This an early Enforced Performance* exercise, to encourage application of releasing the Marginalised Emotions and using the comedy craft. The player does not need to exercise their imagination in terms of generating ideas for the scene, but the Only One Action exercise does benefit from strategic play (or can train strategic play). Strategic Play is born from an adept ability to accept the (imaginary) predicament, clock and accept the audience's reactions and to mine the predicament over time.
1/ The player is invited to focus on 'Exposure in the space' i.e. playing with the anxiety due to being alone on stage and looked at. Sensitivity to group members is required, however. Some people have issues surrounding being seen, so I often, on a short two-day course, omit directly exploring 'being looked at'. For players who are ready for it, it is fun. 'What? what? What do you want from me? Stop looking! Your eyes, your eyes! All of your eyes! Seeing. See-ing. Look look looking. Stop it!' cover eyes 'Are you still looking? are you? I can feel you looking! Aargh!' Riffing with basic concrete words is a useful thing to do for clown work. We all know how often our minds will worry that they need to present a clever idea. 2/ A useful exercise to develop trust in the power of keeping it simple and concrete and being unafraid to mention the obvious would be the 'Here and Now' exercise which I learned about in Oliver Double's excellent book Getting the Joke. The student/course participant doing the exercise faces an audience and may only talk about things that are happening in the here and now: the decor, the thoughts and feelings passing through his or her head etc. It helps reduce the ever-present temptation to be 'interesting'.**
One Action, as an Enforced Performance exercise - is based on the absurd idea that you are a prisoner in a regime where you are forced onto a stage and given the task of 'entertaining' an assembled audience (are they your tormentors, their assembled family?***). Your well-being (or that of your loved ones) is at stake.
The prisoner is only allowed one action. For example, walking. In my controller voice, I say: ‘The Prisoner will Walk!’
How to make this interesting? When you have ‘nothing’ what have you still got?
Nothing is not nothing
In terms of the human body, what have you got to work with? Rhythm, breath, expression, doing, pausing, clocking (both audience reactions and guard), thinking, reacting, allowing the emotion of the moment, (rinse repeat, no particular order – that is based on awareness) – plus, trajectory and position in space. Plus planes of space. As a side note, this exercise also shows the importance of being able to work the stage area strategically. More on that perhaps in another post.
Work the predicament
Keep it simple, go step by step. The techniques of Red Nose Clown – looking, noticing the reaction, using curiousity, repeating the action, possibly a further repetition (choosing the right moment to repeat).
Gaulier said that the clown is always asking questions (e.g. ‘Did they like that? Will they like it again?’). Here the Dark Clown notes – ‘They are laughing – is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Now they are not laughing. Oh no, what does that mean? They laughed at my desperation. What kind of people are these? What will happen if this does not go well? Is the guard looking at me funny? When will this be over?’ interjected by little beats of emotion – e.g. startle response, panic breathing, stifled sob, weeping.
Other one action prompts could be: coughing, sniffing, vomiting, singing, hopping running, looking, not speaking (make us believe that you are not speaking; prove it to us),measuring, pointing, yawning.
I have yet to use the ‘not speaking one’ – it appeals because it is an 'impossible' instruction.
Optional extra - The Guard
To help players feel the High Stakes, in some exercises e.g. this one, I ask for someone to embody a guard. I find a water bottle that is half full. Held by the neck, a plastic bottle**** makes a satisfying audible, rounded thud in the left hand. The guard stands over on stage right – only just in the stage picture. They stand three-quarters on to the audience, feet apart and vigilant, the bottle resting on the palm of the left hand. The bottle is in place of a baton.
Side note: I am careful always to discourage people from over-investing in the role of the guard. The real work and point of interest, I remind people, is the person in suffering mode, the person standing in for the guard is serving the student who is doing the Dark Clown work. I also give this context to help the guard to be vigilant (it’s the Dark Clown version of complicité!). The guard could easily find themselves in the position of the prisoner. The guard needs to be as interested in the state and reactions of the audience and the overall success of their task. The guard is using the same key skill we focus on in the Peekaboo exercise – ‘are the audience getting closer to or further away from laughter?’ plus – ‘how is the prisoner doing in achieving that?’ I instruct the Guard that they can make only one thud with their ‘baton’ during the piece, so they have to choose their moment well. If the baton thud is over-used, then then the performer in prisoner role can work a beat of panic, but each subsequent beat will not raise the stakes, because after two, without any follow through, it presents a hollow threat. Also, and importantly, if the baton thud is over-used, it deprives the ‘prisoner’/player of the psychological anguish of not knowing when enough is enough and also of the horror of culpability – they themselves are forced to take the risks and make the decisions.
* Enforced Performance is a term I use for Dark Clown scenarios using a prison or captive scenario and in productions, such as The Maids.
** Keith Johnstone famously recommends resisting being interesting. Avner the Eccentric says 'be interested, not interesting.'
*** These are thoughts in the head of the performer who is tasked with imagining themselves in the predicament - the actual audience is never asked to play a role.
**** As most of us bring re-usable water bottles now, I keep one for this specific purpose.