Michael Sommer, Artistic Director of the German Part of Phone Home, starts a series on best practice in intercultural theatre workshops.
Theatre, as everybody knows, is about communication. In the end, it always boils down to one question: How do we find a common language? This applies to a professional theatre production as well as to any small performance, to a large and long term group as well as to an informal workshop. How can a director convey his artistic vision to the actors he is working with? How can a performer get across the emotions, thoughts and actions to her audience? How can a group develop a common mode of creative and playful interaction?
If you’re working on a given play, have a date for the premiere and a more or less well structured production, the pressure is sometimes high to achieve this goal; all theatre practitioners know stories in which variations on the theme “I just don’t know what he/she is TALKING about” occur. High quality artists are frequently quite eccentric people and often it proves impossible to find a common playground for a creative process. It is clearly an advantage if the pressure of achieving a “product” is taken away from the creative process. In our research phase for the international theatre project PHONE HOME, we are trying to do exactly this: Concentrate on the process of joint creative work, find ways of getting into contact across borders of language and of culture and explore ways of getting to know each other.
This article is intended as the first in a series of contributions in which on the one hand experience we have gained in our PHONE HOME WORKSHOPS is documented and analysed. On the other hand, I will invite theatre practitioners not involved in our project, but working in similar settings to share their experience in a contribution. Thus, we hope to start a collection, a pool of information that may serve as inspiration and pragmatic toolkit for others. After all, theatre is about communication.
Below, I reproduce the entire structure of one of the first workshops we did. In the following posts, individual parts of workshops – like warmup/basic exercises/more specific exercises will be focused on.
VOLUME #1 – WELCOME
[Theatre workshop conducted with fifteen children and adolescents from Syria, Afghanistan, East Africa and five adults from Germany. The group didn’t know each other before.]
Of course it’s names for starters. When the participants arrived, we write name badges for everyone. Serving as an ice breaker and a very simple introduction, we assemble in a circle with a plastic ball (ours is fashioned like a globe). The person with the ball looks at another one, says their name, throws them the ball. There’s a certain noise level, a couple of participants say their own name when throwing the ball, but after demonstrating it a couple of times, everybody gets the rules. So we go for speed, try to make the ball fly faster through the room, and finally, there’s a flow.
[Duration: Depending on group size, not more than 5 min. // Material: Ball]
Note: When first doing this, we tried it without the name badges – bad idea: You may think you’ve heard a couple of names in your live, but when language is an issue anyway, make sure everyone can also read the names of all the participants.
We put on some dance music (not too loud) and the instructor starts to demonstrate how to get the rust out of our joints: circling the right hand, circling the right shoulder, left hand, left shoulder, right foot, right hip, left foot, left hip. Finally shaking away your hands like after washing them, similar with the feet. Bow down the upper half of your body to stretch the hamstrings while exhaling; inhale while erecting the spine bone by bone, until you reach at the stars. Repeat several times. Shake.
[Duration: 8 min.]
WORK OUT: BALLOONS
In order to channel some of the pent up energy in the participants, we turn the volume of our dance music a little up. Participants are to spread in the room, they can dance if they want to. We bounce a couple of balloons into the group. The task: The balloons must not touch the ground. Very simple if you can use your hands. Harder if you can only use your elbows. Quite hard if you can only use your head.
[Duration: 8 min.]
PAUSE – 10 min.
FOCUS: IMPULSE CIRCLE
The “Impulse Circle” is a classical exercise for theatre groups in order to encourage cooperation and focus concentration in the group. The participants gather around in a circle, one instructor claps his hands together to the next person (ideally, one who’s already familiar with the game) and thus “hands it on” to them. This person “receives” the impulse facing the giver, then turns to the next person and claps to them, “handing it on” etc. First goal is to make everyone understand how the impulse is to travel around the group, we try to speed up and make it a smooth movement. The advantage is that this can be explained with little or no words. As soon as all have understood, we introduce a new element; the receiver can now raise their hands to “block” the impulse and give it back, going “Boing!”. (A variation is to clap twice in order to give the impulse back). There’s no end of variations to the impulse circle, if the group is familiar with it, you can send the impulse across the room, you can add sounds to a certain movement etc.
[Duration: 12 min.]
Now this is more challenging, although not impossible to explain to a group in which language barriers exist. The instructor greets the group in their own language: “Guten Tag – auf Deutsch” / “Good afternoon – in English”. Now the question is: What is the greeting in your language? We encourage participants to walk around the room and when they meet exchange greetings in their respective language and learn the greeting in the language of the other person. Additionally, participants can also be encouraged to write their greetings down. If this works well in the group, you might want to encourage the participants to invent gestures to go along with the greetings – the more fantastical, the better. This part of the exercise, though, can be difficult to explain.
[Duration: 10 min.]
IMPROVISATION: WELCOME MONUMENTS
Participants sit facing the stage. Bring along a picture of the Statue of Liberty, in order to illustrate what a “monument of welcome” may mean. Now take one participant on stage and make them assume the pose of the statue. Try to convey that this monument for many people in the past has had a great significance as a symbol of welcome to a new world and a new life. (This is quite a challenge!) Now give the statue a movement – e.g. spreading its arms, which is to be carried out repeatedly. Add another participant to the monument with another movement in another pose, maybe a third or fourth one. When all is “sculpted”, stop the action for a moment, have the audience close their eyes, and when they open them, go “action!” and take a mental picture. Now select a new participant as sculptor who is to arrange his or her floating monument of welcome. Repeat this until everyone has been involved.
[Duration: Depending on the number of participants, 15 to 30 min.]
PAUSE – 10 min.
FUN GAME: MIRRORS
Gather the participants in a circle, chose one of them who is now to be the “original” while you play the “mirror”. Imitate their every move, facial expression – if participants have never done this before, it will always get a good laugh. Then change the roles. Have the group pair up and do this individually. In theory, the aim would be to forget about the distribution of roles and find a way of communicating / mirroring without words, but this is hard to convey without verbal explanation.
[Duration: 10 min.]
COOL DOWN: LINE DANCE
We put on dance music once more and form two lines facing each other. One instructor starts with some simple dance steps, like four steps to one side, clap, four steps to the other side clap etc. The lines follow a couple of times. Try to encourage some other participants to invent some dance steps. After a couple of routines, this exercise may well dissolve in some individual dancing.
[Duration: As long as people have fun]
When you sense that the group dissolves, fade out the music and gather the group once more in a circle. Thank everyone for participating and try to explain when the next workshop takes place. Everybody take their neighbours’ hands and expand the circle as wide as possible. Start with a low “woooooo” that grows louder as you lead the group to come together in the middle and finish in a big cheer and applause. Afterwards, put on some more music so people can still hang around and dance, if they want to.
When we conducted this workshop, we had some other exercises prepared, some of which we skipped, because we felt it to be better, some of which didn’t work out that well. The ones I have put together here are (by and large) possible to convey by demonstration and imitation. The programme is suitable for a very mixed group as a first encounter; our participants had a lot of fun.