On Thursday 17th September 2015, I attended a workshop at the National Theatre as part of the youth programme there. The workshop was three hours in a group of just fourteen with the staff (assistant) director of the play People, Places and Things (Holly Race Roughan) which is currently playing at the national. The session was really informative and thought-provoking, especially for someone working as both a performer and director.
Initial discussions centred around whether we can ever truely know what it is like to be another person. As theatre makers, we usually want our audience to go away with a new or developed understanding of a person or situation. But are our audience really understanding what it is like to be the character on stage or are they just recognising emotions that they have experienced themselves; can the audience understand what it is like to be a bat or are they restricted by the fact that they are human and can only conceive human emotions?
The creative team on People, Places and Things wanted to create a piece entirely from one person’s point of view. They wanted the images on stage to show the main character’s (Emma’s) experience of the events instead of the events from an outsider’s perspective. Essentially, they wanted the audience to spend two hours experiencing Emma’s life, and our workshop was about how they overcame the problems that they faced.
One of the exercises that we did involved just seven lines of text from the play:
A – Look at me, I know you don’t I.
B – I’ve just got one of those faces
A – What’s your…?
B – Is that one of the questions?
A – It is.
B – Is it important?
A – Is it a secret?
First we had to create a short scene putting the lines in a different context so that we had a basis to work from. One director was assigned to each pair and we had to make the scene appear again, only this time showing B’s experience of the scene – making the audience feel like they were B. A lot of the things that the groups came up with were very immersive and sensory because we were without the mediums of light or sound which have such an emotional effect on the audience. Placing A at centre stage and B behind the audience helped them to see what B was seeing. In this performance, B also spoke in a monotone to make it feel like it was in the audience’s head. This exercise helped me to understand the difference between recounting events on stage and helping the audience experience them.
My favourite exercise in the workshop was when we split the group in half and performed a scene from the play. The only context that you need is that it was a group therapy session. Director, Holly said that this was the hardest scene in the play to get right (they spent four solid days out of a six week rehearsal period working on this section alone) because they wanted to show Emma’s experience of the group therapy session. During the workshop, we got to try our hand at creating a scene from Emma’s point of view. Later, seeing the scene on stage within the performance, I was surprised to see how many elements we had also included in our interpetation. Fast movements and changing levels surrounded Emma to show how frantic and busy the session was, but Emma herself was still and speaking in a monotone to show her disengagement with the activity.
In term of Theatre of Minds, the workshop helped me to think about what I want the audience to see on stage and who I want them to empathise with. Although our play is not going to be from one person’s point of view because we want to show the vastness of the issue of mental health in young people, there will be sections when we want the audience to connect with a particular character and touch the surface of their experiences. I hope that we can use some of the ideas and processes that I learnt about to help people suffering feel less alone, and people who are outsiders to a situation to understand some of the emotions that people go through.
Thankyou to the National Theatre for my experience at the workshop. You can find out what else is going on in the youth programme by looking on the website. People, Places and Things written by Duncan Macmillan is playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National until Wednesday 4th Novemeber.