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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.

It is a very sad error for players and directors to show Lear in the first scene as a feeble old man already in his dotage.

How often do we forget as performers that the audience meets us in our first scene for the very first time?
They don’t know what we’re about to do, they don’t know how the play ends. (Well, I’m probably quite wrong in many cases, especially in a post that mentions Shakespeare, but in this case, the audience arrives ready to meet us at the beginning of the play, not the end.) It’s difficult not to judge a character we’re playing, especially if they’re about to embark on a journey as tumultuous as Lear’s.

When creating a character, you must have its arc very clear. Where are they emotionally at the beginning of their story and where are they at the end? You can almost work backwards. If, on a scale of 1 to 10, by the end of your piece they’re an unhappy 9, you can’t start their story with them being an 8, or else you will have almost nowhere to go. (Notice that I mention the beginning of their story, not the play, as you might be playing with structure and time.)

Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept.

I’ve added this quote here as a reminder that we shouldn’t be obsessed with the idea of creating an “innovative” piece of theatre, of seeking something that’s never been done before. Because the truth is, that unless you’re using a piece of new technology, your idea’s been done before, somewhere else, by somebody else. If you discard an idea because it’s been done before, you’ll never get up and create. How many stories do you know that follow the structure girl-meets-boy, one of them likes the other but the other one is in love with someone else? And yet…

No matter what story you tell, it will be unique to your group. Don’t worry if something’s been done before (most art steals, erm, sorry, borrows, from other pieces of art), if it makes sense to your story, if your group is in love with the idea, use it, but make it yours. Don’t copy it. Don’t try to imitate but don’t be afraid of being inspired.

By the way, I did enjoy The Quality of Mercy. The book is a series of essays on Shakespeare, characterised by Brook’s no-nonsense style. Part memoir, part essay, it’s a swift read and I only wish there had been more!

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.

 

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.

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.

Why?

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.

 

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.)

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