Taking the Next Steps
By Oisín McKenna
I recently had the pleasure of undertaking a week-long workshop with Ashley Ramsden and Clare Coburn at the Augustine Centre in Hawthorn. ‘Pleasure’ because it is a pleasure to be able to take time out to study our art, and because it was with two performers of their calibre and a bunch of very engaged storytellers.
Despite it being an intense week of workshop training, we performed publicly on Friday night, 20 July at the Centre. Roughly 60 people attended, and it was a great night with all the participants performing the work we had undertaken during the week.
The workshops were primarily designed to assist participants to raise our levels of technical skill. I enjoyed being able to name some of the concepts I have been dealing with over the past few years in performance, and then locating them in a strong overarching structure.
I’ve been aware that there are important ‘stepping off’ points in any story, where the situation changes, a character undergoes some kind of transition or undertakes some task or risk. I had been referring to these as ‘transitions’, but these were highlighted during the week as ‘thresholds’. While I’m not bowled over at using a different term for what I already knew about, we worked on these points as the actual structure for any given story: the framework around which a performance is constructed.
It’s the notion that here, a transformation is about to occur, or time, place, intention or introduction of a new character. The performer needs to focus his or her energies, the audience may need to take a breath. These points become structural points around which a performance can be built.
We explored inner and outer thresholds: inner being resolve or change within a character, and outer being a physical change in the space or the story. Thresholds are the ‘heart and soul’ of each story, the ‘guts’ or transition points, and we spent hours on exercises to map them and mark them in performance.
We looked at ‘circles of communication’. Some storytellers can be marvelling at what they ‘see’, and possibly performing for themselves. This is an internalised process, and this is the first or inner circle. The whispering, ‘magic storyteller’ kind of voice, which does also appear in theatre performances.
The third circle is the expansive, loud, tense, zealous and over the top performer. ‘I need to project, please approve of me.’
We did a lot of work on the ‘second circle’, the one that is freer, grounded, can project, and can withdraw at times as well when necessary. We broke into pairs and practised the different ‘circles’, but focusing more in the second circle where audience interaction takes place. The second circle is really about giving and receiving. (Personally I know in the past I have used the third circle, especially if I have felt I’m losing an audience. Bad news. I try to steer clear of it these days, and no longer look at those people who are falling asleep or not laughing at my uproarious humour. And in fact, they may be enjoying the story in their own way, by concentrating – or sleeping.)
We did some status work, and at the performer’s ‘ubiquity’. The storyteller is ubiquitous in that he or she is narrator and sometimes all the characters. This can be a mind bend at times, but we worked on it, which helped first flag it, and also helped us become aware of it.
We did ‘story maps’, simply mapping out the location of the story you are performing within a given space. Very easy in an imaginary world to walk into that carefully placed tree or wall.
We worked on ‘being real’ and the ‘sense of wonder’, as if what we were seeing we were seeing for the first time, and seeing what you are describing. This can open up a multiplicity of meanings to the audience.
And we did exercises on imagining something in space before going to it, which is related to Alexander Technique work. Creating the reality of the space in your own world makes it that much more real and richer for the audience. For example, choosing one real movement out of a sequence that will build the picture for the audiences, such as slooshing the water in the teapot, or dipping your finger into a group of imaginary tasty dishes.
Anyway, I could go on. It was a fantastic week and a small group of us is planning to meet regularly from now on. No more working in a vacuum flask.