Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Fine Art of Being a Big Kid

Last week in rehearsals we were joined by Florence O'Mahoney, a young director who came in to observe our processes.

Here is what she had to say....
Sitting watching Angela and Guy warm up, knowing they'd already been there for a good half an hour before Lee and I arrived, I immediately got the sense that there was an established atmosphere at Improbable rehearsals that most companies will probably never achieve. That sounds like a very big, gushy statement, but honestly, I really believe it. 
Let me try to explain what I mean...
I can't begin to regurgitate the varied, extraordinary, and sometimes really silly conversations that I've had the pleasure to be involved in during the process of making 'The Bear'. The Open Space approach means that, (literally), nothing is off the cards for these guys. Each day opens with each member of the company, writing down anything they'd like to discuss, work on, or think about, and sticking all of these ideas up onto a wall. 
These ideas are then posted into 'sessions', in four separate areas of the room. The group post more sessions then they will have the chance to cover as a whole, which means that if Lee and Angela are deep in discussion about the bombings in Northern Ireland, and Guy fancies making bear noises instead, that's fine, encouraged, and admittedly, a little bizarre to stand in the middle of at 11am on a Monday morning. 
The Law of Two Feet is a particularly fascinating element in Open Spacing for me, it states that if you aren't learning/ contributing/ enjoying/ participating, you leave and find something else to do. It facilitates so much, in just 4 words. I know it sounds very simple, but the realisation of it was a little bit of a slow-burner for me...
The Law of Two Feet, for me, means that these things happen:
  • No one is dragging the conversation down because they're not interested.
  • Everyone feels that they can suggest an idea, without the guilt of making somebody do something they don't want to do.
  • If you're in the conversation, you're really, really in it. You've chosen to be there. You know that, and so does everyone else. If you didn't want to be there, you'd go. That is such a trusting way to work – there is no sense that you might go off on a tangent just a little too much and bore your colleagues, because they would literally not be standing there with you if you did. And the idea is that you won't mind if they go. You could do the same, after all.
  • As a group, you know that you want everyone to be positively affecting the production, whether that involves sitting and discussing whether or not Guy should wear lipstick as Aunt Gloria, improvising a tea party, or, indeed, taking a quick nap. You look for the ways you can positively affect the rehearsal. And you do them. (Crazy, right.)
  • You take responsibility for yourself. If you're doing something because you've actively chosen to do it, with no external pressure, it seems that you will apply yourself more. It's your fault you are there, so there's no chance of anybody lazing about feeling hard done by.
  • The Law of Two Feet brings a freedom to the rehearsals that no production I have ever been involved in has fully achieved. It is so playful, somebody says 'let's play a game' and no one bats an eyelid. Before you know it, Guy's got you up on your feet to join in with a nigh on impossible rhythm/ movement game. (No Guy, I'm afraid I still haven't mastered it, despite many attempts in my kitchen at home.) There is laughter, there's an earthiness. No one is taking anybody too seriously. If it's a little bit silly, Improbable are the first to do it with a great big grin on their faces.
As you can see, I think the Law of Two Feet is pretty great right now. But let me also point out how much I think it relies on a company being in a place to whole-heartedly carry it out. This team have worked together for decades. They know/ trust/ support/ collaborate/ laugh at and mock each other with the fine-tuned skill that only comes from having the upmost understanding and respect for each other. It's an atmosphere that I very much pray doesn't come purely from time, but I fear their long-running association with one another plays a huge part. As a passionate and somewhat impatient young director, seeing Improbable work like this has left me wondering whether I'll ever direct a rehearsal with an iota of the cohesiveness that seems to come so naturally to these people. 
In my experience as a director so far, playfulness and a lack of inhibition don't seem to happen in the same place at the same time. I have spent countless hours developing and nurturing trust in order to get extremely talented, committed, playful young actors to lose their sense of self-consciousness. On the flip-side, I have seen older, more mature/ established 'grown up actors' feel totally at ease with looking a bit daft, but that also seemed to equate to rehearsals being carried out 'the way they should be'. There isn't time for workshopping and experimenting, there isn't the same level of freedom. Maturity moves in, playfulness seems to do a wince-worthy bellyflop from a fourth floor window. Not so, with the team for The Bear. 
I'm sure that the Open Space technique, in the wrong hands, could excuse a multitude of sins. I have ghastly visions of less mature actors using it to justify lateness, laziness, pathos, distractions, indulgence, you name it, there's probably a way of twisting the words to make any bad habit justifiable (and let's face it, we humans do have a tendency to do that).
However, if you take just a few minutes to really, really think about the rules, Open Spacing is golden. It's professional and personal, it's refreshingly light-hearted and downright sensible at the same time. The control freak inside me finds it utterly frightening, but really, I know that if you can find the right people, develop the right approach with them, and then allow yourself to trust both the people and the process, you will come out the other end fully loaded for a production. 
As time goes by in the rehearsal process, I'd imagine different parts of Open Spacing become relevant. Whilst Week 1 may be all about what is interesting, exciting and fun, in Week 4 the company may choose to highlight the 'achievement' side of things a little more, with an emphasis on 'getting stuff done'. In the hands of creatives who use it well, Open Spacing is seriously cool.
From the outside looking in, it seems to be about saying yes, it's jumping in, it's accepting that you can't know until you try, and if that involves flapping your limbs wildly about the room making silly noises, well then, so be it. 
I think being open in this way is something that every actor tries really, really hard to do, but until you've seen it done truthfully and modestly, and without anybody feeling the need to broadcast it, you don't know what you're missing out on. In my years that are yet to come as a creative, I sincerely hope that I might one day have the privilege of being surrounded with a similarly minded group of people, producing work with even an ounce of the depth and exploration that The Bear will inevitably achieve. 
My huge thanks go to Angela and Improbable, for letting me have a peep into your rehearsals for The Bear – I look forward to joining you again, and, indeed, finding out what the play is actually about! 

Florence O'Mahony

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