By: Rusthall Community Arts | August 19, 2020

Written 12th October  2018

Legend of the Rocks first workshop was an introduction to composition. The day took the form of a typical composition workshop and I simply talked more about the reasons and thinking about the process than I would normally.  I’ll leave explanations of the process out of my report here because you can read about the principles of composition in more detail here on line. Basically the composition workshops will help you to work in harmony as a group, give you material to inspire ideas to create theatre and prompts you use different viewpoints.


The workshop to the same basic form of a composition session:


•  Preparation

•  Group building

•  Techniques

•  Presentation of Materials

•  Setting the Task

•  Composition

•  Presentation

•  Discussion



The preparation prior to the workshop I gathered a range on material about rocks, toads, rituals, creation myths in the form of stories, poems, maps, essays, pictures and artifacts,


Group Building

Compositions are dependent on people working as a group, accepting and building on each other’s offers so we start with introducing or reviewing the basic principles of improvisation, and encouraging people to work collaboratively. 


Group Ball Throwing Warm up.

Everyone gets in a circle.  Start by having one ball thrown round the circle each person marking who throws to them and whom they throw too. Start with everyone holding one hand in the air and when they get passed the ball they take their arm down. They throw the ball a few times to become familiar with the pattern.  If they drop the ball they should be told  “don’t think of it as a failure, don’t echo it, simply go pick the ball up and carry on.  Don’t say sorry, either as a catcher or a thrower”. 


/ Once they have improved catching and throwing add another ball, each time they improve significantly add another ball. We got three going.


The group is then asked to walk about the space receiving a ball from and throwing to the same people as before. They can throw or pass according to the distance they are from each other at the time. / Sometimes they are close enough to just pass the ball hand to hand. Add more balls/ Add another ball when they they are experienced enough.


Blocking - Peer Pressure Persuasion.

This exercise introduces accepting and blocking. Two players enthusiastically try and persuade a third to do something - Go out for a meal, to the theatre, a holiday- and they say “No’ and justify why.  


 Yes and… 

Two people. A makes an offer. B says “Yes and…”   

This is the most fundamental rule of improvisation ad devising.  Look at this very simple exchange:

A ”Do you fancy a night out?”  This is what we call an offer. It’s an invitation to do something.

B “Yes that would be great” Is accepting the offer. “And we could go bowling” This is making a further offer building on the first. Creating a scene like this means it’s always moving forward.


Discussion on Accepting and Blocking

We had a discussion about the difference between the “Yes and…” the accepting game and the “No…” blocking game. We concluded that we use just as much imagination saying no and justifying it as saying “Yes and.”  The difference was “Yes and…” felt more positive, people became more energized; it takes you on a journey. So making a story happens when you stay positive. Stay out of conflict with each other for as long as possible. Just give some time before you add conflict. Conflict is when the something unusual happens in your everyday world. Stories usually start by showing us the everyday world of the character before something unusual happens. The everyday world we call ‘The platform’ the first unusual thing we call a tilt. 

Start positive - establish the platform before you tilt. I suggested they think of your partner as a genius and his or her offer as a gift.


Giving Presents  (AN OFFER IS A GIFT)

To encourage them to be positive they gave mimed presents to each other. I wanted them to be delighted with them and to say things like: “this is perfect, just what I wanted” Wow how did you know?”  They moved around the room exchanging presents. Giving things they genuinely thought their partner would want. Then I asked them to give them mimed wrapped presents and this time the recipient was to define what it was not the giver. The joy you find in the present should be positive to make the giver feel good about what they’ve given you. They have given you the perfect present. Both these present giving games are about making your partner feel good.  This is the second golden rule of improvisation.


We then played a game about the imagination.


This is Not a Chair

Everyone sat ion chairs in a circle and an empty chair was in the middl. I told them “This is not a chair…” and invited them to come into the centre  if  or when they had an idea to use it as if was something other than a chair. It’s perfectly fine to sit where they are if they don’t think of anything but I guessed that the group together was likely to think of more than fifty things between them.  There was a pause and then someone stepped forward and used it as a zimmer frame. It started slowly, when it got to ten it sped up, they reached fifty in about eight minutes. It became a lawn mower, a pram, a supermarket trolley; then someone picked it became a hat, followed by a guitar, guitar, a backpack, then someone crawled under it, it became a POW escape tunnel, a MRI scanner. We talked about the collective imagination within the group; it exceeds that of any one individual and prompted individuals to think of ideas they wouldn’t have come up with on their own. It’s essential to trust that the collective imaginative power will support you.


Drawing Game 

In pairs they were given a single piece of paper and coloured pens. They were to illustrate a story I told them. They were to both work on the same picture, but were not to talk or communicate with each other, other that through the drawing. A started and on a signal B took over. Back and forth with drawing time of five, ten very occasionally fifteen seconds between. They were then to title the picture alternating between the two of them adding one letter at a time.


The Silent Tableaux

We came together as full group (15 people). Stood in a circle. I said we were now going to create a sculpture without talking. One person was to go into the centre and make a shape. It doesn’t matter if the shape represents something of not, but I did ask that it has a human quality of standing or walking or some gesture or activity. Once we had the first person in a frozen shape, another was to enter and create a shape that they think relates to or belongs to the first one.  Then a third person enters, an them maybe a fourth.  The group standing in the circle was to then move round the sculpture and see it from different viewpoints.  They were to them think of a title but not to share the thought. We returned to the circle nd people spoke their titles out loud.


Notes on the Game:  We talked about the statue through it’s different stages, what everyone felt it represented. “Someone standing in front of mirror”  “An arrogant bully” “trying on a new outfit” etc. Then the second sculpture with two people, very few people changed there minds and simply justified the first idea with the second there was more consensus “ the shop assistant showing approval” “The Kings dresser.”  One or two people changed their point of view changing from bully to “a high class tailors” By the third sculpture everyone was in total agreement it was trying on clothes in a shop with an assistant and friend”


Discussion reviewing what we have done so far and “the other identity in the room”

All the exercises and discussions up to this point were about accepting, building on those ideas, making adjustments to accommodate what your partner offers. There were also things about work as group, searching for census; that an idea can emerge out of the group that no one individual initiated. We talked about the group as “another identity in the room” another personality we can listen to and follow.

What we have done so far is about how we need to work together. That every session should begin with similar exercises that confirms and develops skills to work creatively as a group and with each other. Now we will look at some performance techniques that might inform the composition



Once we begin to know how to work together the facilitator of the composition workshop should give the participants a theatre language and techniques pertinent to the task they will set to devise a presentation.

As the composition task is to be directly about the rocks I thought it would be useful to do some mime work about resistance, leading to The clay man



In pairs, facing each other one foot in front of the other, reach both arms out in front so the palms of you and your partner’s hands are flat against each other, fingers pointing upward. When I ask you to start to add a gentle pressure so you are pushing against your partners hands. Slowly increase the pressure until you reach a point where one of you can’t offer any more force. Find the point of the maximum strength of the weakest person, and hold tht pressure - this is not a competition. Push.  Relax. Try again and this time the strongest of you allows the other to win at the point you feel you are at the weakest members full potential. Let them win.


Same exercise but this time your hands are a bricks width apart 3”inces in old money. Push but keep the gap consistently the same. Try and win, allow yourself to be beaten, find the strength to win again. Show your partner your conviction to beat them and the struggle to defeat tem as you agree to loose. Give your partner what you feel they want. When they appear to want to win let them or lose, let them. If you are really exerting honest strength you will feel more exhausted by this exercise thn the previous. 


Take a one-minute rest or shake out.


Clay Man 

Sit quietly on your own and molding take some imagined clay in your hands: Imagine it sitting in you hands, feel its weight. Shave some sense memory of pushing and start molding it into something. Try and see the clay between your hands. Try and feel the resistance of the clay, it has a certain tension. The thicker the piece of clay the harder it is to manipulate or bend it, you need to exert more effort, greater pressure, just as you did with the pushing, Keep manipulating the clay, watch the clay take shape. Once I start to see a believable tension in their hands I asked them to keep modeling but look at your hands, they have taken on the tension of clay. It is now in your fingers. Watch the effect on your hands. Take the tension into your wrists, which are thicker than your finger so needs greater tension. Then move the elbow, then the shoulder. Moving just the arms make sure the- finger, wrists, elbows, and shoulders all have their different states of tension. Remember these are all relatively light to bending at the waist.


Molding partners – Everyone got into pairs. One then molded the other, starting with the hands and wrists, moving up to the elbow, shoulder, head and neck; finally the torso and legs. The sculptor moved the joint whilst the model resisted. Between them, with the sculptor asking for more or less resistance, they found a convincing quality of clay for each joint. The sculptors then walked round the ‘gallery’ of models. There was consensus that they looked amazingly like sculpted figures. ”They are alive but still” “They are all caught in a movement or gesture” “These could be works of art”


We now come to the composition



The main group broke into three smaller groups of five.. I explained that the key to composition work is to do a lot in a little time.  When time limits are imposed and we not given time to think or talk too much wonderful work often emerges; what surfaces does not come out analysing ideas, but from your impulses, your dreams, your emotions. We call this “Exquisite Pressure” and it’s achieved by creating an environment where forces lean on the participants in a way that enables more, not less, creativity. Exquisite pressure comes from an attitude of necessity and respect for the people with whom you are working, for the amount of time you have, for the room you work in, for what you’re doing with all of these,


Choosing from the material

I described very briefly the material I had gathered to be the stimulus for there composition.  I didn’t allow them to read any of material; they should just collectively come to an agreement about which one to work on. I told them they will have no more than a minute to choose.


•  A collection of different Frog and Prince Stories including Brothers Grimm; An Anglo Scottish border version called “The well at the end of the world” ”The Well at the end of the world” and The Frog Prince, a poem by Stevie Smith

•  An Iroquois creation myth involving a frog  

•  An essay about frogs and toads in relation to Climate Change

•  An essay on Symbolism & psychopharmacology - Frogs toads transformation, poison, hallucination, transcendence.

•  An article about Toadstones - jewels that are supposed to be lodged in the toads skulls.

•  Articles about ritual, especially Well Dressing - perhaps with a view of creating a ritual to “dress the Toad”.

•  Sophia - a different interpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve, in which the serpent is the hero, for offering wisdom to woman.  


Group 1 Chose: The Iroquois Creation myth

Group 2 chose: Climate Change

Group 3chose:  Sophia - the wisdom given to women.


The Task

We create exquisite pressure by giving just the right amount of ingredients for the assignment (not too few, not too many) and determining the complexity of the assignment. There should be levels of difficulty with which you begin and to which you graduate. But in all cases, the challenge needs to be great enough, the stakes high enough for the group to enter into a state of spontaneous play.

So todays Task


•  Should be loosely based on the material I give them.

•  It should incorporate the object I will give you (I gave them all a stone frog)

•  It should incorporate one or more of the exercises we’ve done today

•  The presentation should be less than two minutes

•  Some section of the presentation should involve the audience.


Before I handed out the material I remind the group not to spend their time sitting and discussing and planning. From the start they should be on their feet. You can tell when a group is stuck- they are invariably sitting in a circle. Looking at their pieces of paper, all talking at once or not at all as they try to “come up with ideas”; but when a group is engaged they look like kids in a playground. I suggested they pick out phrases, or images or a short section, or story they find in the material and go with something short, simple, clear. They don’t have tor read the whole thing, it doesn’t need to be accurate or illustrate verbatim. Take a single idea and get on your feet, and see what happens with everyone listening to the group. Let your ideas go or incorporate them - don’t fight over choices. If a leader emerges at one point, let them, then you may take a lead, sometimes it should feel that no-one is leading it’s just happening. This will only happen in the doing, most unlikely will it happen in the talking.  Get into improvisation mode as soon as possible. Create something. Repeat it maybe making adjustments, introducing something ne. Do it again.


They have three minutes reading talking


Now on your feet - you have ten minutes.


The Presentations

Every group had something to slow in ten minutes, One group finished early, I told them to use the entire time to repeat, polish, adjust, and improve. There was a playful atmosphere, the pressure wasn’t stressful it was  fun, relaxed.

Presentations are disposable, they are akin to a painter’s sketchbook, they are ideas, half formulated plans, prompts. They can be developed or incorporated with other sketches at another time. They can be disposed of. But we will always record them because they may be useful later on, we can’t know, we don’t judge. Out of one two hour composition workshop we may end up with two minutes theatre or ten, or half -ideas we want to explore later. You cannot judge the success of a composition session by what you think is useful and what is not. What is not can so often be the germ of a fundamental idea that becomes the key to the play. We won’t know till its happening.

Category: Legend of the Rocks 

Tags: Devising 


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