The first time you bring a group of non-performers together for a practical drama session there is always bound to be a certain amount of awkwardness.
I’ve seen it many times before.
As a community-based drama teacher I have shared rooms with many brave souls who have pulled together the guts to turn up to something they’d usually be afraid of, but then lack the conviction to actually speak when the time comes to it. This is a completely understandable reaction to being thrust into a novel situation.
When you’re attempting to bring together a group of 20 or so similarly nervous individuals, who also speak completely different languages, then you’ve got a challenge on your hands.
An awkward shuffling silence is what faced me when I entered the space behind Paolo’s Art Gallery for the first Community-Free Theatre session. I had been planning this for a good couple of months. In London, offering something for free is always a risky endeavour. It’s not that the people who live here are opportunistic, it’s simply that people appreciate the value of experiences.
When promoting my series of Free sessions, I’ve been attempting to draw in the kind of people that would not usually put themselves in a performance environment. Although a big part of PANEK’s aim is to bring together disparate artists from a variety of culture, it’s important to me that we also initiate new artists into London’s scene. Advertising ‘free sessions’ or any kind of performance time in London, is like opening a pot of honey in the centre of a bear enclosure.
You’re likely to get mauled.
With that in mind, I set about focusing on advertising throughout the smaller boroughs of London that contain higher proportions of ethnic and cultural minorities. I wanted to get a spread of ages, so I targeted the posters and flyers at families. Communities are, after all, built by families and the piece that I envisioned finishing with would be one that celebrates the very social fabric of London’s boroughs.
Back to the space behind Paolo’s Gallery.
The nervous group of 20 individuals in front of me were clearly excited to be there, but were conscious of the fact that their English was not as strong as they thought it should be. The first exercise we ran through was a way of showing them that this language barrier was something to be celebrated not feared.
Mime may be seen by the performance industry as a somewhat outdated medium, but in this situation it worked wonders. Arranging our performers in a large circle, I began a chain reaction of greetings and actions, all without the use of spoken word. I wanted the first session to engage all of the attendees physically – often this can be more challenging than getting people to talk.
Our bodies are capable of an incredible amount of range of emotion. In that first session, although I was mostly focusing on getting the performers to let go of their initial inhibitions, I was pleasantly surprised by the emotional depths that these amateurs were able to plumb at such an early stage.