I have mentioned Roddy Maude-Roxby frequently in the performance workshops. He and I go back to the mid 1970’s. I was then an Education Drama Advisor in Norfolk, where Roddy was living at the time; it was he who first introduced me to improvisation. I was lucky enough to work with him and other members of Theatre Machine. Roddy also told me about the work of Ann Jellicoe and the community plays she was doing in the Dorset, it was to change the direction of my life. I was thrilled when he agreed to come and do a workshop with Claqueur Impro performance group. These notes are based on an aide-memoire” Roddy sent after the workshop.
Prior to the workshop Roddy and I set out the room with a row of chairs, backs to the window and facing the working/performance area. We created a set with items we found around the hall. We placed two low screens at the back with a central gap, in front of which we put two long school benches. We put a table with four chairs Stage left and on the sides a collection of found props that included, brooms, buckets, plastic bollards, an empty trolley used for carrying stacks of chairs, a child size policeman’s helmet etc. This was typical of any Theatre Machine performance using found objects in the venue.
Half the group watched half carried out the first exercise. Roddy gave instructions introducing a new one as and when he felt the last instruction had been competed or exhausted. – First they were asked to explore the space, walk all around it, and get to know it. Then to walk in different directions, feeling relaxed. They then began to get eye contact with the others in the group. Next they were asked to give each other a gentle push; next to make the push a little heavier. Finally they stroked people on the back as they passed. They then gave feedback as to how they felt t each stage; what they liked, or didn’t like. The next group had a go but this time had to remember the sequence (Explore, walk, eye contact, push, stroke) and to move from one stage to the other in sequence without any verbal instruction as to when to change, just pick up from the group. Once finished we gave feedback.
Master & Servant
Two people, were asked to stand, one on each side of the hall. Step one: They walk towards each other and as they pass they are to say “good morning” Step 2: They repeat this, but this time one of them stops and beckons the other back to give them three instructions they want them to carry out. (This determines who is master and who is servant); they are not told which person is to stop and call the other back; they determine it in the moment of passing. This is, as I understand it a status recognition exercise. Step three: The status is designated to each person: One is to be high is to be low. Next: Everyone has a turn with different designated status, two servants, two master combinations. Some scenes are allowed to develop for a short time.
Four chairs. Four performers. They stand either side of an empty playing area. The players enter one at a time as stagehands and place the chairs wherever they want on stage. Roddy was very picky about stagehands placed their chairs as if on their mark, cleanly, efficiently and without characterisation or attitude. The performers then entered one at a time and took a position and attitude on stage. They were then to speak in the order in which they arrived and always speak in the same sequence throughout the scene. We got a symbolic family. If one speaks out of order they were to let the next in turn speak. Roddy said sometime in performance “One would admit to being wrong and then they would get spanked.”
Four people sat on the benches at the back of the playing area facing the ‘audience’. They closed their eyes. Roddy placed half masks on them. He then asked them to shout their names and occupation. He interviewed them all briefly. They were then asked to look at each other, walk about and greet each other. They were then asked to move towards the seated half of the group who were watching; to approach someone and ask for money. They gave reasons why they were collecting money and conversations sprang up. They got into some kind of argument about a planned development of housing at Toad Rock (instigated by Roddy). At their height Roddy asked them all to take off their masks
This time four people were given full masks. They were asked not to speak but asked them questions nevertheless, to which they gestured. A skull mask, however, responded verbally: Roddy commented ” It’s not meant to work, speaking in full masks – somehow that did” he gave the skull permission to talk. The Big Skull Mask spoke of clouds, crossing water & being prepared and suchlike, the other masks empathised. The last group of four included two small masks, a Shaman with a bag of items including a small ladder and a rattle; There was also a mask worn on the back of the head, and a devilish grey mask worn on the forehead. Roddy choreographed the masks asking them to move in specific ways, keep sharing their face with audience. There were ‘sight problems’ for some of the masks but they added to the character nature of the mask. Some of those that were most visually and there for in movement were among the most powerful masks; they demonstrated that less is more.
Dan was asked to come on stage (unmasked now) and o be still and do nothing (the audience laughed). Roddy instructed – “Be surprised by the laughter. Recognise what you are doing and make that a bit more interesting…say something repeat it, develop it…” Dan said he didn’t know what to say. Roddy again: ” admit that you don’t know what to say”.
Players in a circle
A group stood in a circle were to silently signal to someone and cross over. They used sounds and movement until they recognised who they were, something about their relationship, sometimes the ‘game they were playing” There were lovers, and angry women
One player is to go outside, wait a moment, knock and wait until they are given permission to enter. When they encounter another player on stage they just have to to see what develops. There is no other rule. The first pair is a simple welcome and goodbye. The second pair, Roddy has now placed a couple of chairs and puts a soft toy rabbit on one of them. Knock “Come in” and enter. It becomes an interview scene. Roddy interjects: “Talk to a rabbit”. The rabbit enters the conversation. The third pair: Once one of the actors leave Roddy asks the group for a suggested instruction for the actor present on stage. It’s suggested he hides in the cupboard. The Second actor knocks, told to enter. He comes into what he thinks is someone else’s space. He looks around puzzled and eventually sits. Second actor (in the cupboard) knocks. The seated actor on stage says, “come in” (audience laugh.) We play with this for a while giving suggestions and choreographing. This is the beginning of devising from and through impro. See what happened, build it or cancel it, add new ideas
Roddy asked if anyone spoke another language. Gilly speaks French Four players including Gilly were seated round a table. Gilly was asked to speak real French, the other to speak Gibberish French. (by imitating Gilly). Gilly is told she speaks only a little English and is to translate what the others say for the audience.
“The solution is to level with the others”
Hitting the Wall
Two performers on either side of the stage are asked to to hit the wall and bring that energy into the scene. Initially it wasn’t clear and the players talked about the space, decorating it and then moved on to talk about having a holiday in Greece. In his notes after the exercise Roddy said: “I might have called out “Go to Greece, do Greek dancing, use a word at a time”. When we got stuck we changed direction and used a different game. The purpose of the exercise is to allow the force of hitting the wall give an energy, an anger, a frustration, some feeling to bring into the scene.
Blame. Placate. Compute. Distract.
Four players: there are chairs on stage. They are asked to blame an empty chair. (They all do this simultaneously) Then placate it, and then distract it and then compute – that is to have some knowledge of the subject). Then they played a scene in which each actor took on one of the roles each. It became a dysfunctional family. A Roddy note: “The solution is to level with the others.”
Speak from behind.
Four people four chairs two in front two behind. The people sitting behind say the lines of the scene that the two in front repeat. We saw a man give lines to a woman & a woman give lines to a man. Each give lines they’d like to hear from the opposite sex. Accidentally in the second foursome we had two women, each lowering the other with 2 Tennis scorers behind – a nice new game created by serendipity. It’s sometimes interesting to allow a misinterpretation of the rules of a game and them play it