal (Odin Teatret), with whom I was led through a character exercise where, in order to restrain some of the wilder improvisational impulses exhibited by young and adventurous actors, he asked us to remain ‘Within the bounds of anything you might witness in the Doctor’s Waiting Room’. Obviously when we think about such a setting, there is still a huge range of activity, but its enough of a restraint just to slow us down a little and give us the space to observe what is actually happening. I always felt Torgeir used this particular setting in that improvisation because it was ubiquitous for an international group of actors, but also because within that context people tend to restrain themselves somewhat.

I also asked my students to ‘disguise the game’ from the audience. It is not the game we want to see, the game is a language through which we get to discern the characters. And so it went on. Very soon we added a chair set at a right angle to the treads, and raised the numbers from two up to three and four players. The interplay was fascinating. In this context the audience begin to focus on a very fine level of communication. The actors become concerned not with broadcasting their own character – its status, its habits, its behaviours – but in discerning those of the players around them. The layered activity of playing one’s own character, playing the game, and attending to the audience’s reactions requires this extended sense of ‘listening’ which is our object. By focusing on reactions distinct character rhythms also begin to appear.

When the work goes well what follows is something of a revelation. The tiniest stirring of a hand or foot or the smallest turn of the head, the eyes, can shift the whole balance of the space and a relationship between two or more characters can coalesce and disappear in seconds. The audience projects its own stories on to the action, too, and the listening actors perceive this level of reaction in the audience and attune themselves to it. To illustrate this, the final part of the game comes when we share a context not with the performers, but first with the audience. I say to the viewers ‘Let’s now watch these three players and see them in a sauna’. The players, however, have no idea of this. What follows is a bedroom farce of betrayals and secret negotiations. The actors on stage are still concerned only with their own characters, and the game, but the audience is in hysterics and the actors cannot help but be effected by this. When I ask the audience afterwards ‘What did you see them wearing?’ they all shout ‘Nothing!’. So a group of fully clothed actors are convincingly naked without even knowing it. In another round of the game we watch spies engaged in espionage, in a third its Lear dividing his kingdom. When we give the actors this context, the game is changed entirely. They cannot help but try to tell us ‘where they are’ or ‘what they are doing’ and it gets in the way of the purity of action that communicated their characters so clearly when we kept the context a secret for the audience.

This is another aim of the exercise: to illustrate the audience’s creative role in the game. Character, understood through this game, becomes more clearly a social construct. It is an ongoing interplay between the actor, their colleagues, and the audience. The bench game, or now, better, The Treads Game, provides us with a space in which actors can begin to discern their characters through the reactions of their colleagues and their audience. Rather than imposing a pre-existing notion of the character upon the space, they discover their character through a social activity in which the group collectively understands each character and each character changes and effects the group.

CAGING – Foundational Training for a Performance-Parkour Ensemble

Background

The UPG Team has spent 10 years developing performance-parkour or 2PK; as a distinct language of dance-theatre. Our work has now travelled over five continents and includes several tours for the British Council, alongside UK touring for the Without Walls consortium, commissions from a variety of festival partners, and more recently our own strategic tours working with at-risk communities of young people.

Recently we received a small grant from the Arts Council to spend time as a company, including new members and guest artists, playing and sharing skills. It occurred to me during this process that I’ve never written up a description of our foundational training, what we can describe as the basic or daily training of a 2PK company and one we return to whenever we take stock of where we are as an ensemble or invite new artists and participants to join us.

Caging is the name of a game I first attempted within the informal context of Seafront Freestyle. This was a regular meeting of parkour enthusiasts which took place at different outdoor spots around Brighton and Hove each Saturday morning for around four years from 2005 onwards. Brighton is now considered to be one of the primary parkour cities globally with increasing numbers of PK professionals moving in, and visiting, and the strong community here can be traced back to these informal sessions and their continuation in various guises beyond Seafront Freestyle into Urban Athletics and the current Brighton Parkour Training webpages and the increasing international influence of Brighton based groups such as Storror.

One regular Seafront Freestyle spot was the stairwell at the top of an underground car park in Regency Square. Around the stairwell a foot high wall was topped by a much larger fence. The solidity of its black metal frame gave the appearance of a cage and the game developed there was named for this.

Processed with Snapseed.

But anything can be the cage. The cage is the agreed playing area for the game. It can be delineated by a series of obstacles and is more usually defined by the circle of players. Before I explain Caging though, I want to explain the various trainings on which it was based.

The UPG Team grew from a project of Prodigal Theatre. Miranda Henderson and I founded Prodigal in 1999 to combine her contemporary dance background with mine in laboratory theatre, through physical adaptations of classic texts. As a laboratory actor in Serbia I’d experienced various trainings drawn from the Grotowski and Odin legacies and variously based on Grotowski’s ‘Plastique Training’. Miranda’s work as a contemporary dancer was grounded in the daily classes of various choreographic techniques and she was exploring her own style of release based movement. Prodigal’s company practice took this release technique as the foundation of every day’s work, starting from the floor and slowly building up from individual explorations to group improvisations. We soon developed a complimentary exercise that would follow the floor sessions. We called this ‘The Waiter’s Tray’. It is fundamentally aimed at advancing individual and group spatial awareness, and serves as a ‘blank canvas’ of a training in to which numerous rules can be added for an ever more sophisticated play. Ultimately it becomes a means of playing characters in a pre-textual setting for exploring relationships and dramaturgy, status and hierarchy, extremes of movement and so on.
Alongside the work with Prodigal I had also spent a considerable time studying and teaching Capoeira and remained fascinated by the idea of a ‘joga’ that could capture diverse relationships between human beings through a relatively simple game of shared space. All of this work was present in my practice when I suggested the first version of caging and the success of that first session meant the game entered our company practice quite rapidly. Since then it has been endlessly ‘tweaked’ by the company into the foundational training it represents today.

Caging: The Game

Parkour training can often fall in to repeating single movements, endlessly, whilst one or two practitioners look to ‘break a jump’ or overcome a particular obstacle. This is fine for a couple of people, but not for a larger group. In the early, pre-UPG days of my Parkour practice I often became quite bored when this would occur. A group that had warmed up together, explored a space together, grown excited together, would suddenly splinter in to smaller groupings or pairings in which, at any time, more than half those present would be rendered audience to another’s attempts at ‘getting it right’. Inevitably the youngest, smallest, least experienced would be the most disenfranchised whilst the older, bigger, fitter participants got to taste success. I was never convinced this was how it was supposed to be.

I have a very clear recollection of when Caging started, as we had a reasonable turnout on a very sunny Saturday morning and there was quite a broad spread of ages and abilities. As always, I was the senior by around 10 or 12 years, so when I suggested moving off from the crowded seafront into the quieter Regency Square garden the dozen or so present all followed. The top of the car park, we discovered, represented a great spot. But it was small. Getting in to wasn’t so easy either, and involved climbing over the fence, or opening a door in it which necessarily altered the space. Within the fence was a brief landing, from which a staircase descended to the next level, turning once to create a half landing mid way. The entirety of the staircase was bordered by a handrail in the type of scaffold & KeeKlamp that is now so very familiar to me since our UPG sets are constructed from it. I could see a load of great movement possibilities, but also some real risks. It was important to govern the number of people inside the Cage, without losing the interest of everyone else. So we set some rules.

One absolute aim of parkour training is Flow. It has been described as the holy grail of parkour and whilst flow has come to mean different things in different contexts, for parkour it represents seamlessly transitioning one movement to another with no interruption or loss of momentum, rhythm, or pace. The biggest mistake most make in seeking to attain flow is that they go too fast. Flow can also be found at medium pace and even in slow motion, though slow motion parkour training is tough. Caging is best understood as the training for flow. The fundamental rules are simple, and all were intuited in that first session.

  1. The group makes a circle around the playing area
  2. One person enters the circle and continues to ‘flow’ a line of movement until it is natural for them to leave it
  3. When they leave the circle, they ‘high-five’ the person nearest them who then enters the circle.
  4. Those at the edge of the circle will move to fill gaps and keep the circle balanced, so that there is always someone ready to come in when a player steps out.

What is probably apparent straight away is that Caging depends in part upon a shared vocabulary. At Seafront Freestyle we’d built that up over weeks and months of training together, it wasn’t something we needed to discuss. In the UPG Team where Caging is our basic training, we are constantly working together to find new movements and improve older ones. When a new performer joins the company, Caging is the place they get to unify their knowledge with the group and also present themselves to the company. In Caging no one is meant to do the same as anyone else. No one is meant to look the same as anyone else. You might see another player put together a line that you like, but unless you’re entering from exactly the same spot as them, and have the same kind of physique as them, and the same movement preferences as them; that line won’t make sense for you. More importantly, underlying Caging is a game of invention. In following flow as the aim of the game, we seek to move away from a training based on technical acquisition of prescribed movements. Caging is the game in which the transitions between techniques become far more visible, far more important than those learned techniques themselves.

You can play Caging anywhere. You can apply this set of rules to a chair, a bench, a table, a train carriage or a classroom, a simple coaching block or a complex gym. We have played this game in trees, on rooftops, in designed parkour training sites and as the way of ‘christening’ every new set we’ve worked on for ten years. Over time the rules have developed. We would now say that there are principles – the rules always in play – as well as optional rules, or tasks that can be added.

Some of our principles are:

  • Every player must remain in a position of readiness to enter the cage
  • There is nothing to be gained by staying in for a long time
  • You do not have to stay in any longer than you wish
  • You cannot refuse the invitation or hesitate to enter
  • You must enter from where you are in the circle to the nearest part of the obstacle.
  • Once in you must keep moving until you leave
  • Let the movement lead you, don’t plan your moves
  • There may be contact, but no impact
  • Each new rule is in addition to the last
  • Move in silence
  • Activate your bullshit detector – if you stop flowing; get out, if you have a ‘brain freeze’; get out, if you try something and it doesn’t work; get out. You’ll be back in soon. Don’t worry!
  • Pick up the rhythm & pace of the player before you. Continue their Flow.

Once everyone has had a go, and the means of play are understood, the next step is to add further players. We can, on one of our touring sets, take up to a dozen players moving simultaneously through a shared environment. Obviously it takes a little while to build up to this, often days, but certainly where we have groups to whom we return or with whom we work over an extended residency this can be achieved quickly and with total safety. Adding multiple players requires unpicking some of our principles above:

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Learning from athleticism: creating the space for artistic flow

I grew up watching classic films, mostly starring Fred and Ginger, or musicals like Gypsy (1962) and West Side Story (1961). I remember being particularly taken with Fred and Ginger’s famous routine on roller-skates from the film Shall We Dance (1937) performed to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off by Gershwin and Gershwin. I also vividly recall Marilyn Monroe singing, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend (1955) whilst a chorus of girls enacted Busby Berkeley style choreography (see 42nd Street,1933) by hanging from and becoming chandeliers. At the time I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed these films so much. Although now I suspect it has a lot to do with how movement and choreography facilitate a conversation between the performer and the stage design, and how this conversation can be just, if not more interesting than a scripted dialogue.

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A different lineage

When I was writing ‘Encountering Ensemble’ (1), I came across an obituary of Joe Chaikin, written by his collaborator Jean-Claude Van Itallie. Van Itallie writes of his first meeting with Chaikin at a rehearsal of The Open Theatre:

‘I go to an old industrial building near Eighth Avenue on 24th Street. … I enter the big dilapidated loft. Unbidden, I sit in a detached row of empty falling-apart theatre seats. Some 10 people drift in – mostly young, mostly from downtown.’ (2)

Some scrappy kids in a dilapidated room. Doing things they did not understand. Making it up as they went along.

I read of Stanislavsky feeling that he should contribute to the growth of ensemble in his new company by helping clean the floor. He had no idea how to do it. I read of Copeau, a conservative Catholic, bewildered by the permissive energy of his youthful cohort of collaborators. Both of them, quite lost.

Odin Teatret emerged from a coming-together of Drama School rejects. Their training began with an assortment of acquired exercises.

Some of this might be apocryphal. Some exaggerated. Yet there is a truth here. Scrappy kids in dilapidated rooms. Continue reading

Still Pursuing Pleasure

For the first edition of TDPT I wrote an article called ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ (1:1).  It focussed on the rationale for locating pleasure at the core of a performer’s training practice.  Put simply, I suggested we structure our work so that it fills us with delight.  We should, I suggested, seek intrinsic delight in all our work, however challenging, rather than ‘suffering’ in the expectation of an anticipated outcome.  Learning, I suggested, is an intrinsically pleasurable experience.  It is useful to acknowledge that.

When I wrote the article in 2010, the training I run, ‘Self-With-Others’ (www.ensemblephysicaltheatre.wordpress.com), was well-established and formed the basis of an MA course in Huddersfield.  Since then, three major developments have taken place that have caused me progressively to reconsider – and ultimately recommit myself to – the centrality of pleasure in my work.

The first of these is that I left the academy to return to a freelance life as a trainer, director and performer.

The second is that I developed a significant international practice directing, teaching and running residencies in diverse and complex contexts – urban and rural, professional and non-professional, culturally traditional and progressive.  This has offered me a rich opportunity to explore my understanding of training with a range of participants from very diverse backgrounds and with hugely differing ambitions and expectations.

The third is that I decided to set up my own School: The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre.  The School offers a ten-week intensive training.  It is unattached to any institution and unfunded by any cultural, educational or government organisation.  We run the School in low-cost economies (last year and this year it is in Greece) and we keep administrative costs to the minimum.  This means fees are as low as we can make them.  Still some are excluded on the basis of cost, inevitably, but there is perhaps a greater diversity – culturally and economically – than would be the case if costs were higher.  I’ve written elsewhere about my rationale for setting up The DUENDE School, and the pedagogical and ideological lineage I see it as being connected to: http://bit.ly/trainingthenextgeneration.

As I now reflect on last year and prepare for the next iteration of the School, and as I recover from an intense visit to India, I wonder again about pleasure.

A few thoughts:

1.  Almost everywhere I work, people tell me that the devaluing of pleasure (and passion, playfulness, laughter) is a problem they see as being especially critical in their own culture and education system.  Repeatedly performers and teachers suggest: ‘We really need this work in Singapore/India/Australia/Greece…’.  Perhaps there is always a sense that people elsewhere are having more fun and working in more enlightened ways.

2.  Almost everywhere (this thought is not unconnected to the thought above), people have learned to distrust – even to despise – the value of their own pleasure.  People fret about ‘self-indulgence’ and continually, sometimes obsessively, seek extrinsic rather than intrinsic validation of their choices.  Frequently they seek to validate artistic choices by judging them against non-artistic criteria.  I wonder how much this is a reflection of an international/ideological devaluing of the status of art as something of intrinsic worth, and its replacement with an ideology of art-as-instrument, and artist as primarily a servant of extrinsic social objective.

3.  The deeper we dig into pleasure as an intrinsically valuable objective in our work, the harder the search becomes.  In the end – as the intensive experience at the School lays bare – if we acknowledge that we are pursuing a particular path because we want to (because it yields us pleasure), then we have to take unconditional responsibility for our own actions and choices.  We are not training because we have to, we are training because we want to.  In exploring, unapologetically, who we could be, guided by open acknowledgement of our desire, we discover our genius, our contribution, our ‘social’ role.  This demand for absolute self-responsibility leads almost everyone to a place of personal crisis.  Almost everyone breaks sometime during a training.  Pursing pleasure is not always enjoyable.  The centrality of pleasure in my pedagogy allows the person who is breaking both to smile inside her crisis and to chart a sustainable route beyond the encounter with despair that seems inevitable during a journey of growth.

4.  Almost everyone (including me) gets sick of the word ‘pleasure’.  It ends up feeling twee and reductive.  The two core questions of my training ‘What did you like?’ and ‘Why did you like it?” become a little annoying.  People start to ask instead: ‘What did I notice/enjoy?’ or ‘What excited me?’  This movement beyond the core word of ‘pleasure’ is personal to each performer and I welcome it.  I also – when things get tough – encourage them to return to the basic formula for personal and interpersonal reflection: ‘What did you like?’

5.  The centralising of the details of pleasure within reflection and feedback shifts the paradigm within which we work.  We are not working, we are laughing and playing.  I encourage unconditional acceptance of oneself and of others.  This is not about complacency or arrogance, it is about reality.  Unconditional acceptance of self and others in a reflective process, requires us to discuss what actually happened within and between us, not what we think ought to have happened.  It leads to analysis of real (inter)actions rather than discussion of how one wishes things had been different.

6.  The ‘permissive’ environment of training is, I suspect, the single most important thing I offer.  I have a rigorous pedagogy and I know the conceptual and theoretical context of my work. That’s important.  Nonetheless, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to have the confidence to get out of the way, to encourage performers to laugh and enjoy themselves and to learn rigour and discipline for themselves.  If they do that, they will mostly learn what they need to learn.  I need to intervene only when occasionally it seems necessary.

The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre in Athens last year saw 19 women from 8 countries collaborate for 10 weeks with great joy, enormous discipline and significant results.  The first principle of the work, which became increasingly complex and challenging as each student dug ever deeper into her work, was ‘Pursue Pleasure’.  Not ‘Have Fun’, but ‘PURSUE Pleasure’.  It is an active hunt for intrinsic enjoyment.  As I reflect on the process and recruit a new cohort of students (there will be some men this year!), I wonder about my own pleasure.  I sit quietly and wonder if I want to run the School again.  After all, I’ve done it once, and there are always other things to do…

The answer is an instant and unequivocal ‘yes’.  That’s important.  Without my passion, based in my own joy, the work will be form without energy.  The School offers me (and my colleagues) a place of growth and research.  The curriculum will evolve for its second iteration based on a simple sense I (and my core collaborator) have about what worked – what yielded pleasure to us and to the participants – and what felt a little soulless…

In 2010 when I published in TDPT I was well aware of the problematic nature of pleasure.  Since then my perspectives have both become more and less complex.  The more one commits oneself to pleasure, the harder it becomes, because that commitment strips away all excuses and all self-pity.  Yet, paradoxically, things also seem simpler.  The more simply I pursue genuine personal pleasure – in an exercise, a production, a training programme, a career-choice – the better my work will be.  The difficulties of surviving outside The Academy notwithstanding, nothing since 2010 has really challenged that core principle.