6. Ensemble Building Instruments: Unfolding Creativity
The combination of technique and improvisation produces the dynamic result, the extraordinary.
The dramatic art is a collective art and therefore, however talented the actor may be, he will not be able to make full use of his ability to improvise if he isolates himself from the ensemble, his partners.
Of course, there are many unifying impulses on the stage, such as the atmosphere of the play, its style, a well-executed performance, or exceptionally fine staging. And yet a true stage ensemble needs more than these ordinary consolidations. The actor must develop within himself a sensitivity to the creative impulses of others.
An improvising ensemble lives in a constant process of giving and taking. A small hint from a partner – a glance, a pause, a new or unexpected intonation, a movement, a sigh, or even a barely perceptible change of tempo – can become a creative impulse, an invitation to the other to improvise.
Therefore, before starting exercises on group improvisation it is recommended that the members concentrate for a while on a preparatory exercise designed to develop what we shall call the ensemble feeling.
Mostly everything we do in our normal lives (except sport or physical exercise) is to deny that we have a body. If we always move in a normal tempo, it becomes difficult to get any physical sense of what we are doing. Repeated movements in a normal everyday tempo have a tendency to numb our experiences. If we speed up our movements, we sense that we are moving because it is a bit more difficult to do them. When we slow down our movements, we become very conscious of moving because it is taking more time to accomplish things. The point is to become conscious of movement.
Tempo is a clear gauge of a character’s core. There are two types of tempo to work with, inner and outer. Inner tempo is the speed in which the inner life moves. A slow thinker, or a quick hot feeler, or a sluggish but determined will: All that begins inside the character
Staccato is quick movement with sudden stops and starts. Legato is slow (not slow motion) and has no clear stops. It might stop, but then again it might not stop.
Starting with technique:
Exercise Example: Staccato Legato
Stand in present time. Know that you will move in the six directions of right, left, up, down, forwards, and backwards. You will move in one direction at a time. You will make only one movement and this movement will be repeated a total of 36 times. Begin the movement by turning to the right and lunging onto your right foot, stepping on it, taking all your weight there. It does not need to travel far; a short lunge is enough, just a real commitment to the direction of right. So, you are completely facing in this direction from your toes to your face. While you are making this lunge with the lower half of your body, imagine that you are holding two tennis balls, one in each hand, and you will fling these imaginary balls as far as you can. The final position will be all your weight on your right foot facing completely in that direction, your arms fully extended in front of you, the palms of your hands facing downwards. It is all done in one efficient movement, one large gesture of flinging the arms while lunging to the right. So now that you have moved your physical body in this gesture, what remains is for you to send out your inner energy in the direction of right. The energy should radiate out of your fingertips, your face, your chest, and your knees.
Try to fling the energy through the wall you are now facing. The physical movement should be done in the tempo of staccato (quick with stops). The radiation continues briefly, then you return in staccato to the starting position. It is important to return to this position and be present in it, as if you never left it. So you have a complete commitment to moving towards the right, a flinging gesture, which helps you to throw out or radiate your energy, then a return to a clean starting position as if you had never left. Now repeat the same movement, only do it to the left, onto the left foot, committed to the direction of left, radiating in that direction, return to the clean starting position. From this position you will now fling upwards towards the sky, commit to the up direction, lift your face in this direction, and radiate, return to the clean starting position. Then throw everything down into the earth, bending your knees, radiating downwards through the floor, head facing down, return to the start. Now lunge forward onto your right foot and throw in that direction . . . radiate, return. Now step back onto the left foot, throw underhand towards the back, radiate, return. This is one cycle completed, six directions all done in the temp of staccato. Repeat the cycle in staccato one more time. Then repeat the same cycle in legato (slow with no stops) two full times. Then repeat one time in staccato, and finally one more time in legato. The whole exercise should take no more than two minutes to complete.
It is suggested doing this exercise on the stage in preparation for a performance, before the audience is admitted. I did that then, and still do. This is a wonderful way to warm up the instrument. It also allows you to fill the space with your energetic self.
It is a creative act to do with other actors, as it helps the ensemble feeling. I cannot begin a performance without it now. It is a kind of cleansing, as I can throw off unwanted stale or negative energy that can insidiously interfere with my best intentions as a performer.
The exploration of improvisation with solo exercises in order to build a basic confidence an understanding of the process. Each improvisation has a defined beginning and a defined end which are determined in advance. The choice of beginning and end points should be random and spontaneous.
Expansion and Contraction
Two forms will be determined as beginning and end: expansion and contraction. The starting point is body contracted (see picture), all attention is drawn down inside. The final point is body expanded, attention flyes beyond the walls of the training studio (see picture). Invite actors to explore different ways from one point to another. Start with no music, after a couple of trials add music (example>) and give actors the opportunity to experience exercise.
It is not planned what happens in between beginning and end; that’s where the improvisation happens. We get from the starting point to the end point by simply following our imagination and intuition together with our physical, emotional and vocal impulses. Without a clear beginning and ending to set the boundaries for our improvisation, Chekhov writes that our work would lack a sense of necessity or direction and we might simply wander aimlessly, but a clear beginning and end provides a structure that our imagination can work on and perhaps surprise us with things we’d never have thought of consciously. Also, improvising within given boundaries prepares us for work on a play with a director and finding the gaps where we can improvise whilst carrying out all of the tasks we are given. Chekhov also recommends that we set a time limit for our improvisation, and gives a suggestion of five minutes.
Improvisation in Pairs
This may include as Contact Improvisation as well as Dancing in Pairs. What is the difference? In contact improvisation and partnering there is always a manipulation and control of the flow of weight and momentum of another person. In Dancing in Pairs, the dancers are independent and use each other as an occasional stimulus. Through this, they explore and manipulate the possibilities of their performative relationship with another person. Bear in mind that each performative block of exercises shall lead students to a little showcase of the results to each other in the end.
Contact improvisation builds a deeper connection between performers. It is important to guide performers to contact improvisation through a series of simple exercises and tasks. Always starting from simple and leading to the compound and multilayered. The exigencies of the form dictate a mode of movement which is relaxed, constantly aware and prepared, and flowing. As a basic focus, the dancers remain in physical touch, mutually supportive and innovative, meditating upon the physical laws relating to their masses: gravity, momentum, inertia, and friction. They do not strive to achieve results, but rather, to meet the constantly changing physical reality with appropriate placement and energy.
All classes or workshops need to follow a similar structure of warm-up, pointing out safe practice, sharing and watching creation and responses of other learners. This needs to be taught over a number of weeks to enable learners to develop understanding of their bodies’ response to giving off weight successfully, take the weight of other learners in a considered way, increase movement memory and challenge abilities.
Whilst a basic grounding in dance practice is invaluable, no previous dance experience is necessary for
this unit. However, learners should be aware that attendance at regular classes and workshops will help them achieve the awareness of dynamics this style of dance requires in performance. Learners need to be responsible for their own weight in any lifts and counterbalances and have an awareness of safety issues. Tutors may want to put strength exercises into the warm-up to develop learners’ endurance.
Group Improvisation Example:
Exploring Space with Movement and Sound
Purpose: To create a group dynamic for ensemble communication: The first step of the exercise is to explore the space between people without making physical contact. The second step is to explore sound and movement in order to experience communion as an ensemble.
Begin to walk around the space and explore every area of the room while simultaneously exploring movements with your entire body: arms, legs, feet, chest, buttocks, torso, head and neck; for example, walk backward and sideways, run, skip, jump, creep, crawl, roll. Change tempo and rhythm with each new movement and exploration.
Now continuously move toward the center of the space and begin to explore all the above combinations of movement while exploring the spaces between one another without any physical contact. Take your time and be aware of everyone around you. Continue to explore all possible elevations: Whenever someone near you goes down on the floor, you rise up; if someone crawls, you jump; and whenever there is an empty space near you, move into it.
As the group becomes comfortable with this phase of the exercise, introduce sound into the mix. Begin to hum aloud together. No melody, just a humming sound. Allow the sound to affect your movements and listen to one another closely. Once you are all in tune together begin to use the vowel sounds of ah, eh, ee, I, oh, and oo.
Work as an ensemble and let the continuous flow of movement and sound take over the group for a sustained period of time until everyone gradually comes to a silent rest.
Small Groups Performance Improvisation
As for teacher and director it is necessary to understand that each separate exercise has no meaning. There is only a meaning in the sequence of exercises which guides actors/students to a little performance for each other, it can be an abstract structured improvisation or an étude (an improvisational sketch designed to explore a particular idea, subject, theme).
Divide the group into three/four groups, maximum 5 people in each group, and tell them that you wish to make a picture of them for the magazine.
Each participant of the group shall take a pose for the first picture and freeze. When the director claps her hands the participants shall change the pose and freeze all together at the same time in another pose. Spend two-three minutes on this improvisation.
Then stop and add another layer of attention for participants, tell them there is a camera flash light on the floor and you want to take a picture of their shadows that are projected onto the wall. Clap your hands, they freeze in pose, another clap, another pose. Aim of this activity is to make their gestures wide and open.
After two-three minutes of this activity, stop the group and add another layer of attention. Now, they shall pay attention to transitions in between the fixed poses because we are making a movie now. Draw their attention to “shadow”, “transition” and they will be starting the movement and freeze in a pose all together at the same time without your claps. For this activity give the groups from four to five minutes to improvise and get a sense of ensemble.
Next step is a “show”. One group stays on the stage and the other groups sit down to watch the show as an audience. For this show, you shall prepare a piece of music, dramatic/romantic/another soundtrack (preferably without words). For each group separately create a “given circumstance”, for instance: they're in a burnt down house dealing with soot, smell, dangerous structures. For each group create different given circumstances. Play the music and let the group improvise. Repeat with the next groups.
Build a Plan for the Improvisation Training:
Find and write at least three exercises for each structure: technique class, solo improvisation, pairs improvisation, group improvisation, short performance improvisation. Each exercise shall develop from simple to compound and consequently leading to the next exercise and structure.
Set objectives of each exercise and the goal (objective is an outcome that is achieved immediately, and the goal is a long term outcome)
If improvisation training is part of rehearsals, think of the potential of the exercises. Do they have the potential to develop into small improvised performances?
Write an essay 1000 words about your process, research, discoveries and reflections.
Send your reflections to the Institute.
Deadline: 11 June
“To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting” by Michael Chekhov p. 35-47
“To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting” by Michael Chekhov p. 1-20.
How to Rehearse a Play; A Practical Guide for Directors by Damon Kiely p.29-49; 165-192.