Present Presence

I am currently on a 2-week residency with OBRA Theatre, set on Au Brana Farm in the South of France. Here’s how I am getting on...

What’s great about the workshop is that it isn’t focused on an end goal. The journey is at the very heart of the process, which encourages the performer to explore and experiment beyond their perceived limitations, in a space free from the restraints of targets and deadlines. In the acting world this normally takes the form of the dreaded showcase, which performers either loather or love dependent on the size of their part and whether or not they get an agent out of it.

Conventional workshops frequently undermine the training journey simply by scheduling a show. Now I am not suggesting that showcases are wrong, as they are of course useful for summarising work and perhaps focusing in on the talent of the group. However, the very structure of this style of training- with a start, middle and end- hinders people from taking risks. At OBRA we are encouraged to make mistakes without the usual embarrassment, judgment or fear that often follows. If you drop the ball in the ball game- who cares?! It’s just a ball. The very nature of this way of working feeds into everything they do-whether that is warm-ups or text-based work- and aims to achieve a present performer: a performer who doesn’t perform but just is on stage. Without sounding pretentious I am trying to talk about the concept of ‘being in the moment’, a term that is so often thrown around in rehearsal rooms by directors who have no practical methods of getting an actor to this state.

Yet I am reluctant to use the word ‘actor’ because even that somewhat limits the work to a single discipline. And the practice at OBRA is especially diverse. It is performance in every sense of the word, fusing movement and dance with the rhythms of dialect. Put simply it is communication. The communication of stories using our bodies, something that we do everyday- in the office, at home, walking down the street- but something which we are mostly unconscious of. OBRA’s practice unpicks this process and enables us to access the instinctive details that inform everyday life.

It is from this point that we play.

When I say ‘play’ I mean proper ‘let’s jump in the sand pit’ kind of play because whilst its been incredibly demanding (both physically and mentally) I’ve spent the past three days rolling around on the floor and feeling like I am four years old again. The practice manages to unlock a freedom to play that is often only accessible to children and I find I am still energetic and entertained after half a day of running around. The curiosity that the work fosters enables you to stay focused even if the task at hand involves simply breathing to a count of four. In many ways the work echoes my yoga studies, particularly with regards to the maintenance of an interrogative mind. A mind that stays present and alert and yet relaxed and unstrained. A mind that doesn’t go “oh here we go, back in to down-ward dog- I know this one”, but instead comes to position as if it is the first time and interrogates ever minute detail of the posture (“is my neck aligned?” “Are my fingers stretched out enough” Could I push my chest further back?”)

Another key similarity is the focus on the breath. The breath is used to refresh and revitalise the performer moment-to-moment bringing life and energy into the practice. A strong connection to the breath helps to keep you present in the present because the physical motion of each inhalation acts as a reminder of the now (like an internal clock that keeps waking you up to the world). Yet, the brain loves to meddle and complicate even the most basic of tasks, which explains why most of us find mediation so challenging. When we played some simple games that involved breathing, I was surprised by how difficult I found them. Describing the first object you see after an inhalation is both simple and complex, because whilst you might see- say a brick-, you might over think and obscure it, instead of seeing what is actually in front of your very eyes. (Here is an example of my wondering mind: “It’s a brick…it’s brown/red colour…. builders use it…do you think builders get really tanned because they work outside all day? ...I wish I could go browner in the it still raining?") It is important to realise that we see everything through a lens, a lens that is distorted and manipulated by memory, imagination, association and feeling. I only truly understood this concept when I caught a rare glimpse of my mum as a stranger- so not as 'Mum' but just as she would appear to someone who didn’t know her. It was a surreal but eye-opening moment as it made me understand how much the brain feeds into our senses: we see and don’t see.

For a long time I wrongly presumed that a ‘perfect’ mind was a still mind. I thought that the ‘goal’ of meditation was to empty the mind of all thoughts and feelings. Whilst I’m sure some yogi master would declare that he has reached this divine state, I don’t think the majority of us will experience this until we are dead. Which is a good thing really because who wants a still, blank mind when you can have an energetic brain that is constantly creating and changing! This is what we should be working on- noticing and interrogating the thought processes as they come and go- like waves in the sea. Waves which we can choose to ride or not, dependent on the response we choose. OBRA’s focus isn’t on calming the mind, but awakening the mind to its ever-changing details and patterns. The key to this is working with a responsive- but not reactive- mind and finding the delicate balance between disengagement and intensity (it’s the equivalent of seeing from the back of your eyes with a gaze that is both relaxed and alert). Through this process we begin to blur the barriers between life and art so that we can create a practice that speaks- on stage and off- with poignancy and power. This is the essence of conscious communication because it enables us to choose the way we respond to life and offers us another level of freedom. (For a more in-depth analysis into the ways we consciously communicate, I would recommend reading 'Communicate with Charisma' by Tom Bruno-Magdich).

But returning to what I was originally saying, it is the journey that is important. This applies to real-life as much as it does to drama workshops. So often we find ourselves wishing for an end point: “When I get that job I will be happier”, “It will be easier when he goes to school”, “I can’t wait to get home!” Whilst these things are important and useful to wish for, they shouldn’t dictate the lives we lead. As otherwise you will miss the journey- the simple things, the big things and the special things- things, which make you feel alive (and essentially confirm your existence in the world!) Don’t just live in a bubble of thoughts and feelings; expand yourself and your senses into the world around you!

Useful links:

-Obra Theatre Co.:

-Au Brana Farm:

-You can order a copy of 'Communicate with Charisma' from:

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