C’est La Vie

Feature in Issue 9-4 | Winter 1997

Is it true that there are only three reasons for attending a theatre workshop: to get laid, to get a job or to sort out some deep psychological problem? Dorothy Max Prior attended Discovery 2, Total Theatre's annual practitioner exchange last September, and discovered plenty of other good reasons to spend a week with other artists in the French countryside.


In England autumn has arrived, but in South West France it is still summer. Thirteen of us are gathered at a long wooden table under a cherry tree at Centre Sélavy, a 'non-product orientated' performance centre which doubles as an organic farm. The centre is run by husband and wife team Amanda Speed and John Rudlin, who hosted the second Discovery practitioner exchange organised by Total Theatre. Some of us were also present at the first Discovery at The Hawth, Crawley in the Summer of 1996.

We warm-up in the sand garden overlooking the fields. The sand is hot underfoot and we can hardly open our eyes as we face the midday sun. Jeanie McCaghren leads the first session in the main studio, a converted stone barn with sprung wooden floor. We work blindfolded in pairs, creating sound rhythms and movement mantras and learning salutations from the Indian Kerala tradition. The integration of voice and bodywork and the application of personal biography proves indicative of the theme of the week's work.


On Tuesday we work with Jon Potter and his travelling companions – a trio of whole head masks including one of Prince Charles. This culminates in four wonderful pieces of site-specific theatre; in a pig-pen, a disused caravan, an orchard, and an outdoor dining area with candelabra. Each of these becomes a setting for a surreal tableau, the heat and intensity of the sun adding to the experience of masked figures wallowing in mud with pigs or serving carrots to Prince Charles. In the afternoon we celebrate the autumn equinox by creating a shrine of found objects and personal mementoes as part of Mel Dolan's session, which also includes both voice and movement work on the four elements.


Wednesday's morning session is led by Katrina Caldwell on the theme 'what makes you cry?' Katrina introduces the 'creative response', a way of working that uses free-form writing as a response to a situation or a piece of work. The process makes creating work based on emotional material much easier. Holding the theme of the session whilst we work, we are directed to find a space for ourselves anywhere we like in or around the farm and spend ten minutes sitting quietly observing, then ten minutes writing a free-flowing stream of words in response to what is before and within us. We develop this writing into a piece of solo theatre using key words as inspiration, then present that work to others who 'respond creatively’ with an un-edited stream of thought or keywords. Working in this way has a dynamic effect on everyone.

With limitless energy we get through two more sessions this afternoon and evening, a physical workout with Heather Uprichard and Ben Harrison where we throw real sticks and draw with imaginary threads, followed by Steven Powell's wonderful cornucopia of ideas. Eventually we split into two groups to create an Opera that has a death, a love interest, a chorus and a Grand Finale!


On Thursday, Amanda Speed leads the group on a journey to discover what each of us finds precious in the surrounding environment. We walk, think, write, listen, respond and then eventually create pieces of solo work that amalgamate these discoveries into personal performances of word and movement. In Jane Sutcliffe's afternoon session we create ensemble work around the theme of being trapped.


On the last working day I lead a session on 'Transition' – the movement from one state of being to another. Using breath, voice and physical work the group create their own movement life cycle, which is then integrated with written reinterpretations of the poem Prayer before Birth to create solo pieces which are among the most poignant of the week. Sarah Pearce's afternoon session is, by contrast, full of laughter and naughtiness. We tell each other dreadful lies, give impossible gifts and explore the comic possibilities of archetypes.

Le Weekend

By the last day we have each led our own session and experienced something of everyone else's work. We are elated by the quality of the work we have created together, but feel the effect of so much concentrated effort. We spend our last day relaxing, filling in our diaries and writing in each other's notebooks. In the morning we take our first step into the outside world and drive to the local street market, taking Prince Charles with us to experience a little local colour.

It's dawn over France, we've left Centre Sélavy and are heading towards Dieppe. We've said goodbye to John and Amanda, the goats, pigs, ducks and to Scooby Doo the dog. We all have our own personal memories of the week, but some of the shared ones include the sand garden, the outdoor meals, the chestnut wood fireworks, the echo in the field, the quality of light in the studio and the quality of listening within the group. I came to Sélavy hoping to explore the synthesis of voice and bodywork, the integration of text with physical work and the extension of movement work into a more holistic, total expression of the human ability to feel and communicate. I left feeling that I've made enormous leaps towards achieving those goals.

This article in the magazine

Issue 9-4
p. 18 - 19