Tag Archives: Theatre Education

Apply Generously

IMG_6274Reviewing the recent four day course in Chekhov Technique which I co-led with colleague Declan Drohan here in Galway with 15 enthusiastic and committed practitioners, I was delighted with the amount of scene work we managed to explore from Woyzeck by Buchner. As always the course was joyous and creative but this issue of application was something Declan and I discussed at length as we prepared the workshop.

WOYZECK, is short poetic and political; it mixes expressionist ensemble and naturalism. Grimness jostles with dark humour. But it is, above all, short. What that shortness allowed in our four day workshop was to allow everyone to get a sense of ‘the whole’. The brevity allowed them to feel they knew the play and could access the Chekhov elements which they explored with more confidence. To some extent this knowledge might be illusory because we ultimately were quite selective with our short scenes and only got a few scenes on their feet. But it felt like we did more, because the play was short.

However, you cannot always pick a short work. In the last summer School, ‘A little Piece of Art’ we used The Cherry Orchard ( a very long play) and explored the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole. I gave short duologues out and we also worked in depth on three short group scenes; one was the arrival of Ranevskaya to the house with her entourage, another was the episode with The Vagrant and we also worked on the final moments when the family leave the house. Applying Form and a Feeling of the Whole to these short passages gave everyone a real sense of where our exploration was going. But we could not get a full sense of the whole play, even though we explored the beginning and the end of it.

If you are going to really approach application then the elements you teach on your course are the very elements you teach as if you were working on the play in reality. In that way the play you pick is a fundamental part of your teaching. Many people come to my courses not just to learn technique but because they are attracted by the play we are going to look at.

However you cannot teach everything , despite the fact that all of Chekhov’s elements are all connected. Sometimes it is a little frustrating to know you cannot do everything all at once (the curse of short courses in particular). There is not time to work on concentration and imagination with the detail and intensity I would like when I have to explore other elements in order for people to use the scenes. The more application I do, the less time there is for that block building. It is a fine balance and different for every course I do.

IMG_6260However, what substantial application offers even in a mixed group, even if it has different layers of success depending on your level is the chance to work with everyone in the group on the play ( especially so when as with WOYZECK, we consciously worked with two or three big ensemble elements in the play). It also offers a freedom for the participant so they do not have to worry quite so much about getting the technique ‘right’. There is a bit less pressure paradoxically through more application.

Some people believe that when learning technique you should not rush into application too soon. Students may mess up. It may not work for them and put them off forever. But this is only so for a few. For others, breakthroughs will happen and, provided you create the right environment, those who are only beginning will be encouraged.

Thanks to everyone who made such a great workshop over the last few days. Next up are two weekends: October 18-20 on Images for Character and November 29- December 1 on Good V Evil, playing King Lear ( there’s a short play!) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

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Radiating and Receiving/A Political Act

The last time I was in Leeds was 1983. I was appearing in a play at Leeds Playhouse, playing a disruptive prisoner in a play about the Hull prison riots, which in its own way confronted and provoked the audience to consider the prison system. This week I went back to Leeds having been asked to attend a conference at Leeds University on Politics, participation and performance, and provide a voice workshop.

After a thought-provoking keynote on citizenship by Professor Stephen Coleman, an exciting and Intense workshop run by Proper Job Theatre in which we were invited to participate and make decisions on a mythical intense family/political drama followed by a presentation on a young people’s project on exploring elections by Miranda Duffy, I then led people towards some psycho-physical exploration of the voice.

All the opportunities given above enhanced my understanding of the challenges of political theatre in all its forms and whilst I have a strand of my work which has a distinct political focus around devising work, I was there to lead a voice workshop. When preparing the workshop I considered many of the voice exercises I have used and developed over my decades of teaching voice and devising with young people and special interest groups  but I wanted to offer something else. It seemed to me I might be offering tricks or easy-fixes when I felt there was something more fundamental at stake. The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible, in a way that is connected and full of conviction. It is of limited use devising a piece we cannot hear (unless it is meant to be silent). Whîlst we can support groups with multimedia and microphones, the most effective way, if possible, is for them to use their own voice.

Someone said at the end that teaching skills to those who are not usually offered them is a political act in itself. Someone alluded to the fact that business people and lecturers are offered skills like voice whereas those not in so privileged positions are bypassed. It makes them feel that these skills are not for them.

Yet even more than effective and committed speech, the one area of exercise which is absolutely fundamental to community, theatre and political action is Michael Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. As Professor Jonathan Pitches, who gave a response to the day suggested, radiating and receiving has a political dimension because you share and integrate a response on a fundamental level. You feel an understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation. It is something I too believe. We spent a good deal of my strand of the workshop working with radiating and receiving to the group and our partners. (As Professor Coleman said in his keynote address, “citizenship is not something that happens alone.” )

So just as teaching voice requires both technical and imaginative development through exercises, perhaps political theatrical engagement requires us to generate not only how we feel about civic and personal qualities we might deem vital for action, it also needs us to develop a deep connection with our body, voice, feelings and imagination to give these qualities a holistic and truly revolutionary dynamic. Perhaps politics has a more spiritual dimension than we might immediately think. For me, without actually touching base with the intangible power of theatre (which Voice and Chekhov technique provoke in abundance) we are missing a chance to make the elemental change that people want and need on all levels.

Having said this, I am not denying the huge material challenges which quash artistic endeavours deemed ‘political’ and make them suspicious to schools and funders. Those who are suspicious fail to realise that all performance is pushing an agenda, for what is an agenda but a view of life? Of course if the agenda is rammed down an audience’s throat it is probably going to be unconvincing, unless you already agree with it, and the probability is it will not be great art. Unless it presents the polarities of the argument it is not empowering, merely proselytising.

Looking at all the threads which knitted themselves in this conference, we seemed to be exploring how theatre empowers people directly; perhaps that is what ‘defines ‘political’. If theatre does not empower or enlighten, well, what use is it?

There was talk about the dynamics of university attitudes to performance and those of the conservatoire training. Much conservatoire training has a kind of attitude I call “training the racehorse”, in other words preparing the student for ‘the business”. If you are already preparing actors for this capitalist enterprise, you are unlikely to encourage political engagement in your students. For me, the nature of theatre education has to change to break this mould. However, the alternative to the “racehorse” model is the more academic approach offered in third level with a lot less contact hours. This is not really adequate either; performance expertise can not be magicked up in a few hours, not if you want to encourage a deep learning; nor is it fully effective as research, unless you are practically proficient in the first place.

One thing is for sure: political theatre in the broadest sense has to be empowering for audiences, participants and actors alike. Chekhov said you have to have a view; how do you want your audience to feel at the end of a play? This view does not have to be polemical but it needs to have a direction. There has to be something or why bother? As artists we have to be responsible.

Thanks to everyone at the conference and to Doctor Sarah Weston for organising it. It gave me a lot to think about.

Assessing Artistry (Strictly Come Dancing and Marking Graduate and Undergrad Performances)

One of my guilty pleasures has got to be Strictly Come Dancing but this is the first series that I have ever watched through to the final. And interestingly, the issue of assessment, who is best in an artistic endeavour which is highly skilled and requires an incredible amount of performance flair, determination and courage, has been the subject of much debate. There have been discussions on TV about fairness, in particular, the unfairness of pitting contestants who have some dance background against those people who have none. On Strictly, to a certain extent, the way they deal with it in the final is ultimately through a “let the people decide” kind of vote, where the judges give some kind of advisory scores and comments and the audience vote on the winner. The assessment of the judges seems to be on merit; that of the audience seems to be based on a sense of who has made the biggest journey and still delivered to a high standard. This means that even though they might not have technically been the best, the length of journey and the way they coped with that journey also comes into focus when people decide. (Just to be clear, I wanted Stacey and Kevin to win – I didn’t think they would).

On the other hand, some might say this is a competition, so should the people who were simply the most skilled in performance, win?

This brings me back to my ‘real’ world; marking for performance on a course which is not strictly a drama training but at the same time has a strong measure of performance in it, on which students get assessed. Some of the students want to be actors; others not.

What does marking actually do? It gives us as students and lecturers alike a sense of what skills and knowledge a student has received and understood. Through performance one gets  a sense of whether they can apply it.

However, it does not actually mean that the student who performs their scenes best and shows the most promise is the person who actually gets the highest overall marks if they cannot back that up with some academic understanding. Furthermore, the journal they submit to me is key to both my understanding not only of their progress, but how well they actually did in performing their final speeches or scenes. For me, it gives an insight into their journey and how far they have come. Without the journal, an assessment of the performance would, for me at least, be almost impossible.

This approach of assessing a whole number of levels of understanding, has the possibility to be quite holistic. This is not true of many conservatoire courses, too focussed on preparing people for ‘the industry’, which do not spend sufficient time on wider educational goals, setting out alternative careers for those who have learned the many transferable skills that the conservatory theatre training gives you.

On the other hand, without some performance proficiency, which requires putting in a sizeable number of contact hours for student and lecturer alike, it is very hard to assess whether students have really understood, in the way that matters most in art, experientially, holistically and through doing. Performance practise cannot  ever be about seeing merely whether your intellectual ideas stand up,  because if it is, there is inevitably a fragility to the practical work, which results in a kind of wishful thinking that if only people had the skills, then something amazing might have happened. The reality is that without high performance standards then no performance can effectively be made, except in rare circumstances where the piece itself is completely geared to the particular actor’s limitations and strengths. The relationship between practise and intellectual rigour is a lively one and should be encouraged, but without sufficient practical contact time it is incredibly hard to strike that balance.

 

 

Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet

Later this month I am participating in a Teachers’ retreat for Michael Chekhov Teachers, and one of the things we are asked to consider is the time “when we were very young and dreamed of the stage very secretly.” Michael Chekhov. To explore what that creative joy felt like.

At first when I read this, I was a bit apprehensive. Like many artists, I feel my creativity was bound keenly to a very difficult environment of family breakup, tragedy and illness. I wondered how much of these things I wanted to pick through in order to explore this and how much I wanted to share. On the other hand, I am not someone who fakes exploration in workshop; I want to explore.

I asked my intuition before I went to sleep as to how I might tackle this in a manageable and safe way and I came up with something . I came across a picture of myself at three singing ‘Living Doll’ (an early Cliff Richard song) in a talent show. It made me think of the ‘forward movement of energy ’ required to be a performer, to be able to go out there, the ability to share but also to say “look at me”. As a child, acting was a total release for me. It made me feel like I had something of value to share, that despite the dangers and disappointments of ‘real life’ here was a place I could be myself.  It felt generous and open and exciting, like a light had gone on inside me. To some extent though, this quality is also tied up with ego and narrowing selfishness, and whilst this forward movement is vital for me as a performing artist, it is only part of the story.

Where my creativity really sprang from as a child, where it really nurtured me,  was from an inward movement of energy, a lonely creation of expansive imaginative worlds through my puppet theatre, my games and by voracious reading. It was no accident that when, as a young actor, I saw the show A Chorus Line , I wept copiously during the song, “Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet”, so much so that members of the audience sitting behind me told me to shut up! This lovely song really captured for me what it was like to sublimate your pain into art, to forget your problems, and when I think about it now, to consider the work of creativity and performing as being the most beautiful important thing.

This inward energy or imagination, seems to be the true core of artistic creation. Afterwards of course, we share that with others, our co-artists and audiences, which augments and strengthens its value. And I feel it is my job to always, always be open to this impulse to both the inward creation and the outward expression.

Often though in our creative world of ‘the business’, so many of us are denied this expansiveness, or have it only for a short period of our lives. In the end I think that is what I loathe about the idea of being professional. In that world the very thing that gives the work its power is the very thing that is denied all but a very few fortunate souls. I think this is almost unbearably cruel, to snatch this raw creative power away as we try to reconcile our ideals with the raw realities of agents, headshots and survival. I think ultimately that is why I love teaching as much as I do, because what you are doing is working with this inner creative flame. You do not have to consider these materialist realities, because it is the creative imagination which is the reality.  

When I found the work of Michael Chekhov, I felt I had found someone who never lost this sense of the power of the imagination, of this liberation and joy, despite the various trials and tribulations of his own life. I can honestly say it changed my life because I found someone, and through him a whole network of people, who think and feel as I do myself – that theatre makers are primarily artists no matter what.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (and William Shakespeare)

Everyone has at least one important inspirational teacher. I am lucky to have had several. Mrs. Florence Robinson was the first. To say she was a front room drama teacher belittles her impact on me. She was inspiring, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic and joyous as a teacher. I hope I have taken that from her, because as a teacher, enthusiasm and joy are what makes you effective. They are the things you remember about someone.

She was about fifty when I met her. Her husband worked on the railways and she had two sons both of whom went into theatre administration. Like many women of the period, once married, she did not feel she could take her life into a theatrical career. She satisfied herself with youth and amateur work, doing lessons in her front room and helping people like me get to drama school. She spent many unpaid hours working with me and several other aspiring young actors.

Over the eight years I worked with her, she gave me a love of spontaneity and imagination at the same time as giving me a love of technique and precision. When I went to drama school nine years later, I found I had a lot of the building blocks already in place because she had encouraged them in me.

I was ten when I started taking class with her. She decided to give me the incredibly challenging Puck speech from act 3 sc 2 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My mistress with a monster is in love,” in only my second week. ” I am not sure you are ready for this yet, but if you want to be an actor, then you must give Shakespeare a try.” The idea that Shakespeare was not for the faint hearted or only for a privileged few is a myth which still exists today, Florence implied it was difficult but in some ways I noticed that actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes there were some tricky words but the rhythm and excitement of the piece which rattled through was what thrilled me. As a young man said who played Puck for me decades later in a production in Galway,  “I was scared of doing Shakespeare and now I am not”. In fact in many ways, Shakespeare is easier for young people because it is poetic and out of their immediate reality.

The day we began on that speech was the first time I heard about breathing. I realised that where you breathed in a line was important and gave you control which you needed, at the same time as having to radiate and fully inhabit Puck being boastful and wild. It was a big discovery, very early in my life. Like lots of my own students, who I am sure find the discipline of marking breath boring and counter-intuitive, it took me many years to realise that discipline and spontaneity needed to be symbiotic. She opened the door for me to the universality of Shakespeare, that poetic drama as great as this can encompass the world, at the same time as being intimate and personal.

Another thing Florence taught me quite quickly was emphasis and how emphasis could totally change meaning. It still astounds me how often actors speak text and emphasise words which make a line almost nonsensical or trite. This happened most annoyingly recently in the Andrew Scott Hamlet. This is so bad because it fails to acknowledge that language is the main thing in Shakespeare, the main conduit for everything; psychology, atmosphere, character, motivation. We can of course say, “well now we have visuals we don’t need to worry about painting a picture with words,” and “don’t people know the story anyway?” but really there is no escape; the language is everything.

And when I say that, I mean it. The story is important too of course, but Shakespeare used stories from Plutarch and other sources, like most of the Elizabethan playwrights. So the stories may well have been familiar to some. Part of the fun, for the nobles in the audience at least, might have been to see how the playwright had adapted the story. But some of the audience will not have known the story and that is a place from which we should always start if the play is to have an impact. Too often for me, professional actors carry the great weight of history on their backs, a kind of cynical exhaustion which says , “yes, I know you have seen and heard this a thousand times”.

Florence demanded enthusiasm and spontaneity. She could smell it if it wasn’t there! Though we did a whole variety of material, it is my work on Hamlet, the choruses of Henry V, Enobarbus, Puck and Romeo that I remember.

Florence and I got a little estranged during my later teenage years as I began going to youth theatre and thought devising far more cool, making theatre with my friends (something I recognise in some of my own students now!) I none the less went back to her to help me with my drama school entry audition.

Florence disappeared from my life after I started LAMDA . However, after my first term I went to visit her in her little house on a dangerous bend in the road. I looked at the stairs where I had sat as a little boy going through my poem  before i went in for my lesson . That day she arrived and hugged me and brought me into the room in which I had been given so much learning and encouragement. It was full now of her watercolours ,a hobby she had taken up over the last few years. She loved to show them. I particularly remember I loved the one of a puppy sleeping. She was lively as usual that day but I noticed that the oft repeated stories which had accompanied my later classes with her, had got more insistent. Later, I heard from others that she would go out and not be able to find her way home. This vibrant wonderful creative person was succumbing to Alzheimers.

One of the things she said to me at that visit after I had started drama school was that she wanted to know everything I had learned in my first term. She asked me, “do you think that the work we did here was….well…..was on the right track?”

Absolutely.

The Importance of Having Youth Theatre

The other day, I decided to take down some pictures from my study. Among them was a large framed ‘thank you’ picture of a production of SPRING AWAKENING, the second show I had done with Galway Youth Theatre, an incredible organisation started by an indomitable committed woman called Rebecca Bartlett in the early 90s. I put the pictures up on Facebook as a memory and was soon contacted by several of the people involved in it.  It made me think about the power and value of youth theatre, and the shortsightedness of governments who considers such activities at best as worthy, rather than vital, to a young persons ðevelopment. Usually of course, the power of art in all its forms on young people is merely dismissed as an amusement rather than something which seriously impacts on the quality of life.

In the time I was working at GYT and the organisation was reasonably well funded, under the stewardship of Niamh Dillon and then Andrew Flynn, a whole host of people eventually went on to work as actors, technicians, writers, designers, and film makers. The youth theatre did productions, devised pieces [when this was less common], encouraged new writing, voice classes, theatre history and had a production course .

I have compiled a list of people I remembered had participated who went on to artistic careers. It is most certainly not exhaustive and I apologise to those I have left out, or those I am not aware of because they came after I had stopped teaching there. Perhaps we could start adding others in order to build something more comprehensive?

But Youth Theatre cannot be deemed a success simply by those who go on to achieve things in the theatre or other art forms. It also and in many ways more importantly, affects those it touches who do not go on to make a career path in the arts in some way.

One night I was coming back from an evening rehearsal and I stopped at my local garage. The woman in her late thirties behind the counter asked me what I actually did for a living that I was coming back late so often. When I told her I was working at the youth theatre, her face lit up and she started telling me about a project she had got involved with in the very early days of GYT when she was 15. Though she had not pursued anything in the field of theatre, she nonetheless had a wonderful experience at what is a very special and yet often quite tricky time of  life. I have numerous stories, as I am sure all facilitators do, of how being in a youth theatre got a young person through some challenging situation, how it helped them blossom and develop. I always remember one young woman of about 15/16 running up to me after we had done a piece of work saying how her life was transformed by being in the process of theatre . She was buoyant and joyous, as if she had been released from  a cage. It is truly amazing to see this expression of joy in someone and very satisfying to feel that in some way you have helped them have that experience.

Theatre is such a wonderful process for young people to experience. It infuriates me it is not better funded particularly in these times when people are complaining about the waywardness of young people. It explores feelings and has a wonderful embodiment of team spirit that exists almost nowhere else.

Here is my list. As I say if you are not on it then ADD yourself.

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Sean O’Toole and Cuan Muylaert in Spring Awakening

Sonia Brodie. administrator
Tommy Tiernan comedian
Hilary Kavanagh actor/admin
Judith Higgins theatre teacher/facilitator
Philip Sweeney actor/writer
Lisa Dwan actress
Simone Kirby actress
Gary MacSweeney artist,
Midie Corcaran actor,
Noeline Kavanagh artistic director
Jonathan Gunning actor/clown
Tara Bhreathnach actress
Mary Doyle designer
Peter Jordan production
Andrea Kelly actor
Sailleog O’Halloran. Costume designer
Michael O’Halloran production manager, technician, theatre tutor
Jay Ryan Childrens Theatre Maker
Sheila McCormick actor/academic
Daniel Guinnane actor/ musician
James Riordan. Actor/theatre Maker
Mia Mullarkey. Film Maker
Eddie Mullarkey theatre and Film maker
Judith Wolf production/admin
Fiona o’Shaughnessy actor
Sinead Hackett theatre facilitator
Sean o’Meallaigh actor/ film maker
Sinead Kelly actor
Dara Devaney actor
Sarah O’Toole actor/director/ teacher
Martina Carey actor/production
Lucia Evans singer/teacher
Claire Louise Bennett writer
John Cullen Actor
Aoife Heery drama teacher
Andy Kellegher actor
Conor Geogheghan actor
Eoin Geogheghan actor
Sile Ni Conghaile actor/presenter
Roisin Stack producer/ administrator
Charlene Craig actor
Donnla Hughes actor
Emer o’Toole columnist/writer
Caolinn Hughes poet
Catherine Denning actor/theatre maker
Mairead Folan director/actor
Beau Holland Actor
Oisin McGreal TV producer
Niamh McGrath actor
Kate Howard. Production
Katherine Graham. Lighting Design
Ionia Ni Chroinin. Actor
Louise O’Meara. Actor.
Grainne Moore. Actor.
Stevie Boyd Circus Artist
Glas Blue Hanley Circus/Youth Worker/technician

A vast number of others went on to do further degrees or training in arts related subjects work or work in youth related areas etc.

Devising and Structure

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a recent devising workshop  radiating and receiving…

After seeing a devised piece by students the  other night , I was prompted to ask a question of the performers, that I never asked during the Q and A as time ran out. The piece was lively and varied and  reminded me of many devised pieces I have facilitated in the same college, the myriad pieces I have worked on in youth theatres and in National Youth Theatre Ireland festivals of Youth Drama .

I wanted to ask whether the students found the process different and better or worse than working on a play.

Devising is a wonderful thing; making a piece from nothing. It has a long history. In recent times it has been popular with youth theatre, applied drama with non-actors as well as on the professional stage. With devising, actors can initially make almost anything they want; they can own the piece completely as they have joint ownership; they can mix styles and give their piece the flexibility of a piece of music. It gives them a massive buzz and is an invaluable part of theatre education and practise.

However whatever devising model you use, there are restrictions. Whilst the group can explore something emotionally daring, it is very hard to develop certain acting skills within it. The students HAVE to feel safe, and when you are using feelings which are more iðentifiably yours the danger of fully exploring what is going on is riskier. It is difficult in that situation to make them act better, go deeper, because you as the facilitator have no idea what you might be dealing with, hidden beneath the subject matter that they have created. I had this experience myself quite recently with a group and it was a curious realisation that devising and acting skills are not always mutually compatible.

Looking back on my own experience I wondered whether restricting the scope of the material actually helped.

I facilitated a project many years ago on the theme of spirit for a youth theatre festival. The theme was given to us. It was a tricky one. At the end of this project there was to be a public performance and I was much less experienced, afraid we would not be able to make anything presentable in the time frame. I took with me an idea based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which begins with a wake and then we follow the spirit going off to four levels, to be decided by the group, before leaving to eternity. Eventually the Spirit was released. This structure enabled us to find so many things about ‘what we let go of in death’ ‘ what does it mean to be alive’ that we could never have explored without that structure which I had taken in with me. The structure empowered them; it restricted their freedom a bit but also gave them lots of scope. Unexpectedly, four young actors devised a hilarious strand about four dead grandmothers who sat in an eternal front room, watching their living relatives on telly and supporting and criticising them, until one of them decides it is time to take the journey to departures. Their sections were scripted whereas the others were mainly movement -based ensemble pieces.

But even though we did a lot of things in experiment and discussion, I felt concerned to not push them in terms of their performance especially during the funeral/wake section. I was very gentle. After all I did not know these people and who knew what their relationship was with death? In fact, as it happens, one of the participating facilitators had had a close bereavement in the family and we had to talk about his involvement which was quite a moving story in itself.

The structure  enabled us to make something which challenged everyone. Restriction can mean freedom.

In a scripted play though, the actors have the conduit of their character to push their energies. The actors may or may not be like them and especially when working through the Chekhov technique you are never asking them to directly tap into their own experience but to find the feelings and the journey through imagination and the body first. That also allows you through the score of the play to express parts of them they do not show and to encourage them to work with those energies and radiate them to the audience convincingly. The character gives them a safe place because you are never directly working with them or their lives.

This is what I wanted to explore when I didn’t ask the question at the Q and A I mentioned at the start of this piece.

Not long ago I facilitated a devised piece about Ireland with a group. The piece was quite beautiful, but for various reasons, I found it was very difficult for them to express negative feelings about how they felt about the place, and when we started to explore this, some difficult feelings came up. Next time I work with them we are going to work with some scenes from plays as well as devising a piece, so they can work as free authors in their comfort zone and then push the boundaries when they have a structure and are playing someone other than themselves.