Here we're going to try to talk about our process, because it’s something we get asked about. Probably like lots of artists, it’s a mixture of things we’ve read, learned from other people, (mis)understood in workshops and smooshed together; we’re not trying to copyright any of this.
We make a lot of different kinds of projects – obviously the process for realizing an existing text is going to be different to making an interactive show. These days we mostly make stuff up, so we’ll talk about that here.
(When we used to make more things with pre-existing scripts, we were very influenced by Stanislavski and also by Mike Alfreds’ process. Although we don’t use these ideas so explicitly now, the experience of knowing how to place yourself in someone else’s shoes has been really useful in creating our interactive work. Mike Alfreds’ ideas about always exploring each possibility to the extreme also applies just as well to devising as it does to working on a text.)
Rachel is a Feldenkrais practitioner so that features in what we do – as an outlook and as part of the day. We usually begin a day with an Awareness through Movement sequence; we find it helps people ‘arrive’, become aware of themselves – and also to foster an outlook of curiosity, an approach of trying stuff out rather than striving for ‘the right answer’.
Our work also draws quite heavily on Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints work. We find that there is a real synergy with Feldenkrais, except Viewpoints is about a group of people. We recommend that you read their book, but what we really like is that Viewpoints gives a specific vocabulary to talk about things (movement, space, shape, rhythm) that one often knows about intuitively but can’t always articulate. It gives us a way to identify habits, and move on to other choices. We usually do an open composition each day, and also draw on a Viewpoint-sy approach for talk-based making stuff.
So onto making stuff. We usually set each other tasks, to be completed in what seems like an impossibly short period of time. Time pressure is fantastic – it stops people from trying to make something perfect (this can be an enormous obstacle to starting) and instead, they just make something. This something can then be iterated – given a second draft, perhaps worked on by other members of the group, perhaps taken away by one person to think about. Time pressure also stops people from sitting around, talking and intellectualizing for too long – while some folk really like this approach, for other members of the group it can induce a kind of shut-down.
When we’re making stuff, we think that parameters are really helpful. ‘It can be anything’ is terrifying; the level of possibility is paralyzing. Once we know the palette we’re working within, we often select parameters at random – by rolling a dice or selecting a card from a deck. A parameter could be about the idea (e.g it in some way explores the dynamic individual vs group), the form (e.g. it must use in-ear delivery of text) or something quite random (e.g. it must involve an apple or it has to be underscored by Nirvana’s Nevermind). By the time it gets to audience-people experiencing it, the parameters hopefully won’t be noticeable; their function is to push us to try things we might not otherwise try, to go to an extreme and see what sticks.
A lot of the stuff we generate isn’t great or ‘right’ i.e. for that piece. This time isn’t wasted – sometimes off-cuts grow into new shows (for us or other people independently) and sometimes it’s just funny to remember the terrible material we’ve made.
We’re quite obsessed with dramaturgy – which we define as how you arrange things in a way that gives them more meaning than they’d have in isolation. Books like Bob McKee’s Story and Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale were big influences on us early on; Viewpoints taught us a huge amount about the power of contrast; and with more playable work, we’re finding a kind of anticipative dramaturgy through learning about psychology and group behaviours.
We tend to do quite a lot of research when we’re making a show which has the starting point of a theme or idea (e.g. Invisible Treasure). Different group members research different topics and introduce them to the group in interesting, often task-based ways, to give the others a more embodied experience than they’d get from being talked at.
When the more musical people are around, we often sing a song after lunch (Songtime with Bone, so named for long-suffering choirmaster Chris Bone). It’s fun and there’s science to suggest singing with other people is good for you, and a lot of us were quite scared of singing and thought we should change that. Our high point was 2 lines of Bach’s St Matthew Passion but soon after a couple of the musically-gifted people moved away and we tend to be less ambitious these days.
We often work through residencies – going away for a week to a place and working on the project there, often with local people. The surroundings influence what we make and it means that when we return with the ‘finished’ project, people often remember the process of working on it and are interested to see how it ended up. Residencies often mean hanging out and eating together – and many of the people we work with are excellent cooks so this model also has culinary advantages.
On residencies we often also all have a secret task to complete, something creative which is done each day we’re away and then shared at the end of the week; we made a book inspired by people’s responses to these. Daily task is often done during Private Time, an hour a day that everyone spends not with the group – to prevent everyone getting grumpy and sick of each other.
The least useful thing in a rehearsal/ making room is fear (Phelim McDermott wrote a blog which touches on this here). When people are frightened of getting it wrong, or of other people laughing at them or whatever, they’re not going to make their best work. We don’t think there’s a formula to a fear-free room but we’ve found that having a long-term commitment to working with people takes the pressure off – sure, we didn’t make anything we really liked today but we can try again tomorrow.