Category: Physical Theatre

Gandini Juggling On Tour

I recently received a message through this blog from Gandini Juggling who are currently touring a show. Even though I haven’t seen the company’s work before, I’m always happy to support those who reach out. So, here are some excerpts from the company’s press release. Of course, a show that blends maths and theatre is well worth a plug. And I wish them all the best!

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
4×4: Ephemeral Architectures is a co-production between Gandini Jugging, the National Centre for Circus Arts, Lighthouse Poole and La Brèche Pôle national des arts du cirque de Basse-Normandie / Cherbourg-Octeville.

A collaboration between two worlds; ballet and juggling.

Tracing pathways in space, four jugglers and four ballet dancers share a stage for the first time.

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Both these formalised systems are ephemeral journeys through time and space, leaving an unseen trace, like an imaginary architecture. 4 x 4 is a celebration of where these paths meet. This seasons sees the sensational Gandini Juggling returning to its love affair with pure patterns and mathematics with 4×4. Following the international success of Smashed, this new work takes us on fleeting journeys through time and space in a unique dialogue between jugglers and ballet dancers.

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

4×4: Ephemeral Architects premiered at the 2015 London International Mime Festival at the Royal Opera House, where it received rave reviews. Directed by world renowned juggler Sean Gandini, choreographed by Royal Ballet dancer Ludovic Ondiviela, with original composition ‘Suspended opus 69’ by Nimrod Borenstein and performed live by exceptional young chamber ensemble Camerata Alma Viva. Incredible lighting design by Guy Hoars completes this sensational cross-art form experience.

4×4 Ephemeral Architectures Trailer from Gandini Juggling on Vimeo.

An Interview on the Theatrefolk Podcast on Devising and Physical Theatre

In August I spoke to Lindsay Price from Theatrefolk, a Canadian-based website which is absolutely packed with resources for drama teachers. (If you’ve never had a look, go there now.)

Lindsay not only managed to ask some great questions that helped me transport myself to many years ago, when I used to teach physical theatre, but she’s also included a transcript of the interview in the blog post, which means, if you want to find out what we talked about right now but you’re not in a place where you can switch on your audio, you can have a read.

I loved that Lindsay picked up on my obsession with allowing people to take risks and make mistakes – her introduction is great, reminding us that we should celebrate failure during the devising process, hopefully it’s just taking us a little bit closer to what we want to create.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should celebrate people making mistakes because they’re careless, or because they just don’t care. I’m talking about congratulating those that take risks, those that try something new, those that say, “You know what, I’m going to try this and if I feel clumsy, or I feel stupid or if I just think, oops, that was the wrong choice,I’ll just stop, think about why it didn’t work and get on with the next option.”

Picture from the Theatrefolk website.

Lindsay mentions that she uses the term “collective creation” which I find much more interesting than “Devising”. Can we call it this in the British curriculum, please?

We talk about how the experience of devising goes way beyond creating a piece of theatre. The pride that comes with completing a piece, the responsibility we need to take to create it. The importance of “gathering” before we start to create, to allow things outside of our minds to influence our work .

Of course, in talking to someone else, we often discover things about ourselves, so I even got some insight into myself.

I learnt what my practice was about when I started teaching others.

So, if you have half an hour during which you can listen to the podcast, do go over to the Theatrefolk website. And while you’re listening, have a look at the range of resources that Lindsay and friends have to offer.

And also, notice how she pronounces my name, she gets it absolutely right!

Composing Music for Devised Theatre

Many years ago (we’re talking pre-Facebook), I led the creation process of a piece called Goddess. It was a movement-based piece with very little text and so I felt like we needed to underscore most of the play. The only person I knew who could cope with the chaotic devising process and create something appropriate was my friend who goes by the name of HW Tamplin, who was based in Madrid. There was no Dropbox then, and I still had dial-up, so downloading the music was a long process. Still, we did it. HW also wrote some thoughts down about the process, back in 2006 and I have dug them out. Here they are. (You can find the link to the music at the end of this post.)

Composing the music for Goddess has been a great personal challenge: to convey the character of the myths’ protagonists, as I understood them, surrounded by the aura of an epoch, a different time, a world of mortals and Gods, of Goddesses; to find the balance between the physical work on stage and the sounds. Furthermore, with actors devising the play in another land – I was mortal, they were Gods.

Even before I read the first draft of the script I received an e-mail from Pilar saying “I hear lots of wind in this play”. Now that was a start of sorts, it led me to compose the track suitable-named Goddess1 without even knowing whether it would fit anywhere in the final play. This track is based on floaty synth-pad sounds, some string-based, some wind-based, with an improvised harmonic structure. The result was quite abstract and so I added a layer of a tuned percussive sound (similar to a vibraphone) that hinted towards a melody of some kind, but kept the track’s sort-of-abstract nature and feel. The track was then shelved for possible future use.

Having read the first draft of the play, I understood that each character in each myth would have to “carry” their own distinctive sound with them, their trademark, their instrument, their melody. For certain scenes, I could also hear choirs in my head, the voices of the Gods, Hera enraged, Hades ruling the Underworld, Narcissus’ fate. And now, the scenes, and their characters:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEros, the God of love, playful, is seen practicing with his bow and arrow, decided, self-assured, a definite, clear-cut melody in mind for him. Psyche, a mortal, sacrificed on top of a mountain for her beauty, emotional, at a loss to understand her fate, adrift…wind, abstract…that was it! Finally Goddess1 had a meaning! – it would become the music for the “flying” scene: Eros, now vulnerable, in love with Psyche, flying her away to their home. And so, I had hints of a melody for Eros, and a definite melancholy sound for Psyche. Three further tracks were required for this scene, the introductory Eros track (the moment to show-off his “melody”), the mountain track, and the final track, where Eros discovers Psyche trying to see his face. First to come to reality was the mountain track. It had to be a piece in crescendo to go with the voices of Eros and Psyche mounting to a climax (Eros hitting himself with an arrow), and so it starts with Psyche’s flute-like sound in a slow melody that is more distinct than its abstract form in the flying scene, and then Eros’ melody appears backed with a solo cello, different woodwind, brass and string instruments appear in turn, growing to a sudden dramatic end, with the sound of an arrow, “wooshing” through the air, a thump and the crying voice of the Gods (or are they seagulls!!). The final track to this scene was to become an exercise in sound editing and production, with no further composition (as Pilar put it, Goddess Revamped), only changing some of the content in Goddess1 into a short angry-sounding piece to go along with Eros’ anger, disillusion, a God in pain due his love’s betrayal. The starting track, Eros’ bravado so clear-cut in my mind, his melody already in existence, and yet such a pain to come up with the accompaniment; it took what seemed like years to become what it eventually became. Having arrived at a dead-end with what I had come up with, it wasn’t until after I scrapped the work completely, that it rapidly flourished in the jazzy form it now has, cool, self-assured, arrows flying all over the place, the perfect start for the play, the fun to counterbalance the underlying drama in the play.

echoEcho and Narcissus, what an unlikely pair!…Of course, Echo cannot have a melody of her own, her own voice cruelly taken away by Hera in the first part of this scene, but she has the ability to repeat what has just been said, perfectly, beautifully…musically inspiring. But let’s start with Hera, Goddess of Goddesses, enraged at Echo’s treachery, persecutes her with great might, pushes, shoves her, steals her voice, point blank deprivation…the thud of tuned timpani, a majestic organ, chaotic percussion, a choir of voices, the voice of the Goddess, precede the upbeat minimalist piano phrase that is Echo fleeing, the squeals as her voice is torn away. Hera, triumphant, fades away leaving Echo in silence. Then, in true transnational collaboration, my own little piece of stage devising – Echo and Narcissus MUST dance a waltz, a sweet piece of music to show Echo’s ability at repetition – an unforeseen circumstance for the playwrights, who had to re-envisage this part of the play. Narcissus’ deep low-pitch voice, a playful bassoon, mimicked by Echo’s high-pitched voice, initially thought for a clarinet, finally a flute, waltz away backed by the ever-dear sound of plucked and bow strings, how beautiful, how dreamy, how untrue, it was all in Echo’s imagination!!!…Then the crude reality of which Echo is mere spectator: Narcissus, in a tour de force with his own existence mirrored in the pool, the sound of water now echoing his now eerie melody, beckoning, a hint of voices, the sounds of fate, ‘twas written in the stars, Echo cries, Narcissus gives in…

underworldAnd now Persephone and the Underworld scene…tricky, especially as this part of the play was changed up to and including the performance; however, most of my initial musical ideas could be used as originally planned…Hades, lord of the Underworld, what a shady character, and Persephone, so easily drawn into his power play…a kidnap…the original idea with two high-pitched melodies, intertwined, fighting, screeching was scrapped because the results were too disturbing, and the strength of the physical piece it accompanied would have been lost, so we kept only the voice of Hades, dominating the scene with a single, slow, disturbing melody which worked perfectly…then, in comes death, destruction, Armageddon, the kidnap, distorted guitars, Hades’ melody double-speed, the luring voices, the lost souls, the Lord of the Underworld forces his love down with him, the sister’s nightmare, she falls, the lights red, flashing, the crash…they are in the Underworld, distortion, wind, water, dark sounds, confusion, an end or a beginning?…a brother, a sister, reunited, a waltz-like piece recapturing the melodies of all the characters in the previous dreams, Eros, Psyche, Narcissus and his Echo, washed away by synth-pads that lead to a happy ending…

The music for the curtain call at the end of the show was developed from the Eros piece at the beginning of the play using the same jazzy bass line at half the speed, and was originally envisaged as the music for the brother-sister scene. However, its circus-like nature, with its fast melody carried away by an accordion accompanied by variations on the melodies throughout the play, made it the perfect piece for a final piece, the curtain call, to remind us of Calderon de la Barca’s famous words, “For all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.”

The music was composed using a stand-alone hardware sequencer, then the MIDI data was transferred to the computer in Gladiator Camp Studios, and the sounds arranged there for best results using sampled instruments and virtual synthesizers.

To listen to the music from Goddess, have a look at HW Tamplin’s Soundcloud profile


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.

Second Edition of Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre

New Physical Theatre coverThe second edition of Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre is now available directly from Lulu and also from Amazon.

This new edition has a section written especially for post-16 students on using feedback during the creation of your piece and keeping a record of your process. I’ve also included some short notes for teachers on how to use the five short plays in the classroom.

If you’re teaching physical theatre or if you are looking for physical theatre exercises to help you with your devised drama, take a look.


Devising a Play from a Novel

I’m in the middle of reading Kate Atkinson’s gripping novel Life After Life. The  novel is fascinating: it’s the story of a girl who keeps dying.

The book begins with short chapters and these keep getting longer and longer as the story develops. Each time the character dies, the author rewinds and we see a different chain of events which lead to her not dying – or rather, just dying later.

I was thinking that this would be a really interesting book to use as a stimulus. The novel is set in the early 20th century and tells the story of Ursula, a middle class girl living in London who’s still in the city when the Germans attack. I’m not going to continue with the plot because as a plot, it’s not that interesting (yet). However, the way the story is told, going backwards and forwards in time and from the main character’s mind to reality plus the variety of well-drawn characters that populate the novel make it a must-read.

The structure would make it an interesting book to adapt or take inspiration from. Having to re-tell a story where the events change ever so slightly but where the setting and characters are the same, is a creative exercise.

You would need to decide how much to change the dialogue, how much to change the details of the stories and whether the characters changed or not, depending on the event you were telling. Which mannerisms will you highlight for each character? Which actions? Will you highlight the pivotting moment in each scene, the moment where the character’s fate changes? How will you depict a character’s death? In the book, the author repeats “darkness fell” or at least mentions darkness as a way of telling us the character has died. How would you do it? How could you repeat again and again a moment, while keeping it fresh?

Once again, I hope this short post gives you a bit of inspiration when devising a play. And do read Kate Atkinson’s book, it’s quite unique.

When The Going Gets Tough

I practice every day. If I don’t practice for one day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.” Vladimir Horowitz, pianist.

I’m currently writing “Hi, I’m Here for a Recording, the ordinary life of a voiceover artist,” so I’m reading a bit about writing (it’s my favourite form of guilt-free procrastination). I came across the quote above in the book How to be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play by Barbara Baig. I like the book because it reminds us that writing is a process, where you need to do a lot of work before you complete your finished product; and it reminds us that being a writer is a discipline, pretty much like acting and devising.

When you first start to create theatre, it’s difficult. You might not be great at improvising, you might be used to feeding off a script to create a character, you might not enjoy creating material when you don’t know whether it’s going to be used in the final piece or not.

Devising theatre (and indeed creating any kind of theatre) is a process. You try things out; you ditch them. You play games, you take part in exercises, you explore characters and scenes not knowing where they’re going to take you. Unless you do this over and over again, you will never learn, you will never grow as a performer and person and you will never master the craft.

Acting, like all types of art, needs both talent and craft. On my first day at drama school one of my tutors told us, “You need to work hard at perfecting your technique. Talent will come and go, but your technique will keep you working.” He was so right. Technique, rehearsal and practice will make you Good. Then when you are inspired, when you have good days (or even good long periods), you will be Excellent. But talent without technique doesn’t last.

So, when you’re bored of repeating that scene again and again and again, remember Horowitz words above and learn from every single moment as you practice your craft.

Obtaining Audience Feedback for Your Piece

The most important question to answer when you present your work in front of an audience is:

How was it for you?

Very often you will know what bits worked and which didn’t. You will be able to tell instantly how a scene went, whether the audience were with you or if they were restless; whether that comedy moment you worked on for ages made anyone laugh. You will know from their silences whether they were moved or just confused.

It’s important that you obtain feedback from your audience in some shape or form but what’s even more important is that you and your fellow performers reflect on your own experience and their comments and decide what action to take further. Don’t just present your show, get feedback and then carry on. Let the feedback sink in, decide what you will take and what you will ditch (yes, of course it’s ok to ignore some feedback) and then decide on how you will let it shape your piece.

You can use questionnaires to get audience feedback, but the most effective way of gauging what an audience has to say is by organising a discussion straight after they see your piece (a post-show discussion), or soon after. Don’t forget though to seek the opinion of those people who didn’t say anything during the group discussion, as they might well have very interesting things to say but didn’t really feel like talking in front of everyone else.


It’s important to gain feedback from others once you’ve got most of your piece down, let’s call it “work in progress”. As a group, you are creating something that you will become very familiar with. During rehearsals you will discuss the plot, characters, themes and therefore understand the piece regardless of what the piece turns out to be. You want to make sure that the audience takes something away from it without having all the information that you have used during rehearsals.

Before you begin…

Before you submit yourself to the interesting experience that is having people telling you what they think about your work (I use the word “interesting” because it describes a wide range of reactions: some people love having others telling them what they thought about their piece; others feel exposed; others just don’t care), you need to know what you want feedback on.

  • What sections are you least sure of?
  • What do you want your audience to feel/think?
  • Do you want them to understand every single element of your story? How important is narrative?
  • Do you want them to feel empathy for all/some of the characters?
  • Do you want to hear their different interpretations?

Once audiences start telling you what they think about your piece, the discussion can go on forever, so it’s important to get the answers to the questions you might have as soon as possible. A good idea is to have one of you chair the discussion. You can start with “We’ve been thinking about the kind of things we’re struggling with and we’d be especially interested in knowing what you think of x, y and z; although we really value anything else you have to say we might not have thought of.”

Using Feedback

Try and understand where people are coming from when they give you their opinion. Are they trying to tell you about the piece they would have created or do they really understand how to help you create your own piece? Remember that, in the end, you are the ones who need to be completely happy with what you create. Having said that, give full consideration to all comments as you might learn something from them just by reflecting on them.

Once audiences get going, they will provide you with contradictory comments (one person might say they really liked that the story was clear whereas others will say they would have liked a little bit of mystery to make them think harder. And if your discussion goes well, you will hear one people say, “I wasn’t sure about the last scene” followed by someone else saying “Oh, that was my favourite bit!”), so be prepared for this.

Listen to what makes sense to you as well as to those comments that take you completely by surprise. Above all, listen for common themes or recurring comments. If many people are agreeing on the fact that your character’s reaction came out of nowhere, there’s probably something that needs to be added early on in the piece. Or if nobody seems to be moved by the last scene, when you think it’s the most poignant bit in the piece, then you’ll need to address this.

Although I’m not a great fan of questionnaires, they do give a voice to every single member of the audience. They also allow you to look at what people have to say whenever you feel ready, and not just straight after the performance, when you’re likely to be tired or buzzing and not quite taking everything in. So do give some thought about whether you want to create some questionnaires for your audience. A good question to ask is always: “How would you describe this piece to a friend?”

Which reminds me: take notes (questionnaire – writing – taking notes…). Don’t rely on memory to remember all the feedback given. There will be things that slip your mind. Get a pen and paper out and scribble down what people are saying. If you’re getting feedback from your classmates or people you know, even initial who says what, in case you need clarification later. If someone says something of special interest, approach them later about it to get further thoughts.

I think that’s it from me. Obtaining audience feedback during the creation of your piece is essential. It will accelerate your devising process. In addition to evaluating what you already have, there is nothing like performing in front of an audience to make you work extra hard.


Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre is now a Recommended Book

I am extremely happy to say that this book has been included in the Reading List of the OCR Level 3 Cambridge Technical Certificate/Diploma Performing Arts, Devising Plays Unit.

I was hoping that the book would be useful for those studying Theatre at a young age and to be included in the list makes me think I’ve done something right.

To support those of you taking or delivering this unit, I will be adding material to this blog to support the syllabus, including how to obtain and use audience feedback, structuring the drama and developing voice and physicality. For next year, I will release a new edition of Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre covering more of the OCR and other exams.

Here is the link to the Devising Plays Unit for the OCR Level 3 Cambridge Technical Certificate/Diploma Performing Arts.

If you’re studying this unit and need some help, do get in touch via Twitter or by leaving a comment on this post. (All comments remain unpublished until I approve them.)


Using Theatre to Transform Lives

I am delighted to welcome Montserrat Gili, someone who became a very good friend of mine through working together on quite a few performance and educational projects. Montse has always tackled those difficult projects I could never be part of myself and so, it is without hesitation that I am giving her this space to tell you about her latest venture.

By the age of 8 most children in the UK have been to see at least one if not more, Christmas shows with their schools or their family. Have you seen how their faces light up? How they engage with the hero or heroine of the story? How they sing along? How they clap, laugh, shout…? Numerous studies show us how the arts have a positive impact on children’s development so I am not going to bore you with the importance of that because you probably already know it…

I am a theatre practitioner and I have been leading workshops for many years in many different settings, including working with NEET young people (at risk of exclusion), young people with autism, etc so I KNOW how participating in the arts can help a young person… To improve their confidence, their empathy, their relationship with themselves and others, their leadership skills, etc, etc.

What I do want to talk to you about is a project that is different because as well as all the above, it can also help young children who live in the streets to find other options and eventually leave the streets.

This project will take place in Zambia, where there is a charity called Barefeet which works with children at risk of becoming disengaged from their communities. Barefeet helps children who are living on the streets or at risk of becoming street children to transform their lives.

Those former street children are now professional performers at Barefeet and are a shining example of how arts can change your life.

The Christmas show is a recurring event that brings a bit of magic to the Christmas of street children in Lusaka. Not only do we give them a spectacular show and a present from Santa, we also bring them into contact with different orphanages and former street children. Those former street children are now professional performers at Barefeet and are a shining example of how arts can change your life.

dsc00736I will be going to Zambia at the beginning of November to direct a Christmas theatre show for street kids. For most of them it will be their first experience with live theatre, but they will also have the opportunity to take part in workshops with the performers, they will receive a little gift, food and they will be put in touch with organisations that can give them options to leave the streets.

So as I said, a worthy project, but of course, we are still raising funds to help this happen.

Please help us in any way you can, even if you can’t give at the moment, please help us by passing this along to your network of friends, family or colleagues. The more distribution the better, especially since we don’t have that much time to raise the funds.

Thank you so much in advance!

Montserrat Gili