A cast member in our first production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, introduced us to the sticks exercise as a warm-up and we have not looked back. Sticks are now an essential part of the rehearsal process. In this first article we explain the exercise and its benefits for teamwork and the production.
The sticks warm-up
The sticks exercise is a superb way of bringing the group of actors together, to promote the team ethic. It helps them focus and come into the rehearsal room. It is both a physical and mental warm-up and the frisson on danger involved means that the group of actors bond over a shared risk. Once the actors are used to it, sticks become an essential process which no proper rehearsal would begin without.
The exercise can last anything from 5 to 30 minutes. It can be spread across a large rehearsal room or an outdoor space; or it can be squeezed into a small studio or room above a pub. There are adaptations that can be incorporated or which will develop naturally as the group becomes accomplished at the process.
Circle and eye contact
- The actors stand in a circle, big enough for a space of about person width between each actor.
- The director has a bundle of sticks about 2 feet long cut from broom handles; or they are proper Morris Dancing sticks which last longer! A minimum of 3 sticks up to 6.
- The director takes the first stick and makes eye contact with another actor in the circle, then throws the stick to that actor and at the same time the thrower states his or her own name.
- The second actor (hopefully) catches the stick and then looks for another actor, makes eye contact and throws the stick stating his or her own name.
The eye contact before throw is important as it demonstrates that the recipient is aware of the stick about to be launched and constitutes an agreement to receive it. It also reminds the group of the thrower’s name – very useful at the start of the rehearsal process!
Two sticks and more
Once the group has picked up the rules and is confidently wielding one stick, the director finds a moment to pick up a second, seek eye contact and throw that one (with name stated) so there are now two live sticks. Once the group is confident with two sticks, a third will be introduced, and later a fourth, and possibly a fifth or sixth (if the group is large – say over 10 people).
Concentration is important from the outset with this exercise and especially as the number of live sticks increases. The actors need to engage their peripheral awareness and actively look around to catch the eye of and make themselves available to a thrower. Open and willing engagement in the process aids its smoothness, minimises risk and brings the group together to the ultimate stage of stick assimilation.
Thrower name not recipient name
It is tempting to utilise the name of the recipient, ie the thrower seeing the person they’d like to throw the stick to and stating that person’s name. However, this does not focus the group as effectively as the thrower stating their own name. This is because throwers will tend to use the name of a potential recipient as a way of grabbing their attention and launching the stick whether they are ready or not. Injury or damage is then more likely.
Throwing technique and best practice
People throw with many different levels of competence, style and impact. Some can look you in the eye and launch a stick at your shins, crutch, at your eye, over your head or to another person altogether, or inanimate object.
It is important at the outset to champion best throwing practice. At the very first stick session (and whenever a new member joins a session for the first time) the director should instruct the team to adopt a flowing and confident under arm technique.
- The thrower holds the stick two thirds of the way down holding it about 45 degrees upright from the horizontal.
- He/she then swings their arm forward and releases the stick into the air with the intention that it holds a steady upright orientation before reaching its apex and neatly completing its arc into the recipient’s outstretched hand.
- The recipient acquires the stick with a gentle follow through of their arm swinging it straight back and resting to the side.
Sticks that are launched without care or attention will rotate laterally like a detached propeller or speed to the crutch area with the longitudinal spin of a missile. However, a bit of twist on release will aid the accurate trajectory of the stick.
The different throwing skills of members of the group will make themselves obvious straight away. Some will find throwing a stick gently and accurately very easy; others will need some practice. There will be mis-throws, mistakes, wayward launches and poor catches, even with accomplished groups.
Catching is also a skill which people have to varying degrees. Some will attract the sticks like a magnet, others will stub their fingers. Nails can be an issue with those - female and male – who have long ones or preciously manicured ones; badly caught sticks can cause sharp but usually temporary pain.
However, danger is part of the attraction of this exercise, as long as it is managed. A group putting themselves collectively at risk will bond as do for example military personal. And being in a production is itself a manner by which a group of people put themselves at risk. The more collective the risk is felt, the more the team will work together for the benefit of each other and the production. The sticks exercise models the risk sharing process: it is physical, excellent for spacial awareness and dexterity, and great fun.
And all members of the group will improve on their levels of skill!
The second article will emplain more about the benfits of the exercise, how to support reluctant and risk averse participants and offer some variations.
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