Catherine Alexander

Complicite’s Catherine Alexander on theatre exercises

Catherine Alexander, who trained at L’École Jacques Lecoq, is an Associate Director for Complicite and teaches at the Central School of Speech & Drama. With our IdeasTap Inspires – Complicite brief currently open, as part of our Inspires programme, Catherine tells us what to expect from the forthcoming workshops – and shares advice for devising work…

What can participants expect from a Complicite workshop?

Generally Complicite do open workshops, and they tend to be led by quite experienced associates of the company, looking at something quite specific and in-depth for a week or two.

Probably it’s the longer-term encounters that are the most valuable for us and for the participants. There’s time to actually learn a lot about the participants because a workshop isn’t just about sharing a set of skills, it’s about developing a sense of communication and collaboration and you can’t do that quickly. The first sessions are about gaining trust and teaching some basic languages. Then there’s an opportunity for the participants to devise work, get feedback and then develop the work further in a dialogue. It’s an exchange and the longer you work together, the more meaningful that exchange becomes.

What kinds of questions do you ask in the early stages of devising?

It depends on the task you’re devising around. We ask lots of questions about what is and isn’t being communicated by any devised work. And that’s based on the Lecoq pedagogy of showing devised work quite frequently and going back to real basics: are the relationships clear? Are the spaces clear? Is the story clear? And then moving on to: is it interesting? Is it communicating something? Is the audience necessary?

What advice would you give performers looking to improve their ability to devise work?

The first thing I’d say is, watch lots of devised theatre. You need to know what’s out there, what practitioners are experimenting with. So try to see what smaller companies in particular are exploring. Go to scratch nights and work-in-progress showings because you get a really good sense of how a company’s approaching a particular problem. Quite often I find that people haven’t seen enough of the kind of work that they’re aiming to create. They may have been to lots of West End shows – or shows at the National – but they have a kind of gloss around them, which makes it hard to see how they were constructed. Seeing work in an embryonic form is really useful.

Also, I found it useful to write to up-and-coming directors ask, “Can I come and observe your rehearsal process or work as a rehearsal assistant for a week or two?” I think that sort of apprenticeship model is brilliant – just seeing how other people work and run a room.

And did you find directors open to being approached like that?

Yeah. Obviously a company like Complicite gets thousands of letters, but actually barely anyone ever asked the [smaller] company that I ran for many years. If you pick the right companies, they’ll be delighted to have another person in the room, helping out. And they may be more or less skilled than you but that doesn’t matter. It’s about encountering other people’s processes. Try getting in touch with the directors in the Young Vic Genesis Directors Network.

What advice would you give companies looking to incorporate physical work into their shows?

You have to start from day one. Movement isn’t something separate that you can just tack on. Complicite don’t work in that way – with a movement session and then a text session. The movement is central to every single session. You can start by inventing games, or playing ball games together, or looking in Augusto Boal’s book, Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Getting a lot of physical work into your rehearsal room, moving away from table-based analysis, translating text into image and movement, or working from photographs and paintings are good ways of getting used to movement.

Tell me about using photographs as a devising tool

For The Elephant Vanishes we had lots of Japanese photographs. We recreated them in terms of their dynamics or the tension, so we tried to look at a photograph not in terms if its subject but as a piece of composition and tried to translate that two-dimensional composition – the rhythms it proposed and the light and the shapes – into a three-dimensional movement piece. The act of translation, from two-dimensional images into something sonic or visual is a core exercise the company uses.

What qualities will you be looking for in the theatremakers applying for the IdeasTap Inspires – Complicite brief?

Generosity, openness and an ability to listen. When you’re building an ensemble, the last thing you want is 20 people who are all the same. There isn’t a magic formula. You need some people who are great thinkers and great at dissecting text, you need some people who are incredibly physically intuitive and imaginative and other people who can envisage space. It’s about how they complement each other through a process of collaboration – and collaboration not as an amazing act of democracy but a messy process, where you need to be robust and understand that sometimes you’re not going to be listened to and you have to embrace somebody else’s idea, despite what you think.


In Focus: The seven levels of tension…

This exercise, at it most basic, explores muscular tension and how to take a particular tension into the whole body, including the respiration, the eyes and voice. It is a challenge to allow one tension to inhabit you to that degree.

1. If you take all of the tension out of your body, what happens? Clearly you can’t remain standing – so you collapse. No movement is possible except the essentials of staying alive – a gentle breath, the blood moving around inside. Hardly any sound is possible and the eyes are unable to focus or stay open.  Explore this lack of tension in pairs with one person staying in the lowest state of tension and the other manipulating them to ensure that they are not holding tension anywhere. This is zero.

2. What happens when you put maximum muscular tension into your body? Stay in the same pairs and take turns to tense every muscle and sinew in your body. Which positions allow the highest level of tension? Don’t hold the high tension state for more than a few seconds – it’s extremely tiring. Explore the breath – can you breath or just hold your breath? – can you see, hear, make sounds? As you observe your partner and try to move parts of their body discover where there isn’t maximum tension. In maximum tension no movement should be possible. This is level seven.

3. Now you have the points of reference of zero and seven explore the rest of the scale. From one to six some movement is possible so explore by moving around the space. Each tension has a specific relationship with gravity, a direction – ie it moves in circles, straight lines – occupies a particular space and has an inherent rhythm and tempo. Some tensions can’t arrive at a fixed point and others have moments of stillness. Take your time as a group to explore the options and try to come up with your own scale and the specifics of each number.

4. The list of names that are sometimes given to each level are:


  1. Catatonic
  2. Fatigue
  3. Relax (Californian)
  4. Economic
  5. Alert
  6. Suspense
  7. Passionate
  8. Petrification (Tragic)


Be cautious with these names. It is very easy to start characterising and externalising each tension and not really inhabiting them and taking them in to every part of the body. For example tension one can be explored purely physically but by calling it “Fatigue” an actor may arrive at a tension through a specific known state – this is potentially limiting. Of course when an actor has accurately discovered the state of tension it may well suggest fatigue or drunkenness but it is better to arrive at that from a physical technical approach.

The following give you some clues about how each tension operates but it is really important to explore at length as a group and make these discoveries through action.


1. Enough muscular tension to allow you to stand on two feet and move about but no more. The head is extremely heavy and requires a lot of muscular effort to pull upright – let your head be free and lead the movement. You tend to move in circles and are able to stop… if you stop you fall over.

2. Increase the tension slightly so that gravity doesn’t have such a large pull on you. You can easily remain upright but still very loose muscularly. Walk around as if you have nowhere particular to be, no hurry, warmth, enjoy the space around you. Slight undulating quality. Not moving in straight lines. There is a contradiction in two – a desire and openness to going up but gravity is still holding you down.

3. Economic. As much muscular tension as you need to do something well and economically. No more and no less. We shouldn’t be able to read any emotional quality or attitude in the movement. When you truly in this tension we shouldn’t read a movement as angry, sad, joyful…. Sometimes this state is called “the stage manager”. Three moves in straight lines.

4. In the alert state of tension there is an interested engagement in the world. Your reactions become quick, you hear and see everything. Everything around you is equally interesting so you have a short attention span. This state has a quick and light tempo (the society cocktail party) and doesn’t stop for more than a few moments at a time. Four moves in straight lines. The attention is above, behind, all around. Four fills the space.

5. Suspense. This state of tension sees the arrival of the dramatic situation. There are decisions to value certain things over other things. Encounters with other people and places begin to happen. Fixed points. Emotions arrive – anger, delight, fear… There is the arrival of the held breath, the fixed point and the decision of why and where to move. Melodrama exists in this state. The focus is narrow and strong.

6. In number six the gestures become larger and the emotions bigger. These are the biggest dramatic moments of theatre. The focus is scattered but strong.

7. No more movement is possible. The body is on the point of death. This is the physical state of extreme fear – petrification. The body has become stone.

For more lessons in devising visit the Complicite website


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