It’s Tuesday. I’m drained. Running on empty. Being the writer, producer and performer in an upcoming multi-role show has claimed all my energy for the day. So I’m actually glad to come to the Royal Exchange to just sit and observe. When I arrive, I’m immediately hit by the feeling of exuberance in the room. And I can already sense my energy reserves swelling – the enthusiasm is contagious.
It’s the Young Company’s third skills session, which marks the end of the introductory phase of the process. So there are plenty of ice breaker games and exercises. And there’s one that’s particularly fun to watch – and I imagine even more fun to take part in. It involves snakes, snails, stick insects and a whole lot of other things beginning with S. But what I love about this game is that every time the rows of competing pairs rotate, they’re given a question to ask of their new partner. What’s their favourite food, book, movie, fictional character, hobby?
“The more you take an interest in each other, the better you’ll work together,” director Matt Hassall tells them.
And he’s not wrong. People are fascinating. And without fascinating people to intrigue and inspire, you’d have no stories to tell. No storytelling. And no theatre. So even the simplest bits of the ‘silliest’ exercises have an application to the theatre. And that’s what I love about facilitating groups of performers, and watching Matt doing the same – playing fun games then applying the principles of those games to performance. It’s learning disguised as laughter. And that’s the best kind of learning in my book.
Another beautifully effective exercise gets everyone to invent their own sign names – and explain why they’ve chosen the gestures they have to signify themselves. “It’s a gateway to understanding who people are,” Matt points out. And what I see is another effective way to instil in these young people the kind of sensibilities that will enable them to be great theatre makers, and – I’ll say it again – human beings. You have to have a curiosity about people, and a desire to understand them, and yourself.
As previously, a good part of the evening is dedicated to more exercises developing awareness of self, the self in relation to others, and of the group as a whole. Once more, I ponder how much the self awareness work is very much like some of my own meditation practices – something I started for my own wellbeing rather than with any performance goal in mind. But it’s all about being aware of the body, the mind, the emotions – the things we use as actors – so it’s understandably a fundamental part of the practice Matt is developing with the group.
And as the focus shifts from self to others, it’s lovely to watch the exercises build, each time adding more complexity and more challenge – encouraging the group to give and accept offers; to work towards a common goal while making individual choices; to challenge each other; to focus on others. They spend a long time silently following each other’s hands around the room in an exercise called Columbian Hypnosis. A strange sight, admittedly. But a captivating one. As they bend, flow, jump, run, lie, twist, turn, meld, merge, separate and observe – there are a million stories the mind invents from the spectacle. That’s because that’s what our minds do. And that’s also because this hand-following exercise may look unusual but its application to performance is obvious to me – focus, group work, choices, leadership, fluidity, present moment being.
So the evening ends and I’m full of beans. Energy restored and a smile on my face. I know how an iPhone feels after it’s been on charge.
Because I’m now back to 100%.
The Young Company is our award-winning resident company for anyone aged 14 - 25