Unmade strangers in a quest for clarity

The Fun Club have been fortunate, in a way; and if we can still regard good fortune as having no monetary value (yet)?

In our devising and rehearsal process we eschewed a deadly, protracted: “Where do we start?” and we have yet to tiptoe around each other. It is, in short, a breath of fresh air to speak without fear of reprisal or insult. It isn’t utopia – we don’t always agree, we ask tough questions, we express preference, we take deep breaths, and air frustrations. But in all of this we try to maintain a forward motion of progress, together, and ensure that none of this is personal – although, how can it not be when ‘art’ is inherently personal? A question we try to acknowledge throughout.

We could have found ourselves as three lone wolves in a room trying to figure out how to begin. An ensemble unsure of how to assemble. In John Britton’s ENCOUNTERING ENSEMBLE, Harrop and Jamieson conclude their chapter on collaboration and devising in the ensemble setting, with the following: “to borrow from Zygmunt Bauman, we enact and embody ‘the making and unmaking of strangers’. Is it the case that collaborative working processes ‘unmake strangers’…?”. This idea; this question, was like halogens flicking on in a darkened rehearsal room. That which had been hiding in the shadows was illuminated.

I can’t recommend enough that you read Bauman’s essay. He was a canny and extraordinary fella, a sociologist and philosopher, who passed away in January of this year. He looks like the kind of gent I would have loved to spend long afternoons sipping gin with.

Bauman proposes (according to my subjective interpretation) that strangers are unwitting products of society, and these ‘strangers’ create uncertainty by blurring clarity normally given by familials. We don’t realise that we do it, and also don’t realise that that is what contributes a feeling of unease in society that we struggle to pinpoint the cause of. It is an intriguing proposition when placed in the context of collaboration. What happens in the rehearsal room when we fail to recognise that we are strange to each other and that in that strangeness we are mired a fog that lacks the clarity needed in order to collaborate, to create?

Keith Johnstone’s book IMPRO: IMPROVISATION AND THE THEATRE is a great source for anyone interested in the mechanics of improv. In his book Johnstone points out that during the act of devising and improvisation “we want to see the actors yield, and say ‘Yes’” in order to strive and build on accepted ideas. If a response of ‘Yes’ is taken as the affirmative [as an answer given with certainty] then it is perhaps implicit from Bauman’s description of strangers that ‘Yes’ is not afforded until these strangers have been unmade. That strangers, with their muddiness and ability to “befog and eclipse, the boundary lines” (direct from the aforementioned epic essay) do not lend themselves to responding in the affirmative. Instead the ‘No’ response is given thus blocking the process of devising. In the New York Times article THE POWER OF STARTING WITH ‘YES’ the author, Tony Schwartz suggests that ““No” is first and foremost a fear response”; fear of the unknown, fear of ‘strangers’, and fear of failure.

Hello, Failure!

If The Fun Club had not begun by hurdling assumptions and actively seeking to break down any obstacles of strangeness, would we have been able to reach a point of openness in the rehearsal room? Would we have been prepared to fail in front of each other without first establishing clarity and deconstructing boundaries?

We had been friends for around 6 months prior to formalising as The Fun Club. We have spent an average of 7 hours a day, 5 days a week with each other since September, 2016. We could have assumed familiarity. Instead we took ourselves back to square one, almost adopting the roles of strangers in order to progress in parellell, contemporaenously (to throw in a fun word). We deployed tactics normally reserved for the meet and greet stage; we outlined expectation freely in order to open doors to dialogue. We acknowledged areas of strangeness and allowed connection beyond that which we had already established.

I am therefore given to wonder if the preposition by Harrop and Jamieson does not epitomise the process in which an ensemble discovers clarity and the ability to say ‘Yes’ to each other in order to progress. That being able to question, and disagree AND agree towards positive outcomes, is the ultimate goal in the process of unmaking strangers in the collaborative process.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But for now, Bauman is my homeboy and I’m loving his work.


(freely adapted from a paragraph of my own essay on the critical evaluation of the collobarative devising process, 2017)

References and further reading:
Bauman, Z. Postmodernity and Its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997, p. 17.
Bauman, Z. (1995) Making and Unmaking of Strangers. Thesis Eleven 43, 1–16.
Johnstone, K. (2007) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, London, Methuen Drama.
Schwartz, T. (2015) The New York Times. ‘The Power of Starting With “Yes.”’ URL
(accessed 31.03.17)

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