My job involves helping people take risks: John Britton

Feb 17, 2013, 11:03 IST | Moeena Halim

Can't sing, juggle three balls and romance your co-star on stage at the same time? John Britton, one of the best-known exponents of Psychophysical Acting, is in India for the first time and will conduct residential theatre workshops to help artistes become better at multi-tasking. Forty-eight-year-old Britton, who has been developing a way of physically training performers for the past 20 years, speaks to Moeena Halim about his workshops

What are your two workshops in India going to be about?
I am here to work with The Arshinagar Project, a collective of artists and cultural practitioners from different traditional and contemporary disciplines, and of course, to hold two residential workshops. I call my training approach Self-With-Others. It is a training of the self, in relationship to (with) the others in the ensemble. The workshop in Tamil Nadu in March (11 to 18) will focus on training as performers, mainly in physical improvisation work. That we are working with traditional performers at Kattaikkuttu Sangam (a social mission driven performing arts organisation based in Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu) will add another dimension, both to the training and to the improvisation work. The other workshop, Macbeth in the Mountains is an intensive workshop and will be held at Delhi and near Nainital (April 6 to 23). It will be based on Self-With-Others training. We will create a performance piece based on Macbeth. We will focus more on creating a performance, and less on pure training.

A beach rehearsal of the show Performing at the Edge in Lesbos, Greece in July 2012. Pic Ccourtesy/John Britton

What is psychophysical training?
Psychophysical refers to an approach that trains the mind and body simultaneously. Psychophysical training recognises that the mind and body are inseparable and have to be trained together. You develop your quality of thinking by paying attention to what you are doing with your body and you develop the use of your body by changing non-useful ways of thinking. So during a workshop, performers will do a range of physical and vocal exercises. There is a particular exercise with juggling bags that I do and there is work to develop the detailed use of the senses and expand the ways we use our bodies by discovering new qualities of movement. The intention is to make it possible for the performer to do several tasks (for example, remembering a choreography, being in relationship with another performer, singing) all at the same time without being overwhelmed by stress or a sense of chaos. That’s where the mental toughness comes in.

How would performers benefit from the workshops?
Apart from technique, each performer needs to learn how to use her or his body, and because the body is controlled by the mind, each performer needs to learn how best to use her or his mind. The core of Self-With-Others is this process of learning how to use your body by learning how to use your mind. The heart of the training is about learning how to perform — how to be able to stand in front of the audience and make them want to watch you. I train performers from a wide range of art forms, precisely because I am dealing with absolute fundamental questions — can you BE in front of an audience in a way that makes them want to watch you?

John Britton’s theatre company DUENDE rehearses for shows Collision #1

What are your criteria for selection of candidates for the workshops?
I have two questions I need to answer before I can approve an application. Firstly does the applicant have a realistic understanding of what the work will involve and demand from them? And more importantly, does the candidate show some evidence of having something to contribute to the experience others will have?  Tell us about interesting past experiences you have had while training performers.There are so many moments. Sometimes it is just a spilt-second where I see someone take a risk that they have never taken before, and I realise I have just witnessed the first step of that individual’s very long and very personal journey.

A combination of tightly choreographed moments, structured improvisation, free improvisation and Performing at the Edge, a sharing of the way the company works. pic courtesy/ John Britton

I am constantly amazed by how extraordinary people are when they slowly, carefully, begin to move beyond their fears and take some risks. In the end, my job involves helping people take risks and to reflect back to them what I see whey they dare to do that. It is a job where every day contains moments of delight and sometimes moments of glory! I have no doubt there will be plenty more of them during my six weeks in India.

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