TAITMAIL Lighting the fire of physical theatre
In the foyer of the new Brixton House theatre shortly before 11am last Saturday, 18 young people in their teens and early 20s introduced themselves to each other for the first time, strangers. Ninety minutes later they had created a moment of theatre together.
They began with a gentle session of keepie-uppie – patting a small yellow ball around to keep it off the ground for as long as possible – and after an hour were throwing their bodies horizontally at each other, with no fear and total confidence. By lunchtime they had become intimates who could devise a series of moves together that told tales of loss, sadness and regaining.
They are part of Ignition and Saturday’s session was a taster workshop, one of 17 happening around the country this autumn, from Belfast to Edinburgh to Plymouth to Leeds to Birmingham to Cardiff to London to Newcastle.
There’ll be a national cohort of more than 500, and of these 18 who come back again tomorrow for the trials workshop two will be picked to be among the 24 nationally who descend on London at the end of October to create two new original productions that will get public performances at Brixton House later in the year.
Ignition is the talent development programme by Frantic Assembly which for 14 years has brought young performers into physical theatre, the discipline in which the narrative is conveyed by physical action as opposed to text or lyrics, with bodily movement and gestures providing the story. Often it has no dialogue at all, and through the work of companies such as DV8 and Frantic it has become its own genre, though it gathers in elements of dance, music and visual art.
Frantic Assembly was the invention of three Swansea University students in 1994 one of whom, Scott Graham, is now its artistic director. None of them was studying drama. “Learning and training as well as performances have been at the heart of the company ever since” says Graham. Its most notable production has been the award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time of 2015, in collaboration with the National Theatre, and Frantic’s ten-venue six-month tour of Othello has just opened at the Curve in Leicester.
About 15 years ago Graham (pictured above rehearsing Othello) decided to run a workshop for professional performers looking for ten males and ten females. Hundreds of women applied, two men did. He realised from his own school experience that theatre wasn’t on boys’ radar, he had been pushed into it “by someone who felt I should be there”. And what he found was life-changing.
“There must be thousands of young people from social economic backgrounds like mine who had the same potential but found the door shut” he says. “The point is they don’t even know the door is there”. So Ignition was aimed at young men, particularly from working class backgrounds, but not through the usual theatrical channels. Frantic looked at sport, martial art clubs, street dance, parkour. They use non-stage parlance, like “trial” for “audition”. “We had to strip the experience and the expectation of any of the negative baggage people might expect of theatre. The idea of an audition is a vision of hell for most people. It is exposing, brutal and potentially humiliating. We had to make sure that the experience was nothing like this”.
Five of the team involved in the Othello production are Ignition graduates, including three members of the cast. “This is a world of broken glass and broken promises, of poisonous manipulation and explosive violence” says the production’s publicity.
It wasn’t until 2019 that women and non-binary performers were invited to Ignition, giving new balance to the process, and it works on a partnership network with theatres around the country - Edinburgh Dancebase, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Norwich Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, E&P Liverpool, Birmingham Hippodrome, Northern Stage, the Core at Corby Cube, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Sherman in Cardiff and the Mast Mayflower Studios in Southampton.
Ignition used to have sponsorships that ensured that the young participants had all their travel and accommodation expenses paid but, with Covid in the immediate past and a cost of living crisis very much in the present, there is none this time. Instead, Frantic considers the programme so vital to its future that it is funding the costs from its own resources, while appealing for donations. “Ignition continues to transform lives, open doors and allows young people to reach beyond what they thought they were capable of” says Graham.
At Brixton this week the mix was surprising, with just three males among the 18 and three BAME performers. “To be honest, I was shocked” said the participation producer, Belinda Clarke. “I would have expected more black people here, but it’s pot-luck, depending on who emerges from the partners or from the communities, and these people are from all over the country as well as London”. At another recent workshop there were no women at all.
And these are not simply curious school-leavers looking for a fun way to spend an autumn Saturday morning. They have already got past being shy. Beth from Devon is 22 and doing an MA in experimental theatre. “Where else could you get acting lessons for an hour and a half for free?” she says. “Frantic is the go-to place for physical theatre”. Ted, 24, originally from Reading, is teaching pilates in London and has been waiting for five years to get on the programme. “There’s a truth in what we’re doing here:” he says, “Physicality is not explored much in theatre and Frantic has given us the opportunity to do it”. Hannah, 22, is American but went to drama school in Scotland. “Frantic is about team technique, letting the body tell the story” she says. “It’s making on-stage relationships”.
At school in Camden Kieton Saunders-Browne, one of the practitioners leading the taster here, was only interested in computer gaming and animé, but was persuaded to do Ignition while still in the sixth form. He graduated through the system and was in the 2018 Frantic production of Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning. Now 24 he is in his last year at LAMDA and had his first play produced at the Pleasance at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. But what drew him in he finds it hard to put a finger on, and he finally comes down to: “It was just a kind of physical wanting, and I still have it”.
But Ignition is not just a feeder for Frantic Assembly. Scott Graham wants each year’s alumni to be emissaries in a wider context. “The hope is that they will become the spark that begins to show someone not just the value of the arts to them but of their value to the arts. It will be a welcoming experience led by people who have already made a similar journey” he says.
“To engage in the arts from a working-class background has not got any easier and it is vital that we do our best to help those that need to find their voice and those that have the skills to reshape the arts. Especially those people who don’t even know it yet.”