Workshops: How do you survive?

Hedda Gabbler is a new weekly blog on AYT by Becci Curtis – read every Monday her tales of woe of theatre cliches. Watch out for our new weekly blogs on Wednesdays and Fridays too.

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, pull up a seat and enter the obligatory drama circle. Make yourselves comfortable, I’m going to tell you a little story…

Imagine, if you will, a room of black box proportions; a circle of chairs; 10 nervous participants with or without notepads and pens, all under the watchful eyes of two artfully dishevelled, superior beings. It’s your average workshop right? WRONG. This is the workshop from hell. Are you scared yet? You should be.

I’m there. I’m one of those apprehensive participants handing over their artistic integrity to be manipulated into whatever form the workshop leaders deem fit. Within as many minutes, all ten of us have sobbed our little hearts out and told more of our life stories than we ever cared to. Great. Everyone loves a bit of catharsis as an act of group bonding.

Onto exercise two. ‘A Lesson in Talking to Inanimate Objects’. It’s all in the name of theatre dahling. I kid you not. A woman takes to the floor and confesses the intimate secrets of her childhood to a red umbrella.

I’m starting to think that I don’t like this place.

Workshop leader number one pipes up, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong. Can you really ask the candle…how it is?” I start to get sceptical and begin to look around trying to find a comrade. I can’t be the only one thinking the forbidden question but then I ask it out loud and realise that I really am on my own. ‘What has this got to do with theatre?’ I ask in earnest. Pairs of eyes scowl back at me – how dare I question the process!

Sound familiar boys and girls? Is it any wonder why we have to tirelessly defend our interest in drama and the regular assumption that within the four walls of the rehearsal room, we do nothing but perfect the impersonation of trees?

What I absolutely abhor about this type of workshop (I refuse to lump them all into the same abominable category) is that it is devised solely on the basis of showing off the leader’s ‘talent’ and (questionable) expertise. The participants are expected to follow the leader in a theatrical game of Simon Says only to be spat out at the end, beguiled as to how they – as we say in Bristol – came a cropper.

My advice for workshop success is the same as my advice for a great actor/director relationship: be curious; throw yourself into the deep end because if you don’t you’ll never know what great things you could have discovered; trust your instincts; if it feels right it probably is and the same goes if it doesn’t. But above all, don’t shy away from asking questions. The creative act depends on it. Workshops are best when structured but no-one, including the leader, should have an end in sight or pre-determine what will happen.

Workshops are an excellent way of sounding out ideas and making discoveries when used properly but more often than not, they are the work of the drama devil. And if at any point the workshop leader turns to you and says ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing’, please do me a favour, run for your lives and don’t look back.

Image by gu@n on flickr, see their images here.