I first met Wolfgang at a three day Workshop conducted in Melbourne in July 2001. That workshop was quite astonishing not only for the quality of work produced but the fact that several of the participants, including myself, have kept in touch with Wolfgang and visited him, and the Amici theatre group, in London.
Wolfgang Stange has been the director of the Amici Dance Company, in London, for the last twenty five years. He is the company’s founder, main choreographer, and director.
Wolfgang also works across this field. He is currently doing some work with the Sunshine Theatre Company in Warwickshire, and doing a training course and a production with a group in Wales. Every year Wolfgang makes visits Sri Lanka to work with a disabilities theatre group. Wolfgang has been visiting Sri Lanka for many years and has taken great pride in seeing people with mixed abilities, and from varying ethnic backgrounds, work together to make powerful theatre. This experience has taken on greater significance following the 2004 tsunami. Wolfgang was there at the time and witnessed the devastation.
In the following interview Wolfgang talks about his mentor Hilde Holger. Wolfgang and Amici have just been involved in a recent tribute show to the work of Hilde. This is the tenth anniversary since their 1996 production Hilde, a tribute to Hilde’s extraordinary life, including the dance practice she pioneered. Hilde’s work was influential in Wolfgang’s movement into disabilities drama, shortly after he came to London, from Germany, over 30 years ago to work with the London Contemporary Dance School.
The original performances of this show are moving – I have seen the video. Hilde, in the last years of her life, was able to witness an extraordinary dance company at work.
I visited London earlier this year and found myself in an Amici rehearsal at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Over twenty participants, with a range of abilities fill the room. Many members, old stage hands with Amici, participate in dance warm ups and then divide into groups to create small dance vignettes based on a theme of countries. Typical of this style of theatre, and of Wolfgang’s style of working, I find myself included.
Laughter reigns as we perform depictions of countries. Eyes move towards me after we view depictions of Australia. How will the Australian react? The atmosphere is full of laughter, and is good natured. I dance later with a young fellow, from Caribbean heritage, I think, who dances in a most beautiful manner. His disability is meaningless. He is trying to draw me out, connect in a way that can so beautifully happen in dance.
At a later stage Wolfgang disciplines a young fellow who he feels is not contributing. Wolfgang knows that he is capable of more. Wolfgang encourages him and then chooses to step away. He will wait for this person to come back to the group, in his own time.
The dance component of Amici meets once a week, on an evening, in the stage of work shopping and developing a play. As a production develops the group meets more regularly.
A couple of days later I am back at the Lyric Theatre working with Colm Gallagher, the Education Director of Amici. He is working with a group. They are focusing on a drama production – less dance centred – and more script based. This group has a similar atmosphere. People are focused, people have varying abilities: a range of generous volunteers give up their time to contribute diverse skills.
I am standing, several days later, in the kitchen of Wolfgang’s home in Baron’s Court London. The balcony door is open. We are on the third floor of his apartment overlooking a typical London street, with three or four storey tenement buildings. Motorbikes and cars can be heard. Planes move in from the horizon, in staggering frequency, banking for approach to Heathrow Airport. Behind the apartment, trains, on London’s Piccadilly line, make their way into or from central London.
The kitchen is small. Wolfgang is cutting garlic. A curry is being prepared for a dinner with friends the following evening.
Wolfgang has just shown me an article published in the Financial Times reviewing, and damning, a London play about mental illness. Praise is made of Amici:
It says a lot about this type of drama: collaboration, spirituality and physical grace. I think about Dance, or Drama, being about engaging with an audience. I sense that Amici has this as a central foundation. Disability should fade into the background. It is about magic – and magic can come from many sources.
I choose to begin the interview with a cheeky question. I know that Wolfgang is a modest man and tires with the image of being a so called expert:
God, what a deep question! How can I answer that cutting up garlic?
Okay, I will make it a bit easier.
When I find an answer to the first question, I can answer it there. (We both laugh)
How inspirational has the work of Hilde Holger been to you? How inspirational was she in the work that you do?
Without her I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today, that’s for sure. She was the most influential person, not only as a teacher, for dance, but as a great humanist and just extraordinary mentor. Not just for dance, she would make sure that the students would have an all round education. She would make sure you’d go to the galleries, would go to see certain films, go to studios to listen to music. So it wasn’t just about dance. For her all the arts were the most significant.
So was one of her central philosophies, that, in order to understand something in depth, and to communicate it to an audience, through dance, you really had to get to know that experience?
Well, don’t forget that she came from the great European German expressionism. So it meant that every movement had a meaning. You cannot just do anything meaningless. You have to find a meaning, a reason that inspires you to do it. There’s no reason just doing it cold hearted. You have to get yourself completely into it. There’s no half measures. You just cannot do anything half. And certainly you couldn’t do that with her work. If you did it half you just wouldn’t get it across. You have to be totally in awe of the muse.
How did she apply that in working with people with a disability?
Not different from the people with no disability. It was just a matter of respecting the individual and trying to push them to give their best, and develop themselves into their best. I think that is really what is the basis of her work.
Is that pretty much a philosophy that you have carried across in the work that you do?
Very much. Very much the inspiration, but for her, you mustn’t forget, the fact that you as an individual have to develop, you have to find your own way, your own vocabulary, your own way of expressing yourself. If you are true to yourself, if you are somehow finding a truth to what you are doing, then you can be an artist. You cannot be pretending. No pretence. I think that is what I found refreshing in working with people with so called disabilities – that there is this honesty and this strength that they have, and it just comes from the mere fact that they cannot pretend or hide their differences because you can see it. Otherwise they are physically different, having to spend most of their life in a wheelchair, or crutches or whatever, or even facially they look different from the majority. So, there is no way that you can hide that. So, they already have honesty there, of no pretence, and that always has attracted me to people who had that kind of difference. And the same thing with the people who have psychiatric disorders, people who have sometime hit depression or rock bottom and therefore do not care at some point what people think of them, but just are there in their naked self. And that kind of honesty, I love that kind of honesty.
And that was the same, in a way, with Hilde. She had that honesty. She was not a pretender. So even hitting on hard times, I mean financially, she would not attract many students because if someone was coming with pay, and then someone screams at you, constantly at times, then some people couldn’t take it, and couldn’t see deeper, because they came for something slightly more superficial. They just wanted to hop around or just learn a dance, and Hilde wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in for you to find out who are you: What is your relationship with the world? What is your relationship with dance? And that for her was the most important. She didn’t want mass productions. She wanted individuals.
In the end, working for me in this area, has of course intensified everything she has taught me because I have people who are so utterly different. You have come to Amici. You have seen the variation of ability within the group. And that’s why I find myself in a very privileged position, to be able to work with people like that who are my constant teachers .So, when you enter this work, you are constantly learning. You are not only a teacher, and very often I have to tell that to young teachers that come out. Particularly when I used to teach in Sri Lanka – just because you have passed out, and because you have a teaching qualification, that does not make you a teacher. Now your learning starts, and once you set foot in the classroom, whether that is with people with a disability or not, you have to listen and pass on and pull out what’s there and how can you deepen their understanding of the world?
Do you think there is a tendency for the way in which some people work to set up circumstances, whether it is the way that person thinks, or even funding bodies, that actually restricts people with a disability, or even actors or dancers in general?
Yes, of course, particularly if you are working in a structured position where people have expectations of you – that you should come up with whatever. So we also have to understand that if you are working in a commercial theatre world, to be able to produce dancers that can do leaps and jumps, then you have to have that kind of attitude. If you want to produce high class dancers – technical dancers. However, that’s where the crunch for me lies. And when I keep going to the theatre and see dance performances I realise the extraordinary dancers and performers that we have – but there are very few artists among them.
They can spin, they can leap, and you are amazed what they can physically achieve, but it remains with you the next day yet then I have forgotten their name, even their face. However, if I go to a performance where somebody goes deeper and finds something on top of the technique, where they become themselves again – this is the whole process of becoming a real artist: to come on top of the technique and find yourself again. That is a difference but many people don’t make that jump. They remain good performers. But that’s not good enough for me.
And what sorts of things do you do in order to encourage that depth?
It is first of all just working together with others, trying to learn that you are only part of the whole, that you are important, but that they are more important – that in order to achieve something special you have to recognise that the people around you are equally important. So, this big star thing doesn’t work. You can be appreciated as a star but only if you have humility. And if you are a real star then you don’t have to brag about it. You feel that you are doing it. There’s no need to proclaim it to the world. The world can see and feel what you are doing.
Would you say that in the work that you have done in disabilities that you have been in situations where that depth has come across?
I have been very very fortunate. I’ll tell you a story that I have probably said many times how I really learned to understand this side of it.
I was really inspired by the great Margot Fonteyn, who was another kind of heroine for me in the performing arts. She was able to move me. If I saw Swan Lake – I must have seen it about 28 times – most of her great performances I saw luckily in London. Every time she excited me, yet, like every artist you can’t always pull it off but in most performances she was able to create that, to come on top of the technique and you saw a truthfulness suddenly being there. I felt touched by it. Not just by the dramatic impact of everything. In the first act she comes on she is just a swan, but it’s the way she moves. She became real. You believed that she was a swan.
She wasn’t only Margot Fonteyn, she was another being. And she believed herself to be that being. And that made it so extraordinarily powerful. So that was when I used to get goose pimples and then tears would come up at those moments. That’s why I always said she was one of the greatest artists of the century.
It was when I started working with people with learning difficulties – and I used to work in an institution called Normansfield just outside of London – and I had 21 students, mainly with down syndrome and autism, or various abilities. Only me and nobody helping me. At that stage I was given, by the Royal Ballet, a cloak from the Ballet Giselle, the one that Prince Albrecht is wearing, and I used that cloak for improvisations, putting people underneath it, rediscovering different shapes – the body looked different if it was covered by a cloth, etc, etc.
One day at the end of the class one woman, called Jane Grey, she took the cloak and motioned me to put it on her. I said, ‘What do you want?’ And she nodded. ‘Do you want to dance?’ And she nodded. So I put the cloak on her and I went to the tapes and pulled one at random and it was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the slow movement, and I put it on – and, suddenly, Jane Grey changed in front of me. Even her features, her down syndrome features seemed to disappear and I saw just this beauty just moving, to the music. She never heard the music. It was so magical. I saw her turning and bowing down and leaning back on her knees to the music. And suddenly I got goose pimples and tears were coming up and I couldn’t understand why. And after it was all over I was very disturbed because I had only had that physical sensation from my great heroine Margot Fonteyn who was named not only by me one of the great artists – and now suddenly a woman with down syndrome, who only had a few months of training with me, once a week, was able to produce that same physical reaction in my body. I couldn’t really work it out and it bothered me and I kept thinking and thinking.
In the end I came to the conclusion that, Margot Fonteyn, had overcome the restriction of the technique that a lot of people get imprisoned by and she was becoming herself and she found the truth in that moment – and she expressed that truth.
And Jane had discovered a truth, she suddenly overcame the restriction that nature had imposed on her and for that moment found a truth for herself, found something so genuinely, that was right for her – it was her and only her.
And so I suddenly realised that there is this amazing similarity when you are honest suddenly, totally honest, and when you respond and react to what you feel at that moment, and you can transmit it. It may be only momentarily, it may last only a minute or so, I don’t know, but it has certainly lasted for me, and the audience in the case of Margot Fonteyn – and on the performer. Jane became more confident after that. I realised, in that instance, that dance had something extraordinary to offer for people who have a different movement ability than say trained dancers.
What you seem to be suggesting is that in the way in which you work, it is almost as if it is emptying the situation of the classical view of the director giving orders. That you have to be sensitive to people, listen and allow an inner truth to come out. In order to do that do you have to find a different key for every person that you work with?
I think because I work with non disabled peopled also – and because it was always the same work with Hilde – I am always looking for the individual – what he or she is able to give. And again there is no difference for me, working with professionals or people with difficulties in that sense. Other directors are different.
They have set ideas of what they want. And it’s not lesser than what I am producing. It’s just that I am more open, maybe, I let things develop. I am not frightened that something may be different from what I first experienced. When I am preparing for a new production then it’s really my first, my vague, gut reaction to the theme. And I talk to the group about it – and I have a feeling.
When I am starting like any other choreographer and am listening to the music I do movement, create some steps and take them into the group, but because they are very different I watch them improvise – how they respond to the music – and then find ways of bringing it back to what I want. So, it means that both of us are satisfied. I come back to my original feeling, that must not be betrayed and they’re also able to function within the boundary that I am giving them to be themselves. So, you have a quite unique position in which individuality is encouraged, but people don’t become less of an individual because they become part of the group. They become more of an individual – even though they are giving themselves over to the group and what it means to be part of a group. It is very unique to be able to find that, that the group works in unison, even if you have 36 company members, remember each individual moves differently and has a different way of expressing themselves. Yet they are working in unison.
You seem to be suggesting that it is not a trade off; you are looking for authenticity in the performer, yet you are trying to remain true to yourself while being true to the performer?
It’s really to find a balance. Coming back to Hilde. She was very strong on pure lines and that was something that she instilled on me. I am looking for ways of making it visually exciting for an audience and it is up to me to find a way of bringing it together, to get that visual speciality. And again what I observed with Hilde was that if she had an idea she would show would show us, say a movement that she wanted us to do, and we would try of course – naturally being a student you would want to copy as much as you can to be correct, yet I would notice another girl would be preoccupied and not looking properly, and then doing something similar and yet not near what Hilde showed – and Hilde would suddenly say ‘Don’t do it like I showed, do it like her.’ And I would go quite mad! I would think she didn’t look. She didn’t do what was asked to do but what it was – she (Hilde) was an extraordinary woman. She realized that this woman, in her innocence, by not watching, got closer to what she wanted than her own first idea. So, that is a lesson of greatness that you can compromise suddenly for the better, when it is correct, when you need to find the best.
Is that something that always happens in rehearsal or are you looking for something outside of rehearsal?
Well, sometimes something happens and I just develop it from there. And I suddenly didn’t know I was going that way – except for the basic feeling. Other times I am more specific because I feel that it needs that specific way – but allowing them again to contribute in their way. Sometimes it happens in the rehearsal – that balance – yet sometimes I go to the rehearsal and have one person in mind already, thinking of what I want to try out, thinking that they may come up with what I want.
A lot of that comes from knowing the performers, spending a lot of time with them? Do you keep notes, or mental notes, just by watching people?
No, I think I would only make a note if I think it is really important. Just in case I lose it. But then again it’s so deep there it doesn’t matter. It will come back. If it’s something it will come back. It won’t let me rest. If I have lost it I will find it again. If it’s that important, and that real, I know it will not leave me. At some point a note in the music, or some movement, will remind me of what I want to do and I come back to it.
Just a question I want to raise. I know of situations e.g. back in Australia where people are put into positions, for e.g. in a Day Service, where people are placed in charge of a drama group. What sort of advice can you give to people in those sorts of positions, who may be floundering, don’t quite know where to go with something like drama? What do you think are some of the first things that a director may need to address?
Well, first of all, be sure that you do something that they are familiar with. Check what they like. Do that as starter, so that you get their attention already. Don’t come in with an extraordinary idea and be disappointed when it suddenly doesn’t catch on. It must be something that interests them. It might be a pop singers’ life, a film they have seen. Start as simple as that. Or maybe some folk stories that they know of Australia. Start with e.g. a Christmas story that people know. Identify with the characters, and build up on that.
Is it the simple stuff that works the best?
Certainly. People misunderstand simplicity. They think it’s cheap. That is not true. That was another one of Hilde’s great sayings when I asked her, when I was with her for about a year, ‘Madam what for you is the most beautiful thing in art or dance?’ And she would say ‘the most simple.’ You always would find that. Most artists are looking for simplicity. So if you can express yourself with a minimum then you are close to it. The simplicity is there to carry the message across more effectively. If you have too many circles, too many curves, then the cast get confused, the audience gets confused, and you get confused. So keep it simple as possible. Simplicity does not mean negative or it’s low down.
I notice from number of videos that I have seen of previous productions that there are ideas that could relate to people with a disability yet could also apply to other people as well – almost as if there is metaphor running through e.g. the idea of someone being trapped.
I think it’s not a conscious decision. I think it’s if you believe that everyone has that kind of equality that we have talked about then it would affect anybody, not just one specific group. If you believed in bringing disability issues to the foreground then you might have a different angle – using that to educate people.
For us it was always that the theatre came first. And in the theatre we would explore different things. In our first production in 1980, it is very curious you said that, it was called ‘I am not yet dead’ and dealt with the acceptance of the different major disabilities in our society and we never again touched on the disabilities theme in such a way, except in our twentieth anniversary production where we looked back on the twentieth century and tried to pinpoint how minority groups were treated.
Since our philosophy is that of inclusiveness, in every sense, it comes through; it doesn’t come from the back way. Like I said we are educators in the mere fact that we have a group that is so vastly different. By having so many different people within the group we are already political – the mere fact of being, rather than having to make an extra statement on top of it.
Do you think, like me, that that is a more powerful expression of empowerment for the person with a disability?
Again that is for the individual to decide. People have their own opinion on that. Some people need to go through with their own group, for example people with an intellectual disability, or learning difficulties, and people need to feel secure before they venture outside. This is perfectly for me understandable and acceptable. But, in Amici disability was not a big issue. We were people. People who came together from different backgrounds to make theatre. Whether people had a disability was not here or there. But that of course was not so good in the later part because we "didn’t play the disability card" and therefore funding wise it did not always help us to have that approach.
Has that changed over the years or do you think people still want to put disability issues way up front?
Well the big in-word now is inclusion. Well, we have been inclusive since the day we started. Never been anything but inclusive. But now it’s a big word and now it seems to be shifting back to that. I think people now enjoy the word inclusive to integration in that sense. I now think that people are realising that there is now something that we can all learn from each other. For me it was always the most important that we learn from one another. Not just one person putting one point and therefore we all accept it. We are a democracy after all and it is a very democratic process. Every body is being accepted as they are.
How does that extend into how Amici is structured? Do you have people involved in all sorts of stages?
Yes, we have. But again it just developed. It was never consciously thought about. Always because in the beginning I did far more technique, that because it was my background. With Hilde’s influence I became much more creative in finding new avenues to be creative – to make people more interested, to make people move, to make them more responsive. I think, at the moment, I have a very formal way of ballet bar, the way in which it is structured, and then different group members lead the other part of the warm up. So, obviously I lead the fist part, the exercises, I lead fairly quick and hard. But then again it’s a balance; the ballet bar is not there to make ballet dancers out of them. It is there to try to learn another structure that is possible and it is important for them just to be able to on time put their foot out, it being perfectly pointed. And for the people in the wheelchairs who cannot do it that way, who cannot do a plié or counterpoint, what you make them aware of is the different ways of approaching this so that they can do it in their own way. They don’t have to do it again like their neighbor who may be a classically trained dancer.
So in a way you are making people sensitive towards their own bodies as well as towards other bodies?
And I think it extends their way of wanting to be better. If they, for example, work with a ballet dancer who has extraordinary extension, then they feel they want to also learn and be more on that level. It is the other way round for the ballet dancer. He has learned to communicate in different ways now. And he is thrilled to pieces how much he has learned from the students – their openness – and they are trying out everything. And he tries to improvise – which was obviously not his forte – and he tries to follow and now he has to improvise and he is getting better and better. Again it is a two-way process.
Do you deliberately set up those two-way processes?
No. I let them find it out for themselves. I don’t direct and say you should look for this or that. I want them to learn themselves. I want them to understand through their body. And the feeling that they have come to a new stage. And that you can only do by working.
And it is like very much in our society, like you know with teachers, that you have to justify it, write about it and document it, but what it ends up with is that the majority are copying people – there’s quotes from here and quotes from there. That is fine for people who mark your papers, people realise you have done your homework and done your reading, but, in the end, you are just quoting other people.
Years ago I had a young woman who was a student who was a social worker student and she came to me at Normansfield where we had more severely limited students. I just knew that she was coming for three months to work with me, and she does research on people with learning difficulties, etc, and she, after the first lesson, she came up to me and she said "Wolfgang, why did that person do that, etc?" And before I could even look at her she asked me ten questions about the class. And she wanted to write it all down. ‘Why did he do that, why did, etc?’ So I just said, ‘My dear, I do not know you, would you please relax, you are with me for three months, so why do you want to know everything on the first day?’ ‘Oh’ she said, ‘I have to write it all down. I have to write a thesis.’ So I said to her, very quietly, ‘Please, I beg of you, trust me, I don’t know you, and I can’t necessarily expect you to trust me. I have experience in this field, trust me, so could you please not ask me any questions in the first two months.’ And she was not going to calm down. And I said after two months most of the questions you ask will be answered by yourself. And if you have any questions I will be happy to talk it over with you. But I want you to experience it yourself. I want you to find the answers yourself. These are my answers. They have nothing to do with you. When you write your thesis all you have to do is do it from your convictions and not from what I have said. And then she calmed down and needless to say she never asked me anything.
She left and after five months I had a letter from her thanking me from the bottom of her heart and she had done tops there and she got very high marks. I was pleased that I was able to persuade her because she was trained in that way that everything had to be done there at that point. It pleased me that she did listen and that she trusted me. She got to it because she found it out for herself.
So that sort of teaching is what I do and people came for a short time and I am there for questions and answers, but, if I can avoid it, I want them to learn it for themselves. That is what Hilde exactly did. You see coming back to her, she would never explain. She wanted you to experience it – go through with it, let the body experience it.
What sorts of things have you noticed over the years in the progression of your own understanding?
Well, suddenly I suppose it comes clearer to me now. What I used to do instinctively now I can see and understand why I did it, but at that time I just did it. It was an instinctive reaction. Luckily it did me well. So, I can now look at and analyse my own work and say ‘how does it work for instance?’ Going all the way to Australia having 35 people in my class and in half an hour they are with me. First there is giggling and laughter and then they are responding. And I think that it comes back to the mere fact that I provide a space where people can be themselves. I allow them to be themselves. I do not put any pressures on them. I do not have any expectations. Of course I have expectations in my own – I hope that they understand my work – those are my expectations, but not that they have to react to the music in a certain way, or that they should do this dance that way. They somehow sense that after half an hour. People are suddenly privileged at being able to be themselves, and not that the teacher is judgmental immediately. They may have a word with them afterwards, but the moments happen. Because if they start thinking again it’s all gone. They have lost the impact, the impulse, and that’s what it is – to work on the impulse and let people experience the impulse, be there, and just go for it and see what happens. Make them free, just to explore, without the hang-ups that we all have – of "Am I doing it right?"
Do you think that sense of self-consciousness is any different in people with a disability?
It depends. For example, the majority of people with down syndrome don’t have that inborn sense of doing it wrong .However, it depends on how they are brought up. So if they had people who say ‘Don’t do that, that’s wrong, don’t behave like that, don’t do, don’t do’ then they become just like the rest of us, slightly shy and inhibited. But if they haven’t had that, if they have been able to be respected from the beginning, then you don’t have it. It is the same as you and I – if people hadn’t have hammered it into us to do right all the time. If we could have explored a little bit more, what we wanted, we wouldn’t have those little hang-ups.
Also the way I teach, because I know myself, how hung up I am, when it comes to taking someone else’s class I need someone (a teacher) who can open up otherwise I freeze.
Say we go with a group of friends somewhere and suddenly I start dancing. And they know I’m a dancer and they say ‘Come on you’re a dancer, we want to learn from you.’ I freeze because I realize that I they have an expectation of me that I may not be able to fulfill and I come up with something stupid, an excuse, like I ‘have been dancing all week I don’t want to dance now’. It’s just that I’m sacred stiff. So, from my own experience, knowing my own shortcomings, I do sense the hesitations in people who come for the first time to my class. I try to move that as soon as I can, to make them feel at ease, and make them be able to come out as soon as they can.
What is it that inspires you in the times of feeling flat, for whatever reason, and keeps you working?
Of course in the end, I do get down and I get low, but most of the time you go back to your class, for example, my evening class with Amici, or a day class, and then it happens – somebody does something – and you know why you are there. You feel suddenly very privileged, even though things may be shitty at home, or with fundraisers, whatever, suddenly you don’t care what they say. Here that is what’s important – letting people be able to experience something of themselves. And then you see it and then you feel that you are on the right track.
You see most people, teachers, work in isolation and don’t have that much experience, so people feel that they don’t do the right thing. They feel nervous because they have no one to compare with and all I can say is that if you feel this, keep carry on experimenting. Be yourself. Be truthful. And try to help the other people to come out. And it is very tricky because people are living in isolation. When I come and give a workshop somewhere I very often keep saying to teachers that it is not just that you are less and I know, they just see that Wolfgang is supposed to know, but I am doing just the same thing that they are doing. So they feel so relieved that they are on the same track. I sometimes only tell them that I am only here to tell you that you are fine. Don’t worry. You worry too much. Obviously, if you are doing something similar to that then you are on the right track. I say to them that nothing is new on this planet. Not what I am doing or what anyone else comes to teach you. It’s always been here before. It’s only that you look at it from another direction that it appears to be new for you and the people who are with you.
You seem to suggest that we get taken away from things at times?
Well I think people that come in to do it come in because they want to do it. Unless they do it for a different reason e.g. they do it just because they want to get some money. Then sorry, out! You have to want to do it – that’s number one. So the majority of people who want to do it have some drama experience. Just remember that it is not the drama class that you attended. Remember that this is another group of people, whether they have a disability or not. They are different. So if the way that you have just approached it doesn’t work, find another way in. See what interests them. It’s not that sometimes your material is wrong, that you fear because it doesn’t work, sometimes you misjudge the moment; you could have done it the next day, or the day after, but not that day. It somehow wasn’t right for the atmosphere in the room. And that you only learn with experience. You can write about it but still it won’t work. Each moment you step into the class it is different, so don’t expect things to happen the way you want. And also if you do push yourself too hard to expect exactly what you experienced ten years ago in your own drama class – there were different people there so don’t expect the same to happen. If it is exactly the same there is something wrong with it. It should be a growing development and you should take it further. Use it as a starting point and work with it. Don’t just stay there. That is the worst. That is what I hate is when people are so nervous that they do only what is in the book – and it’s like cooking. Its only there just so that you can get the ingredients. Play with it. And make it your own. Don’t make it like Mr. Hong Chong Chong. Make it your dish.
I’ve noticed this with a number of Drama groups where they are just churning out the same kind of karaoke type of performance each year and it is as if that is the formula. And they just don’t go beyond that.
Well it’s because also of their lack of experience. You can’t always blame them. What I suggest is go and join another drama group or see a dance group, even if you don’t use it, but just get a different type of stimulation. Like Hilde said, go to a gallery, look at a painting. Maybe one painting will give you an idea, or the colour, a sculpture, or listen to beautiful music. Don’t just go back to the same music that you are familiar with. That is why when we do the activity of the spinning of the pen (in workshops to decide whose turn is next) number one is to get people out who may have been neglected, and they may not be doing well – I have to find a away to engage them. That’s my responsibility. It’s the teacher’s responsibility. It’s easy to ignore those people and go for the ones you know are going to do something on the line you expect them to do. But what do you do with someone who always sits there with their head down? How do you engage them? That is the challenge. You’re not a teacher if you just use the easy ones. And that doesn’t make you a teacher.
I guess that challenges you and keeps you on your toes?
Very much. So as I said earlier, when you are down, you can get dry. If you keep on trying to use the old material see if you can change it – you can use one aspect of it. How can I develop that one aspect of it? One word? If you use the word ‘dog’, just from my head now, what does a dog do – apart from barking? And biting? How does a dog sleep? You know – a different way – how does a dog greet another dog? There are thousands of things that you can get into. You know, shall we make a song about a dog? And they have their own memories about dogs and friends have their own dogs and they can come up with names, and then you can build up a whole performance around dogs.
I guess it is being sensitive to all these entry points?
Yes, entry points. Watch out and listen. It is all happening. It’s all there. Pick up on it.
It’s almost as if you have a huge bundle of keys – I say this when I work with teachers – and it is as if you are trying to find the right key to unlock. And sometimes you have got the wrong lock. Or the wrong key.
Exactly – you have to start again until you find the right one.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work, but that’s the challenge.
But that’s the challenge. But also if it doesn’t work then it’s wrong to say that is doesn’t work, you have learned something from the process. You see nothing is wasted. Even with people who say ‘oh you shouldn’t have a negative experience’, for goodness sake, it’s an experience – even if it’s negative. The person may have cried. You might have brought up an experience. Well you are there to support them. You must make sure that you are always there to support something that is not pre-planned. Well if someone is screaming or crying because of a piece of music, well then, don’t step back and say ‘oh I wasn’t sensitive.’ It is part of their growing up. Don’t shun them away from all the experiences. You cannot protect them. They will never grow. They will never develop. So don’t be frightened. You’re there in a protective manner to support them, not leave them in the dungeons and they fall. You are there with them in the dungeons to bring them up again to the surface. You are with them.
And the group is with them as well. And those experiences are powerful because if you get through that emotion you might be getting into a new territory?
But, of course, teachers are now almost being scrutinised with the carefulness of health and safety. It is almost as if there is no maneuvering. And it is though everyone now is put into a straight box. And people are so scared because they might lose their job. You see, whatever you do try to find a way that suits you and your students.
I will give you one last example to get out of things when you think this doesn’t work, or can’t. Back to Normansfield. I came there and didn’t know that they had a jumble sale before and the whole space, my beautiful space, was completely cluttered with everything under the sun. And I was so upset and I was saying if the Royal Ballet was here today you would have cleared it. I went and complained and they said ‘there’s nothing we can do.’ And I said how do you expect me to work with that .Could you remove it? ‘No we have no more time!’ So I went back and I really wanted to go home. I wanted to make a stand here. It’s not fair on the students and it’s not fair on me. And I was just about to leave and the students came in "Hello Wolfgang" and all that. And what could I do, I couldn’t leave now? So I asked them to remove some of the items we could move but in the middle was this enormous heavy old gas cooker. I would have had to have four grown up men, or women these days, to move it out, and it was impossible. So, I really was upset. And then I said suddenly to myself, wait a minute, wait a minute, when will we have a chance again to dance with a gas cooker? You cannot carry a thing around with you for improvisation and you know, it was one of the most enlightening improvisations we had. We spent the whole day with the cooker. It was quite a remarkable experience. So sometime you can turn the at worst around to make it positive. Don’t give up and say I can’t. That’s ridiculous.
I did that once with a drama group I worked with. We walked into the space and there was a jukebox left over from a disco the night before. So we plugged it in. It was great.
That’s what I say, if you have too much structure, and you have prepared something you have to let it go that day. You must be able to let go.
Can I just finish with another idea? There is that idea of letting go; there must be time when your letting go is encouraged by a person with a disability? There must be times, I’m sure, where you are lead?
Yes, naturally that’s the whole point. First of all I can’t see what they are trying to tell me and then again, because I take my time, suddenly, it’s my God it's fantastic. There’s another way in.
I’ll give you an example and the logic that they have. I used to core teach with an Amici member with down syndrome and we used to have a thing: clap, touch your head, clap, touch your shoulders, shoulders, stomach, stomach, knee, knee, foot, foot, and blah, etc, and so I said for him to take over and he did it but he only did it clap, touch your head, shoulder, shoulder, stomach, knee, knee, foot, foot. And I didn’t say anything because he was teaching. I wouldn’t compromise in front of the class. Afterwards I said, ‘Chris I also clap, touch my head, touch my head and so on and you just did clap head, shoulders with only one hand’ and I looked at him he said, ‘Yes, but there’s only one head.’ And I looked at him and I thought goodness me, you are right!
In all those years I've been doing this, how confusing for some of the people learning. You are doing it twice but there is only one head? That kind of logic. I said bravo. I am sorry. Do it the way you want to. Again being brought up with everything in eights (timing) so then again I’ve learned that he was right, and how often I must have been wrong, thinking I was right. How do they look at me?
So it gets back to that sense of humility, where we started – the teacher or the director doesn’t necessarily know the answer?
You discover the answers together. You help each other.
And there must have been tremendous transformations in groups over the years?
When I mentioned Jane before – the woman who did the Beethoven – later I was lucky to see it many many times again, with different people. Just because they were ready at that moment to come out – with who they were – and showing proudly. And then I was equally touched. Thank you for letting me share this with you. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing it with me – standing in the kitchen.
© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009