3. Managing the Collaborative Theatre Environment
This week dives into the three components you will need to understand and eventually master with experience:
(1) group dynamics in rehearsals,
(2) three important communication tools to utilize in both the rehearsal hall and the designer meeting room,
(3) leadership skills in your overall directorial process.
These are the building blocks for managing your collaborative theatre environment.
While a review of group dynamics – a system of behaviors within or between social groups – may not sound appropriate in a directing text, we can assure you it is beneficial to directing. Let’s as in a previous week, first examine the basic elements of group dynamics and then relate the model to the rehearsal hall. The origins of group dynamics can be traced as far back as 1896 and the beginnings of group psychology. While generally associated with psychology and sociology studies, group dynamics is finding application in business, education, sports, and even theatre practices. Within the broad field of group dynamics, there are many individual theories and theorists. As a model to use in the directorial process, psychologist and professor of education at the Walter E. Dennis Learning Center at Ohio State University Bruce Tuckman’s four-stage model of group dynamics, known as Tuckman’s Stages, is an excellent resource.1
Tuckman’s classic group dynamics four-stage model includes:
· Forming – Group members initially get along, as they sort out what their role will be and how they fit into the group.
· Storming – Group members begin to abandon feigned politeness and friction begins, sometimes to the point of tempers flaring.
· Norming – Group members begin to get used to each other, developing trust and productivity.
· Performing – Group members are working together toward the common goal.
Any group will go through all four stages, and in fact, it is a healthy process. As a director, having this knowledge will help you assist and lead your cast through all four stages. We will first describe each stage – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing – in terms of possible rehearsal interactions and behaviors. Following the group dynamics descriptions, we will offer warmups and exercises for each stage. By learning to read your actors, you can then incorporate a series of warmups and exercises into your rehearsals, helping to keep your cast from getting stuck in one stage and to move swiftly to the next. Your overarching goal is to build a safe and trusting environment for your ensemble so that collaboration flows freely.
In theatre, the group dynamics process occurs regularly. A unique cast is thrown together for the first read-through on day one of rehearsal. Perhaps a few cast members have worked together; perhaps a few cast members are brand new. There may be excitement and eagerness; there may be apprehension and even confusion. Some of the actors are outgoing, confident; others are a bit introverted. Welcome to the Forming Stage, where your cast will be spending precious energy sorting out exactly how they fit into this production.
Inevitably, you will have some sort of rehearsal drama – the Storming Stage. Cast members begin jockeying for power positions. Insecurities can cause egos to flare. Bickering, hard feelings, tempers, and bad attitudes can rear their ugly heads during the Storming Stage and waste valuable rehearsal time.
Once you are able to ease through the tension of the Storming Stage, your cast and staff can finally begin to focus on the project at hand. You have entered the Norming Stage. At this point, actors and creative staff begin to feel secure in their roles and are learning routines. Feeling safe in their work environment, they trust each other and you, and focus on the rehearsal process. These are the goals of the Norming Stage.
The Performing Stage, when the cast and staff finally work as a whole toward the success of the project, is every director’s dream. Your cast are performing at peak energy, tuned into their highest levels of imagination and creativity, and are fully supporting each other. Sometimes a production never gets to this stage and the rehearsal process is pure drudgery. True, the director and cast may put together a decent show, but sadly, the group never realizes its full creative potential.
The goal, then, is to move as efficiently as possible through the Forming and Storming Stages, to get to the more comfortable and creative Norming and Performing Stages. How can you, as director, gently guide and lead your actors through these stages? Is it possible? The following exercises are a good place to begin.
Games and Activities for the Forming Stage – Ice Breakers, Theatre Games
The first day of rehearsal is your opportunity to establish the tone for the entire production period. Of course, you want to let your cast know that you take this project seriously, but what else? What would you like the cast to take away from the first rehearsal that would be a great first step in building that safe and trusting environment? A sense of togetherness, a spirit of the mission, a family atmosphere? This goal may change depending on your project or concept. Be clear about this take-away before you meet your cast on day one.
You can incorporate a number of ice breaker activities in your first rehearsal. Depending on the size of your cast, your ice breaker activity could take the form of a focus game or be as simple as “Tell us your name and something unique about yourself.” What you choose for an ice breaker may also reflect the type of production you are directing. For instance, Oklahoma or Annie with large casts and upbeat music take on a different “first-day” feel than a more intimate drama. One ice breaker theatre game that I’ve used for large casts with great success is called Back to Back, a variation of Augusto Boal’s Person to Person, Quebec-Style.2
Back to Back Game
Variation #1: Everyone finds a partner and stands back to back. The director/ leader calls out two body parts and partners must touch these together (for instance, “Head to Head” or “Elbow to Knee”). After three sets of instructions, the director/leader calls out “Back to Back” and everyone scurries to find a new partner, standing back to back to begin another series.
Variation #2: This is the same as above, except that the instructions are cumulative so that when the pair has put the first set of body parts together, the connection must stay intact while carrying out the next set of instructions. (In the example above, the pair must keep their heads together while figuring out how to secure an elbow to a knee.)
Professional actors are trained to warm up on their own and will budget time before each rehearsal for appropriate personal warmups. Student or amateur actors, however, can benefit from group warmups, and as a director trying to build a collaborative environment, so can you. Carving out time in your rehearsal schedule for group warmups, especially early in the process, can help you to observe your actors and learn about their tendencies, work habits, and attitudes. This is a great time to utilize basic physical and vocal warmups but also weave in a few ice breakers and fun (but purposeful) theatre games during the Forming Stage of your cast’s development. The following are two simple routines you may want to consider in leading group warmups in your own rehearsals. You may have additional exercises to add or replace. Make the routines your own, or change them up to keep rehearsals fresh
Physical Warmup Routine
Have your actors stand in a circle in a neutral position (feet hip-distance apart, weight equally distributed, arms hanging freely, shoulders back and relaxed, chin level to the ground). You can begin with the head and work down the body, or otherwise.
Example from National Theatre: https://youtu.be/2FWAUncAvv4?t=62
Vocal Warmup Routine
Facial muscles – to stretch tight muscles in the face and jaw:
1 The Lion – On count of three, stick tongue out as far as possible with an “Ah” sound. Repeat three times.
2 Smush Face/Open Face – Squeeze the face muscles together as tightly as possible and hold. Next, open face muscles as wide as possible, stretching the eyes and mouth open. Repeat three times.
3 Yawning Jaw – Drop the jaw open as if yawning. Massage the face and jaw muscle, if tight.
Open sounds – to gently warm up vocal chords:
1 Humming – Take a deep breath from the diaphragm and hum on a single note, keeping lips closed. Whenever air is depleted, take another breath and begin humming again. (Note: Encourage the group to keep the humming strong, breathing when necessary and then rejoining the group, and to get in touch with the vibration of their vocal chords by placing a hand on the neck.)
2 Roller Coaster – Take a deep breath from the diaphragm and begin to hum on any note. Begin to slide slowly up the vocal scale as high as possible and then slide down as low as possible. Take a breath as air is depleted and rejoin the humming. (Note: It is helpful to lead the group with an arm gesture up and down, like a musical director conducting a choir.)
Isolating sounds – to loosen up the tongue, lips and jaw:
1 Emphasis on the consonant :
Lah – Lay – Lee – Lie – Loo – Loo
Mah – May – Mee – Mie – Moh – Moo
Pah – Pay – Pee – Pie – Poh – Poo
Kah – Kay – Kee – Kie – Koh – Koo
Nah – Nay – Nee – Nie – Noh – Noo
2 Consonant placement (notice the physical placement of these consonants and encourage clear distinction between each)
PPPPah (repeat with the consonants B, T, D, K, and G)
1 Paper Poppy – Repeat four times
2 Baby Bubble – Repeat four times
3 Topeka – Repeat eight times
4 Mommala Poppala – Repeat four times
5 Fiddle dee dee/Fiddle dee dah – Repeat four times
Tongue twisters are fun, and there are many resources for these. However, we use tongue twisters sparingly and focus on articulation rather than speed. What we’ve observed is that misuse of tongue twisters only reinforces bad habits, such as talking too fast and sloppy speech.
Here are also some examples of Voice Warm-Up exercise from National Theatre:
Games and Activities for the Storming Stage
As your cast move from the Forming to Storming Stage, you will want to help them ease through the transition as quickly as possible. Particularly if you are observing any divisiveness, sprinkling the occasional trust game into the group warmup, after a break or even during scene work, is a focused way to build group dynamics and lead your cast toward the ultimate prize: a positive, trusting, creative environment.
One of many trust games for bringing together a group of diverse individuals is the Human Knot. It can be used in many situations: classes or workshops with the goal of group bonding. The effect is amazing, in that the activity forces the mini-groups to work together (collaborate) to complete the task.
Human Knot (Basic)
Divide your cast or group into small circles of eight to twelve members.
Ask them to stand in the circle, facing in, and cross their arms in front of them at the elbows. Next, they should step forward and grab someone’s hand, but they cannot grab the hand of the person next to them. (This is very important – repeat this instruction!) Once everyone is connected, they are to disentangle but remind them they cannot ever let go of the hand they are holding until the knot is untangled. Encourage talking among the group members to disentangle the knot. There are two possible results of this exercise: the knot will be untangled to create one large circle, or sometimes there will be two smaller circles. Encourage your group(s) that this challenge is solvable.
Human Knot (Variation)
The group circle(s) begin exactly the same as above, but once everyone is connected, they are not permitted to speak as they begin to disentangle. This forces the participants to rely on other means of communication to problem-solve: facial expression and body language.
Leaning-against-each-other Trust Walk (Paired)
Two actors stand side by side with their shoulders touching, and lean into each other. Each tries to keep his or her feet as far from the other person’s feet as possible as the pair walks across the stage or room. A variation of this is to add another pair to the original pair, one person on either side. The following are two additional trust exercises involving the entire
ensemble working together and encouraging group bonding.
Count to Twenty
Actors stand in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder. One actor begins by saying “One” out loud. At any point, a second actor says “Two,” and the activity continues until the group reaches twenty. However, if at any time two actors start to say a number at the same time, the group must start again at “One.” This activity requires concentration, eye contact, and trust. Once the group reach the goal of counting to twenty, they feel a great sense of accomplishment and cohesiveness, making it an ideal exercise to use during the Storming Stage.
Continuing warmup activities, adding trust exercises, and encouraging discussions to foster group bonding are helpful in easing an ensemble through the Storming Stage. However, remember that this stage is a normal part of the group dynamic process. Your awareness and response can hasten the effects, and help to move the group to the more productive
Activities for the Norming Stage – Improvising within the Script
You have helped your cast glide through Forming and Storming, and have arrived at a sense of normalcy in the rehearsal process. At this point, you may not need much in the way of activities to build up your group. However, your goal is to make sure your cast are 100% comfortable with the collaborative environment. About creating the environment we will dive in more details next weeks.
So, you want to create a rehearsal process that encourages input, inspires creativity, and supports a collaborative, artistic vision.
A great activity at the Norming Stage in the group dynamics process is improvisation as a rehearsal tool. An example of using improvisation during the Norming Stage occurred during one production of Androcles and the Lion. The set for this production was an outdoor playground. A stage direction in the script has the cast of six travelling Commedia dell’arte actors come upon the perfect site (in this case, the playground) to perform their show. Most of the rehearsals took place in a rehearsal studio until the final two weeks when the actors were able to work on the actual playground equipment – jungle gyms, ladders, slides, huge plastic tubes, ropes, etc.
It was allowed for large portions of rehearsal time, including warmups, to be devoted to exploring the space in a child-like manner. For example, the actors played tag, hide-and-seek, kick the can, and other childhood games on the set. In fact, we even began to incorporate some of the chase patterns and hiding places into the blocking. This became a collaborative, fun venture. Flexibility and the use of improvisation can be very beneficial during the Norming Stage.
Other uses for improvisation in the Norming Stage can occur during the refining rehearsals, especially as the cast are continuing to explore characterization and character relationships. For instance, improvising a scene for fluidity and emotional connection when the actors aren’t off book yet can be very helpful. Improvisations of the imaginary scene prior to the text scene you are working on can help develop character background and character relationship. If a character entrance seems unbelievable or unmotivated, a short improvisation of the moment before the entrance can be extremely helpful to make the entrance more authentic. Finally, consider spending some rehearsal time improvising moments described by the playwright in the play that take place offstage. For example, in The Glass Menagerie actors could improvise a scene around Amanda’s description of her visit to the business college she presumes her daughter Laura is attending. During the Norming Stage, when the cast are comfortable working as a group, improvisations can be a productive rehearsal tool.
Once your cast and production team have worked through all the aspects of Forming, Storming, and Norming, they enter the desired stage of Performing. At this stage, there is little need of extra activities or exercises because your focus will be on maintaining good communication and creative collaboration. However, it is important to know that once a group achieves the Performing Stage, it may slip back to the Forming Stage at any time and you may need to briefly work through the stages again. For example, a change in circumstances, like a cast member replacement, can upset the balance and start the process over again. You will know the characteristics to look for and some exercises to help your cast move quickly from stage to stage.
Next week we will have a look at the “Incorporating Three Important Communication Tools in Managing the Collaborative Theatre Environment”.
Using your journal, respond to the following prompts relating to the concepts introduced in this week:
1) Think of a group you’ve joined, a production you’ve been involved in, or even a class at the beginning of the semester. Trace and describe the progression of the group dynamics stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.
2) Think about what you would like your cast to take away from the first rehearsal of a current or future directing project. What activities would you introduce to help establish your specific tone for this project? How will this help ease your cast through the Forming Stage?
3) In what ways will you be working toward building a safe and trusting rehearsal environment for actors in your next directing project? In addition to the exercises and activities included in this week, what other activities might you use to ease your cast through the Storming Stage or other stage?
4) How do you feel about using improvisation to help your actors with character development and character objectives or to work through beats within the play? How might you use this tool once your actors feel comfortable and safe (Norming Stage)?
Send your answers, discoveries, thoughts and reflections to the Institute.
Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing: Understanding the Stages of Team Formation. MindTools, https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_86.htm
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Translated by Adrian Jackson. Routledge
Deadline: 14 May