So the name games are gone and things are going up a level. It’s week four of Matt Hassall’s invaluable skills sessions and he’s sailing the good ship Young Company out of the shallows and into deeper waters. Well, he’s concluded the introductory phase and is now building on the learning of previous sessions to further develop the actors’ awareness of themselves, the space around them and their ensemble colleagues.
And it’s very much an evening of putting the focus on the outside, building rapport and working together – but also being aware of their reactions to others too. Even the self-focused warm up asks the actors to consider how they’re feeling in relation to the others in the room. And the group work kicks off with an exercise where each must secretly select two people and walk around the space trying to maintain a triangular shape in relation to these chosen two at all times.
The game builds with adding further size and shape challenges. It’s chaotic at times and not exactly easy, but the learning point is clear: you can’t control what others do, but you can control what you do in response to them. More life wisdom in the form of acting training. If more people learned this, there’d be less road rage, divorce and war. I’m sure of it. But it’s a life/acting lesson that cunningly disguises itself as a practical, physical challenge. And it strikes me that there’s something liberating about developing the actors’ sensibilities using movement – as it seems to me that there’s less opportunity for doubt or self consciousness to creep in.
The next game is all about observing someone else, simply watching her or him move around the room – and the actors have to take the focus off of themselves. I think back to my Meisner training. Terrified, sitting opposite another actor and being yelled at to “get out of your head!” and “focus on your partner!”And I think that there’s something about adding using movement to acting challenges in performance training that helps control the fear. Is it that walking burns off the adrenaline? Or does it work as a distraction? Whatever, I’m beginning to like this physical way into acting that’s different to how I’ve trained.
“Games help us unlock so much,” Matt tells the group, as he produces a ball for the next exercise. In a circle, with one of them in the middle, the actors have to keep throwing the ball in and out of the centre – to a consistent rhythm. It becomes more challenging when they’re instructed to start swapping places with the centre thrower – whilst maintaining the rhythm. Inevitably, there are dropped balls and the rhythm is lost. But Matt introduces a ‘no sorry zone’. “It’s how we recover from the mistakes that matter. When something doesn’t go how we want, don’t make that the focus,” he says. And again, I can’t help but think that keeping the ball in motion is exactly the kind of challenge that stops the focus from lingering on the mistake too long anyway.
Even the more intensive pair work is based in movement and physicality. One exercises renders one of the partners still, immobile, while the other moves around them and in relation to them, passing in and out of focus – and losing and re-establishing connection. One has to relinquish power and the other use it to explore rather than intimidate. “It’s an exercise in presence,” Matt tells them. “Embrace the moments that feel scary, register and feel them, and then continue. It’s good to have a sense of anticipation but we don’t want it to take control.”
I leave the session pondering how this movement based work does exactly that – it helps keep fear under control. And I consider my quest, as an improv teacher looking to find new ways to take the fear out of improvising – and I think I might just be onto something here...
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