Category: Ensemble

What Games Can Teach Actors

I’m updating the Handy Companion and have just written a short introduction on using games. I wanted to share it with you.

The potential of teaching through games is often overlooked. Games are often thought of just as “warm-ups”. They are great warm-ups of course: they get us in the mood to work, they focus our attention and for students who have a timetable full of varied subjects, they are the fastest way of leaving everything else outside the Drama classroom door.

But the value of games doesn’t end there. We cannot underestimate the value of practising “play”. Practising taking risks, being in the moment, laughing at our failure when we get it wrong. The game provides a safe place where we can do all this, regardless of what it is we’re playing.

Some games teach us even more than that. The clapping circle (and it’s sound-including variations like ZipZapBoing) reminds us that the whole of our body needs to be energised when we perform; that eye contact is vital for working with others; that sometimes we can go with the flow but others we need to make a big offer. Grandmother’s footsteps teaches us discipline and focus and using suspension. Even a simple game of tag can teach us physical self-awareness: were you breathing or holding your breath when you were running away? It can also teach us spatial awareness and, why not, how to create suspense.

So challenge your students. Debrief your games so that they can see that they form part of an actor’s ongoing training, not just the first ten minutes of a session. Show them that there are aspects to acting that can be trained by going through these exercises over and over again. Remind them why what they’ll end up performing in, is called a Play.


Playing With the Classics

If you’re tackling a classical text, don’t worry too much about sticking to the original structure, unless your aim is to present the play to an audience in its original form.

Play with the text, divide it between people, see what that does to the piece. Maybe it doesn’t work: why? Ask yourself why: why is the that piece of text so attached to the character, what does it tell us about her/him?

Sometimes it might work, showing two separate sides of the character very clearly, and this might be an interesting choice to place in front of an audience.

You also have the less specific bits of texts like Chorus pieces or Prologues.

The prologue in García Lorca’s The Butterfly’s Evil Spell can easily be split between actors to introduce to the audience the concept of Ensemble. As I’m working on this translation at the moment, here it is, the prologue to this beautiful play, split up for a couple of you to try out. Play with it: do you prefer to just stand and say the lines? Can you pick up where the other left off easily? Does each person (here represented by just a number) have a different character? What does the text tell you? And what happens if it’s just spoken by one person? Does it work better? Is it just different? Have a play, enjoy!

Prologue to The Butterfly’s Evil Spell by Federico García Lorca

(Note that the original is spoken just by one person.)

1: Ladies and Gentlemen:

 2: The comedy you’re about to watch is both humble and disturbing.

 3: A broken comedy about he who, trying to scratch the moon, ended up scratching his own heart.

 1: Love, just as it travels with its mockeries and its failures down Man’s life, travels in this occasion to a hidden prairie populated with insects where life had been peaceful for a long time.

 4: The insects were happy,

 2: Their only worries were drinking dewdrops in peace and educating their children in the holy terrors of their gods.

 4: They loved each other out of habit.

 1: Love passed on from parent to child like an old and exquisite jewel that was received by the first insect from the hands of God.

 3: With the same peace and confidence that the pollen of a flower gives itself to the wind, they enjoyed love under the humid, fresh grass.

 2: But one day…. one of the insects tried to fly beyond love. He fell in love with a form that was way beyond his life… maybe he’d read, with some difficulty, the verses of a book left behind by one of the few poets who walk round the countryside, and was poisoned by “I love you, impossible woman.”

 1: That’s why I beg you all not to leave behind in the prairies your poetry books, because you too might be the cause of sorrow in other insects.

 3: The poetry which asks why the stars travel through space is hurtful to unopened souls.

 2: It seems useless to tell you that the poor little bug died.

 4: Death sometimes dresses up as love.

 1: Many are the times that the skeleton with the scythe we see portrayed in the prayer books takes the shape of a woman to fool us as she opens the door of her shadow.

 4: Cupid sleeps many times in the deep crevices of Death’s skull.

 1: Many are the old stories where a flower, a kiss or a look play the horrible part of the sword.

 3: An old sprite from the woods, who escaped from one of the great Shakespeare’s books; this sprite, who walks around the prairies holding his withered wings with a crutch, told the poet this story during an autumn night, when the flocks had left and now the poet repeats it to you, enveloped in his very own melancholy.

 1: But before we start, we want to ask you the same question the sprite asked the poet that Autumn night, when the flocks had left.

 4: Why are you repulsed by some clean and shiny insects who move graciously in the grass?

 1: And why are you people, full of sins and incurable vices, disgusted by the worms who calmly walk across the prairie sunbathing in the lukewarm morning?

 4: Why do you look down on Nature’s most negligible creatures?

 1: While you insist on not loving deeply the stone and the worm, you will not enter the kingdom of God.

 2: The old sprite also said to the poet: “The animal and plant kingdom will soon take over. Man forgets his creator, while the animals and  plants live very close to his light. Poet, tell Mankind that love grows just as intensely in all planes of life, that the rhythm of the leaf rocked by the wind is the same as that of the distant star and that the words spoken by the fountain in the shade are spoken in the same way by the sea. Tell Mankind to be humble: everyone’s equal  in Nature’s eyes.

 4: And that’s all the old sprite said.

 1: And now, listen to our comedy.

 3: Maybe you’ll smile when you hear these insects talking like young men, like adolescents.

 1: And if you learn a deep lesson from this story, go down to the forest, to thank that sprite on crutches – go down to the forest on an Autumn night, when the flocks have left.

Instant Composition

As the cold weather makes me lazy, I am very happy to leave you once again with guest blogger María Ferrara. (If you missed her previous post on Action Theatre, do have a look.) In this post, she continues to talk about the magic of sharing your improvisation in real time with the audience.

What is Instant Composition?

In an instant composition piece, the performer is creating the material, composing it and showing it simultaneously. Thus, the performer is working from the void in real time to create something new in every performance.

The origins of instant composition date from the 1960’s, the dawning of the postmodern dance movement, which questioned traditional aesthetic values and the share of roles that makes the dancer a mere executor of the choreographer’s creation. This followed on the path opened up in the 50’s by conceptual art, installations or performances. These movements challenged many accepted views such as the boundary between art and everyday life, between different art forms and even between performer and spectator. The pieces tended to be open ended, engaging the audience to complete what they were witnessing with their own perception or understanding. In performing arts, this multidisciplinary approach erased the distinctions between dancer, musician, actor or singer and the word “performer” emerged to refer to the person that performs the action which is witnessed and shared by the audience.

The preparation for this type of performance includes training awareness of what takes place within and outside of oneself in order to keep an ongoing interaction with the here and now, developing creativity, imagination and intuition and, finally, finding fluidity in decision making, both in order to follow impulses and to inhibit them.

The final aim is not to let oneself get carried away, but rather to compose a moment in a space, giving a collective sense to the elements present. In this context, the word sense does not refer to objective meaning, but to subjective understanding: how the patterns, pictures, rhythms, planes, sequences, counterpoints, intensities, images etc. develop and interact sequentially.

Instant composition invites the spectator to accompany the performer into an experience in which neither of them knows what will happen.

Currently, digital media allows for audiovisual content to be saved and reproduced ad infinitum with great ease. It is precisely in this era in which the eternal seems to be within reach for everybody that the ephemeral, the immediate and the transient acquire a renewed value as the epitome of life itself. Instant composition invites the spectator to accompany the performer into an experience in which neither of them knows what will happen, to walk out of the known territory of habits, preconceptions and expectations. One’s own perceptions, in real time, become the final element that makes sense of what has been witnessed.

María Ferrara is helping to promote the 2ND INTERNATIONAL ACTION THEATRE AND PHYSICAL IMPROVISATION FESTIVAL in Berlin this May. For more information on the festival, you can contact her on kontakt[at]
To find out more about what Action Theatre is, check out her last post: Action Theatre: The Improvisation of Presence.

Using Music in Your Piece

Music can trigger off a whole range of emotions much faster than the spoken word. If you want to move your audience, look for a piece of music that will help you do this. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind, especially if you choose a song or piece because YOU already have an emotional connection with it. Look for music you don’t usually listen to: film scores of films you haven’t watched, bands and genres you don’t usually play.

Work with opposites, they’re quite interesting. If you have a sad scene, why not play it against an incredibly cheerful song? If you have created a physical comedy sequence, try it out to a slow ballad. You get the picture.

Juxtaposing speed of movement and rhythm is also fun: try slow motion sequences against upbeat music.

Finally, when including music in your piece, don’t forget to try the most powerful sound of all: silence.


Why I Loved My!Laika or Why Your Characters Should be Strong

MyLaika6-mime2013Yesterday I watched Popcorn Machine by French company My!Laika, as part of the London International Mime Festival. Ironically the ensemble does not have any French performers: they come from Argentina, Germany, Holland and Italy, something they use to add to the chaos on stage as each performer speaks their language at some point.

Don’t get me wrong, the “chaos” is highly orchestrated to add to the “domestic apocalypse” in which the piece is set. As most theatre incorporating text, visuals, music, circus, movement etc, it’s difficult to decide which genre it sits in but this (luckily!) has become less and less important – who cares!

The piece is a mega-mix of highly-skilled acrobatics sprinkled with live music and flooded with dark humour. What holds it together is not a plot or a story but very well-defined characters, almost archetypes. We get to know the performers (he’s great at this, she’s great at that) and also the characters, who never cease to amuse us.

I loved the piece. It has stayed with me and got me thinking. What is it that holds our attention at the theatre? It’s not always a plot. Not always a “story” as we’ve come to expect it. Nothing much happens to the people in Popcorn Machine; they don’t really have a moment of realisation or of change. As characters, they probably leave the piece in the same way as they started. Maybe the characters are not much different from the performers themselves. Who cares? They still make us care for them – even if it’s just because we know we are going to love and admire what they do.

If you are creating a piece, be bold with your character choices. Start with an archetype. Start with someone who seems one-dimensional: the crazy one; the strong one; the lazy one; the studious one. Allow the audience to know where they are with your character so that then you can play with a more abstract performance style or work with a very simple storyline.

Stories keep us hooked – but that’s because they are about people. It’s the people that hook us. They allow us to project onto them our wishes and aspirations, even our own problems. They allow us to experience what we don’t dare to do ourselves. They allow us to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Theatre is great fun to make but it also has the power to inspire; don’t forget that when you are creating your own work.

Popcorn Machine, with its dangerous acrobatics (which I could never even imagine myself doing), its dark humour (which touched the darker side of myself) and its absurdity did exactly that. Thank you.

Popcorn Machine is on at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London from Sat 12 – Tues 15 January 2013.

Physical Theatre Bites

I am cleaning up my computer and found this video from our Freestlye Performances, days when we got to experiment with physical theatre by trying out our own work in front of an audience.

Key to this was giving the audience food during the intervals – watch the video, you’ll see all their happy faces! I suppose it was a bit like bribing the audience. But hey, no-one else was doing this: an Ensemble of young professionals getting together for the day to present short pieces written by themselves. The day was full of the spirit of collaboration, as different people took on different roles (writer/director/performers) during the day, supporting each other along the way. All put together brilliantly by our wonderful stage manager Tracey.

Here it is, enjoy!

Freestyle Performances from Pilar Orti on Vimeo.

Working with Masks

I had such a great time the week before last working with a group of drama students for a week, as part of a Forbidden Theatre Company project.

Masks are liberating – having something physical to “hide behind” can really free the actor or the student. That’s why they are such great training tools. Jacques Copeau used masks during rehearsal the first time when one of his actresses seemed completely unconnected to her body. During an emotional scene, her physical expression just seemed… well, wrong. Copeau threw a sheet over her head and, voilá, her performance improved and the first use of the theatre mask in training was born.

Working with the students reminded me how much performers often rely on words to express themselves and convey meaning. This is not at all a bad thing – but it’s difficult to know how to create a new language when words are removed. Somebody asked me if mask work involved a lot of “mime” – it depends on how you define mime, but if you mean replacing words with gestures which depict objects and actions, no. If, however, you mean, using the body to communicate with other performers and the audience, then yes.

It is difficult. The instinct of many performers when they first try to communicate wearing a mask is to find a direct substitute for words. Watching it is fascinating, and I found myself coaching from the sides saying “Don’t try to speak, don’t try to speak.” I think many of them understood what I was going on about as by the end of the week, many of them found an ease to communicate which involved a different way of thinking. A less literal way, a simpler way, as they let the mask find a language of their own.

Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012

I saw this show today in Edinburgh and loved it.

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

You could write a thesis about this play.

It’s about dependency, working in an office, job satisfaction, vocation vs profession, friendship, rivalry and office furniture!

The most exciting thing about the piece for me was the style, reminding me a bit of Frantic Assembly’s Tiny Dynamite. Fluid movement merged with text, literal and abstract fused into one. And plenty of humour.

Tom and Broderick work in an office. They’ve been told to “work as a team” (chuckle, chuckle) but they can’t even decide the best way for them to both make use of a chair. My favourite bit of the play was this scene – imaginative, punchy, slick…

I don’t want to give much away – the story is simple but engaging, the characters are so well defined. There’s even some interaction with the audience. My boyfriend was a bit reluctant to sit on the front row, in case “they talked to you”. “Don’t worry, not in this one.” Bingo! Famous last words. However, this was the least cringe-worthy audience-interaction moment ever and my boyfriend didn’t mind one bit. Like my friend (who was sitting to other side of me and also got asked a few questions) said: Broderick genuinely listened and conversed with you. Not a small achievement when you consider that his fellow performer Tom crawled up his back.

The show is the perfect length (about an hour) but I could have sat there for longer. I loved the script – subtle, simple and actually took a direction that I didn’t expect. I laughed a lot, loved the choreography and physical moments and was moved.

What more can you ask from the Fringe!

Work Songs
August 2012
playing from the 13-26 August at ZOO, Venue 124, at 1.15 PM everyday.

created by Broderick Chow and Tom Wells
the dangerologists

The link below takes you to the photos from their Manchester production.

Work Songs at Contact, Manchester.

via Work Songs – Edinburgh Fringe 2012.

Building the Ensemble – The Empty Chair

This game works best with at least 7 people. Distribute evenly the same number of chairs as people playing across the space. Everyone but one person, the Walker, sits on a chair. The empty chair must be at one end and the Walker will start the game at the other end.

The aim of the Walker is to sit on a chair. S/he will do this by walking towards it at an even, slow pace. Everyone else must prevent the Walker from sitting on the empty chair. This is done by leaving their chair and sitting on the empty chair. This will leave another chair empty. The Walker will then try to get to it but someone else from the group should go towards it and sit on it. Everyone but the Walker can move as fast or as slow as they wish.

Note that once a member of the group lifts their bum from their own chair, they can’t go back to it and have to sit somewhere else. When the Walker finally sits on a chair, the game ends and whoever was not sitting down, becomes the Walker.

Once you have played this game a few times and are familiar with the strategies that work, try to play the game in silence. Of course there will be cries and laughter but try to avoid communicating with words and avoid telling others what to do. This will help you to develop your ensemble skills, where everyone in the group shares the responsibility of achieving a common goal.

Building the Ensemble – Grandmother’s Footsteps

One performer (the “grandmother”) stands facing a wall. Everyone else stands behind him/her at the other side of the room. The object of the game is for the rest of the group to creep behind the grandmother and tap her on the back. The grandmother will turn every few seconds and when she does, everyone must freeze. If she sees anyone move in the slightest, they have to go back to where they started. Whoever reaches the wall, becomes the next grandmother.

This game wakes up the body and mind and, though competitive, encourages performers to work in physical closeness to each other sharing the same space.

Grandmother’s footsteps is used widely to teach acting and physical theatre. The game has the added benefit that half of the class can sit and watch. What makes a good piece of drama and what is interesting about watching actors suddenly becomes apparent: enjoyment, commitment, the need to take risks, the need to play within the rules, suspension… this game has all the ingredients of a good theatrical performance.

When we freeze as Grandmother turns, we don’t stop: our emotion is in motion. Our brains are ticking away, making sure that every single element of our body is still, we are holding on to our energy, not letting it go… and we are oh-so-ready, because at any point, Grandma will turn round and then….. we have to be ready to move!