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| Maddy Costa

Looking back on our weekly in-person theatre workshops

Lately, the BPT blog has focused on the amazing programme of online activities put together by Naomi and the team when it became clear that public gatherings would continue to be prohibited for several weeks. Even though physical distancing and self-isolation have been necessary to stem the spread of Covid19, social connection feels more vital than ever, to counteract loneliness and maintain a sense of community. In a sense, this post feels out of sync: it looks back to the early winter days of late 2019, a time when it was still possible to touch the hand of a stranger, or huddle as a group, without fear, or recrimination. It looks back to the roots of the BPT creative community: to the weekly workshops in which BPT most fully began to realise its promise as a place to come and play.

People’s Theatre Workshops had already been happening for a couple of months by the time I joined one on 4 December 2019. We met in a big room upstairs at the Brighthelm Community Centre, a characterless, almost corporate space with carpet tiles and strip lighting and plain uncurtained windows, which might feel dispiriting if you were stuck there for a business conference, but melted into blank canvas through workshop leader Tanushka Marah’s playful activities. The focus of this particular workshop was chorus work – and the very mention of the word chorus provoked a rustle of anxiety. “Does that mean singing?” asked one participant. “I can’t sing for toffee!” Quick to reassure, Tanushka explained she meant the kind of chorus work that has its roots in movement – but again, not so much choreographed dance as a group of people moving to their own internal logic, so that what the audience sees is ‘thinking in action’.

Of course, this requires some warming up, so Naomi and Tanushka started us off with some games: quickly learning each other’s names by passing a clap around the circle, then learning more about each other through a version of musical chairs called The Sun Always Shines On, each scramble for an empty chair beginning with a participant describing a social group (for instance, the sun always shines on people who drink coffee every morning). In a room of glorious variety – young people and old, people with different skin colours, and different life histories – it was a good-humoured way to quickly bond.

Many in the room have been involved in theatre before: Zara, in her 20s, performed in shows at university but struggled to find ways to continue after she left; Liz, now in her 40s, became passionate about theatre when it “showed me a different world” when she was in her teens. Others are new to this lark: Joy, who moved to Brighton earlier in 2019, started coming to the weekly workshops mostly to meet people, having already tried “a Buddhist thing that wasn’t for me”, and the gospel choir, which was already full. The workshops are designed so previous experience isn’t an issue: “There’s a lot of emphasis on this is a safe space,” said another participant, Paul, who met Naomi at a Big Picnic event and was enticed to join after a long conversation about who art is for. An ex-army man who “often got in trouble for being democratic in a very autocratic environment”, he has “enjoyed the freedom to do something without any boundary” that the workshops provide.

A sense of safety and freedom is vital when the work happening in the workshops requires so much trust. Once the group had warmed up, Tanushka invited the participants to spend some time working in pairs as puppets and masters, manipulating each other’s bodies not necessarily through touch, but curving their hands to guide elbows and knees, torsos and limbs, into unexpected arrangements. The aim, said Tanushka, was to get to a place where both people in the pair were manipulating each other simultaneously: in a theatre company, and within the choreography, it’s important that leading and following are flexible, that relationships are fluid, each performer entirely involved in another.

I particularly appreciated Tanushka’s repeated reminders that there is no right or wrong way to do this exercise, because yes, Naomi insisted I joined in too! “I have been joining in all of the workshops,” she warned me in advance. “We don’t want to have anyone sitting and observing as it’s a little intimidating for people.” Catching occasional glimpses of Naomi as puppet and master, it occurred to me that this is a workshop for her as well, not only in movement but in leading exercises, galvanising a group. “Absolutely,” she agrees: “I’m always learning.”

During the workshop itself, Tanushka acknowledged that people’s behaviour is altered by being watched – but she also actively encouraged that watching, dividing the group into halves so they could appreciate each other’s extended movement sequences, and describe what they noticed. “It’s not as easy as it looks!” exclaimed Ken of an exercise similar to follow my leader, each person silently adopting or modulating their movements with the aim of slowly forming unexpected groups. When everyone did suddenly synchronise, Liz noted, the effect was beautiful – and just as beautiful when those connections dissolved.

While there were many participants bouncy on their feet, there were also plenty of slower and creakier bodies in the room, bodies needing the support of walking sticks, bodies soon needing rest. For Zara, who has physical conditions that mean her body quickly tires, the permission to sit out of exercises and act as an audience is integral to the People’s Theatre Workshops’ inclusivity: “I get to watch everyone else so I don’t feel left out.” And let’s not forget, theatre is a relationship between audience and performers: I love that these were weekly workshops in watching and listening, as much as in doing.

For the main exercise of the evening, Tanushka pushed even further at the idea of the internal puppet master, setting participants the task of walking across the room while responding to a few prompts: how might they physically and facially represent the innocent joy of a smiling baby, the choking tang of bitter lemon, the shiver of falling icy rain? Watching the group’s interpretation of these prompts was “a privilege”, Tanushka remarked, because: “It’s people’s souls that they’re working with.” In her own work as a movement director, she said, she takes inspiration from the stillness and philosophy of Japanese theatre, which is “very much about the loneliness of the spirit”. This singularity, she emphasised, is what gives detail and character to mass chorus work.

I spoke to Paul before the workshop began, and he admitted that the abstract quality of the workshop exercises can feel pretty mysterious. But even if, as he said, “I can’t claim to understand everything I’m doing – I’m one of them that needs an explanation,” it doesn’t really matter, because: “Going away from here every week I feel enthused – it’s a buzz.” There is a joy in the room that gives the group confidence, a quality that the participants can see and appreciate in each other and that, Louiza told me, is growing. Zara agreed: even after just two months, “we don’t need as much instruction: we’re willing to throw ourselves into it.”

Meanwhile, the core weekly workshops continued at the Brighthelm, with the group beginning to explore ideas that emerged from December’s People’s Inspiration Meeting, about what kind of work BPT might want to produce. The plan was to reflect again at the end of March – and look for ways to synthesise the main group with the new subsidiary ones – only the Covid19 crisis brought a sharp end to all activity. It’s clear from reading the BPT blog, however, that little momentum has been lost.

For everyone involved in theatre, this extended period of closure is proving time for reflection, on what theatre is to us, why it really matters. Something I’ve begun to feel very deeply is that theatre isn’t about the buildings (though we have a lot of wonderful theatre buildings in this country): it’s about people. This is the spirit that governs the National Theatres of Scotland and Wales: neither have their own theatre building, and they can be a lot more fleet, moving across communities, as a result. Similarly, Brighton People’s Theatre doesn’t need a building to be a place to play: in place of bricks and mortar, it offers care, enthusiasm, and kindness. And until it can demonstrate those things physically, in person, it will continue to do so online.