Acting on impulse
Jane Clinton talks to members of Three Worlds theatre company whose actors improvise dramatic scenes suggested by the audience
09 January, 2020 — By Jane Clinton
Three Worlds actors at work: ‘It’s a bit like building a fire…’
A WOMAN stares out into the darkness. “Is that a question or a statement?” she asks.
And so begins the tragic story of a woman who is so consumed by the death of her six-month-old baby that she has become a hoarder.
Who is she talking to? It’s not clear. Perhaps a therapist, maybe her own reflection, as she works through her sadness and sense of loss
“Everything has a memory, doesn’t it?” she asks plaintively.
This vignette then makes way for another story, indeed several stories – their subjects all decided by the audience.
Not only that, every one of the short scenes is improvised by the group of six talented actors.
They are from the Camden-based Three Worlds theatre company, a drama improvisation troupe of around nine actors. During a performance there are also two musicians and a lighting technician, who also improvise.
Despite various iterations over the years, Three Worlds, as it is today, has been going since 2013. When I saw them perform recently the show began with the actors walking along the edges of the stage space, in a square, to the beat of a drum. It felt ritualistic, as if we were all, performers and audience alike, being drawn into a single rhythm.
After a short introduction by one of the actors, the audience were called on for suggestions/words for the actors to improvise on.
“It’s a bit like building a fire – you need to chuck a couple of logs on it,” said the actor.
The ideas ranged from: losing, thinking, guilt and growing old.
The actors responded to themes and gave some moving performances, particularly when it came to examining old age and guilt. Each story is revisited at some point during the course of the performance.
It is a complicated process: having to shift the story to another – changing the mood entirely and hoping the audience is still with you. (It was, by the way.)
There is also the fact that no two performances are the same and each night throws up a new set of themes.
So how do you rehearse for the seemingly unrehearsable?
Both Andy St John, the artistic director, and Gail Matthews, the associate director, admit that getting to know each other well and the ability to read each other – like a football player who instinctively knows who to pass the ball to – is vital.
While Three Worlds is happy for people who are non-professional actors to join the company, the group’s make-up is 60:40 professional actors to non-professional actors. The non-professional actors, however, are experienced in drama improvisation.
Their rehearsals from their Carol Street space are usually once a week with more in the run-up to shows. But they admit that compared to scripted theatrical productions their preparation is “minimal”.
There are, however, times when some themes recur. “The work really comes to life when there’s a national issue,” says Andy.
As well as shows, they work with the Somers Town Youth Club.
“There genuinely is no fourth wall in a community piece,” he says of the convention in theatre in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience and while the audience can see through this “wall”, the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. “The kids will engage with you absolutely directly.”
That came to the fore on one particular occasion.
“One of our actors was at school with Boris Johnson and he does a very fine impersonation of him and the kids completely engaged with him discussing knife crime,” says Andy.
“It was a remarkable thing to see: for the theatricality of it and the reality of it. That crossing between the theatre and the community is the most exciting – learning from both.”
Often the subject matter that is addressed can be challenging, not just in its execution but in the effect it can have on the actors themselves.
According to Gail there is “aftercare” following a performance. We can sometimes touch on some quite deep themes,” she says. “So we check in on the actors to make sure they are OK after a show.”
It is a labour of love. The company has no money and the actors pay subs to hire the rehearsal space, but they are passionate about their art.
“It is pure theatre: no costumes, no props,” says Gail. “I am constantly in awe of the actors and how they are willing to go out there and step into nothing really.”
• Come to One is at the Chapel Playhouse, 308-312 Gray’s Inn Road, WC1X 8DP, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, January 10-12, at 8pm. For details call
020 8050 3025 or visit www.chapelplayhouse.co.uk/whats-on.html#/ event/come-to-one