Workshop Number One: NPAK – Yerevan

I gave my first workshop today which was focused on some basic devising skills. It was a bit tricky as I had only 2 hours and an unknown set of participants in terms of their level of skill, knowledge and expertise. There were about 30 people, but they came and went and not everyone participated. There was a wide mix of people – some of who were more advanced as performers and some who were less advanced. There was some resistance and confusion about what I wanted to achieve, although I sensed that most of this was about the hard work they had to do to translate what I was teaching them into their own understanding of theatre which comes from a very rigid system of Stanislavsky-based work. The participants seemed to want a clear system and/or a clear answer for everything and not all of them were very comfortable with experimentation, but again this was more to do with fear. There was one person who was not a performer at all who gave it a go and did some really good work.

The workshop was about 30 minutes longer than it was supposed to be, but largely this was because we started late as not everyone showed up on time and because translation took a long time. The translator was fantastic – really adept at finding a balance between giving me the information I needed without disrupting –  but she had a hard job as there is also a kind of cultural translation that was going on which wasn’t easy to get across. Some people were expecting a digital workshop and found what I was doing to be too basic (although even those people didn’t fully get into it or do very convincing performances). There were some very good performers who seemed to get it more than the others – although it was hard in such a short time to do very much. In general, I felt that they all had real potential. I doubt if anyone really internalized the ideas I was trying to get across, but that’s okay. I imagine that some of them will use it in surprising ways sometime in the future. Although it was a bit hard, I got a very good sense of what could be possible for next time and was really lucky to have the opportunity to meet some really interesting performers.

This is the structure I used in the workshop:

I started by introducing who I was and talking about the basic goals of the workshop – that it was about giving you some tools to make original performance material from stimulus around you, instead of from a play text.

I then told them that I wanted them to think about these things during the workshop:

1. Relationship with Audience: I asked if they knew what fourth wall is (and less then half indicated that they did – although I think most of them did know what it was). I explained the concept to everyone to be sure they understood it. I then suggested that using a 4th wall is one way to work but another is to be aware of the audience and to include them, without being interactive at all. I gave an example by having a small scene with one student played two ways: first I gave him a cherry and he ate it, ignoring the audience. Then, we did it again and I created an awareness of the audience in how I performed it so that the passing of a cherry to him to eat was an act of subterfuge which I didn’t want the audience to know about, even though I was clearly looking at the audience for most of the time. We then talked about eye contact and the difference between looking at the audience and through the audience (not everyone understood this as far as I can tell -we had a lively debate about it at one point).

2. Task: I introduced the idea that a task might be just a task (eating a bag of cherries, say) or it might be a task performed for an audience (which takes into account number one above). I did a demonstrate where I just ate some cherries on the stage totally normally. I suggested that the eating of the cherries is a task and could be observed and could be interesting to watch. I then asked a student to do a demonstration of how you might take this basic task (eating a cherry) and make it into something that feels a bit more sculpted/performed, or that has some kind of perspective. I asked him to start by laying out the cherries in a perfect line across the table, keeping an awareness of the audience. I then asked him to eat eat cherry in a totally different way. He interpreted this to mean to eat it with a different emotional purpose, I think, rather than dissecting a cherry or picking it up with his tongue… but I think they got the idea. We discussed the difference between these two approaches and I asked them to think of how they could include this sense of a banal task becoming performance in their task.

3. Rules: I then suggested that every performance/play etc has rules. In the case of a traditional play, the rules are largely set by the conventions of the theatre and the text in the script. The rules are given by the playwright. In the kind of work we are making, they needed to decide the rules for themselves. I discussed how rules might be arbitrary to begin with (i.e., you cannot use the word cherry in a performance that is all about cherries, or you cannot use your right leg, or you cannot move quickly on one side of the stage). We discussed language rules, spatial rules, body rules, etc. I then suggested that there is a politics or a meaning that is implicit even in apparently ‘random’ rules. Choosing to not say the work cherry in a performance about cherries says something – no rule is actually arbitrary.

4. Content: I then asked that they always work from what you care about no matter what it is and that you use what you have a passion for. I suggested that they needed to have an opinion or a desire about what they are working with or the performance will feel dusty, irrelevant, etc. They didn’t really get this, I don’t think. They were maybe a little too concerned with knowing the answer of what I wanted, or what the ‘key’ was (not all of them – and I should say I don’t think anyone is at fault here except me – I would have pitched this differently had I known who was coming).

5. Frame: The last thing I mentioned was the notion of a frame in performance. I talked about how there are frames in traditional plays – the proscenium, for instance, the well-made play, Brecht’s placards, the fourth wall, etc, but also others (like – a setting, a situation, an understanding that you have with the audience). A frame can be conceptual like, the way you enter a space or exit a space, a motif, a repeated action. They also didn’t quite understand this.

Then, I followed a workshop that comes from work I’ve done with auditions for CTP and that builds on what my colleague Kevin Egan has done as a basic compositional exercise. I put them into groups and gave each group an Armenian newspaper. I then asked them to come up with the following: 1. A way of entering the space, 2. An action (taken as a response from an image from the newspaper), 3. A gesture (also taken from the newspaper image), 4. A line of text (from the newspaper), 5. A path to follow, 6. A way of exiting the space.

They found this exercise really confusing at first as they all wanted to know what the story should be and they seemed to not really consider any of the things we had just talked about. I went around, reminding them of this and encouraging them to work abstracting, but not all of them fully understood this. They then showed these pieces after which we took a short break so they could smoke.

After the break we talked about their performances vis-a-vis the five principles I laid out at the beginning and we critiqued in detail one group’s piece. Because of time, we didn’t critique every piece as a large group. Instead, I asked them make some changes to their sequence drawing on stillness, repetition, and inconsistency. So they were asked to find moments for the sequence to stop/freeze/slow down, moments for the smaller elements to repeat (together, or at intervals), and choose one element that seems slightly out of place with the rest of the material and make sure it only happens once in the sequence (or not at all).

I then visited each of the groups who didn’t get a critique and gave them some thoughts, opinions, feedback on what they had made, encouraging them to try some more abstract things. With one group, we spent a lot of time with the group trying to get from me what the ‘essence’ of what I wanted was… eventually we got there by me giving an example that related to this specific woman (she was one of the people who I spent the evening walking with last night). The piece they made after this discussion was a million times more interesting – it explored the fractured nature of their group (they all spoke different languages) and the notion of the frame (they spent a lot of time off stage, or only partially on stage.

After I visited each group, they showed their revised pieces and we critiqued them all. Every one of them improved massively and some were the seeds of what could be quite interesting performance pieces. Unfortunately, when I asked what they thought of the work and whether they would use any of it, some said yes – very interesting – and some said that they would probably forget it right away. I could be very disheartened by this, but I’m not really as I know that they will likely find ways to use this -they just don’t really know that yet themselves. If they worked hard at it many of these performers could really go somewhere…there was an enormous range of talent in the room, but I think we needed more time (at least a week) and more space to really consider how to translate (not verbally but culturally) the ideas that I was trying to share.

In general, although I didn’t get some rapturous sense that they loved it, I felt happy with this as a first real workshop here. I’ll make adjustments now to my next workshop and have definitely gathered some very useful information about what to do in a longer collaboration. Clearly a short visit doesn’t really work in this context – there is a real need for sustained work in order to have an impact in Armenia, in my opinion. The talent is here, it just needs the right structure to allow it to develop.

I also have to say that the space was brilliant and the translator, Kristine, was excellent. Such a relief to have her help. I was also really glad to see Tatev and Sargis, the translators who worked with us on HighFest – they both came and helped out. They also made some really astute observations about what I was trying to do. I was sorry that I didn’t have time to stay and talk to them, but I really needed to leave to have a break afterwards! Shortly I will have dinner with NPAK’s director in a cafe outside. Looking very much forward to having some delicious Armenian food!

Here are some images of the space I was working in – a lovely small theatre which overlooks a gigantic exhibition space:

Here are some shots of me in ‘action’ and students working in my sessions:

Me 'demonstrating' the banal way of eating a cherry.


Creating groups to do the practical exercises.
Me with the brilliant translator, Kristine.
Working with the group that eventually made the piece that used the notion of the offstage.
A group exploring the notion of bikes vs. cars and the idea of 'senselessness'
Group exploring notions of freedom, including a non-performer, performing.
Talking to the group between versions of their pieces.
Explaining something, with the amazing Edward Balassanian, co-founder of NPAK in the foreground.


Lovely piece with two parallel streams of work about relationships using simple and straightforward approach to making their piece.
Another image from the 'couples' piece.
Students listening intently...


A massively revised version of a piece which originally was about a babushka, but became about using the theatrical and cinematic frame.

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