Free Theatre incorporates a diverse range of forms and styles of movement and performance. The company has worked with exponents in everything from Chinese Opera, to a variety of martial arts, military training and Argentine tango and allowed this training to influence the work.
Training is an important part of Free Theatre work. In most cases, Free Theatre productions are 'physical theatre' in the sense that the starting point for each actor is not psychology (as in naturalism) but the body and voice. Training is therefore ongoing, even when no project is currently in rehearsal.
In keeping with the principles of collaborative ensemble work, much of the training involves exercises to assist the group in finding a sense of connectedness and cohesion. Maintaining fitness is important, as is the development of physical and vocal ability. New disciplines are added to suit individual productions, and the training is also adapted as new people join the ensemble to reflect the new shape of the group and to take account of individuals' interests and skills.
A set of working principles for each exercise allows for structure and, at the same time, the ability to vary and change exercises depending on the mood or focus of the ensemble. The exercises used in training have evolved from a diverse range of sources, including the theory and practice of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertold Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner, Augusto Boal, Eugenio Barba, Rudolf Laban, Jacques Lecoq, Suzuki Tadashi and the company has trained with visiting artists including Ana Woolf, Paul Maunder, Julia Varley, Peggy Shaw and Taiporutu Huata. Training also includes yoga-based stretching, as well as tumbling and acrobatics.
As the company approaches a new project and begins to devise or structure a production, training will evolve into a more focused and specific experimentation with form and ideas. This allows the company to explore and to play with different impulses evoked by the subject material the director has proposed. In this way, actors come to find a way into the work. The physical form of the production may evolve directly from this phase of experimentation: the director maintains a close eye on the evolving work and then comes to structure, shape and rehearse the work in conversation with the actors and designer.
Some but not all of our work is devised theatre. Devising for us is a process where a play is created without an existing play-text. The deviser of a play chooses a theme or a problem, which s/he then workshops with a group of performers. If performers can sing or play an instrument or have other skills like for example with a trapeze, it is likely that these skills become part of the performance. Or alternatively the performers learn new skills like for example dancing the tango (Distraction Camp), if this helps to dramatise the chosen theme. Also, the contributions of the performers in the workshops, including part of their personal stories can become part of the text. The deviser also chooses texts from newspapers, books or plays which s/he cuts up, collates and integrates into a new text. Obviously the success of this process depends on making all these diverse pieces of material into a meaningful dramatic whole.
Peter likes to incorporate our skills into the productions because he knows that's something we're passionate about and something we can contribute, and most productions I've been involved in have had some sort of musical component and usually some sort of singing I can do whether it's belly dancing and singing Mozart or singing Schumann hanging upside-down from my knees or singing Tango which was amazing, to be able to sing that sort of music, it's really opened up my own musical perspectives.
With conventional theatre, 90% of the decisions are made before everyone is even assembled together in the same room: the play will take place in this theatre; the actors will be on the stage, the audience politely in their seats; the lights will all be on the grid; the play text is provided; the actors all know who their characters will be and how many lines they get to speak. With Free Theatre's devising process we are liberated from these constraints. We begin with a theme or set of ideas we wish to explore. We may or may not use a theatre. If we do, it may be that the actors are in the seats and the audience on the stage - or we might remove the seats altogether. We don't know at the start what the text will be, nor if there will be any. We don't know what characters we will play, nor if there will be any characters in any conventional sense. All of these decisions are made along the way, as we discover the best ways to explore our ideas.
In the Free Theatre, we have a foundational warm-up exercise where we run in a circle. The aim is to try and move together as one. This doesn’t necessarily mean moving in exactly the same way, but moving together, which may also involve different movements as we search for a ‘sense of group’. This is the basis to our ensemble approach to theatre, a way of building a sense of company with a focus on the body; quite different to the head-oriented approach of the usual naturalistic, ‘talking heads’ style theatre. Our ensemble approach is also quite different to the economic and social environment of professional theatre in New Zealand where actors work more as individual ‘guns-for-hire’. The circle run is a building block to a theatre practice that resists what we are told are the social, economic and political realities of our society.
George Parker, Actor