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Emma Deakin On ... Open Space in the Rehearsal Room

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Drawing inspiration from the myths and folklore of London and New Zealand, Shaky Isles Theatre bring to life the spirit of Maori sea-creature the taniwha at Ovalhouse Theatre from 17 November (previews from 15 November) to 3 December 2011.

A departure for the company, known for presenting original New Zealand writing in London, the show is directed by Stella Duffy and has been devised using Open Space Technology, a self-organising approach to focusing on a task without any formal agenda.

Popularised in the London theatre community through Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled events, Shaky Isles founder Emma Deakin explains how Open Space has allowed the company to sustain the energising, democratic discussions often encountered at coffee breaks through their rehearsal process.

If the huddles outside stage doors are anything to go by theatre-makers love putting the world to rights over a coffee break. But the wide-ranging knowledge people express outside the theatre door are often lost when you return to a rehearsal room filled with fixed roles and hierarchy.

Harnessing the power of the coffee breaks was exactly what Harrison Owen hoped to achieve when he conjured up the world of Open Space Technology in 1983. Open Space is simple, easy to learn, and can be used by anyone for meetings from five to 2000 people. It’s also free. It’s used by large organisations, community groups and in conflict situations across the world.

In 2010, inspired by Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled – What Are We Doing About Theatre? Open Space event, Shaky Isles decided this would be a wonderful model to use to gain a clearer direction for our theatre company. The Open Space we held that February - ‘Shaky Isles Theatre - what next?’ was the start of everything we did in 2010, and it was a busy year. In addition to script workshops, scratch performances and a world premiere, the whole company structure started to change too. Members began to have a greater care and involvement beyond just their role in a particular production.

Who’s to say that the director or the writer in the rehearsal room know more than anyone else about the project? Actors have design ideas, writers can be performers, and designers might be inspired to write. Many of us in the theatre don’t just do one thing and once we realised we were happy with that idea, Open Space naturally became part of our rehearsal process.

You might wonder how Open Space can really be used in a rehearsal room. It’s easy to imagine sit down sessions and discussions but what of practically using it in rehearsal? Essentially there is no agenda for rehearsals. That might be a hard pill to swallow with an opening night looming and a lot to get through. But when each person takes responsibility for themselves and what the show needs, the individuals within the collective create that agenda together. Rehearsals begin with calling sessions on what we want to do each day, what we think is best for the show. And everyone calls sessions. It becomes incredibly collaborative and works because we all take responsibility, and what matters gets done. Essentially, the hierarchy disappears.

In January this year we held another Open Space in which the show we are currently making, TaniwhaThames, was conjured up – and it has been made entirely in Open Space. Actors have been given the space to share their design ideas, the sound designers have been in the rehearsal room from the start, feeding the devising as much as responding to it, writers have become actors and vice versa.

What I love most about Open Space is that it creates action. It’s set up to give people the space, and responsibility, to discuss what really matters to them, and then says "now do something about it!" Talking turns to action, and what matters to us gets done – if we take responsibility.

The gift of Open Space in the rehearsal room allows for the cross pollination and development of all our skills. A rich collaboration, which not only serves the show, but also the day-to-day running of our company.

TaniwhaThames is currently in previews at Ovalhouse Theatre where it opens on 17 November (previews from 15 November) and continues until 3 December 2011.


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