Week 1 – Introduction to Collaborative Theatre Making

Monday – The Foundations

Today we looked at some of the key principles within Frantic’s work.

Firstly, we engaged in a warm-up designed to prepare us as individuals and as an ensemble for the work in hand. Simon talked about ‘the warm-up’ as something that not only serves the purpose of physically warm-ing the performers/participants, but maybe also something that is there to warm-up the mind and warm the participants to an idea or theme central to the work itself. He asked us to question everything about these moments within the training and in particular the warm-ups themselves. Why is certain music played as participants enter the space? Why might this be a specific tempo? Why is the room a certain temperature? Why are we focusing on conditioning a particular part of the body? These are all questions that I aim to question and explore over these next 2-weeks.

The warm-up had a natural progression and like much of Frantic’s work that I have experienced so far, involved ‘The Building Blocks’ and an overall ‘layered’ approach to cultivating and developing work. I observed that whilst tasks were being broken down into stages. There was no sense of them being deconstructed until the end of the day. Looking back the links and progression from the warm-up into the work itself were obvious. But I can really appreciate how tasks developed organically. As someone that wants to facilitate work as well as create work this is an approach that I feel can take forward with me into my own teaching practice.

Every task naturally fed into the next. The whole day had a feeling that it was constructed by ‘Building Blocks’ a term coined by Frantic as a method used for building up work layer-by-layer, brick-by-brick. The other important thing I realised was that individuals’ ‘Break-throughs’ and ‘unlocking-moments’ were the very mortar that builds these ‘Building Blocks’ into something more construct and substantial. Seeing as how I have struck upon this whole building metaphor another thing I have considered from today is how the ‘Push-Hands’ exercise is the trowel that is the main tool in virtually all of the physical work explored today. It is fundamental to all of the lift work and any kind of contact between performers. When Scott initially shared this exercise during the induction workshop he revealed how the ‘Push-Hands’ exercise was essentially derivative of Tai-Chi. Thinking about the key ethos behind Tai-Chi being that it is all about using the force of your opponent in combat. I can see clear synoptic links between the validity of this martial art and the physical movement indicative of Frantic’s work. I found myself guilty at times of using my own strength when exploring many of the lifts. I realise moving forward that I need to be more sensitive to listening to the invisible messages and impulses sent by a partner through touch.
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I also appreciated how the exploration of lifts segwayed perfectly into another Frantic technique ‘Round-By-Through’ I have seen this exercise before online and have in fact attempted to facilitate the exercise as part of my own practice. On reflection there are many stages I missed out on in the delivery of this technique. In particular I feel I missed out on stressing the importance of touch and contact to participants. As a facilitator I will be more conscious of this in the future, I’ll consider how I can lay the foundations before laying the ‘Building Blocks’

Engaging with the exercise was galvanising! It was liberating to play with all of the elements explored in today’s workshop. One thing that was highlighted by Neil whilst working with Ayesha on ‘Round-By-Through’ was the beauty of ‘surprise’ in performance. He pointed out that many of the lifts we had implemented were predictable to any onlooker or audience member. I feel he meant that an observer could easily pre-empt the moves based on our weight, direction, physicality and focus. Scott advised that more fluidity physically would challenge and develop this. It was difficult to completely implement this, but I was satisfied that we had made some progress as Neil pointed out a lift in our sequence that did take him by surprise. I found this really interesting and another motif that floated throughout the day; How can we as theatre-makers surprise the audience and challenge presumption?

Tuesday – Choreographic Inspiration and the 3-Universes of Touch

Our second day in training was another challenging but equally rewarding day.

After another energising and intense warm-up we re-engaged with the choreography that was created on the previous day using the Round-By-Through technique.

Having had the previous evening to reflect, process and consider the choreography created. It felt much easier to execute and apply some of the principles explored in the previous day’s workshop that I felt needed developing. For instance, I was more conscious of pre-empting lifts within the choreography and strived to find more fluidity and economy within my movements. This felt easier because we had the evening for the choreography to work itself into our muscle memory. I also felt more connected to my breath and held less tension in my body overall. I feel the sequence also progressed because I was more aware and sensitive to the ideas embedded within ‘Push-Hands’ feeling impulses and reacting to them enabled myself and Ayesha to find more texture in our exploration of the task.

It was however hard to resist projecting attitude and story onto the movement. Even subconsciously you found yourself making decisions about movements. It wasn’t until we explored the next stage of this devising process as a group with Scott that this idea of disconnecting to a narrative made sense. He shared an idea that touch can be broken down into 3 separate universes.

  • The Universe before the touch
  • The Universe of the touch
  • The Universe after the touch

Fully exploring, engaging and considering these 3-universes suddenly began to open up a lot of possibilities for the context of our choreography. Why did Ayesha allow me to touch her? Who are we before we even begin to engage in touch? Was the touch sensual? How does she feel about it? This ideology promoted a cabal of questions that enabled us to engage with the material again on a whole different platform. This creative process invited us to be more open, to carry less presumptions and to fully explore what was happening. It was really interesting having the group respond to these questions and Ayesha and myself ran through the sequence. It was compelling hearing what others were projecting onto the movements and all we were doing was remaining open to possibilities. Overall this process trained you to be open, to be responsive but at the same time not overly reactive.

This took us into the afternoon where we looked at the choreographic inspiration behind some of the work created in Frantic’s show ‘Beautiful Burnout’.

Before really breaking this down Scott gave us an insight into the genesis of rehearsals for this project. He shared how the room was transformed into a boxing training gym and declared the impact of this as profound. It immersed the cast in the environment and signified how important the rehearsal environment can be in inviting change. After a few days into the process, every spare moment the performers and cast had was spent honing technique on punchbags, with skipping ropes and on the practice pads. It created a room built on success and one that lived by the ethos of moving “Always forward, never back” I found this notion particularly inspiring and sobering. It may state the obvious, but I really agree with this idea of transforming the rehearsal room environment. I have at times adopted this approach in rehearsals in my own practice, but it is something that I have occasionally overlooked, mostly due to time constraints. In future I will definitely consider how I can create an immersive room built on a positive outlook.

The first example of choreographic inspiration Scott shared was influential in a refereeing sequence featured in Beautiful Burnout. He showed us a video (See below)

He asked us not to watch the athletes but instead watch the movements of the referee. It was an intriguing instruction and something that we normally often don’t consider. It was however fascinating. The referee’s movements were animated, dynamic and in their own right as engaging as the fight. We hen looked at the sequence in the show that this directly inspired. I remember it well having seen it, it featured three referees and captured some of these ideas perfectly. The idea that this choreography’s origins were born out of something so simple is almost unfathomable when looking at the actual choreography in the show, which seems so complex and intricate. It also augmented the importance of allowing yourself to be immersed in the world that you are exploring when creating work. If you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to see, smell, taste, touch and hear the world you are putting on stage you will never be able to fully support that reality for an audience. This approach and concept reminded me also of Jacques Lecoq’s idea of the ‘Mimo-Dynamic’ approach to acting and creating work. The idea of looking outward at the shapes and patterns in nature and in the man-made-world to either create character or movement. I’ve often found it hard to find links with Lecoq’s work as another practitioner that inspires me and Frantic, but here is one as clear as day!!

We moved onto another influence in the choreography in the show and watched another video (See below)

We were asked to observe and study what happens to the body after taking the impact of a punch. The video clearly showed how paralysing the impact of a punch can be at professional level boxing and it illustrated how the body moves in several directions when stunned upon impact. The body almost explodes sending the legs and head into polarising directions. This quality of movement was a significant starting point for one of the sections in Beautiful Burnout and we were asked to experience this sensation and process for ourselves and sent away to devise three clear movements inspired by this idea and quality.

Creating these movements was challenging and demanded a lot physically, as the impact on our necks was quite hard going, but the task was rewarding. It allowed us individually to build up a vocabulary of movements that we were then able to share with our peers. Pooling our movements immediately increased our vocabulary and we then had a pallet to create our own unique piece of choreography. This is another approach to creating work that I found and find particularly useful. It allows all stakeholders equal ownership and responsibility of the work and builds up a certain kind of unity as an ensemble. After teaching the movements to one another, we began to explore placing the movements to specific music. This was testing as the music was fast, but it was pointed out later that the actual track used in the final show was infinitely faster. This introduced the idea of providing performers with a staircase to climb in rehearsals. It echoed what Scott had said earlier about always moving forward and the notion of The Building Blocks and offering a platform to move up to something more challenging.

The day finished with Scott asking me to mark through the choreography I had created with my group on my own. He asked that I slow the movements right down, to almost slow motion and for me to close my eyes. I tried not to question this and wanted to engage with the openness I feel is important with all of this work. it was hard to have a great deal of perspective on this having not seen it. But the feedback from the group was that this instruction added a whole new quality and sense to the movements that had been generated. It demonstrated how you can challenge presumption again and really push and play with material with a simple change in approach and instruction. This is something I will continue to be mindful of when creating work and for when we move onto the Advanced section of this training process.

Wednesday – Does Choreography Possess meaning/ Sound Design

This morning’s warm-up was gentle. We woke and warmed our bodies with some intensive stretching and yoga. Going back to this idea of questioning the warm-ups. Physically, after two days of intense work my body felt particularly tired. I believe this was carefully considered and the ambient music played as we entered the space was played to reassure, calm and energise us on a morning where I felt many shared my fatigue needed a more sensitive approach . This tactic motivated the group and eased us into another working day.

We took a moment to reflect as a group on the previous days work and consider the choreographic inspiration used in Beautiful Burnout. We took stock of how such a small kernels and ideas manifested themselves into a much more expansive and accomplished sequences. Scott also used a fantastic analogy of ‘keeping many things on the stove’ when creating work. I liked this a lot. To me it was its about keeping many sparks going in a rehearsal process, sustaining momentum and finding balance. For while it is important to keep many ideas alive in the rehearsal room I think it’s equally important to consider your timings. When is it best to introduce a new idea? How can this one support and feed into the next, like the staircase idea?

After this pause for reflection we dived into an exercise titled ‘Hymm Hands’. This is an exercise I am familiar with from Frantic’s online resource output and from a previous workshop. Despite being familiar with the exercise I did manage to find fresh perspectives with this technique. I found revisiting it useful as it pushed my understanding of its potential as a devising and creating technique. The group created various individualised sequences using the simple steps and Building Blocks of the exercise.

We then began to really workshop and experiment with the material as a collective. I was stunned at how simple re-direction and the challenge of presumption changed and advanced everybody’s sequences. Instructing pairs to close the space between, close their eyes, display a specific emotion or for one person to stop moving all propelled the exercise into new places. These instructions added texture, life and intrigue into the movements. They also challenged our presumptions as an audience and even shifted our focus. Integrating additional performers into the choreography even in a passive way had an incredible impact on the material created. It made the material dangerous, engaging, fascinating and brought it to life. I was also enlivened at how all of the material derived from such simple steps! I want to create work in this organic way. I will consider moving forward in my own practice how you can progress these simple steps. I will think about how material can be reinvented, reimagined and reborn.

The exploration also made me question at what point does choreography posses begin meaning? When does this actually manifest itself during the creative process? I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions, but it something I’d like to explore and challenge during this process.Overall I learnt yet again that small tweaks to direction can have a profound and subverting effect.

Swiftly we moved onto another devising technique called: Othello gangs. It was a simple technique which required us to follow the movements of a leader at the front point of a formation. The technique gave an instant sense of unison and generated interesting results. This technique was particularly interesting when two formations faced off together and the formations merged. It created interesting patterns and a pleasing aesthetic. We then explored the same technique in groups huddled together. This reminded of something I have done before and used a great deal in my work called ‘Shoaling’ Again, I know it from the work of Jacques Lecoq and was pleased that I could find more parallels between his work and Frantic’s. I’m please I have another way of looking at this technique also and liked how the principle was just as interesting in an expansive formation. It’s definitely something I will play with and experiment with in my own practice in the future. I’m fascinated by patterns, symmetry and nature, which is a place that a lot of these movements exists.

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Composer – Adrian Sutton

In the afternoon we were introduced to Adrian Sutton (Composer of Warhorse and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime) and Carolyn Dowling (Sound Designer on The Believers and Chimerica). They gave an insight to their roles and backgrounds as artists. I was particularly inspired by the complexity of Adrian’s process within Curious and how he used Prime Numbers within the composition of The Maths Appendix featured in the show. This out-of-the-box thinking enriched the work. It was also only possible because of Adrian’s understanding of the stories central protagonist Christopher. Adrian stressed that that a collective and mutual understanding and exploration of the ‘heart of the play’ was the one of the most important things needed in any fruitful collaboration. It’s not necessarily about being able to answer this question immediately, but it is about the discourse surrounding the themes of a play and the central protagonist.

The main purpose of meeting both of these individuals was to develop a deeper understanding of how to approach a collaboration with a sound designer and or composer. It was about preparing for these conversations in the future and comprehending the importance open artistic communication with all stakeholders in the creative process. I realised that also that its not necessarily important to know everything at the start of the creative process. That is of course the whole point of collaborating. A shared stake, exploration and responsibility of bringing the work to life. It’s about making open invitations with your collaborators to influence and shape the work. It is also essential for an artist inciting collaboration to communicate feelings, images, references and ideas. no matter how big or small. Carolyn Downing summarised this perfectly. She said she wanted collaborators to discuss the story and said ‘I’m a human, I understand stories’ this was very reassuring and sobering.

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Sound Designer – Carolyn Dowling

Moving forward I think of ways in which I can be transparent in communicating my feelings and ideas on a piece of material or a story. I will also be more sensitive to researching and exploring sound-designers and composers in work that I go to watch. Sound and music play a significant part in my own practice and I need to be open to potential collaborations. I don’t spend enough time chasing these leads and exploring opportunities to advance and extend my network of contacts and potential collaborators in this particular field of interest.

Thursday – The Abyss

I was nearly an hour and a half late for todays workshop. I literally had no idea that we would be starting earlier and had done what had been discussed all too often this week, which was to work off of presumption. I was naturally gutted and realise that I should have been more diligent in checking my schedule to ensure I hadn’t missed anything! My bad… After apologising for this honest mistake, I jumped straight into the end of the warm-up which consisted of some deep intensive partner stretches and a blast of the Frantic exercise ‘Clear the Space’. I’ve used the Clear the Space exercise many times myself over the years and find it a very energising ensemble exercise. It generates a complicite with participants, develops spacial awareness and demands a physical sensitivity and responsiveness.

Warmed up and ready to go, we were divided into two groups and set on two separate tasks. One half of the room were set on ‘Chair Duets’ and the other (my half) were introduced to an exercise that drew on sign language, which Scott referred to as ‘On Blindness Hands’. The blocks were simple: create a hand duet in unison that used BSL signs as a starting point. This is another very simple starting point that yields yet more beautiful, poignant and in some instances complex results/movements. The choreography to the un-briefed would seem so intently complex, but the truth is that the stimuli and starting point was so innately straightforward. I loved this technique in particular, I found it offered a beautiful platform to communicate and I could see the potential in working with BSL groups on choreography. It’s something I’d really like to do in the future. I had a little look online also to see if I could see any further examples of this devising process. I came across this video (See Below) it took the same technique and focused on the shadows which is equally beautiful and is another great example of where the material could go.

Having generated more material collectively as a group we began un-picking the duets and challenging presumptions held and observed within them. This exercise was an excellent opportunity for us as a group to be really vocal in offering up direction. Although scary, re-directing the work as a group, afforded us a safe space to experiment within. Scott has flagged up several times the importance of prepping ourselves as individuals to cross ‘The Abyss’ by this he means that at some point in the near future there will come a time where we may well have to challenge and question material on our own. And furthermore, communicate as artists, clearly and coherently to the performers workshopping/rehearsing. Although Scott has warned us about this, I don’t feel fazed by this at all. In fact I am relishing the opportunity to get-stuck-in and to put-into-practice the skills and techniques that we have been learning.

Interesting new ideas came out of re-directing the material. Subtle changes and challenges again as with ‘Hymm-Hands’ and ‘Round-By-Through’ had a profound impact on the work. Scale, pace, focus, space and relationships had a significant impact on the work. Music also completely subverted work at times. A change to BPM (Beats-per-minute) could not only intensify a piece, but also direct the audiences and performers focus. Guiding us on where to look and providing the performers with opportunities to respond to a change in tempo or pace. Lyrics also sub-consciously influenced work, lyrics synced with images and had a haunting effect on the material.

In being offered the opportunity to make changes to the material. I learn’t that it is vital that you ask open questions. Changing the material by asking a question that you know the answer to probably wont produce anything new or interesting. Whilst offering suggestions to the group that had created ‘Chair Duets’ material I asked what would happen if a prop (a book) was introduced to the choreography? (See Video Below) The performers struggled with this initially, which I was assured was a good thing! After a while they did begin to find solutions to these problems and the offer created some interesting results. It completely changed the quality of the movements, the performers relationship and indeed the context of the piece. It placed the context in the subtext.

Friday – Mr Simon Stephens and The Genesis of Work (Lovesong)

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Discussion with Simon Stephens

I was incredibly excited to be given the opportunity to meet with playwright Simon Stephens. I’m a massive fan of his work! Reading his plays in the past has prompted me to create and write my own. I love the ambition of his work, the clarity of his characters and the honesty and brutality that his stories depict. His early approach to writing, which he often refers to in interviews as “riffing” has been incredibly influential on the way in that I write my own work. Responding to a story with automatic-writing/free-writing has consistently been an effective strategy I’ve employed to overcome writers ‘block’. Riffing has also been a method to get material from my head to the page quickly so that I actually have something to shape and refine.

Being a fan of Simon’s work, meant that much of the advice he offered in our discussion, I felt like I’d already heard, read or processed previously. For instance, he discussed the importance of being pro-active in digesting art, going to gigs, reading and watching as much theatre as possible. This is something I’d noted in an online interview he’d done for The National Theatre (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PcHQ_oZHdc) It is of course sound advice, and again, links clearly to recommendations given to us as artists at numerous points within this first week, to build-up pallets of inspiration, so that you are armed with a variety of possibilities and references in the rehearsal-room.

One thing Simon shared really resonated with me. He talked about the structure of his work and how he believes that all good stories contain the following elements: Fear, Anger, Shame and Hope. He stressed how these were necessary components of a complete story and how he strived to incorporate each within his own work, stating “When one of these elements is missing then the play is thinner” I’m curious as to where these elements manifest themselves within his work and also with other playwrights work. I think its a fascinating concepts and one that makes complete sense. I want to be sensitive to this idea in the future and revise Simon’s work to see if I can identify these elements within his stories.

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Lovesong – Frantic Assembly

The day was capped off with a screening of Frantic’s production ‘Lovesong’ I’d heard quite a bit about the play previously and knew it marked a very significant point in Frantic’s rise as a theatre company, but I’d never actually got around to seeing it or reading it. It was inspiring to learn how the production was conceived and how the roots of the piece grew out of a simple idea and an inexplicable urge to tell stories. Scott reveleaved that a direct piece of inspiration for the show was T.S Elliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'(http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/prufrock.html) As he talked about this, it was clear that the poem was engrained in his head. Still there, clear as day as he recited lines that reverberated with the themes of the fragility of love, which are addressed and explored within Lovesong.

Elbow’s song ‘Starlings’ was also an enormous force of inspiration in this show. Lyrically Scott was able to depict many parallels between the song and the T.S Elliot poem. The link between starlings passing down their song through the ages, things that last forever and the declaration of love. It was that amazing moment of synchronicity and realising what a show is about! Again, it struck me just how important it is to document ideas, to bank them and let them bubble, simmer and cook up. How essential it is to be open and on the look out for complimentary ingredients that will bring all the flavours out of the main idea.

It was clear from this juncture the show began to snowball into the creative force that it became. Scott and his co-artistic director Steven Hoggett at the time worked openly and cohesively with writer Abi Morgan on the development of the story. It was apparent from Scott’s discussion that their working relationship with the writer was build on openness, honesty and integrity. All parties built on each others suggestions and developed a culture of responding to ideas with a “Yes And” mind-set. This notion, struck another chord with me. I have come into this MA really wanting to develop the collaborative aspect of my practice and this was a clear example of how to build work with a fellow collaborator positively and effectively. A motif that has rightly dominated much of this weeks learning!

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