Practitioner focus: John Wright

Antony Taylor
Thursday, March 1, 2018

A practitioner focus page on the teacher and director who founded Trestle Theatre Company

Wright has written two books: Why Is That So Funny? – A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy and Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit
Wright has written two books: Why Is That So Funny? – A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy and Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit

John Wright is an internationally renowned teacher and director. He co-founded Trestle Theatre Company in 1980 and Told by an Idiot in 1993. For many years he was a principal lecturer at Middlesex University, and his belief that teaching is the greatest source of learning has enabled his ideas to be developed and shaped by generations of students. Wright is currently a visiting director at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and he teaches various courses in clowning, play and mask throughout the UK.

Theatre as play

Wright's inspirations include Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, Barney Simon, Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. The fundamental principal behind his approach to theatre making is playfulness, and a desire to ‘find the game’. Anyone who has ever participated in a workshop with Wright will know that his approach to theatre is incredibly liberating and, above all, fun. Any Wright exercise is guaranteed to engage students as his approach to theatre-making is refreshingly accessible. Many theories relating to acting often fall into the trap of becoming too cerebral but Wright's ideas are firmly rooted in the physical.

Practical activity: Finding the game

Wright is very interested in how simple games can help release an actor's creativity and provoke unexpected and fresh choices. This approach can be very helpful if your students are finding rehearsals rather dry and uninspiring. If you ask an actor to find the game of doing something, you are inviting them to play and to find the fun in a situation. For Wright, games aren't just warm-up activities to play at the beginning of rehearsals and then abandon once the ‘proper’ work begins – they are fundamental to his approach. The following exercises are helpful in fostering a sense of playfulness:

  • Ask the group to stand on their own, evenly spread about the space. On a given signal they should start walking around the room, exploring all of the available space. Encourage them to walk at a brisk pace and keep changing direction. Now ask the group to make eye contact with people as they pass; encourage them to smile at and acknowledge each other. They should look for the mischievous twinkle in people's eyes. Now ask the group to find the ‘game’ of greeting each other. They should attempt to do this without discussion and explore what emerges organically. The group may decide that the ‘game’ is greeting each other by elaborately bowing or giving a high five. Perhaps something more unusual and inventive will start to emerge.
  • Another great starter is sock tag. Start by getting everyone in the group to tuck a sock into the back of their waistband so that it becomes a sort of tail. Ask the students to walk about the space as before. This time their objective is to gather as many of their opponents’ tails as possible. If a player loses their sock they should join the observing audience. Encourage your students to be playful – perhaps teasing the group by deliberately flaunting their tail. This game can also be a useful rehearsal exercise – the actors must fully commit to the game while playing a scene at the same time.

Practical activity: Character's secret thought

Wright has developed a set of archetypal masks which he uses with actors to help explore characterisation; these include the Hero, the Devil, the Fool, the Trickster and the Mother. Each of these archetypes has a mantra or secret thought which helps the actor find the essential quality of the mask; for example the mantra of the Devil is: ‘I am very beautiful’.

The principals of this work can easily be applied without the need for masks: ask your students to invent a phrase or secret thought for a character they are playing which feels appropriate and interesting to play. Ask your students to move about the space and explore how this secret thought affects their movement quality. They should begin by speaking their thought aloud and then move towards internalising it. Take a simple nursery rhyme like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ask your students to experiment with how the voice is affected by this quality. Adding a physical centre of leading can also be helpful at this stage. For example, you could combine the thought ‘What's going on?’ with a low centre of leading around the groin – resulting in a rather Neanderthal quality. Now apply the work to a scripted or improvised scene.

Further Reading

Wright has written two books: Why Is That So Funny? – A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy and Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit, both published by Nick Hern Books. You can also watch John's TED talk: ‘Rediscovering playfulness in acting’ on YouTube.