Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

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‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.

Staging our own Brainstorm: an intrepid English teacher on the rewards of devising a show with teenagers

When Steven Slaughter, an English teacher at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, decided to stage a production of Brainstorm, the acclaimed play about the workings of the teenage brain, he was taking a big risk. The show is designed to be devised by a company of teenagers, putting their own lives and experiences centre-stage. But, as Steven explains, the rewards are immeasurable for everyone concerned…

I’m excited to tell you about our production of Brainstorm, the play by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three, at Rosslyn Academy. The process was all that I hoped it might be – an exhilarating challenge for our students and for me, resulting in a show that had a profound impact on our audiences. Afterwards, one parent came up to me and said, “I usually say ‘Great job!’ to the kids. But this time, that doesn’t seem adequate. All I can say is, ‘Thank you’.”

This sense of gratitude, that we had given our community a gift, elevated the experience above other productions we’ve done in several important ways. I want to explain why. Also, I’ll try to address some of the challenges and opportunities of doing Brainstorm as a school play, my assumption being that it will likely most often be done in schools. And I’ll include all the things I’d want to know, as a high school theatre director, if I was considering putting on a production of Brainstorm with my students.

The Process: Spring into Summer

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Ned Glasier, co-writer of Brainstorm and director of the original production, while passing through London last June. I’d read the original script a few months earlier and loved it. It stayed on my short list, and its depth and resonance just wouldn’t let go of me.

But producing the play in a school context was going to add a bit of complexity. Firstly, I needed to have it approved by my administrators without having a working script to show them. Sure, we had the original script, but that, as it says on the cover, is only a ‘blueprint’ for any production; our version was going to end up being very different by the end of the devising process. And so it was important that they had a high degree of trust in what we were trying to achieve.

Furthermore, as Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school, there was going to be a significant degree of sensitivity about what could and could not be included in the final version. The challenge of this, of course, is that the edgier bits, the really honest things that give this play its electricity, are the very parts that might be problematic in a religious school context. And so I knew that I was asking a lot – I wanted approval of something not yet written, but I didn’t want to do it at all if all the rough edges were going to get smoothed away, neutering it of its raw power. Thankfully, the administration saw the potential good of this show and trusted that I could guide it along that path.

Meeting with Ned was really encouraging. He answered some key logistical questions, like, “Can we really complete this inside three months?” (Answer: Yes… but it is a challenge.) In June, over our summer holiday, I sent a secret note to the parents of my most committed theatre kids. Since we would also be asking parents to allow their own home lives and struggles with their teenagers to be expressed on stage, I needed to know that they were supportive, willing to take this journey with us. This was an important step for me, because if several of these committed students would not be allowed to even audition due to parent discomfort (especially those graduating this year), I didn’t think it would be fair to them to choose the show. Thankfully, all parents were supportive.

August: The Big Reveal

At Rosslyn, the announcement of a forthcoming show is done with much excitement. But when I revealed what we’d chosen this time, it was met with mixed feelings. Firstly, no one had really heard of it. No surprise there. Everyone was intrigued by the trailer of Company Three’s production and my initial description, but the cast all admitted that the idea of a play that we would in large part create, about their lives, was something that made them nervous. And sceptical. We hadn’t done a devised show at Rosslyn in many years, and some of the students remembered working on a student-written middle school show that they looked back on with some embarrassment. There was also significant scepticism amongst the broader high school population. All through the production, as the cast bonded and faced their fears of exposing themselves so much, they also had to deal with the added challenge of many of their peers believing that it wouldn’t be any good.

I also had to deal with my own self-doubts. I’d never done a devised show before, and desperately wanted to do justice to this subject and to my students. Can I gather all of these pieces collected over many weeks, and fit them together into something theatrically coherent and beautiful? The fear of failure caused numerous 4:00am wake-ups, ‘dark nights of the soul’. However, with the comfort and benefit of hindsight, I can assure any directors aspiring to dive into devised theatre that Brainstorm is the perfect entry point. The script’s ‘blueprint’ section is really helpful, providing dozens of ideas for activities, writing prompts, games, and processes to assist a company wanting to create their own version. This made the process much easier for me than starting with a blank slate.

Still, I couldn’t really tell how strong the script actually was until just a couple of weeks before performances began, when we’d polished the scenes enough to evaluate the final script at its full potential.

Rehearsals, Part 1: Content Generation

Our three-month rehearsal cycle was split roughly in half. Unlike with a typical play, the cast did not get a final script until about the 6-week point – and even then it continued to change quite a lot, all the way up to the performances.

In the first period of rehearsals, we engaged in a lot of different activities, many taken straight from the blueprint. Students produced YouTube instructional videos, gave virtual tours of their bedrooms, filled out surveys, played games, interviewed each other and their parents, and wrote their own material. I collected everything. One tool that we used extensively was the suite of Google Apps, which I would highly recommend. We had content collection documents shared by me and my co-director and our two student leaders. I also used Google Forms at several points, creating anonymous questionnaires for the Brainscan segment and Never Have I Ever game. For Brainscan, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the show, a series of statements are projected onto the set and the cast turn on lights – on for yes, off for no – creating a sort of impressionistic data set of how our students feel about themselves, some of their deepest fears, etc. During rehearsal, our list began as the original cast’s list plus a few more that were relevant to the lives of expat and international kids, even some missionary kids. (So, for instance, a statement like “I don’t know if I believe in God right now” was a poignant and honest subject to broach in our Christian school context.) And in the anonymous survey, I included an area for them to propose their own statements, a number of which made it into the show. Google Forms is useful because it instantly gives you the percentages of those who answered yes. This helped us select the most impactful statements to feature. Further, to intrigue their sceptical classmates, we had the whole high school do a version of the survey a month or so before opening. This also allowed us to select the final list that would align fairly closely between the cast and the school population at large.

Ned had told me to think of the process in thirds – content generation, script writing, and actual rehearsal (memorising lines, blocking, etc). For us, the first two really needed to overlap. So while the kids generated content, I began writing the early scenes of the show, and so on, so that we wouldn’t have a time gap before ‘real’ rehearsals began. By the time I passed around the working scripts, we only had six weeks left, but the kids felt very familiar with the content. We did a second read-through, this time of our very own Brainstorm, and then proceeded roughly as we would with a conventional play.

Rehearsals, Part 2: Workshopping, Blocking, Polishing

One part of the process that really made me nervous in advance was workshopping the scenes of conflict between the kids and their parents. Cast members had written first drafts of scenes depicting real conflicts they’d regularly experienced with their parents. I was pleased by the variety of scenes the students brought – some very funny or warm, others uncomfortable and quite angry. I edited and polished these scenes and selected a suitable cast member to play the parent. Once the scene had been rehearsed for a bit, we invited the parents into a 20-minute workshop. This worried me. I feared that parents might get offended – most hadn’t seen the scripts at all. We had a friend, a family therapist, join us in these sessions (just in case). To my delight, all of the parents were great sports. The kids ran the scene, we asked mum or dad for their initial thoughts, then they stepped in and did a cold reading of the scene with their own child. (This was so instructive – and hilarious.) We filmed those for later reference. After this, the student playing the parent asked questions. “When you said X, how were feeling?” … ”You seemed so angry at that point. Why?” This opened up wonderful opportunities for parents and their kids to talk about these ongoing arguments they have, and, I think, to gain some insight into how the other feels and experiences those moments of tension.

As the show came together and tightened up, we made adjustments to the script and worked through the stage mechanics that all plays require. One thing we realised was that, playing themselves, there was a tendency to paraphrase and improvise. This was fine for a while, but eventually we had to insist on actors memorising a final version of their lines. This is necessary because we were trying to create specific moments for the audience, and improvisation, if done badly, can destroy something that has been carefully crafted. It was also interesting to work with students on naturalism. Several commented that they thought it would be easy to play themselves but realised how much they tend to put on the ‘stage version of me’ instead. Working through this was a valuable growth opportunity that none had experienced before.

The Company Three Production and Ours: Similarities and Differences

We created our show using the central arc of the original script – the tour through the brain and the structural elements of the play. This provided a really solid foundation from which to build. In the end, though, perhaps as much as 75% of the script was our own words. We found that, even though we were sticking with the underlying purpose of each scene, most of the text needed to be rewritten to suit our actors – their personalities and cultures and the specifics of their lives. Certain speeches and segments were so beautifully crafted in the original that I kept them word for word (such as the You Say to Me speech used in the voiceover of the Company Three trailer – so beautiful, why would you mess with that?). Others were preserved at a conceptual level, but rewritten by the student or students presenting them, to bring their own voices forward in a more authentic way.

We decided to use quite a lot of video projection in our production. In addition to projecting the group chat (WhatsApp in the Company Three production, Instagram for ours), the ‘Two Dot’ YouTube tutorial, and the Brainscan list, we also created additional slides for various scenes, from a new section I wrote to expand the ‘86 billion neurons’ section to a short slideshow on the limbic system. We even included a few one-off slides to enhance the jokes. For example, one girl is said to have a crush on Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, so on this cue we did a slow zoom of his dreamy face with romantic music; a moment later, another girl is outed as having had a crush on Cole from Lego Ninjago – yes, a crush on a Lego character – and so the same music plays with a slow-mo video clip of Lego Cole at a romantic dinner.

We also used a lot of music. Since we ran the show without intermission, we had an extended time for concessions before each show and a playlist of teen music through the eras (we had great fun choosing the tracks for that!). We also used music during many scene transitions, under certain scenes (such as a Beatles-inspired elevator musak track under the parent introductions), and very powerfully during the Brainscan and You Say to Me placard-dropping scenes. I’d definitely encourage other productions to experiment with music – it’s such an important part of teenagers’ lives and can lend so much resonance to the emotional impact of a scene.

Conclusion

The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before. I can’t encourage other directors strongly enough to take on this show. If, like me, you’re intrigued by devised theatre but don’t have previous experience of it, Brainstorm is the perfect place to start. You’ll need some experience of managing what is a fairly complex process. And you’ll need to be able to write pretty well. As much as the content needs to come from the actors you’re working with, crafting it into something that works on stage is an act of playwriting. I don’t think a show like this would work very well if left only to the students’ draft writing, without someone doing this playwriting work. But with some imagination and flair, and a good deal of hard work, you’ll create something unique and unforgettable for everyone involved.

Putting the play on at Rosslyn was a profound experience for my students, and we received a number of amazing responses from parents who said it was the most thought-provoking and moving play they’d ever experienced, that it had challenged them to understand and relate to their kids in new ways. At the cast party, I spoke about this idea that art can be more than entertaining – that it can be transformative. I feel overwhelmed and grateful that I was able to create our own Brainstorm with my students, and to give them this experience of a collective transformational piece of art.


Steven Slaughter teaches English and directs plays at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is happy to answer any questions about his production of Brainstorm, or your own, and can be contacted through Nick Hern Books.

Brainstorm: The Original Playscript (And a Blueprint for Creating Your Own Production) by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is published by Nick Hern Books, and is available to buy, in paperback or as an ebook, with a 20% discount here. School groups, youth theatres and amateur companies considering their own production should contact the Performing Rights Manager.

Photographs by Jeff Kirkpatrick.

‘Theatre makes people more intelligent than they are individually’: celebrating Peter Hall

Sir Peter Hall, who has died at the age of 86, held a truly special place at the heart of our cultural landscape: among his many achievements were founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as Director of the National Theatre, and directing the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot.

To celebrate his extraordinary life, here’s an extract from an interview with him, conducted by Richard Eyre for his book Talking Theatre.

RICHARD EYRE: What makes theatre so special?

PETER HALL: It’s the only art form in which a group of people meet together in order to play a game of imagination with the actor, who invites them to imagine things, and that union makes them more intelligent than they are individually. Collectively they’re sharper, they’re more alive. The experience is more incandescent than if they were reading a book or a poem or listening to a piece of music by themselves. The desire to imagine something which isn’t there is stronger in the theatre than in any other media. If we go and stand on the stage, which is a completely bare black box, and we speak with some clarity a piece of Julius Caesar, if we’re any good at all, the audience will believe it’s Rome. They’ll say: yes, those two guys are in Rome. If we bring a camera into the auditorium and film the two of us doing exactly the same thing in the same circumstances and we then show that piece of film, the audience will say: well, that’s not Rome, that’s a black void in a black box—where’s Rome? In other words their imagination is not stimulated by any visual imagery, which after all is the basis and strength and extraordinariness of film. I think what’s really been interesting about the theatre in the last fifty years is that the increased visual media and, in a sense, the increased literalness of our age has freed the theatre to be more imaginative.

Or to try to be as imaginative as Shakespeare?

The theatre’s strength comes out of its limitations to some extent. Shakespeare initially played in daylight: it’s much more eloquent because it’s imaginative for Lady Macbeth to come on with a candle in daylight and say the night is black, than actually for us to walk onto a modern stage where we can create blackness and yet we can’t see. And then we can’t hear her telling us about the nature of blackness and of evil. Shakespeare was there in daylight in a large space with two or three thousand people with a permanent stage which could become anything or anywhere he wanted it to become. Or nowhere if he didn’t want to tell us where it was. One of the problems with doing Shakespeare today is that we think it has to be somewhere. Why did Shakespeare happen? It’s the—it’s the genetic pack of cards. Genius makes its own rules. Shakespeare inherited a very formal method of writing with the iambic pentameter and broke all the rules, and therefore made it sound human and flexible and extraordinary.

Do you think it’s a marvellous piece of luck to have had Shakespeare as our theatrical DNA or is it a burden?

Some people take the view that Shakespeare is a dead weight, a kind of albatross round the neck of the British theatre. I don’t believe that’s true. Strangely enough, unlike the French classicists, he’s entirely questing and revolutionary. He questions form all the time, whether it be the form of his own blank verse line or whether it be the form of the play. Whatever it be he’s writing about, his historical sense changes and develops. Everything is questioned. But it’s a sobering thought that in two or three hundred years we shan’t understand Shakespeare because the language is now changing at an accelerating rate, and Shakespeare will be like Chaucer: he’ll need to be modernised.

Peter Hall on the set of his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), with Paul Rogers and Judi Dench

What were you trying to achieve when you started the RSC?

Stratford had a renaissance immediately after the war. It seemed to come at the same moment: the beginning of subsidising the arts, the coming of the Third Programme, the new Education Act, our post-war hopes. And there was a huge boom in Shakespeare. Barry Jackson, who ran Birmingham Rep, took over Stratford and made it a rather glittering and glamorous place. He got the great stars to come. He got Diana Wynyard, he got the young Paul Scofield, he got the young Peter Brook. And he also built an infrastructure of rehearsal rooms and workshops which actually took the theatre seriously for the first time. I mean, there’d been a theatre at Stratford since the late nineteenth century, though it had burnt down in 1931 and the new Art Deco, rather cinema-like building went up, which wasn’t very easy to play in. That was the main problem that Barry Jackson had and then Tony Quayle had and then Glen Byam Shaw had. But they actually put Stratford on the map. Suddenly Shakespeare was hot. I went there first in 1956, when I was twenty-five, to direct a play, and I directed a play each year from then on. The season ran from March until October: it was a star-led company. There were always two or three really big West End stars. And there were a lot of young actors who would do one, two or three years there gradually coming up through the ranks. Some of them became stars in their own right, like Dorothy Tutin, Geraldine McEwan and people like that.

In 1958 Glen Byam Shaw said he was going to retire, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking over. I was twenty-seven. My ambition as a young man had been to do Shakespeare, which is why I did what I did and why I went to Cambridge and why I followed the path that I tried to follow. Even more shamingly, I suppose—because it’s like Harold Wilson standing outside the door of Number Ten—I wanted to run Stratford. So it was an extraordinary moment for a twenty-seven-year-old man. I can’t imagine how I had the nerve to do it looking back, but I said: I don’t want to run a Shakespeare Festival from March until October; I don’t want to be a runner of an ad-hoc festival; I want to try and make an ensemble; I want to give the actors three-year contracts, I want us all to speak Shakespeare in the same way, I want us all to approach Shakespeare in the same way. So therefore I want a team of directors and a team of designers and most of all I want to do modern plays and other classics as well as Shakespeare. Because I believe a classical company that is not alive to the present has absolutely no prospect of making the past live. Therefore I want a London theatre because I want it to be a year-round operation. The idea was that a company, a family, would achieve more than an ad-hoc group. The chairman of the theatre’s board, Sir Fordham Flower—of the Flowers brewers who had been the patrons and the starters and the supporters of Stratford from the previous century—was terribly interested in all this, but he was an arch-diplomat and extremely clever. He said: ‘I think this is all very good, but I don’t know whether it’ll get through. We’ve got a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds in the bank, which is savings from our Australian and American tours from the past, but those are our total resources.’ And I said to him: ‘There is a political reason why you’ve got to do this: within the next five or six years the National Theatre will come, and if the National Theatre comes, Stratford will become a very provincial repertory stuck out in the country, visited only by tourists.’ And he said: ‘Well, we can’t have two national theatres.’ And I said, for the first time, and I’ve gone on saying it all my life: ‘We must have two theatres.’ I think the fact that France had the Théâtre National Populaire of Vilar, as well as the Comédie Française, gave some hope for young actors and young writers and for the future. That artistic competition is absolutely essential. So I said there must be two national theatres and we must be the first.

Peter Hall in 1958, the year he pitched the idea for what would become the RSC

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the board was very, very hostile to it, particularly Binkie Beaumont, who was the doyen of West End theatres and a great manager and a great producer. He took me out to lunch and he said: ‘If you do this, you will ruin the West End theatre. Once an actor is allowed to play less than eight times a week, he will never want to play eight times a week.’ And I said: ‘Well, he shouldn’t play eight times a week; that’s nineteenth century and dreadful.’ And he said: ‘All the playwrights will give you plays because you’ll be able to nurse them in repertory, and they won’t be instant flops or successes, and you will ruin the commercial theatre, and I’m not having it. If you succeed in getting this, I will resign.’ And I said: ‘That’s fine.’ He was a friend, I’d worked with him and I’d work with him again. And he said: ‘I will resign, and I will resign quietly and without fuss or without bother, but I will go.’ Ultimately he did.

Anyway, the Stratford company went to Russia in November, December 1958. I was director designate at that time and a rather worried director designate because I wasn’t sure whether what I wanted was going to happen. And I wasn’t therefore sure whether I was actually going to take the job, although I already had it. In Leningrad—as it was then, now again St Petersburg—in one of those vast Edwardian hotels, Fordy Flower sat up all one night with me and said: ‘Now let’s get to the bottom of this: tell me the whole thing again.’ And I went over it all in painful detail until about four in the morning over several quantities of drink. And at the end of it Fordy said to me: ‘You are absolutely mad, but I think you’ve got something. I will back you, and here’s my hand: through thick and thin I will back you.’ And he did. The board practically resigned but didn’t. Then it started to be a success. It wasn’t an instant success; it took two years before we became internationally famous. Then everybody said: oh, how wonderful. But looking back on it, the interesting thing to me is that it is absolutely inconceivable that such a thing could happen now. This is not an old man being nostalgic. I mean, now there would have to be money from the Lottery, and there would have to be a feasibility study, and the feasibility study would certainly say we don’t need to do this, we don’t need any more classical theatre in London, and this shouldn’t happen.

You did Godot in ’55. Nothing was known about Beckett in this country. What was the response?

I was running the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. I was twenty-four, and I was in the middle of dress-rehearsing Mourning Becomes Electra, which I’d always wanted to direct. I went into my little cupboard office and found a script which said ‘Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett’, and a letter from Donald Albery, who was a West End impresario. It said: ‘I don’t know whether you know this play: it’s on in Paris in a seventy-five-seat theatre, and it’s been on for some time; it’s very highly regarded. No one will do it in the West End, no director will touch it, and every actor has turned it down. I’ve seen some of your work at the Arts Theatre, and I liked it, so I wonder whether you’d like to do it.’ So with a sense that I was certainly at the end of the queue, I looked at it. I’d vaguely heard of Beckett; I hadn’t read a word of him; I hadn’t seen the play in Paris, but I’d heard of it. And I read it. I won’t say that I said to myself: this is the major play of the mid-century and it’s a turning point in drama, but I did find it startlingly original. First of all that it turned waiting into something dramatic. Second, that waiting became a metaphor for living. What are we actually living for, what are we waiting for, will something come, will Godot come, will something come to explain why we’re here and what we’re doing. And I found it terribly funny, and I also found it genuine, poetic drama. We’d just lived through the time of T.S. Eliot and the time of Christopher Fry and the time of W.H. Auden, where poetic drama—which was usually done in tiny theatres in Notting Hill Gate—was trying to put poetry back into theatre by sticking it onto ordinary dialogue like sequins. It was very false and very artificial. And here was somebody who had an extraordinary ear, an extraordinary rhythm for writing, which was both clear and eloquent and full of character and very funny. Of course I knew it was Irish: that’s very important, because you know out of O’Casey comes Beckett. No question. No question. Out of Joyce comes Beckett, no question. But it was an individual voice, and I thought: well, what have we got to lose, let’s do it. So I went off on holiday leaving Mourning Becomes Electra running, armed with all the volumes of Proust which I’d never read. I was a very serious-minded youth.

Translation from the French?

Oh, translated; no, no, not in French, alas. And I settled down on the beach to read all these, and I think I got to volume eight or nine and a telegram arrived saying: ‘Mourning Electra failing return at once for Godot.’ Which I did, and I’ve never finished Proust which seems to me an eloquent moral to the whole tale and I did Godot. Very hard to cast it, nobody wanted to do it: they all thought it was mad, they all thought it made no sense. I could never understand why people didn’t understand what was going on, what was happening, but they didn’t. We ended up with a cast of Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Daneman, Peter Bull and Timothy Bateson, and in a hot summer we started rehearsing it. Peter Bull practically died as Pozzo carrying all those bags and whips. Gradually the cast began to understand it and began to feel it. I have to say I felt from the very beginning terribly comfortable in the rhythms. I didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing, but I had that wonderful feeling that a director can have when he’s happy: that there’s only one thing to do and that’s what you do. So you don’t say to yourself: what ought I to do? I felt completely at ease. The play opened in late August or September 1955. The first night was full of cheers and counter cheers. When Estragon said: ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful,’ an English voice said: ‘Hear, hear!’ There was a good deal of that going on, and audible sighs and yawns, and at the end there were cheers and boos. My new agent, who was terribly grand, met me backstage pink with rage and said: ‘Everything is just beginning for you as a director, you’ve got a West End play, you’re going on Broadway and then you go and do a thing like this.’

The 1955 English language premiere of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Hall

So people were shocked?

They were absolutely baffled, a lot of them. But half the people said: this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for. And the press reaction was equally divided. Philip Hope-Wallace in the Guardian said: ‘This is the sort of thing that we saw in basements in the twenties in Berlin, and it really won’t do.’ And there was quite a lot of patronising and joke-making, because it was an easy target. I was very dubious after the daily press whether it would run. The owner of the Arts called me the day after it opened and said: I don’t think we can keep this on. I said: just wait for the Sundays, please. I’d sent a copy of Watt [Samuel Beckett’s novel] to Harold Hobson [drama critic of the Sunday Times] just saying: this might interest you as background to the play. And he had a complete Pauline conversion to Beckett. And he went on writing about it for the next six weeks. Tynan [in the Observer] was enthusiastic but less so than Hobson, though he became very enthusiastic as the Godot bandwagon rolled. And it did roll. It’s extraordinary now to think of—we were more one nation then. We didn’t have so much press, we didn’t have so many television channels, we didn’t have so many radio channels. But it was everywhere. There were cartoons about Godot. I was on Panorama interviewed about what was the meaning of it, was it the Cold War? It went on, on and on and on and on, and it ran for over a year. It really got me started, it got me to Stratford. Because of that I met Leslie Caron, who became my first wife and I directed her. Tennessee Williams gave me his plays to direct in London. It completely transformed my life. On the level of what it brought to theatre, I think it nailed the colours again to the old mast of theatre: that theatre is a place of imagination and of metaphor and of contradiction. It’s the Shakespearean mast to me. It also says that there is no active theatre without the tension between the form of the writing, the form of the creation, and the emotion that the actor is trying to express. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters or whether it’s Beckett’s very precise, beautiful cadenced prose, it has a rhythm and an actuality.


This interview is taken from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People by Richard Eyre.

Nick Hern Books is saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Hall. Everyone associated with British theatre today owes an enormous debt to his extraordinary, influential career.

We’re proud to be the publishers of Peter Hall’s book, The Necessary Theatre, in which he makes an impassioned argument for public funding of the arts, and theatre in particular.

‘The mistake is to pretend you have all the answers’: Richard Eyre on what makes a good theatre director

What makes a good theatre director? How do you learn to be one? What do you do on the first day of rehearsals? Sir Richard Eyre reflects on the director’s elusive craft in his foreword to a new book, Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth…

Most of us have an indecent curiosity about what other people do in private. Sex and tax, for instance: ‘What do you do in bed?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are the questions that underlie all profile journalism and most biography. My own particular corner of prurience concerns the working habits of directors: I’m inordinately fascinated by what they are. Directors are not very gregarious creatures, at least among their own kind, and if you were to search for a collective noun for them it would probably be a ‘solitude’. When we do gather together, we’re wary of discussing each other’s work, and warier still of asking how it was achieved. Rehearsals are a private province; no one likes to be observed, so it’s hard to see enough to imitate, even if you have a model to follow.

Directors are often self-effacing, often surprisingly lacking in the gift and appetite for self-promotion, and, in spite of a high estimation of their own importance, are often reluctant to capitalise on it by making public pronouncements on their craft. It’s all the odder therefore that directors occupy such an elevated status in contemporary mythology, often, like conductors, placed somewhere between the maestro and the magus, when in fact they’re more like teachers or doctors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s better to be more like the pupil or the patient than the teacher or the doctor. The mistake is to pretend that you have all the answers.

Which is one of the reasons that I’m consistently reluctant to recommend my ‘process’ to any director, and suspicious of any young director who asks to be an assistant of mine in order to learn about it. If I chose to rationalise the way I work I suppose it would amount to a ‘process’, but it is so idiosyncratic and personal that I wouldn’t dignify it with that description.

A rehearsal has to be a time when actors can experiment, invent, explore, discuss, dispute, practise and play, and it is the job of a director to create a world – private and secure – where this activity can go on without fear of failure. There is no method that guarantees a good rehearsal. It’s as hard to know why some highly articulate, learned and intelligent directors seem unable to animate a cast of actors, as it is to understand how the same orchestra can be inspired by some conductors but seem commonplace in the hands of others.

Richard Eyre directing Liolà by Luigi Pirandello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

If you ask me, ‘What do you need to be a director?’ I’d have to say this: you need to be somehow assertive and yet self-effacing, to be dogged and yet pliable, to be demanding and yet supportive. And if this sounds like a prescription for a perfect marriage partner, it’s because directors are ever hopeful of making a successful marriage of actor and character, of text and design, of play and audience, so perhaps, if they look hesitant, doubtful, and diffident, it’s because they know just how difficult it is – as in real life – to make a marriage work.

And if you ask me, ‘How do you learn to be a director?’ I’d recommend a poem called ‘Garden Hints’ by Douglas Dunn, which begins with the line: ‘Only a garden can teach gardening.’ Directing is like that: only working with actors in a rehearsal room can offer a real insight into the craft.

The start of most rehearsals resembles others more than it differs from them. Rehearsals have to begin somewhere – usually it’s a meeting of the cast and a reading of the play. The director stands like a heron, rigid with anxiety, talks a little – or a lot, depending on temperament – and his or her words drift like incense over a group of actors who, regardless of their mutual familiarity, are united only in their nervous anticipation and social unease. It never works to give the actors – who are always numbed to deafness by nerves – a lengthy lecture about the background to the play and its meaning: it doesn’t encourage actors to be made to feel that the director holds all the cards and they hold none.

So how do you start rehearsals? It’s always a problem: how do you get a disparate set of individuals to work as an ensemble within a few days? British actors are good at this, but you still have to find means of mutual familiarisation, ways in which they can legitimately sniff each other out. I change my approach for each production. Sometimes we just sit around a table and I encourage everyone, regardless of experience and size of part, to talk about the play, about their parts, about themselves. Sometimes we do physical and vocal exercises. Sometimes we do improvisations connected with the play. And sometimes we even play games – and many of them are in Thomasina Unsworth’s new book, Drama Games for Actors. In it, Thomasina gives you a mass of invaluable ideas for drama exercises for all ages and all types of actors, amateur or professional. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in theatre who wouldn’t find it useful.


The above extract is reproduced from Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth, out now from Nick Hern Books.

This dip-in, flick-through, quick-fire resource book offers dozens of games to serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for all actors – and those teaching or directing them.

To buy your copy with a 20% discount (just £7.99), click here.

Alongside the bestselling Drama Games series, Nick Hern Books also publishes a wide range of titles for aspiring and emerging theatre directors, including So You Want To Be A Theatre Director? by Stephen Unwin, Getting Directions by Russ Hope and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan. All available with a 20% discount from Nick Hern Books.

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, opera and film director, and was Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1988 until 1997. He is the author of several books, including Talking Theatre and What Do I Know?, both published by Nick Hern Books.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by Andrew Hasson. Photograph of Richard Eyre directing Pirandello’s Liolà by Catherine Ashmore.

Dymphna Callery: we need a more playful approach to staging plays

Dymphna CalleryDymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre is beloved of a generation of drama students. But have we ghetto-ised ‘physical theatre’ in an unhelpful way? In her new book published today, The Active Text, she looks at how physical theatre techniques can be used to unlock scripted plays, and inject new life into even the most familiar of texts…

 

Recently, several productions drawing rave reviews have challenged notions of naturalism, or at least received ideas about naturalistic plays. The Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is a case in point – it transfers to the West End this spring after a sell-out run at the Young Vic. In this production barefoot actors move within a minimalist black box set, perch on its edges rather than on chairs round a table in the Carbone apartment; the action is virtually underscored by Fauré’s Requiem with tension ratcheted up during family dinners by the ticks of a metronome. Van Hove has turned the play inside out; his streamlined aesthetic makes the words spoken more vibrant, the action more vital, the acting more resonant.

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It would be perverse to refer to van Hove’s production as ‘physical theatre’, yet it is clearly non-naturalistic. Or rather, is not naturalism as we tend to think of it. All the trappings of our received ideas about naturalistic style have been stripped away. Miller’s stage directions for the design that seem so integral to the play in reading do not feature; costumes do not reflect the 1950s when the play is set. And the tragic story and its brutal outcome are all the more powerful and poignant.

So is there a label to suit such a production style? Labels, rather like comparisons, can be odious – though attaching labels to distinguish styles is often considered important. They provide some kind of certainty, a sort of comfort blanket that tells us what kind of play we are considering. Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable. But methods of judging and defining style can be problematic, the criteria used debateable. And labels can certainly outlive their currency. Frantic Assembly get frustrated at being labelled physical theatre, for example. They prefer to describe their work as ‘exciting contemporary theatre for new audiences’.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Physical theatre is frequently considered distinct from text-based theatre. Yet many companies bracketed as physical theatre produce plays. Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh and Complicite are examples of companies who work with playwrights, use scripted texts and create work that tests the boundaries of stylistic conventions. However, their process depends on working collaboratively using strategies associated with devising rather than following the traditional routes associated with text work. And it is this way of working that underpins my new book The Active Text, an approach more akin to collective storytelling, rooted in an imaginative use of space and the kind of physical listening between players that means their attention is focused outwards.

We meet a play on the page largely through dialogue, and performance seems to rest on how we flesh out the words. Those words are often the starting point – picked over at a desk or sitting on chairs round a table. Character behaviour is analysed and conclusions drawn about them. Then the words they speak get fleshed out by adding actions once everyone pushes back their chair. Yet dialogue is what David Mamet calls ‘sprinkles on the ice-cone’. It is the dynamic and kinaesthetic signals embedded in the text that bring it to life, its image structure in performance is as powerful as the words spoken. A play should be an experience for the senses and the minds of an audience. Unearthing the fabric of actions and images that determine what happens – and what an audience will see – is where it begins. And in my experience that doesn’t start with a read-through or sitting in a chair.

A traditional read-through is not the automatic recourse of early rehearsals for many directors, and even when it happens, actors don’t necessarily read the part they’ve been cast. Many contemporary directors start with anything but the text. Actors who have developed a capacity for play thrive in this context. And ‘play’ is at the heart of the improvisatory channels to discovering the style of a play, one which may challenge received ideas about what a play is supposed to look like in performance.

When teaching acting and directing for scripted texts I find applying principles of ‘play’ produces far more energised and vital results than following the conventional path of studying characters and what they say. Using improvisation and games to dig into a play before dealing with dialogue, and searching out physical means of expressing any subtext takes players to a more vital level and elicits more energised performances. And everyone feels they are having fun even when the text under scrutiny is serious.

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

How do you start using the approach I’m talking about? The notion of unlocking text via playful means is what underpins the approaches to working with text that form the body of The Active Text. Those familiar with my previous book Through the Body will find the exercises framed in similar terms, addressing a group rather than an individual actor or director, with an open stage/spectator relationship in operation which both prepares actors for an eventual audience and provides opportunities for learning through watching.

There are thirteen plays referred to throughout for illustration purposes, including A View from the Bridge, Woyzeck and Antigone – plays readers may already be familiar with. They are all plays I’ve used in studio or workshop contexts, or directed, so the exercises have been tested out. There are references to productions that embody some of the ideas behind or have influenced the approaches suggested, and also references to playwrights, practitioners, directors and actors whose words offer valuable insights into the rehearsal process. Putting their ideas into practice has invigorated my rehearsals and workshops – and there’s nothing more rewarding than the surprise of discovering something new or different about a play you thought you knew.


FormattedThe Active Text: Unlocking Plays Through Physical Theatre by Dymphna Callery is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Visit www.dymphnacallery.co.uk for more details about her work.