The second day of workshops and a chance to explore the role of actor/ teacher in Drama based work. Often in Applied Theatre work the relationship between the stage and auditorium is blurred. Boal uses the term Spect-ACTING for the dual role of participants in an interactive event. With the Joker being the conduit between the world of the play and the real world. In a Drama in Education session the teacher themselves will very often act as the guide.
Increasingly I've been interested in looking at what performative skills are needed to be an effective actor in work like this and, more importantly, how can we train you actor/facilitators to be good at it.
Many practitioners will argue that charisma is at the root and as such cannot be taught. You either have the personality for it or not. In this sense does being a good teacher or a good actor or a good facilitator rely on talent?
We began the session by using an old teacher in role narrative borrowed from some of Jon Neelands and Dorothy Heathcote's early work. I played Beowulf - a role I've taken on in many workshops at St Mary's, but never in such a Nordic setting.
The work begins with me welcoming my warrior brothers and sisters from the four corners of the kingdom. I explain that I have called them to the great hall because I have received word from my cousin the King of Denmark that the evil monster Grendel has been attacking Danish villages, raising the buildings to the ground, killing the citizens and taking the children into slavery.
Although there are normally initial giggles the group are quickly into the story, at my prompting reminding each other of former exploits and debating how best to defeat Grendel. I ask them if they are resolved to fight and, on this occasion, receive unanimous backing.
The students are split into four tribes representing the North, South, East and West and each is invited to devise a task or game that will teach us something about the culture of the region they come from and help us train in preparation for the challenge ahead.
Maria led the warriors of the north with a very energetic game which needed quick reactions. She explained that the special quality of the the light in the North meant that people from that region are renowned for the clarity of their vision, often over large distances. They are a voyaging people, who have built up their wealth by looking beyond the immediate horizon to trade with other lands.
Luka introduced the warriors form the south with a counting exercise. The rest of us noticed that it was tough to play the game if you thought too much about what you were doing and Luka confirmed that the people of the South lived life in a very fluid and relaxed way, not worrying too much. Many great musicians had come from this part of the Kingdom.
Vigdis greeted us as the Queen of the West with a boisterous game of chase, where warriors had to work together to keep a monster from catching his prey. She explained the rugged, direct nature of the West, a land of mountains, where people worked hard and played hard. It was common for the people from this region to share the little they have with each other. Everybody in the West works on the land and understands how important it is to cultivate and respect it. They are a fiercely loyal people.
Rakel introduced the Eastern warriors with a medative exercise designed to improve our attentiveness and watchfulness. Hers are a spiritual people who often live in solitude. Stone is a vital part of this culture. They build their houses from it, create jewellery, ornamentation and furniture from it and worship at the quarry.
We're only about half an hour in, but already the group are generating a huge amount of material to take forward.
We run several more improvisational tasks. I ask each warrior to return home and explain to their loved ones the nature of the task ahead. The short scenes that this generates are very moving. Maria has to ask permission from Thora, who is the Queen of the North, and then explain to her teenage daughter Thorinna that she will be away from her for many years and may not return at all.
Luka finds it impossible to say goodbye, tries to write a song about how he feels, fails and ends up getting drunk with his friends. Vigdis throws a big party and tells the rest of the warriors in the West that they should live the evening as though it were their last whilst Rakel takes her sister Alda to the furthest quarry in the East and performs a self mutilation ritual where she sacrifices her right eye for an all seeing stone that will, she believes, act as a powerful charm to protect her from danger. Alda in a sacrificial ritual of her own cuts off her left hand and replaces it with a glove full of sacred stones. This she assures us will give her the strength to defeat Grendel.
Although we break for coffee, the group are reluctant to come out of role and so the work continues.
in the main studio the warriors from the North and East begin using all available furniture to build a beautiful boat. Thora finds a piece of drain pipe and fixes it to the bow. This she explains will be used to call up the sea goddesses who can help to calm storms.
In the kitchen the warriors of the West and South prepare the drinks whilst working together on a song for us to sing on our voyage.
With the washing up in the sink, we're on our way again. The song works beautifully as a round with each warrior given a separate phrase to sing, one that most befits the job they've been allocated to on the ship we soon reach Denmark.
The final part of the workshop sees the group split in two. The warriors of the North and West form a tableau of the great battle verses Grendel. The actors who have played warriors from the East and South time traveller forward to the twenty first century. They are now archaeologists who have uncovered the great hall of Beowulf. Much in the hall has been destroyed by time, but carefully preserved high on one wall are is the outline of this magnificent painting. They quickly decide to call a press conference and interpret their findings to the world.
We're been working now for three hours and it seems an opportune place to bring the story to an end. We talk a little about the joy of the work, the constant active creativity. Svala is interested in the focus I provide stepping in and out of the main role. I point out that all of them have done exactly the same. At once fully committed to the action and fully aware of the audience.
This is the essence of the Applied Theatre actor. There is a script and a performance to deliver which this should be done with as much conviction and belief as possible. This is the same as for the actor playing Hamlet at the National. But alongside this, in the course of the Applied Theatre play's action, a thousand other small improvisational interactions might occur with the audience, shaping and deciding on the action and ultimately the narrative. This is the same for the teacher in the classroom encouraging questions and observations on the topics presented.
Applied Theatre actors merge these two roles effortlessly, knowing when to push the action on and when to allow the sect-ACTORS the opportunity to make a change.
Mark is the Academic Director of the Drama Programmes at St Mary's University in Twickenham. He has worked internationally as a theatre director and educator for the past 15 years, focused mostly on youth, community, and conflict resolution work.
As a lecturer Mark taught at Goldsmiths College, Coventry University and was Head of Performing Arts at Canterbury College prior to joining St Mary’s in 2006.
His Professional directing credits include Henry V (One of US?) and Valhalla for RSC Education; The Wind in the Willows, Jack Cade, The Red, Red Robin for Sevenoaks Playhouse; Tender Souls, The Quality of Mercy and Playhouse Creatures for the Ambassadors Theatre group.
Mark is a director of subVERSE Theatre company for whom has directed fringe premieres of Chief, Dinnertime and OxfamC**t at Theatre 503.
Site specific work includes Purka and Shadow on Icelandic volcanoes and Novocento with students from the University of Genoa.