Touch Wood?

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By Rebecca MacMillan

I decided to write this blog after I thought I had lost my usual ‘performance shoes’ on the train following a boozy session to celebrate our first gig at Leicester Square Theatre. I was quite put out. They are just a pair of black flat ballet pumps, and most of the negative feeling about not having them was simply due to the fact that they are the most practical shoes I have to perform in. But I must admit there was something more to it than that…

I have always been fascinated by rituals, traditions and superstitions and where they come from. Humans tend to build up different types of ritual behaviours around things like: (A) social and family interactions (tea ceremonies, first-footing, some games); (B) moments marking life change (births, weddings, burials); (C) chance events we wish to control (harvests, solar eclipses, horse races); and (D) in order for us to enter a certain mind-state, often as a group, that allows us to undergo extra-ordinary experiences with confidence and bypass what our nervous systems are telling us to do (battles, team sports, walking over hot coals…and improvisation). I’ll be referring again to these different types of ritual by their letter, by the way.

“I’ve got myself into a habit of eating at Gourmet Burger Kitchen next to Komedia before shows there but I guess ritualistically just making sure I eat something before call time to avoid drowsiness is a must.”

“I always wear blue jeans and trainers for the show. Shirt has to be ironed and sleeves rolled up one notch. Makes me feel comfortable and rolled my sleeves up one day and just carried on doing it. I like to arrive at the venue annoyed or get annoyed in the warm-up about something as this is a direct opposite of the joy we experience on stage.”

“I always go to a private mirror and give myself some fighting talk before the show.”

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Certain individuals are more prone to developing personal ritual behaviours of the (C) type than others. During my A-levels I felt that I had to listen to certain tracks from Abba’s Gold album in the car on the way to the exam, in a certain order, wearing certain underwear, and after the exam I would always have to eat macaroni cheese with grilled tomatoes. Heather won’t get on a plane without drinking a gin and tonic first and having her friend’s, grandmother’s lucky earring in a certain pocket of her make-up bag. As an improv show is an experience that can vary considerably, and one which we can’t prepare for in the same way as a scripted show, it’s not surprising that those with a tendency towards these behaviours tend to build up rituals around it. I did a very non-scientific survey and it turns out that at least a third of the Maydays have some (C) type show rituals of various levels of complexity. The quotes throughout this blog are real quotes each from a different Mayday. Some of the behaviours are clearly ritualised, others are more practical, but through repetition could have gained a subconscious element of ritual.

This ‘outcome influencing’ (C) type ritual is common in the animal world as well as the human one. For instance pigeons fed pellets from a timer device will copy what they were doing last time the food came out, thinking that this will have an influence on them getting another feed. This video shows a demonstration of how this happens.
I am not sure what it says about me that I have a tendency towards this behaviour. Of course I realise that the rituals do not actually make a difference to the outcome of the show, excepting that when I’m not able to do them I can then be distracted and on some level in a stress state. The consequences of the belief that the show will then ‘go wrong’ is what will actually make it go wrong. But I hope that this tendency of mine, which generally I have under control these days, maybe has positive aspects too, because it also means I am pretty enthusiastic about ritual types (A), (B) & (D), and these can I think be very positive for improv troupes.

“I never have sex in the afternoon before a show, makes me too vague and content. Before and after a show I take five minutes space to myself. Doing a show is a very emotional and exposing experience, and a moment to check in and see how I am feeling is essential.”

“I always think it’s good to be in a good mood. Then again, I’ve done shows in an ace mood and had a shit time, so really, I feel like it’s in the hands of the (fictional) gods. Having said that, if I don’t get on stage or do what I think is a ‘good’ offer/scene or clear/cool premise within the first 5 minutes of a show, I feel I am on the back foot a little. This is an unhelpful way of thinking that I’d like to get rid of really.”

Ritual type (A) can provide social glue. Your troupe might have a tradition of hanging out in a bar and drinking a certain type of drink after the show. You might have a ‘check in’ every time you meet where you go round and tell each other what’s going on in your lives. Amongst other things, The Maydays gather once a year for a Xmas do that happens in January. We always play a game where we ‘name that tune’ to reggae cover songs, the fastest to do so each time winning one of John’s collection of unwanted second-hand books. I can’t even remember how on earth it started but each year the game gets more and more complicated as the tradition develops and evolves. We all love it and the annual event is hugely bonding, if outlandishly eccentric.

Type (B) traditions are seen in troupes who like to mark the joining of a new member and celebrate what someone who is leaving gave to the troupe during their time with them. These also help with group cohesion and add value to what it means to be a member.

“I always have to wear a pair of lucky socks, I have a few pairs which are deemed as lucky but won’t go onstage without. I can be a little funny about my show clothes too, while I don’t have a set outfit, once I have had a ‘bad show’ wearing a particular item, I can never wear that onstage again.”

“I like wearing converse shoes for the show if I can. I try not to think it matters but I do feel more comfortable if we’ve done a successful ‘1-20’ before the show.”

I think that Type (D) rituals are also very useful when this takes the form of some kind of group mind-matching activity before the performance. After the warm-up exercises The Maydays will always circle up right before the show to do a listening exercise called 1-20, followed by a kind of energy raiser called eee-sah which comes from Katy’s days at Hull Drama Department, then everyone looks each other in the eyes for a few moments. On the most basic level this is just a moment where we forget about how many tickets we’ve sold and ready ourselves for performance. It’s a point of focussing, listening and connecting with each other, but there’s also an element of the group entering into a mind-state
together too. In that sense these rituals are a short version of something like the famous war Haka and I feel that they enable better group-mind and energy. I can’t imagine going on stage with a bunch of people without doing something together like this first – even if we look like idiots when we are doing it.

“I like to listen to certain songs on my way to the venue. At present it’s the theme tune to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Funny Little Frog’ by Belle & Sebastien, then ‘Midnight Voyage’ by the Mamas and Papas. I like to bring white tea in a flask to sip as we warm up. I have a particular top I like to wear under my Mayday shirt. We once had a pair of baby foxes that used to play in our garden – before the performance I like to meditate on their fearless joyful frolicking and internalise it in a not-entirely-ironic ‘power-animal’ kind of way. If I am feeling super nervous I shout ‘POWER OF THE BABY FOX!’ in my head. But that’s more to make myself laugh and get out of nervous-brain because it’s so ridiculous.”

So in conclusion, whilst one should be mindful of the less helpful aspects of creating personal elaborate rituals, which can hinder if they ‘go wrong’, on the other hand positive group traditions which bond your troupe, and pre-show rituals that get you all on the same page and in the right mindset can be very useful. A word of warning though…if you end up doing this you can probably safely say you’ve gone too far:
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