Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Actors and Chairs: Towards the Genealogy of a Rehearsal Room Exercise

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Actors and Chairs: Towards the Genealogy of a Rehearsal Room Exercise

Article excerpt

Could it not be that we

Are here to say: house,

Bridge, cistern, gate,

Pitcher, flowering tree,

Window - or at most:

Monolith . . . skyscraper?

But to say them in a way

They, themselves, never

knew themselves to be?

from The Ninth Duino Elegy, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Hunter

In the rehearsal room, one of the director's key tasks is the establishment of a particular syntax to govern the interactions between actors and objects in the event to be performed. This may be the straightforward setting of pathways so that actors don't bump into the furniture or it may be abstract, complex and choreographic. In either case, though, the constructed relationship between actor and object on stage involves the transformation of one by its relation to the other in performance. Beginning by tracing the genealogy of one particular exercise involving chairs and actors, this article explores some of the ways that actors and directors employ chairs in the rehearsal room and on stage, not only as somewhere to sit but also as repositories for imaginative projection and transformation; as historicised 'fetish', as transitional object and as potential space in the developmental trajectory from the rehearsal room to the stage.

Chairs are always there in the rehearsal room, so they are always available for that kind of transformational play that is central to the rehearsal process. I first encountered the exercise described below at the Mill Theatre in the late 1970s.1 The company's dramaturgical and movement vocabulary came from James McCaughey (artistic director) and choreographer, Nanette Hassall, whose weekly movement classes with the company were profoundly influential. I had thought that this particular exercise had arisen as a dancerly extension of an imagination starter in the Viola Spolin2 style, in which actors/workshop participants would be asked to interact with an object in a realistic fashion and then in an 'unrealistic' way. Spolin' s book, first published in 1963 and reprinted eleven times to 1977, was one of only a handful of texts that the company used, or indeed had access to, at the Mill. However, when she describes exercises involving "The Transformation of Objects' using language which was also integral to the company's practice, she is speaking of imaginary objects created by the actors' effectively using mime, though she never calls it that. Augusto Boal3 describes several exercises that appear to be related to the work we did at the Mill, but even though Boal first published Theatre of the Oppressed in 1979, the Company had no real knowledge of his work. Interestingly, Boal cites no sources other than his own field trips for the games he describes, yet they must have come to him as to all theatre workers through the particular mixture of different trainings and the shared oral tradition of the workshop and rehearsal as well as through his own invention or adaptation. The instruction for the version of the exercise that we did at the Mill was simply to find three ways of being with a chair in which you depended on the chair and then to find three ways in which the chair depended on you. It is worth noting the quite particular but also quite casual anthropomorphising language of the instruction, suggesting as it does the interchangeability of human and chair and the notion that animate and inanimate can share and even exchange roles and characteristics in the processes of performance-making.

Searching for the origins of this work, I suggested to James McCaughey that the exercise might have been one that he and Nanette Hassall - dancer, choreographer, founding artistic director of Danceworks and a co-creator of the performance course - did with the students in the Performing Arts course that he had created for Dcakin University in 1978:

JMcC: ... an early exercise that we did with Nan was a solo with an object and that was something that we'd give the students but it absolutely had to be the propensity of the object to move, to sound, or just to be . …

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