Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The ritual

One of my favorite exercises is a Del Close technique I learned first from Rob Reese, then from Del himself.

Just for context, here’s the way I was taught to do the Ritual (I'm sure there are a gazillion ways to do it): 
Setting: Clear the room enough for the improvisers to make a large circle with plenty of space around them. Dim the lights—so they can see each other, but the focus is on bodies, not features.

Warm-up: Some helpful warm-up games include Zip, Zap, Zop (with transformations), Who started the motion?, partner mirrors, group mirrors (physical and verbal) and transformations. Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, Close/Halpern/Johnson’s Truth in Comedy, and Del’s early Harold development notes have all the exercises. 

The Ritual: Players stand (or sit) in a circle—bodies relaxed and neutral—mirroring each other. They wait, and watch each other until a change occurs. Typically a deep breath, sigh, shift from one foot to another, neck stretch—or something else that happens as a result of sitting or standing still. The group picks up the movement or sound, and repeats it, letting it become a pattern. As a group, they let the movements and sounds grow and change until the piece finds a natural close, usually 30-45 minutes later.

Hints (side coaching is avoided except as a last resort):
  • Be patient. Don’t force a beginning. 
  • Don’t let things drop—once a pattern starts, let it grow and evolve. 
  • Take care of your circle—if someone is backed into a corner or about to be pushed off the stage, adjust. If someone can’t physically keep up, you can slow down or adjust to bring them in, or let them participate as best they can. 
  • If you find yourself initiating or leading, stop—follow instead.
  • Don’t focus on the same person the whole time—watch everyone. 
  • Watch “rebooting”—the “OK, that’s done—what happens next” feeling that happens if you let something slow to a stop. (It also happens almost any time you let giggling interrupt the pattern.)
  • Most of the action will take place in a full mirror; sometimes, though, you’ll find yourself in an environment, pattern or action that inspires individual contributions. Always go back to the mirror. 
  • Keep things abstract—use sounds and gibberish instead of real words. 
  • Know that even if you can’t see people, you can still mirror. 
  • If you have a huge group (16 or more)—you can split into two circles and start at the same time. They may merge; they may not.
OK. So that’s the Ritual.

Rob brought it to Lighten Up when we had a collective fear of “exploding.” (Imagine a countdown to blast off—where, instead of taking off, the crew pulled back at “ONE” found an excuse to stay on the ground or start over.) One thing the Ritual forces you to do is find “what’s next”—if no one will let you stop, you have to go higher, louder, faster. You may shy away the first few times, but when you realize it’s holding you back, you eventually let go.

I like it so much because it’s a terrific diagnostic tool for directors, troupes and individuals. After the exercise, you talk—about what worked, what didn’t, what (as Jill Bernard puts it) “broke your heart a little.”

Stuff I’ve seen, and what we decided it meant:
  • An all-male group who would find themselves doing sounds and movements that felt tender—then immediately turned aggressive. They had a hard time being vulnerable or gentle in scenes with each other. 
  • The college kids at a festival who joked and gagged their way through it. Del taught that one, and came right out and said it was a sign of immaturity. 
  • The high school kids who reboot every few minutes because they can’t stop giggling. It’s a discipline thing. 
  • The one guy who doesn’t participate—and doesn’t understand why it’s important. (He doesn't connect with the troupe in other ways, either.)
What I’ve learned about me (among a gazillion other things):
  • When I’m in it: I find myself getting irritated when someone is “doing it wrong.” Which means I may be trying too hard to control things. Which is typical.
  • When I’m directing it: I have to accept that the Ritual belongs to the troupe. There’s no right way to do it. 
Exit 16 did their second one tonight, because they recently requested “more stuff to help us bond.” The one they performed earlier this year left them incredibly frustrated—but with an understanding that they needed to work on discipline and trust. They’ve been asking to do it again since. This one felt much better to them—and you could tell they were having fun.

We leave for Chicago Saturday morning. (Yes. Chicago. In February. We’re certifiable.) That’s the ultimate bonding experience. Three days of workshops (Susan Messing and Mark Sutton) and shows (Second City and iO) and staying up too late (them, not me). There’s nothing in the world quite like sharing this stuff with kids.

1 comment:

New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.