Saturday Afternoon Play: Back to Back Theatre’s Performance Workshop

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The chairs formed a circle in the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio on Saturday afternoon, and when I walked in over a dozen people were introducing themselves: “I’m an independent theater artist.” “Social media junkie.” “I just tried to get some gas at a gas station and it took all my credit information and gave me no gas.” The occasion was Australian Back to Back Theatre’s Performance Workshop, an addition to the company’s Live Arts performance of FOOD COURT, a show about violence and bullying performed by persons with intellectual disabilities. Company director Bruce Gladwin led the workshop, and he sat tall, thin, and quiet in his chair as the personal introductions continued: “New to Philadelphia.” “I’m an actor, with a background in theater.” “I’m the parent of a child with an intellectual disability.”

When they finished, Bruce nodded. “We only have two hours to come together and play. For the first hour we’re going to work with playful, experiential exercises. The second part is, I’ve got a new show and I thought we might play with some ideas for that.”

After the jump: a brutal version of Musical Chairs, and watch an interview with Bruce Gladwin about the company’s next performance Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

Under Bruce’s direction the group moved all the chairs out of the space, and began an active score of games: choosing a person from the group, and getting as far away from (and then, as close to) that person as possible; assigning each actor the role of a pig, duck, cow, or chicken, and directing them to find their fellow animals by closing their eyes and making their identifying sound; forming a circle and having one person in the middle repeat another member’s name three times, finishing before that person could say their own name once.

Sarah Gladwin Camp, rehearsal director of this year’s Le Grand Continental, attended. A longtime performer, she had seen the ‘Get Far Away From One Person, Get As Close As You Can To Another Person’ exercise, but others were new: “Making us all close our eyes and make animals sounds to find each other,” she said. “That was clever. That was a surprise.”

The last exercise of the hour was what I dubbed the ‘Chair Stealing Game.’ Bruce split the group into four teams, one at each corner of the rectangular space, and each player sat on a chair. There were also three empty chairs in the middle of the space. To win, you needed to have as many chairs as possible among your team – but, you could only guard a chair by sitting in it, you could not steal more than one chair at once, and you could not run through the space.

“I thought it was amazing how just seeing a group of people with a task is really engaging,” said Kelly George, a Ph.D. student at Temple University. “It’s a great exercise for seeing the dynamics between a group of people who just have the simplest thing to do; a reminder that actually the simplest things create story, intention, and character without having to rack your brain.”

“Enjoying yourself onstage solicits a sense of joy,” said Bruce, talking over the laughter and sounds of play that filled the game.

It didn’t take long for participants’ competitive counterparts to emerge though, and accusations eclipsed some of the smiles: “She was covering a second chair with her leg!” “No running!”

Mason Rosenthal, a 2013 LAB Fellow and co-creator of Philly Fringe’s Mining the Mine of the Mind for Minderals, reflected on the game and thought some participants showed a knack for strategy: “I don’t know. He stayed pretty straight-faced the whole time,” he said, pointing to a fellow workshop attendee.

The second half of the two-hour workshop was quieter, and Bruce led the group through an exercise he’s used to create material for past shows; the activity, he explained, would create a “palette of content to use for character.” Sitting four participants like panelists in front of the other dozen or so, Bruce gave the four seated at the front a sentence that each person had to complete. The first round opened with “I have”: “I have glasses,” “I have an education,” “I have film-making skills,” “I have the tendency to seek and destroy,” said participants, answering in order, from left to right. From there new panelists were chosen, and the players worked with “I use,” “I am,” and “I need you to,” this last phrase one Bruce suggested they direct toward the audience: “I need you to care,” “I need you to be okay with what I say,” “I need you to need me.”

Near the workshop’s close, Bruce gathered everyone into a circle again. He answered any questions, and talked about the company’s newest project, a collaboration with visual artist Tim Sharp. Tim’s character Laser Beak Man has been made into an animated series for Australian television.

Bruce also noted that Tim is on the autism spectrum, and that although the company wanted him to act in the new work, he was uncomfortable onstage. Instead, they had him direct those who came in to audition for a role. Constantly experimenting with new ways to create theater, the company decided to record in writing Tim’s initial interactions with the people auditioning – niceties and greetings that might otherwise be written off as meaningless.

It was all a closing discussion that led to a big reveal: the initial interactions between the participants of Saturday’s workshop had been recorded, and made into scripts. Bruce passed them out, as people shook their heads in surprise.

The last fifteen minutes of the workshop was spent doing a cold reading of the script, and though they were directed to read in order, Bruce encouraged everyone to “make spontaneous situations about who’s reading what.” Therefore, no one read their own voice, and other lines were mouthed in unison. The result was a cacophony of often disparate lines, that hours earlier had been courteous comments among artists of a community: “You can survive anything for 2 hours,”  “You were fantastic in the show,” You got to see their vaginas,” and then several voices read the same line: “I have the sense of not knowing what will transpire.”

–Audrey McGlinchy

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