NOTES FROM AN ACTORS’ WORKSHOP –
BAGAMOYO COLLEGE OF DRAMA, TANZANIA – October 2007
It was an offer not to be refused – “Could I contribute a two-day workshop at the 26th Bagamoyo Festival of Art and Culture ?” My ticket to Tanzania was booked, I would be in the neighbourhood in about a week’s time. Given that this internet café might prove my last before going incommunicado, I had approximately 45 seconds to coin a workshop title.
I fell upon – The Secrets of Slow Acting, a catch-all title that would allow me to weave a web of elemental playing proposals around an all encompassing central theme. Meeting a very unknown body of participants, the techniques would of necessity be cross-culturally non-toxic, linguistically accessible, minimalist and emotionally satisfying – while never leaving a home base of negotiated safety…
Once the dust of continent hopping had subsided, my thoughts could turn to the impending reality; which ingredients would best flesh out my all-purpose title? I observed the first day of the festival.
The drama department’s veteran performers were wondrous: instantaneously responding to the slightest impulse by giving physical form within a deep solid core. The next generation seemed more susceptible to ‘generalisation’; their arms, legs and grimaces may have taken upon an agreed task, but their necks, eyes and breath told another story, They easily get trapped in a subtext of: “Is this right, teacher?” The clever young performers were deft at fulfilling their directorial obligations, but at the tragic cost of leaving their souls out of it. This was clearly a venue for Actors’ Liberation.
I publicly feigned incomprehension at the festival jargon: What was a ‘workshop’? ( I knew working. And I knew shopping. But how on earth could you do both at the same time?!) Nevertheless, I prepared my actors’ clinic for invited performers, college students and staff, and produced a, for me, unusually large volume of notes. An early one had as a central theme: establish deep understandings of the nature of the ensemble. Why does theatre work?”
My strategy would be to work to slow them down, to make sure that all their actions were rooted to their very selves. If they could incorporate the habit of their own internal actor’s hurdles, that included a running evaluation of their existence in personal time and collective space, we’d be getting somewhere. And hopefully, getting there slowly.
I would of course, be recycling my greatest hits of uncountable theatre training sessions for young adults into its most essential concoction yet. When the day came, I’d finally boiled them all down to fit a choreographed progression of three or four chair arrangements. I had devised the workshop’s focus as probing into a perhaps unacknowledged core of self. It was designed to incorporate the habit of always carrying your inner life into the external tasks of performance. My one word note for the day was – middle. Our middle, each others middle.
Waiting occurred, with chairs to the wall. Some principles were addressed; the participants were mostly actors – ‘Good, I liked actors’. As actors, our chore was to be human beings. After one false start because of latecomers, we assembled our chairs in a circle, and I rolled out the first three tasks as a mutual evaluation process. The participants should experience that my proposed activities were less based upon mechanical skills, and more directed towards the group’s collective life; for me, it was a means to appraise the general accessibility of both the group as a group, and the individuals who formed its component parts.
They were deeply conditioned in parroting – this seemed less based upon fear of exposing their subconscious before peers, and more because they had spent a life at it. How could I so limit the tasks that variation became so socially desirable that to avoid it would be impolite ? Two non-threatening exchanges were introduced to establish central themes and to sound out their strengths: first, congratulate one another for having the good judgement of signing on for this workshop; second, since our work is dependent upon us not doing it alone, it was best that they found each other likeable. I summed up each activity in the form of a pivotal, if self-evident, ‘secret’:
Secret #1 – Always be a human being.
Secret #2 – Like the people you work with.
Almost by design, the gleams of eyes revealed that my ‘secrets’ confirmed the students’ latent beliefs.
Vocal training in a wide variety of guises confronts the young actor with both comfortable and unfamiliar aspects of their vocal range. Sound production can often begin as a mechanical proposal, to be reinforced by the sensual feedback mechanism of the joy of vibration; personal identification follows increased resonance. A first step is to build an organic connection between the solar plexus and unimpeded sound production. It is usually only later that the desire to integrate original thought rears its head…
I instructed the participants to sit as I did: on the front of my chair, feet planted broadly, stomach free. Our most important question as actors, as human beings, as a group was – “Who?” This became our text. After forty years in the theatre, I’d finally distilled the central core of generating sound; deep guttural, chest resonance could be accessed through asking this most pressing existential question of oneself and each other. The import of the question supplied power to the solar plexus; the eyes carried it home in honest, if involuntary, movements. Deeply meaningful sound flew back and forth among the group.
Secret #3 – Know yourself.
It was time to take our meeting up a level. Slowly, intricately we reconvened our circle standing upon our chairs. More words circulated perhaps. Then we did, alternate people going left or right, we traversed the chair circle gingerly supporting and making way for each other. After one circuit, I introduced free dialog.
Secret #4 – Theatre is always a Journey; take care of the people you meet.
I needed to appraise our progress, while choosing a way forward I may have emitted some indeterminable sound – it was eagerly parroted. ‘Good, everyone could contribute a sound.’ After four persons had expressed themselves, I stopped them, and grouped the four sounds into a repeatable ‘sentence’. The next four sounds became the response.
Secret #5 – Everyone has something to say.
Our position was to be changed. Collective physical effort was required to move things about. In the tropical heat, the effort required to carry the imaginary was equally arduous. We took a brief pause before returning to our central question. In a large standing circle, we re-introduced a chanting chorus of the Mighty “Who”. Standing broadly, and with hands carrying the weight of our intent, we entered the circle one at a time, progressively inviting in the next person. It worked even better when the supporting circlers contributed vocally to pull the who out of each of us. When a couple of participants weren’t connecting with either eyes or solar plexus, I could re-enter the circle as an anchor and amplifier…
Secret #6 – It is essential to build the We
THE INSIDE STORY
Whereas Day One worked as a well-orchestrated miracle distilled from a cornucopia of converging themes and strategies, the plan for Day Two was decidedly sketchier. The theme was reasonable enough: if Day One dealt with asking the question of who we were, both as a group and individuals, Day Two sought to answer it through isolating the ‘me’.
The group’s composition had of course changed: four repeats, several announced no shows, one new recruit, one absconder just as we convened. We chose to retain the one empty chair and an open door as a gesture to all those absent. The new recruit provided a good rationale for a repetition of our central themes, and a round of several of our favourite sounding exercises. At first, these remained on the dry, mechanical side, until, just as we began to take off with some gusto, we were interrupted in grand style.
In barged a delegation from the Ministry in the form of one already-warbling diva and her press attaché. The journalist could be dispatched for later, the founding matriarch of the college was more formidable, and had already come home to roost in our available chair.
It became the perfect occasion for introductions that had been hanging in the air since yesterday. Characteristically for our group, while half the intro was of course factual, the other half became the spontaneous device of an expressive sound. Some sounds bore repeating, as if tasting each other’s who; others stood best alone. Peopled surprised each other, and themselves.
I had been given an additional opportunity to summarise: if theatre was a journey where we would be using the strength of the us to answer the question of who am I; if theatre was always about liberation, we would need to be brave. To be brave, we would have to move through dangerous territory and face our fears. Fortunately, the theatre offered us a great teacher – stage fright. If we couldn’t delve into the secrets of stage-fright and meet our genuine fear, we would remain in the fast theatre; we could always force ourselves forward, we could wave our arms and play it safe, but this would not be a theatre of liberation. In the Slow Theatre, we are heavier, we must make our fears carry our humanness to the audience. They don’t need to see super-humans – but to feel and identify with their part in our humanity: ‘If I am me, do you see you in me? If we are us, can we also be you ?’
I broke off the philosophical, and distributed the kangas that had been politely waiting beneath my chair. By chance, we had exactly the right number. Some of the above philosophical expounding may have in fact occurred while I was hiding my face behind one of these traditional, colourful cloth wraps. Soon, everyone was carrying on likewise – how much of ourselves could we expose, before the accumulated social pressure forced a retreat. After the group round, we each did solos, peeking out from behind our kangas. Several of these self-exposures provoked evaluations.
We removed our chairs, still carrying our kangas. I gave the highly accessible text of ‘Yes/No’ (in which ever language was most appropriate) and demonstrated the task which was to locate places of comfort and strength in the room, evaluate them, reaffirm or reject them. After a brief round to establish the pattern, I instructed them to include one another in the space; the act of invitation, affirmation, appraisal suddenly acquired a deeper, more earth-shattering subtext. Fortunately, we liked one another.
The journalist was back, took his shots and left. We reconvened in our circle for our final play. The task was simple. In the spirit of Slow Acting, each person would stand up from their chair, go behind it, absorb the attentive energy of the group, and then slowly stand up upon their seat, and establish contact with each member of the group. It is an arduous, open journey. Bluffing could occur, but at the peril of losing your who. I introduced this work as sharing The Inside Story, not of telling us who you are, but of letting us see you.
Secret # 7 – it is necessary that the drama/education process recognise and cultivate who you are .