Home Truths: Workshops

Feature in Issue 22-1 | Spring 2010

Total Theatre’s Canny Granny takes a chisel and saw in hand and carves up the idea of workshops.

‘Anyone who uses the word “workshop” who isn’t connected with light engineering is a wanker,’ Alexei Sayle famously said. You can get this quote printed on one of those insulated mugs at urbandictionary.com, and take it into a drama workshop with you, if only to make people wonder what Alexei Sayle would call you then. Still, I should like this slogan embroidered on my tartan blanket.

Chris Goode recently took similar umbrage when someone used the word ‘energy’ in a workshop which he was running at Toynbee Studios. I personally went home on the first night and sulked over his use of the word ‘matrix’. What newfangled language everyone’s speaking these days! We made some theatre that suggested being ‘at home’, though for some of us the resulting performance suggested being in a home. Which confirms my suspicion that workshops are like day centres for lunatic dramatists.

Some friends did the workshop with Nic Green in preparation for the naked dance in Trilogy at the Barbican. One said she just needed ‘a chance’ to get her kit off, rather than ‘a process’. I personally have got into a bit of a process with my tights recently, so I wish I’d been there. But the sessions helped build a community, and they came away galvanised.

The writer Octavia Butler describes a workshop as ‘a great way of renting an audience’. Some workshop activities would be mad if nobody were watching. At least, I like to think my friend Richard would not try sexing up a raw chicken at home, as he did to hilarious and ghastly effect on Jonathan Young’s Clown Through Mask course.

Some workshops are called masterclasses. These are drama workshops where virtuosos give the less gifted a two-day glimpse of the skills they have accrued throughout their lives, thus reminding the amateurs that as they haven’t been juggling/using a trapeze/ practising butoh/twirling nipple tassels since their early teens they can pretty much forget it.

Thanks to this process I have learned to leave breakdancing, capoeira, ballet, jazz singing, juggling, drumming, yoga, acting, and breathing to the professionals. Or at least, to the younger generation. The late great Ken Campbell is known to have devoted entire days to demonstrating how to walk on stage with maximum ham, though his entertaining digressions about parrots led him to be largely forgiven.

Of course, not all workshops are so hierarchical. Some, like Improbable’s Devoted & Disgruntled, have democracy embedded within their very structure. And so it is that you find yourself talking with bigwigs and smalltoupees about everything from punk rock to live parenting. I was particularly taken with a discussion on ‘honouring the elders’ – you can read it on the D&D5 blog.

I like workshops which are philosophically enlightening – Lone Twin did a writing session at Chelsea Theatre as part of the Sacred season. Seeing participants’ writing gain depth through the day was like looking at an MC Escher drawing and gradually perceiving the hidden dimensions.

As the child of a carpenter, I associate workshops with the smell of sawdust and the sight of oily singlets. Now they more frequently invoke the smell of coffee and the sight of men in loose clothing. (They seem to be a rare chance for men to wear things without zips.)

One final note of warning: don’t wear Lycra to a workshop, however young you are. If this even needs explanation, the YouTube clip entitled ‘Bobsled runner Gillian Cooke splits her spandex’ should suffice. There are some hidden dimensions that are best kept that way.

What was discussed at Devoted & Disgruntled 5: http://devotedanddisgruntled5.blogspot.com http://devotedanddisgruntled.ning.com and www.improbable.co.uk/

Nic Green’s Trilogy: www.nicgreen.org.uk and www.makeyourownherstory.org

Bobsled runner Gillian Cooke splits her spandex: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DFytp51-r8

Lone Twin: www.lonetwin.com Lone Twin’s The Catastrophe Trilogy at Barbican 2–9 March, www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/series.asp?ID=804

Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred season: www.chelseatheatre.org.uk

Jonathan Young (Shams Theatre) Clown Through Mask workshops: www.shamstheatre.org.uk/page. php?id=6&type=content

Currently touring new show Reykjavík.

Chris Goode is an associate artist at ArtsAdmin: http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/projects/associateartist.php?id=32 He has published a book this autumn (The History of Airports) and blogs at http://beescope.blogspot.com – Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-1
p. 19