Stop talking and start doing

Caroline Elms takes us through a weekend intensive course with the Almeida Young Company. 

On the morning of Saturday 17 November, I emerge from Southwark tube station into glorious sunshine and dazzling blue skies. I’m on my way to the Tate Modern to meet the rest of the Young Company and embark upon a massive weekend of rehearsing. I haven’t been to the Tate in a while and am quickly reminded as I approach that it is absolutely gigantic. A looming, magnificent bricked tower with many entrances. So many entrances that I start panicking that I’ve made the wrong turning. It’s 9:55am and a late actor is a BAD ONE. But I’m quickly comforted as I see the rest of the group assembling a few yards ahead of me. We are here, we are ready to see some art. But we’re not just here for a leisurely gander - as our director Mike explains to us once we’re all inside. We’re here to find a piece of art from which we can devise a 4-7 minute performance. This is to help us explore how we as artists can use stimuli to make theatre. We are split into three groups and each of these is joined by a couple of the fantastic Young Critics. The critics are tasked with writing a piece to accompany our performance, contextualising and explaining the art which lies behind it as well as creating their own response. Mike gives us two hours to explore the galleries and sets a time for us to all meet again. So with much gusto and excitement, we all set off into the great wide unknown of the Tate Modern…

I have to confess, I am not well versed in the art world. I remember primary school trips to the National Portrait Gallery and am a big fan of sunsets but other than that, have limited knowledge. Yet over those two hours, all of us became completely immersed. Within the first ten minutes, our group discovered a phenomenal exhibition which was inspired by artwork from Japanese manga - incorporating avatars and voiceovers, flashing images and computers. At one point, we walked into a pitch black room and assumed that this section of the exhibition was broken. Suddenly, a voice emerged from the darkness and an eerie, animated woman popped up on a screen. She spoke of being not a ghost, but a shell, used only to be filled with information - touching upon themes of Artificial Intelligence. We then moved up a few floors to a room that was screening a film which lasts 24 hours and is a compilation of scenes and moments from cinema where a specific time of day is referenced. We went in at 10:50am and lo and behold, all of the scenes being shown were set at that time. In this way, the film itself works as a functioning clock. It was magical to watch and we all genuinely didn’t want to leave - but Mike’s words rang in our ears and we knew our own clock was ticking! Moving with haste, we saw sculptures made entirely out of couscous, arresting and vibrant portraits from 1930s Berlin, marble benches engraved with stunning poetry - all vastly different and yet all remarkable. Inevitably the sands of time ran out, and our group, huddled in a corner of the Tate Cafe, agreed that the first exhibition stood out to us the most. We loved the concept of being a shell, or a vessel, and proposed that ultimately that’s what we are as humans. We are born empty and gradually across our lives, we acquire information. As we boarded the tube to Angel to start the devising process, we felt determined and excited to explore the idea further. But that philosophising and creative charge had to wait until after lunch. Two hours of walking around had created a pretty hefty appetite.

Having successfully demolished various burritos and Pret-A-Manger sandwiches, my group sat down and discussed our initial thoughts further. Yes, we are all vessels which acquire information across a lifetime but how do we convey that idea onstage? Information, from our group perspective, could be anything from the lessons our parents teach us to the literal information we receive from the news. One of our group, Kent, spoke of how he loved the colours from the 1930s Berlin exhibition and from this, a suggestion of using paint in the performance arose. We transformed the idea of being empty vessels to one of blank canvases and proposed we use the paint to physically leave marks on each of us throughout our piece. It was a concept that came with many question marks (namely, how do we avoid accidentally repainting the fantastic Richard II set?) but we all agreed that it was an exciting experiment! The next stage of the discussion was dissecting the actual information itself - what are the moments which stay with us as humans? Being told you’re “ugly”, falling in love with someone, seeing something on TV which stays with you - we spoke at length about the events that could impact a person and which ones we wanted to explore in performance.

That first day was particularly challenging in the sense that it’s very easy to talk about ideas but actually getting them on their feet, pushing ourselves to just get up and create, was difficult. Mike pushed all of the groups to stop talking and start doing. Yes, devising is scary, however the nature of it is trial and error and this cannot be done through chit-chat. So the next day, our group hit the ground running and within the first three hours, we had the skeleton of our show. That Sunday afternoon was spent working more in depth on the scenes, recording audio to recreate the ghostly voiceover we’d experienced back at the Tate and refining the transitions to make our story clear to follow. It was absolutely exhausting but with every rehearsed move and scripting of dialogue, we felt our piece coming together. The last piece of the puzzle was to determine how to end our performance. All of us took a moment to think and the conversation moved to our own personal experiences. What specific events or people had shaped us - myself, Kent, Kenny, May and Rees? As we spoke, we realised that what we were saying was incredibly powerful. We’d spent the weekend exploring this abstract idea of humans as vessels but telling our own stories made this feel more immediate and tangible. So, we decided to go into a quiet room and just record us having that very conversation, taking turns to speak. It was this recording which concluded our piece, as we all stood on stage. It was probably the most organic part of our devising process and I was proud that as a group we felt comfortable enough to share our words with each other, and indeed our audience.

The following Tuesday every group got up and performed their work. Everyone was so supportive of each other and the Young Critics as well as the Almeida Participation team came to watch. The performances were absolutely brilliant. Some used live music, others explored lighting and space - oh and did someone say PAINT? Afterwards, each group talked about their rehearsal experience and the Critics gave us their own excellent responses to the art stimuli. It was really rewarding to be able to reflect on how far we’d all come to create these pieces. The weekend was hard work and at times it felt like it was impossible to be innovative or creative, that all our ideas had run out… But to overcome these mental blocks, root for each other, be playful and bold with our ideas, was the greatest feeling. Even if it did take a good 30 minutes to wash off the blue paint. I’m learning so much as a performer through Almeida Young Company and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings!

Find out more about the Almeida Young Company here.