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Ensemble approaches for rehearsal

5:33, 14th November 2019

Adam Cross imparts some invaluable advice for rehearsals. These ideas and tips could be used to thoroughly rehearse ensembles for performance at A Level or GCSE or to aid rehearsals for a school production.

‘Teamwork’ is a buzzword often associated with the benefits of drama in school contexts. As subject specialists we may prefer to talk about ‘ensemble’, which implies rather more: a group not just working together, but becoming finely attuned and mutually reliant as a company, enabling focused, creative work to emerge. The notion of ensemble sits at the heart of the importance of drama in education – building trust, empathy and a sense of community. Yet this work takes time. The great theatre companies dedicating themselves to this principle, from the Berliner Ensemble to the Royal Shakespeare Company, factor months and even years of training into their process. So how can we build strong ensemble practice into time-pressed school rehearsal rooms?

Top tip

Try summarising the narrative of one scene from your piece into a paragraph of prose, and asking small groups of students to bring it to life as a group. In the short piece they create, ask all performers to be part of the telling at all times, working together on physical and vocal choices in the preparation and showing. You will learn as much from seeing them at work as you will from what they come up with.

Some teacher-directors even prefer to cast their company in the first instance, and embark on the rehearsal process before assigning individual roles.  Spending initial rehearsals exploring sections of the piece with fluid casting can increase the sense of ownership felt by each individual, and throw up creative possibilities in exciting and unexpected ways. It also has the benefit of seeing who starts to rise to the rehearsal process and respond to each character before crucial casting choices have been pinned down.

If you have students taking on design or technical roles, you can involve them in the same way at this stage. It starts to build an ethos that says whatever the specific role, everyone shares equal responsibility for making and delivering the piece.

 Establish the creative space

The company dynamic starts to develop from the moment the group assembles. If you can, try and develop the routine of entering the rehearsal space as a group. Simple as it may sound, this can have a positive impact on the initial tempo of the session. Dominant characters can start to own a rehearsal space in subtle and sometimes unhelpful ways.

 Top tip 1

Try instilling the routine of starting and finishing any rehearsal by forming a circle, the very act of which is an instant leveller. Circles have a democracy which is vital for the ensemble ethos – everyone is equal and visually connected.

Some companies which have the benefit of working in the same space day-to-day, find it helpful to dedicate some wall space to the project. School rehearsal rooms and studios are likely to be used for different purposes across an average day, but relevant images, research and notation of ideas from rehearsals inhabiting the space can be a productive use of early sessions, enabling your ensemble to share the imaginative world of the piece.

 Always start with the group

In any rehearsal session, even one involving only a small number of participants, or with one dominant character on the page, treat the work as a group endeavour. It can be helpful to start with a brief exercise to focus the group dynamic, and establishes a mutually reliant atmosphere. In a busy, multi-disciplinary school day, young actors can take a little time to focus into the particular outward-facing, engaged way of working we ask of them as teacher-directors. If the scene in question is text-based, try reading it around the circle in the first instance, for example, rather than immediately dividing into individual roles. Without the careful establishing of a group-focused rehearsal atmosphere, the performances of untrained actors can develop in introverted and even self-regarding ways, rather than living through the charge of the relationship with others on stage.

 Top tip 2

As a regular starting exercise, try creating simple orders, passed across the circle and repeated. Layering different orders on top of one another increases the challenge and collective concentration required. As teacher-director, this also gives you a chance to assess the level of energy and focus each company member is bringing to the room on that particular day. [/box]

Be open to offering

It is always a challenge to create a rehearsal room culture where company members feel able and empowered to offer creative suggestions, but in a way which always focuses and drives the practical work in hand. This is a difficult equation for any company of professional actors. It may be complicated further in a context where students, especially younger ones, are used to the subtly different dynamic and expectations of the conventional classroom. Some teacher-directors deploy older students as assistant or co-directors within the company, which can work especially well if there is a range of ages within it. In this situation, try handing an early rehearsal over to the group completely. They will familiarise and start to explore choices in the material, taking group ownership. When you come to look at the work, you will have a good basis from which to start. With careful scheduling, this system can make productive use of time, as well as empowering the ensemble.

Descriptive praise may be the single most important tool in the ensemble rehearsal room. As a director, try constantly to describe to the actors what they are doing effectively in a particular moment. This is not just about building confidence; it is also vital for actors, and especially untrained ones, to be able to reflect on what they are doing. They cannot see and hear themselves. If you can, try handing the responsibility for descriptive praise to others in the rehearsal room who are not involved in that stage moment. Not only are you further empowering the company voice, but creating a culture of attention in the room.

Hold your nerve

As rehearsals press on, time spent on anything other than practical staging choices may start to feel like an unaffordable luxury. Even when the work seems far from ‘ready’ for an audience, remember that company ensemble work remains ultimately the most important preparation for that moment.

Top tip 3

In a later rehearsal, try returning to the audition exercise of improvising a telling of the piece in groups. This time, try telling the whole story. This can both refresh the immediacy of the narrative, as it will communicate to an audience, but also reinforce the collective responsibility for sharing it.

When the company moves into the performance space, try not to lose the company routines you have established. The process will likely become heavily focused on an audience’s experience at this stage, and the company can start to feel more disjointed. Remember to reform the circle on stage each time before showing the work!

Take a bow

Tight ensemble companies often feel ecstatic at the end of a performance, and rightly so. The curtain call is an important moment. Regardless of the amount of time on stage each individual performer has had, the company has created something together, and it is important to recognise this at the very end. Tiered curtain calls can feel awkward, and undermine the sense of ensemble. I’m not suggesting that a young actor playing a lead role shouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity for an individual bow, but think carefully about the message being put across.

Don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back. The ‘perfect’ ensemble dynamic will never quite exist, and no group is without its challenges. Even if you feel the ensemble ethos was only partially integrated, your collaborative approach will bear fruit in often invisible ways.

This article originally appeared in the 2017 Autumn 2 issue of Teaching Drama. To access older issues of Drama & Theatre (previously known as Teaching Drama) subscribe to the digital version of the magazine: http://bit.ly/2MWf9SK

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