Jennifer Banks - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the final session of rehearsals for Young Company, led by Matt Hassall



Be brave yet mindful. Bold yet respectful. Daring yet supportive. However you put it, balancing courage with consideration is a basic tenet of great performance – making exciting choices whilst honouring your colleagues. And this tenet is embodied in the physical pair work that kicks off this week’s Young Company skills session.

‘A’ stands still. Yielding and vulnerable to ‘B’ – whose job it is to warm up and invigorate their partner’s body with different types of touch to the arms, legs, head and trunk.

The point of the exercise is twofold, as Matt Hassall explains: “For partner A, it’s all about being present and in the moment, being aware of each part of the body as it’s activated. And for B, it’s all about honouring your partner and how you respect and support them – it’s a balance between bravery and consideration.”

It’s largely a silent exercise, but when Matt tells the ‘A’s they can ask their partner to be firmer with their touch, verbal exchanges suddenly flutter around the room. “In nine times out of 10 you can be firmer than you think you can be,” Matt points out. And to my mind – which is in the habit of extrapolating every rehearsal room activity to the stage – this means in that in performance we can usually be braver than we think we can, too.

For me, as just an observer, there’s something hypnotic about watching this exercise. Its purpose is to energise the body. But, from the snippets of debrief chat I hear afterwards, the focus and awareness it brings also makes it soothing to the mind – and I can’t help but pick up on this soothing feeling too.

The hypnotic state continues with the next exercise – a room full of people walking around bouncing tennis balls. Walking and bouncing. Bouncing and walking. In time to music. Keeping the rhythm. Going as a group.

Image of Young Company, Royal Exchange Theatre

And as Matt adds layers of complexity, they have to keep on bouncing. To keep the rhythm going. Bouncing while walking faster. Bouncing while moving differently. “Play around with how you bounce the ball. If it doesn’t work, change it. If it does, build on it. Take it somewhere else next. Constantly play the game of reinvention.” And it’s the same principle at work again: making adventurous individual choices while supporting colleagues – to achieve the group goal.

Then, what follows is as near as you can get to a ‘Being Present Boot Camp’ – with high a level of intensity and focus but, obviously, without the shouty sergeant major or harsh discipline. It’s another engaging (non-verbal) movement exercise – using ‘viewpointing’ – something new to me and fascinating to discover. And once again the members of the company stride around the room as Matt adds layer upon layer to the challenge, gradually increasing the level of complexity. They begin walking as though on a grid – in straight lines and turning at right angles only. Then following curves and circles, then exploring gesture, tempo, position, repetition and duration – and then any combination of these elements, making moment by moment decisions as to how they move in the space.

“It’s a game of reinvention. If you find yourself repeating things, do something new,” Matt reminds them before adding more layers, including ‘kinaesthetic response’ – in other words, making choices in response to what they see around them. And that’s when they begin to interact – their choices affecting each other; chain reactions spreading through the room, and even what look like stories emerging, naturally building from offers and interactions.

From the outside, it’s a mesmerising moving tableau that feels like a human fairground attraction. The actors subsequently describe how it felt from the inside – how they followed their impulses, “without thinking;” how naturally and instinctively things emerged, and how spontaneous it all felt.

“Viewpointing invites you to be in the moment,” Matt agrees. “With kinaesthetic response there’s no pre-planning, it’s just about responding to what’s in the room.” And once again I’m struck by how much fear can stifle spontaneity – but how little it featured in this exercise. The slow building and layering of complexity enabled the actors to easily reach the next level of challenge and stay in the moment.

It’s my final session observing the young company and I’m a little green-eyed at not having done any of this training myself! But I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to observe Matt’s sessions. And I’m excited to watch these great young actors on the stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre in the forthcoming production of MIXTAPE in the Studio, 11-18 April 2018 – and see how these exercises cultivate engaging performers who are brave yet mindful, bold yet respectful and daring yet supportive.

The Young Company is our award-winning resident company for anyone aged 14 - 25

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