As explained in Sticks and Teamwork 1, sticks are now one of the most important parts of a Rooftop Theatre Company rehearsal. They take place first at all stages of the rehearsal process including the pre-production warm ups. Nothing will prevent them happening, with the possible exception of hurricanes or volcanic eruptions.
We have found they are superb at bringing the group together and combined with a physical and vocal warm up focus the actors and directors. At the disparate, chatty and loud stage at the beginning of a rehearsal, they become a way of calming everyone down, taking their minds off their busy lives and concerns and bringing everyone into the room together.
Once sticks are established as a process, all that is required is for the director to put their mug of tea down, pick up the bundle of sticks and stand in the position of the potential circle to be formed. Within seconds one of the more introverted actors will notice and stand opposite as your first recipient. Backwards and forwards a couple of times; then a third will join you; moments later a fourth; then finally the remaining chatty ones. A few remarks such as “Oh no - sticks!” or “Hurrah - sticks!” will be heard and group will be together.
Getting sticks going is a great way to subtly chastise latecomers without having to say anything. Those slipping in will know sticks are under way from the absence of loud chatting. They will be required to quickly set aside coats and bags and slip into the circle - without tea or biscuits.
One of our best experiences with sticks was during rehearsals for open air performances in Verulam Park, St Albans where we would throw sticks in a big parkland space with a wide circle. We were towards the end of the rehearsal process and everyone was confident with stick work. A late-comer would be spotted scurrying towards the group and we would all turn and launch our sticks at him as high and fast into the air as possible. They would land like archer’s arrows all around the errant actor. On one occasion an actor went for a stick and tripped over in a great rolling tumble. For a moment we thought we had lost our Falstaff, but he soon hauled himself up with a wide grin.
Sticks can be enormous fun and if you are working outdoors - once confident as a team - you can really throw the sticks high with great satisfaction in both throwing and catching. Indoors, it is always fun relying on your new skills to miss ornamental fittings, stage lights or windows.
Awkward ones and saboteurs
The awkward actor or saboteur is set in their ways and doesn’t like group activities, prefers to warm up alone, warmed up earlier in the day etc. They shouldn’t really be in your cast at all as at audition your awkward radar should have been bleeping. However they slip through by being completely different people audition to rehearsal; or you have no choice as they are perfect for the part, or you are short of actors.
They may refuse to engage in sticks, at first. Play it by ear; it is often best to leave them to their ways. After a few rehearsals they will notice how lively the sticks process is and how those involved enjoy it; then they will slip into the process. Or they will carry on being awkward and you vow never to work with them again!
Another way of the saboteur is to join in the sticks circle but refuse to engage in the spirit of the process; to make their mark by a form of belligerence or contempt. This can be manifested through purposely bad throwing, not gaining eye contact before launching a stick, feigning injury if they fail to catch a stick properly. Or it can be vocally criticising or mocking the sticks process in an attempt to lessen its value.
Again, play this by ear, and take the attempted undermining lightly, unless of course the wilfulness of the participant causes injury or problems to others, in which case a word may be needed. If so, give the person the choice of staying out of sticks altogether (for safety reasons) or opting in but doing so properly and with good intent.
In our experience, the few awkward ones have just slowed the progress of the group to graceful stick assimilation, which is when the group can confidently and elegantly handle several sticks for many minutes without incident. They nearly always come round and, although inwardly reluctant and sceptical, will outwardly engage with the process sufficiently for it to work well.
The stick clash
An unavoidable incident it the stick clash. This is where two sticks hit and deflect each other in the throwing space. It will always happen once two or more sticks are live and is quite startling for the group at first. After a few times it becomes exciting and when the session is going smoothly with multiple sticks, a clash will throw a satisfying cat among the pigeons.
The sticks can ping off in any direction and it wakes anyone from complacency. In this and many ways, the sticks process models on-stage occurrences such as sudden changes in pace or expectation, and reiterates the benefits of being aware, alive, watching, listening and in the moment.
Some priactical details
Run the sticks exercise for at least five minutes and vary the total length depending on number of actors. For a full team rehearsal, run for 15 to 20 minutes, starting simply and building up numbers of sticks. You can introduce some of the variations below (or invent your own).
As to numbers of stick, always start with one, to bring the group members into the process. Once you have the whole group, introduce another, and more as you feel comfortable. The maximum number of sticks will vary with the total number of people. Three people could cope with two, four with three, five with four etc. For larger groups, you probably wouldn’t want to go above six sticks in total as there would be too many clashes. In our experience six sticks is usually enough for groups of up to 15 actors.
Once the group is comfortable with a sticks session and they are flying smoothly, some variations can be introduced to keep people focussed and increase the enjoyment of the exercise.
- Character names. The easiest variation is to announce your character name as you throw the stick rather than your own name. This is even more enjoyable if you are playing more than one character, or your character has more than one name, or can be announced as a relationship, eg “Hamlet’s mum”, or a status position eg “Murderous King of Denmark”.
- Silent sticks. Sticks can get quite raucous, even with the concentration involved, as the group relishes the process and plays with the rules. A great way to bring focus back is to throw the sticks silently, relying solely on eye contact and body language. It requires the throwing actor to seek specific eye contact and acknowledge the agreement to receive with facial and body language. The actions are performed more carefully and heightened observation and awareness is required. Silent sticks are a very good way to end the sticks session as the actors are more aware and collaborative. This will lead naturally to the next stage of the rehearsal process, the vocal warm up.
- Sound effects. In contrast, another variation will make sticks more noisy and raucous. This is the introduction of noises for the thrower and catcher which actually aid the throwing and catching technique. As the thrower swings their arm forward he/she shouts “Weeeee!” as the stick travels through its trajectory until it meets the catcher’s hand. At this point the catcher shouts “Ahhhh!” as they take the momentum of the stick and bring it to their side.
In conclusion, sticks are a brilliant way to bring a team of actors together. It might be a little awkward at first to implement, particularly if the director is unfamiliar with the process but asking the actors to share in the trial and error and exploration of the exercise is of course a valuable group endeavour.
It is a process which is not about the text or the acting, the personality or the ego, but a physical and mental work out which brings focus and develops skills. It can be exciting, a little dangerous and is completely status neutral, meaning the leading, supporting and minor actors work together equally at the beginning of each rehearsal. We wouldn’t be without sticks and it always positively contributes to the quality of the production.
Sticks are also useful to have around as they can be used in productions, as here in Henry V:
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