A Space for Thought – Reflections on the Masterclass series so far

After hosting five theatre Masterclasses at New Perspectives (Jan 2014 – April 2015), I suddenly feel inspired to write about them. In each one there was something special going on, a kind of glow shared by the people who attended. And looking back at them, the Masterclasses as a whole form something of a cohesive experience. These were a lot more than simply an exchange of skills or ideas. They were encounters that together have offered a rare opportunity to rethink theatre from the ground up. Picking the leaders is almost as precise as selecting our programme of touring theatre. It has to be just the right person, just the right subject, just the right time. In each case we seek out a practitioner who plays by their own rules, who has a way of seeing theatre in exactly their way and has fought to preserve that. Yet in addition to this, a crucial feature is that the practitioners have an openness – a sense of still searching and learning, looking and listening. These sessions were never about dogma or self-promotion. They were a space for both practitioner and participant to think deeply and together about this strange practise we devote ourselves to.

The rehearsal space in use during 'Unforgettable' rehearsals

The rehearsal space in use during ‘Unforgettable’ rehearsals

We hold Masterclasses in our downstairs rehearsal room. I have come to view it is an ideal space. A grey and white concrete room with fluorescent lighting, blank and tonally quite cold. Good that it’s not too warm. This is not a space to lounge about in, but rather one to instil a certain clean focus. It’s much better being in a space like this to think about theatre than in an actual theatre space. We don’t need to see unused lights above us, or markings from past shows on the floor, and certainly not rows of empty seats. We’re not here to be reminded of the practicalities of theatre making or the pressures of performance. The room is the space equivalent of a blank page. Neither beautiful nor ugly, but totally unobtrusive and open to possibility. Between them, our Masterclass leaders spanned over fifty years of experimental theatre practise. All of them still very much working today, perhaps even making their most challenging work yet. David Rudkin for example, who shook up the theatre establishment in the early sixties with his first play Afore Night Come, has recently finished a new piece of theatre for satellite navigation. Each one of the Masterclass leaders used the room to reduce theatre to its basics; presence, shape, words, play. Past experience became largely irrelevant, what mattered was present thinking. It would have been out of place to sit writing notes throughout these sessions. So rather than recount journalistically what happened in each one, I offer a quick, subjective impression provoked by each of the artists.

Forced Entertainment

Forced Entertainment

Forced Entertainment (Terry O’Connor)

“What is happening?” rather than “I see what is happening.” One type of theatre says, “don’t worry, it will all become clear” and another type of theatre says, “worry” (my words not Terry’s). Theatre of pure presence. A body or bodies. A room. An entrance or repeated entrances. A question or list of questions. The effect of repeated exposure to presence. The reward of continual uncertainty.

Tim Crouch 

Tim Crouch

Tim Crouch

Liberation through formal restriction. Beautiful accidents appearing through imposed restrictions on language. Many practitioners and companies impose their radicalism onto a text, whereas Tim funnels it through his text from the start, creating works that as a result become almost self-directing. Non-literal transportation through language, for example, his play about a raised arm when no arm is raised during the performance, and yet audience members swear it was raised throughout. All plays set in the space and time of their performance.

David Rudkin

David uses the word space, never stage. His sense of theatre is exact, austere – utterly precise. After meditating on the empty space, he asks what “emblems” we might place in it. Rudkin tends to favour as few as possible – usually just the body will do. There is the outer space (performed) and the space within (imagined). Once we clear the inner space through intense concentration we then observe the images that appear in it unaided. We cannot evoke them, they must come of their own accord. Only then do we know they are essential.

Coney

Explored a rejection of this word ‘interactive’ (the title of our class). Coney play or they make adventures. The rules of playing/ composing becomes the dramaturgy. They consider the links between a classroom chasing game and the structure of a large-scale performance. A manifesto is set for each project to govern what the rules are, how it can be made or played, which also serves as a useful line for editing ideas: “That is not in the manifesto”.

Alan Lyddiard

Alan Lyddiard

Alan Lyddiard

I am here. This is me, and I am fine. Everyone is a performer, and no one is of greater value onstage than any other. Presence, togetherness, elimination of barriers (usually self-consciousness). When lifting a chair into position just do it, but do it beautifully. Not a beauty that wants to be beautiful, but a beauty of simple clarity and a full, practised awareness of space and time.

So… Theatre exists everywhere and can be made or embodied by anyone or anything. A physical space isn’t always needed, nor even are living actors (though both can be helpful). What makes theatre is a live tension between the thing and the person/people observing that thing. But as all-pervasive as it may be, theatre is never easy. In fact it seems to demands a lifetime of rethinking and reshaping. Our Masterclass leaders have all done so restlessly and no doubt will continue to in the years to come. It was a rare joy to spend time with them as we tried to rediscover this mysterious art form’s essential spirit.

Jack McNamara

Find out about upcoming Masterclasses here, new updates all the time, for every kind of theatre practitioner.

‘I am here. This is me, and I am fine.’ Masterclass with Alan Lyddiard

photo (3)

‘I am here. This is me, and I am fine.’ That phrase is so simple to say, but it can be very hard to truly accept. At the age of 22 I’ve had my fair share of self-doubt, both about general day-to-day things and the rocky career path that is acting: I dance with the grace of a new-born giraffe, I’m terrible at money management, and I do daily exercises to suppress a lisp that could very well stand in the way of me getting work. Despite all this, however, it is my love for theatre that keeps me battling on and searching for ways to improve my skills and my knowledge.

It was only through a stroke of luck that I stumbled across the opportunity to apply for the Emerging Perspectives Company, but I couldn’t be more pleased that I did. After just one session it’s clear that it’s going to be a lot of fun working with the group – all of us like-minded theatre lovers with the drive to get the most out of this experience that we possibly can (and to put the most in to it).

What a first session it was, too! We were introduced to Alan Lyddiard – ensemble director and industry veteran. Having worked with intimate ensemble groups, huge, 500-man, city-wide community arts initiatives, and Lev Dodin of the Saint Petersburg Maly Drama Theatre, I have to say it was an intimidating experience entering the rehearsal room. I needn’t have worried, though; right away, even before sharing names, Alan familiarised us with his core philosophy – ‘I am here. This is me, and I am fine.’ Flaws and all, we need to accept ourselves as a whole in order to work effectively in rehearsals.

In order to achieve this, we were repeatedly put through a long-winded exercise of meditation and control – something of an endurance test for our concentration that ultimately paid off wonderfully. Beginning sitting on a row of chairs, comfortably resting against the back, feet hip-width apart and parallel, hands laid on our legs, we closed our eyes. Slowly, but thoroughly, we were to imagine a line travelling all the way up our body, connecting to key areas on its path. From the feet to the knees, then the hips, taking a moment to ensure the line was straight, the hips were firmly planted and our upper body wasn’t at all tense. Leaving the hips, it ascended to the belly and began to link itself to our breathing. From there the line rose to the solar plexus, then the heart, the throat, the space behind the eyes, ending out the top of our heads.

Alan Lyddiard Photo 2

To someone who hasn’t tried any meditative exercises before it can understandably all seem a bit farfetched, but as this imaginary line travelled up through these key points in the body I really did feel a physical change. I’ve done similar exercises to this before where you focus the mind on travelling through the body to consciously check on each individual part, mainly to relax muscles and prepare for rehearsal. The visualisation of the line in Alan’s version helped no end, though; it’s remarkable how focusing on its rising path gradually opens up the lungs and frees the breath, consequently giving greater control over movement.

Following this meditative stage, we opened our eyes and slowly carried out a series of motions: stand up; walk forward into the open space; pause; turn around and consider the chair; realise you would rather be back there and walk back; stop in front of the chair and look at it; turn back around, changing your mind yet again, confidently; walk back into the space; stop yet again and stare at your hand as it rises to eye level, then drops; say, simply ‘I remember’ or ‘I wish’.

In a list such as this, the sequence holds little meaning, but during the movement straight after our meditation it was difficult not to apply some kind of meaning. Alan pointed out the challenge that lies in striking the balance between overacting and wasting an opportunity. Perhaps the judgement of whether a performer succeeds in this challenge or not is the joint responsibility of the performer themselves and their audience; we certainly found so. I was one of a few who had the opportunity to step back and watch the rest of the group carry out the entire sequence. What I, and others who also watched, noticed was that we as an audience created our own stories to make sense of what we saw. Two people operating completely separately would appear as a synchronised couple; another would stand out as a leader due to nothing more than proceeding through the sequence ahead of others, and so on.Alan Lyddiard Photo 5

Alan has carried out this exercise with his own ensemble group every day for ten years. As the Emerging Perspectives Company we only did it for perhaps an hour (not counting its use in later activities) and already I could see the benefits it has in terms of both self and group awareness. Overall that is one of the most important parts of ensemble theatre – being conscious not only of your every move, but how your movement has an effect on the onstage image at any given time.

As a company we will need to maintain this awareness and slowly discover what our own identity is in order to work together at our best. I’m already more than confident that we’ll find success in this, not to mention very excited. We’ve all brought our own individual experiences and problems here with us, but the point is we are here now. This is us, and with any luck – and more excellent guidance from others like Alan – we’ll be just fine.simon butler

Simon Butler

For all the information about the Emerging Perspectives Company and our upcoming Masterclasses, visit our website HERE.

Emerging Perspectives Company Diary | Forced Entertainment Workshop | Natalie Smallwood

Well what can I say, what a glorious day!

As a Stage Manager, I did have my reservations about a Devising Masterclass with Forced Entertainment but by the end of the day, I felt as though I had learnt so much, not just about the devising of theatre, but also about the human condition.

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

I have always had a great interest in people and their stories and this workshop really drew upon a lot of these interests. None of the exercises were forced, it was all based on random situations – which were of course set up in some way –  but that always played on random things occurring from any given situation and gave some beautiful results in when put into practice.

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

One of my favourite things about the day was an exercise where a five of the group were asked to stand in a line and make comments about each other. They were asked to say things they liked about the person, but they were given freedom in the fact that they could lie – such as saying ‘I like how this person has robbed a bank before’ etc. This brought out some very naturally funny situations which, to an audience, would appear fresh and interesting to watch, and not rehearsed to the point where it doesn’t involve a natural reaction.

There was also an exercise where people were asked to sort themselves into some sort of order in the line they were standing in – this culminated in a kind of ongoing shuffling. This was very interesting to watch as it created a story through movement, which again to an audience would look fantastic.

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

Forced Entertainment Devising Masterclass

Overall, what I learnt from this session was that the thing that is most interesting to an audience is story and natural human behaviour. This is something that I will definitely use in my work and in the devising term that we have coming up with Emerging Perspectives – Can’t wait!

Natalie Smallwood, Stage Manager, Emerging Perspectives Company