Physical Theatre in Debrecen

   Once every fortnight we go off to Debrecen - very close to Romania and the second biggest city in Hungary -in order to teach. Our boss, the wonderfully talented Tibor Varszegi has connections at the Debrecen National Theatre. Peter Gemza is the artistic director and worked, studied, and made theatre with Tibor. Both are very experienced in physical theatre, contemporary dance and choreography.

   We teach a group of about 12 teenagers from a secondary school that specialises in drama and these students are GOOD. They come to us on a Saturday for extra lessons (and because they are in English) and they approach every exercise with passion, commitment and more than 100% energy and effort. They LOVE theatre and we LOVE teaching them!

   Myself and Clara take it in turns to teach them, so we have devised our own lesson plans. Whilst they do a lot of acting, singing and dancing at school Monday-Friday, it appears they don't have much/any experience in physical theatre, so I saw it as a great idea to start getting them thinking about what physical theatre is and how they can use it. Obviously physical theatre is vast and there is difficulty in defining what it even is. I want to do a variety of different exercises based on theories by different practitioners in order to encourage creative freedom.

Here is an example of a lesson plan I devised for them - this lesson plan probably works better for students who have already done a lot of acting and have trained their bodies. For a basic introduction for non-actors, look here

Physical Theatre Introductory Lesson Plan

Aims - creative freedom, exploration of body, breaking down (deconstruction) of movements, awareness of the body in order to create uncomplicated but powerful and precise gestures.

1. Getting to know your feet
We take most of our body parts for granted, so we started by moving around the room to music, exploring our feet. I told them to think about things like pressure (where is the pressure concentrated?), contact (which part of the foot is making contact with the floor?), muscle activation (which part of the foots muscles are activated and how much muscular energy is expended?) and exploration of speed, rhythm and parts of their foot they don't usually use.  I tried to emphasise slowness as I think the slower you do an exercise like this, the more familiar you become with the part of the body.

2. Getting to know your arms/hands (isolations)
Similar to the 1st exercise, but we went up a notch and did isolations - meaning the body had to stay completely still and only the arm(s) could move, and also meaning that the movements are broken down into component parts. I find this incredibly effective and love playing with isolations myself. We started by simply lifting one arm up to shoulder level but in as smooth a manner as possible, without any juddering. This is actually not as easy as it may sound. Then they could explore different parts of their arms and try isolating the various parts to see what effect they had.

3. Moving the pelvis
So many powerful actions emanate from our pelvis and this exercise is not only good for sensitising the body but also for energising the body in a concentrated manner.  They were told they had a paintbrush coming out of their bottom and with this paintbrush had to write their names as big as possible on an imaginary wall behind them with their feet stuck to the ground. This is quite physically challenging as they need to go right down low and back up again, etc. Then they chose their favourite letter to focus on, and repeat it, each time getting slower and slower so they were aware of all the miniscule movements involved. Then they were told to break down this letter into a few different movements - three or four, then even more, five or six, and to work on these individual parts, playing with them, speeding them up, slowing them down, reversing them, before putting them together with other parts. This deconstruction of movements inspires a new awareness of the body that is very useful in making physical theatre.

4. Pairs exercise - following the hands whole movements
I took this exercise from a recent workshop I attended which was run by The Symptoms Theatre collective. Check out my blog about The Symptoms here. The idea is that one person in the pair plays with their hand, they explore their hand, opening it, closing it, fanning their fingers, pulsating it, going fast, slow, moving different fingers. This is a good exercise for those interested in puppetry as it really activates the hand and raises awareness of what you can do with it and different ways you can move it.  Now, the second person must respond to the hand's movements with their whole bodies. This is one of  my favourite physical theatre exercises as it encourages creativity and freedom of expression (people can interpret the hand's movements however they want). Students also have to think 'on the spot' as they should respond immediately, so they have no time to wonder if they are doing something 'right' or 'wrong'.

5. Slow motion race
Another isolation exercise - this one taken from 'Through The Body- A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre' by Dymphna Callery who says she has 'yet to find a better game for testing concentration, focus and body-awareness.' Students run a pretend 100m race in slow motion, with the winner being the last person to cross the 'line'. The rules are that the runners must always keep in motion, must lift their foot to knee height with each step, must take the longest step possible and must not fall over.

Now that students have worked alone and thoroughly warmed up their bodies, we do some group exercises,  requiring a special type of shared energy.

6. Mexican Wave
To music (a concentration aid) and in front of the mirror, students are told to make a perfect Mexican Wave. Using the techniques they have developed thus far in thinking about articulation of movement, they should make the movements as smooth as possible. They can do this however they like - holding hands or not, at whatever speed (although obviously the speed/rhythm must be consistent and ideally very slow - maybe speeding up as they become confidant and aware of every small movement). This exercise works best when all students are focused and committed to performing it very slowly at first. It requires a lot of concentration to maintain it's 'perfection' but when it is achieved the students will feel that it is right. This notion of 'feeling' an exercise is important, as in physical theatre, it is never a matter of 'just doing' an exercise, it is important to understand why it is done, and to feel what is happening when it is being done.

7. Variation of above - the sea
As above, but this time students are asked to make the sea - however they want. It's good if they experiment with different ideas until they decide on what feels right.

Now that the students should have grasped an awareness of the body, an alertness, attentiveness, familiarity and the concept of 'being in the moment' (comes from 'feeling' the exercises)  after such an in-depth exploration, they can start being creative with their ideas.

Here as some ideas of activities to end the session. I will either choose what I think will work best, or let them decide.

Doctors waiting room / 'Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting' - I had this idea as it comes from doing simple actions, almost nothing, and really breaking them down so they are incredibly effective. Students are asked to imagine they are a bit nervous / uncomfortable, and monitor what actions they do to portray this. They might have big eyes and turn their head around the room. They might be fiddling with their hands and tapping their feet. They may be biting their nails. They be putting their head in their hands. Whatever it is, they take a simple action and break it down into it's component parts and work with these parts - slowing them down, stopping, reversing, and so on, to create the effect of 'slowed down time' when one is in an uncomfortable situation. Music-  'Popcorn' by Hot Butter.

The seed to flower - This works best as a group with a shared energy, with members exploring the multitude of opportunities available to them by working together as one with their bodies. They could climb up each other to show growth, use one body each to represent individual petals. They could bring their heads together and open slowly to show the flower budding.  Attention can be paid to the opening of the buds, the weather conditions that surround it, it's life cycle (pollenation etc) - a very creative exercise. Music - something soft and classical.

Dolls or puppets coming to life -  I love playing with the idea of dolls or puppets (both very different). With dolls I mean Barbie type dolls, with a rigidness, stiffness, lack of flexibility. There's a lot of subtext surrounding Barbies - issues such as plasticity, femininity, lifelessness, gender and society, capitalism, body image etc. Students can decide what area of 'dolls' they wish to explore and find some movements that express that which will then be choreographed together as a whole. I was inspired by this beautiful piece 'Shwarze Puppen' by students from Folkwang Physical Theatre school. 

Puppets are much more loose, free, 'floppy' and it's fun to play with the idea of having strings attached to various parts of your body. Students can play around either in pairs (one person holding the imaginary strings) or individually to create a short but powerful sequence that will be combined with the rest of the groups' sequences.