TaPRA Conference 2017 — Performer Training Working Group — Training Comedy and Transgression


This session began Day Two of TaPRA. The three papers in the sessions all drew upon the personal experiences of the presenters as artists and performers. The papers questioned and reconsidered traditional paradigms of performer training for comedy and theatre.

The session opened with an engaging presentation from James McLaughlin, ’The Sharp Divide between Training and Performance in Improvised Comedy. Drawing on Merleau Ponty’s phenomenological philosophies, the paper questions the extent to which popular and well-heeled training exercises for comedy such as ‘A, B lines’ fully prepare  artists for performance.  His enquiry, in specific relation to improvised comedy, acknowledged audience as an abstract, unpredictable and unstable energy which performers cannot fully prepare for in studio based training. He described the moment just prior to entering into an improvised performance akin to “being swallowed by darkness”, “like leaping off a cliff”. McLaughlin proposed the provocation that, Training ENDS when performance BEGINS. McLaughlin offered an existential metaphor of the inside of the body being larger than the outside. Conjuring up an image of vast internal space where one has to navigate the implausible and unknowns in improvisation, leaning on training but reliant on instincts. He questions whether training methods, which offer trainees experiences of exhausting habits and responding instinctively indulge individual beliefs and personal agency.

Gyllian Raby’s presentation, ‘Breakdown and Shared Dreaming: Oscillation, Disruption, Misdirection and Transgression in Comedy Training’, followed on from McLaughlin’s consideration of the presence of anxiety and vulnerability in comedy offering anxiety as a creative stimulant in improvised comedy. The presentation began with an activity in which the working group pointed to objects in the room naming them incorrectly, a tangible introduction to the oscillation, disruption and misdirection considered in her paper. During the exercise I became aware that my own anxiety levels were raised, there was a noticeable gap between pointing and naming, a sense of failure to engage. I developed tactics to suppress the anxiety, copying others, picking colours until stress levels subsided and I acknowledged the freedom of the task and the space this afforded to play. Here the failure became a flop, the source of more creative responses and a more playful version of failure. Raby went on to suggest that, “anxiety can have an awakening effect” and that despair can often be at the heart of comedy.” The paper challenged our beliefs about failure and the value of experiencing and arguably imposing exercises that beget flopping in performer training.

The final presentation was offered by Evi Stmatiou — ‘The End of Autonomy-Actor Training and its Relevance to Society’. Her presentation drew on her experience as a woman whom at moments in her career experienced limited agency and misrepresentation. Stamatiou’s paper proposed that autonomy limits and inhibits the agency of performer trainees due to the ideological misrepresentations of self that become legitimised through repeated schemas within the ‘hidden curriculum’ of education. Stamatiou proposed a self-reflective, socio-analytical actor training framework, ‘Three Steps to Agency’ which she presented as an approach that could destabilise power structures couched in traditional devising pedagogies. Enabling trainees to trust their instincts and to recognise when agency is imposed.

STEP ONE:The Agnostic Step Forward

Offering choice to trainees about what it is the want to say.

STEP TWO: The Discursive Step Outward

Inciting critical engagement from trainees

STEP THREE:The Ludic Step Inwards

Opportunity to ridicule and unmask dominant ideologies.

Reflections/questions from the sessions

To what extent can the audience be considered as teachers/trainers for performers?

How do we create a learning/training environment where trainees are able trust their vulnerabilities and take a ‘leap into the unknown’?

Where and how do we position ourselves as trainers in order to nurture, protect and provoke trainees into exploring flop and failure?

Debbie Milner, Senior Lecturer in Dance, Edge Hill University.