Great Group Warmups 1 – The Ball Game

2015-03-22 13.54.14Picture the scene: a group of eighteen intelligent, imaginative and hard working actors, or sales people, or executives, or teachers – for example… They are all present and on the floor in good time for the session, standing in a circle and laughing and chatting nervously, excitedly.

Two questions:

  1. What is the fastest way to get their attention, to help them to become focussed and to stay focussed for the rest of the session?
  2. Why would you want to do that?

The quick answer to 2. is easy: because they will learn more if they give the work in hand their full attention. Of course. But more important than that, they will discover that being focussed, and staying focussed takes practice, practice, practice. It is a skill in itself that has to be acquired. And when you have that skill, you can apply it to anything. So learning to be focussed in the class or workshop means you are able to be focussed during the rehearsal, performance, seminar, presentation, or whatever it is that you do for a living.

So back to question 1. You could try shouting at them to be quiet, or ring a bell, or just stand there silently until they realise you are waiting for them. I suggest that it is more fun, and a lot faster, to throw a soft (non bouncy) juggling ball to one of them, and indicate that they should throw it randomly to others in the group. As soon as they get the idea, introduce another ball. Almost inevitably, someone will groan, or swear, or laugh, or all of the above. Now you call the balls back in, and explain what is happening.

2015-03-22 13.48.52There are many versions of this game, with different trainers putting their individual stamp upon their version. I learnt one such way from John Britton, of Duende Ensemble, and now I do it my way. I hope you do it your way.

There are people who are naturally good at ball games, and I am not one of them. When I first found myself in a circle of 12 people with 3 – 5 – 8 balls flying around, I was terrified. I dropped them, threw them wildly, was hit by them and spent a lot of time crawling around the floor picking them up. Great workout!

So what is the point? The point is, the goal is not to be good at catching and throwing balls. The goal is to keep the balls moving within the group. You are a completely autonomous individual within the group, responsible for yourself and your actions, AND responsible for the group. The group is the individuals who make it up. If – as can happen – all the balls are simultaneously on the ground because they were all missed or dropped at once, the group is alive because the appropriate individuals are working to find them, pick them up and keep them moving. Everyone else is actively waiting, in a state of readiness to allow the balls to move. NOT being cross or embarrassed  because the balls were dropped, but alive and interested in this apparent conundrum, this miracle of all the balls falling to the ground at once! How often does that happen? Marvellous!!!

So if you miss one, pick it up and keep it moving. If you miss it, and it lands nearer to someone else, let them pick it up and you give your attention to the balls that you may have the opportunity to catch. You do what you can, for yourself, and for the group. You never abandon your individuality, and you never allow your personal needs or ambitions or insecurities to overwhelm the group. The ball teaches you that.

As John is quick to remind us in his workshops, “the ball is inanimate. It does nothing itself. It can only do what you ask it to do. Notice what it does, and realise that you asked it to do that!” The ball is your teacher, helping you to learn something about your own physical and mental processes.

If you or your cohort have a tendency to be competitive – as often happens in Australian settings – call it an exercise, rather than a game. Or make it very clear that a game is something you play, not something you win or lose.

Whatever variation you choose to play, always remember that no exercise, in and of itself, is any use unless you know why you are doing it. For actors, the ball serves as a metaphor for their connection with each other, and with their audience. Every ball is a gift (as John says), so give it freely, and receive it gracefully. Rather than chucking it wildly, share it generously. Rather than hesitating, waiting for the perfect moment when you have decided who is to receive it, and waited till they are ready, allow your body to know where the ball is going before your mind does.

Of course, your brain is deeply involved in what your body is doing, but your CONSCIOUS mind doesn’t know until it is actually happening. This is fact. Don’t just believe me, check the neuro-science.

So if you realise, as you let go of the ball, that it is heading for someone who is at that moment ducking down to pick up another ball, acknowledge the fact and release your attention to balls that may be already flying your way. Once you let go of the ball, it is no longer your responsibility – just as once you say your text, you cannot un-say it, or take it back. As an actor, or a public speaker, this is important to understand, to accept, and to deal with. Once you have shared your thoughts out loud, what the audience makes of them is actually none of your business.

The ball serves as a metaphor for so many aspects of performance,2015-03-21 10.33.57 of expression, of communication and of collaboration, I could go on and on. The most important element of a warmup, whether it is with a group or on your own, is to connect what you are doing in the warmup exercises to what you are about to do when you finish the warmup.

Note that I am not using the word “creative”. That is because it is currently being used throughout the performing arts in a manner that has effectively changed the meaning of the word. I’m actively looking for a new one., and that’s a topic for another blog some time.

I’d love to hear your ideas about what this particular exercise could be used for. How do you think it could help to bring a group together, to work industriously and effectively.