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Tom Morris' Session
Friday’s Jam was the eagerly anticipated session with Tom Morris, and he led us in an exploration of Attention and Focus. I hope this write-up is fairly accurate, but please anyone feel free to correct any omissions or mistakes or libel…
Before Tom arrived we had a quick chance to fill in people who hadn’t been at Nick Philippou’s brilliant session the previous Friday, and in retrospect seems to have been an appropriate introduction to some of the games we were to play later on.
Tom began by talking us through some of his ideas that he felt may have Factory-application. He explained that some of his work at the BAC had involved a lot of devising and that he was interested in looking at story-telling. He had a fantastic amount of information at his fingertips, and offered us a choice of themes for the workshop. After a group discussion Improbable Theatre’s work emerged as an area everyone would like to start looking at. At this point the word “improvisation” was uttered, and I started to feel a bit nervous. However, the first game we played involved disengaging with the notion of ‘failure’, and Tom instructed us that we must not try to be ‘good’ at what we were about to do. Which was a relief.
After a quick shake out we started walking around the room with no fixed path, continuing to shake out any tension we felt creeping in during our journey. At this point we were gradually whittled down to leave one half of the group moving around the floor and the other half observing. The movers were asked to focus on one other mover, and to find a connection with them without necessarily following them around. Tom then asked the movers to connect with a second person and become aware of the dynamic V shape that this created. If at any point you lost a sense of contact you simply had to pause, rediscover the connection and set off again. Observers gradually replaced the movers, and Tom increased the number of people you were to concentrate on from 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 and finally asked the movers to become aware of every other person on the floor.
In the post-game discussion, there was a consensus that it was harder to maintain concentration as the number of people increased from 2 to 3 and so on. However it seemed that a lot of us found it was more difficult to stay connected with 5 people than with the whole group. I wonder if you could draw comparisons with trying to hear 5 instruments through masses of interference as opposed to listening to a whole orchestra playing together. During the game Tom had asked us to acknowledge that maintaining concentration on 5 people at a time was nigh-on impossible, but to attempt it nonetheless. He flagged this up as echoing how difficult absolute concentration can be in meditation.
We divided the group into participants and observers again. One half watched whilst the other formed an inward facing circle. Tom asked us to make sure our knees remained unlocked and check-in with everyone in the circle. We were to let our gaze roam the group until something caught our attention – such as the way someone’s shoulders moved as they breathed, whilst striving to ‘do’ nothing ourselves. We minutely observed this element until we let our attention wander again and repeated the minute observation. Tom then gave us permission to copy anything we found interesting and movement started to bubble and cascade round the group. It shared structure with Boal’s “French Telephone” but because your attention was free to move over the whole group, interesting patterns of exchange of movement emerged. The first group created some amazing contortions, and a lovely moment in which one by one they span 36o degrees. Just before the groups swapped over, Tom allowed them to move out of the circle formation and they managed to end up with all the group stretched precariously across the floor. When our group swapped into the space we repeated the exercise, and produced some extraordinary sounds and frenetic movements, which reminded me of watching chimps communicate. Tom instructed us to find a moment where the group agreed to turn and face our audience, but we disobeyed. Naughty.
Talking through the experience, we found that for most of the duration of the game, participants were unconscious of being copied themselves. Moments of self-awareness seemed to manifest when an actor felt they had made a mistake or failed; for example when you replicated a genuine laugh with a noise which sounded hollow or inaccurate. Alex offered up a moment when he fell, felt disappointed in himself, and then found this ‘mistake’ being copied until everyone in the group ‘slipped’ as well. It seems this feature of the game encourages us to give-up the idea of failure and pulls attention back off yourself and out on to the group once more. A beautifully simple self-righting mechanism. Alan described how interesting it was when two players found their attention momentarily locked on one another, and he became aware of how very concentrated each was on the other. Tom seemed to be pleased with the exercise, and pointed out how fascinating it was when groups managed to focus in really hard on the detail of an action or position. When observing, both groups had found the other very, very funny; but Tom told us that when he had decided to stage the exercise with a more traditional audience/performer interface it hadn’t seemed to work in the same way. It was suggested that perhaps the presence of an unfamiliar audience places too much pressure on the performers to provide entertainment, which seems to make sense.
The final game started in the same way as the first but this time the entire group took to the floor together. We focused our attention on two other people, and continued moving around the space. Tom then set us the task of finding a position in relation to our chosen two in which both stems of the invisible V were of equal length. This was exciting and frustrating as we would achieve a moment of stillness which worked for everyone, but was not quite sustainable and so would teeter and then dissolve. Maintaining our focus we stopped moving, closed our eyes and tried to gain an awareness of our physical relationship by listening for the breathing of our chosen two. After a while Tom challenged us to try to hear breathing in the farthest corner of the room, and to really strain and push ourselves and the limits of our concentration though the task was pretty insurmountable. Next we allowed our concentration to be drawn to any breathing we could hear and began to copy it, and subsequently any noise we heard, and ultimately to move towards any sound which drew us. When we opened our eyes we finished off the game at liberty to focus on and replicate and move towards anything interesting, be it visual or aural.
People seemed to have had varying experiences of the ‘blind’ section of the game, but Tom described how beautiful people became when they were honestly and entirely focused on listening. It seems to be that by relinquishing self-awareness and becoming engrossed in external stimuli – or another person – the actor becomes immeasurably more interesting to watch. Tom gave some examples of pieces devised with this in mind, such as Improbable Theatre’s Spirit, and suggested a game playable by a pair in which one reacts with sound and the other with movement to whatever they observe or hear respectively. Emma elaborated on this, having watched a piece in where a large group of movers and a large group of articulators interact in this way, “like listening to an orchestra, and watching a piece of dance”.
When in the third game we had been allowed to move towards the focus of our interest Tom had been reminded of a scene involving a group of villagers milling around, and pointed out the similarity to animal herd behaviour. It was agreed that the experience of the games had often reminded people of interactions with young children and babies, and Tom described a piece he had worked on where actors had played games of this type with a group of one-year-olds, to an audience of their enraptured parents. Though we might think that we adults should provide the stimuli for infants, it transpires that young children become just as engaged in a game by being copied themselves. Which I think sounds like a great “acting is re-acting” lesson, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…
The games both threw up some really interesting links to recent Jam Studio explorations of attention in Guskin’s and Boal’s methods. Regarding the creation of a group identity (see Kate’s blog on Nick Philippou and “the personality of our particular circle”) we discussed ether there was a danger of the individual personality becoming subsumed by the whole. However, referring back to how impossible it had been to actually replicate another person’s movement or sound, we found that this shouldn’t happen. What links the members is that each person’s attention is focused outwards on the group instead of on themselves; so what we have is group awareness of everyone’s individuality rather than any attempt to homogenise the company.
So that’s what I can recall from the workshop – an immensely thought-provoking and enlightening hour and a half. I know we’d love to set up more work with the very excellent and inspiring Tom Morris; I hope he enjoyed Friday’s session as much as we did.
Director, producer, writer, dramaturge; ladies and gentlemen, Tom Morris is,
for us, Renaissance Jam. For the Factory session at Central on Friday 14th
March, we welcomed the power behind the throne at the National Theatre, and a
leading innovator in theatre for the under 2s – at least one of which categories
should fit our members like a Saville Row romper-suit…..
Tom claimed to have heard many good things about the Factory and “Hamlet”,
but had as yet no ocular proof or hands-on experience with us. He was warm,
funny and enthusiastic, and was apparently sporting a fairly-new haircut that
took years off him and made him the most attractive (and therefore most
important) of any Morris siblings on the day, today. He gave us a brief and
self-deprecatory outline of his background – Battersea Arts Centre (including
“Jerry Springer”); the National (“War Horse” and the utterly brilliant “Coram
Boy” [magnificently written for the Olivier stage by the great Helen Edmundson,
at whose perfumed and alabaster feet I…but I digress]); collaborations with such
companies as Improbable and Knee High; not to forget “Oogly Boogly”, the
aforementioned toddlers’ tragedy – and then offered us the treasures of his
soul to rifle, hastily narrowing down the choice to exercises in storytelling or
observation. The latter was selected, and the workshop’s
harsh, back-breaking labour began.
The 30-ish strong Factoryhands having been divided into two groups for fear
of claustrophobic stampede, half were instructed to walk around the space (I
warned you it would be tough) gently and randomly, while the other fraction
simply (simply?) watched. Gradually, one was asked to observe a fellow
participant, to focus on a particular point – shoes, elbows, or in Federay’s
confession, the ‘naughty parts’ of a colleague! Then to ‘collect’ a second
person, to focus equally on both, to try to set up a triangle and maintain
oneself at the apex. Triumphs of imagined geometry would be dashed by the slow
but continuous substitution of observers for walkers, so attention and detail
would have to be remade and re-maintained.
Reactions to this simple exercise were various, ranging from frustration to
enjoyment, feeling solitary to a sense of solidarity, relaxed calm to a real
sensation of stress.
The second exercise was to make a circle (again one half at a time), keep an
eye on everyone else and just imitate anything, everything one saw. Beginning
with the slightest flutter of a finger, the near-infinitesimal turn of a head,
the circle eventually became a circus of sniffing, laughing, leering, stomping,
grotesquely-angled clowns …but in a good way! There was no deliberate ‘leading’,
but the sound and movement developed through a kind of physical Chinese
(Careless?) Whispers. An extra instruction to bring the movements out of the
circle foundered on the continued need to see each other, as similarly did a
request to display ‘down-stage’ to an audience. But Tom, bless him, then opined
– neatly if inadvertently summing up my career – that there was no such thing as
failure. Nothing done (oh, he meant in these games!) could be wrong.
Next, and with the entire massed ranks together this time, the group closed
its collective eyes and listened, furiously. Could anything be heard at all –
breathing, extra-mural noise? With the emphasis thus now on aural observation,
we copied whatever sounds we could hear. Again the range eventually spanned the
gamut from gentle to gigantic, beatific to bizarre. Asked to move within the
tight space, with eyes still shut but full of trust, laughter, sighing and
bleating became common parlance. Little circles somehow formed, sometimes
subconsciously of similar-sized bodies!
Tom was very pleased with what we had achieved; looking on as he had
throughout, he had been able to distinguish patterns, meanings, interesting
lacks of meaning, points of focus and concentration beyond those we were aware
of. So we were likewise very pleased with him, his good conduct marred only by
his brutal termination of proceedings, because he…he had to go, if you can
Brevity is, as we know, the soul etc., but a few more limbs and outward
flourishes could have been borne. Which is only to say that we need to raise an
even larger fee to get Tom back for longer, so we can move on to explore the
consequences and tangents inevitably resulting from such exercises. Thank you Mr
Morris, who indeed claimed – in apparent sincerity – that he would, like
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