Barbican Box and Complicite case study | Pearson qualifications

Barbican Box and Complicite case study

1 November 2013

Each year, the Barbican/Guildhall Creative Learning commission a theatre artist or company to design and curate the Barbican Box providing an idea, an artistic starting point, from which teachers and students devise their own play.

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The Barbican Box is a portable box filled with the ‘ingredients’ for making and creating theatre, containing a range of stimuli, ideas and provocations designed to encourage an imaginative, theatrical and adventurous approach to theatre making.

Accompanying the Box is a package of resources to support the devising process, including:

  • teachers’ CPD weekend at the Barbican
  • artist visits to school/youth group
  • free theatre tickets to a Barbican performance
  • online learning resources
  • opportunities for groups to perform their work at the Barbican.

In 2013, Barbican / Guildhall Creative Learning, working in partnership with Complicite and the Wellcome Trust to create the contents of the box, worked with 300 young people from schools and youth groups across Tower Hamlets, Islington and Hackney.

Complicite designed the Box, which took the shape of a battered old suitcase belonging to a mystery neuroscientist. Inside each suitcase were fragments of this person's life, clues that students had to piece together as they built their own work around the traces that their mystery figure left behind.

Using this case study
Although this workshop involved Edexcel GCE Drama and Theatre Studies students, the exercises and approaches could be adapted and used by teachers and students on the following Edexcel courses, where appropriate:

  • QCF BTEC Level 1, 2 and 3 in Performing Arts
  • NQF BTEC First Award, Certificate, Extended Certificate and Diploma in Performing Arts
  • Edexcel GCE Applied Performing Arts
  • Edexcel GCSE Drama units 1 and 3


Barbican is a world-class arts and learning organisation. Based in London, the Barbican pushes the boundaries of all major art forms, including dance, film, music, theatre and visual arts.

If you are interested in taking part in future Barbican Box projects, you can contact the team here:

Complicite are a British theatre company. Complicite was founded in 1983 by Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden, and Marcello Magni. Its original name was Théâtre de Complicité. Their main principles of work are "seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, image and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre."

Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds.

Bsix Brooke House is a comprehensive sixth form college in east London. The students taking part in the Barbican Box project were in year 13; the devising work was used in the Edexcel GCE Drama and Theatre Studies Unit 3: Exploration of Dramatic Performance. Their tutor is Julianne Mullen.

Barbican Box resources

The student group was given one of 5 suitcases.

They were provided with the following initial guidance to help them start the process:

"So, you’ve found your Box. A suitcase that seems to have been mislaid, full of personal possessions. The objects in the suitcase have lots of stories to tell – you can choose what to follow up and explore. But there are a few questions you might like to think about…

  • Who did this suitcase belong to?
  • What were they like
  • Where were they travelling?
  • Where and when did they live?

The Barbican provided the group with a website with useful resources, ideas and research, which provided background context on the previous owner of the Barbican Box; it was an interactive research blog that allowed the groups to add posts and links of their own.

BSix students

Unit 3, of the Edexcel GCE Drama and Theatre Studies qualification, requires the creation of a unique and original piece of theatre. Students are assessed on the research and development of their work, as well as the final performance. They are also required to complete an evaluation on both the process and performance of their work, which will reflect their research and development work.

The suitcase given to the BSix students contained references and objects related to a teacher from Little Rock High School. In the late 1950’s, a group of African American students were prevented from entering the racially segregated school until the intervention of President Eisenhower. The teacher left the school due to this racism, and the suitcase refers to the journey she made whilst travelling to meet Dr Brenda Milner in Quebec, Canada, to study neuropsychology with her.

The students were split into two groups. Both groups were able to work with their allocated mentor Marcello Magni, one of the founders of Complicite, in a number of practical workshops.
The groups produced two performances lasting around twenty minutes each.

Group 1 created a tragedy based on the concept of a mother who acquires dementia after an operation. The performance demonstrated the influences of Complicite: the performers shifted the scenes, the locations, the characters by moving in the space: the physical positioning of the characters defined the new locations and relationships. There were thoughtful, imaginative shifts in storytelling: for instance, a woman jiving to Hound Dog dissolved into a physical meltdown through epilepsy.

Group 2 developed work based explicitly on the story of the Little Rock Nine students. The performers moved effortlessly into scenes that stole the focus from the lead character/narrator; their movement with props and furniture was beautiful and fascinating. They used physicality to represent character, objects, concepts and emotions.

Both groups created inventive, confident, well-shaped and directed pieces of theatre, incorporating elements of Artaudian ‘total theatre’ and ‘theatre of cruelty’.

Their tutor, Julianne Mullen, had the following to say about the Barbican Box process:

"The reason for choosing the Barbican in a Box project was to ultimately improve the grades for this unit of work. The results were very good (5 Bs, 3 Cs and 2 Ds). This was a huge jump from last year where the majority of grades were Ds, a few Cs and no Bs.

"The fact that Complicite was involved was an added incentive. The beginning workshop in the Barbican was a great motivation as the practitioners maintained high standards even for us, the teachers. I had worked as an actress prior to teaching, so I found it refreshing and inspiring as it reinforced the importance of discipline in the performance.

"Then we received the suitcase a few weeks later. Marcello Magni was our designated mentor. What a treat! From start to finish he inspired the group and myself with his patience, humour, work ethic and artistry. He encouraged and motivated the students to take risks in performance and to improve their standard of performance. It was this discipline that motivated the students and improved their grades. It also prompted them to want to reach high standards of performance. He respected their ideas and worked on the material they presented. He provided an insight into professional theatre, which was invaluable.

"The box itself was a wonderful stimulus that generated many ideas. It was as much a history lesson as it was a theatre one. The students and myself quickly engaged with the props and were excited to research more. The journeys that the two groups took were contrasting, which made the lessons more enriching for everyone. What was remarkable about the stimuli was that it enabled them to explore issues around mental health through the safe containment of a different time period and context. Through the devising process, they were able to channel their own fears and opinions surrounding mental health, losing family to illness and transgenerational memories into a piece of theatre that generated insight and understanding.

"It was a really wonderful process to be involved in. Additionally it has deepened their understanding of textual analyses, which is a requirement for Unit 4." 

Barbican Box CPD Weekend: Notes from Joyce Henderson

We stand in a circle and say our names for each other. Then we say the name of the person next to us. Then the name of the person two people ahead. A pattern is created and we are already multi-tasking by not responding when we hear our own name, but when it is our turn in the circle. Are we all ready, willing and able to move anywhere in the room from how we are standing?

Preparing the body
Massage – making contact with bone, muscle, skin.

Acting is about doing two things at once. Arm-swing exercise – One arm starts behind the head, straight up in the air, palm facing forwards. The other starts with the elbow tucked in and the palm of the hand in front of the face. As you push this arm around your head and up to vertical, the other arm falls down and ends up elbow tucked in and palm in front of face. Exercises like this are good for training the brain to be able to multi-task, as well as making us more physically available.

Stop/Go – We move in the space, travelling, covering the whole space. ‘Balancing’ the space by finding the empty spaces and moving into them. Once we have this in place, we play with ‘stop’ and ‘go’, making sure that everyone is truly aware of the quality of stillness required when stopped. When this is working we add ‘suspension’. Walk around the room and, if you make eye contact with anyone else, both stop. Then, with mutual agreement, continue the journey, but, after a few steps, look back at each other and, in turning, allow the movement to give a moment of suspension between you. This is a different quality from the ‘stop’ – a difference that we compared to the difference between a comma and a full stop in speech. It is from silence that the quality of the gesture and word are born. Silence at the beginning allies itself to the concentration that allows the action to come. Silence after the action demands reflection. – Jacques Lecoq.

Seven levels of tension
This is the basis for building a physical vocabulary. In the CPD weekend we only looked at this briefly, as it’s fairly well known, but it should always underpin ensemble work and is very good as a shorthand physical vocabulary. It’s particularly useful for reminding us to remain in our bodies and away from ‘psychology’ in performance. The levels are:

  1. Catatonia (Amoeba)
  2. Relax (Body on Holiday)
  3. Economy of Movement (Neutral – minimum effort, maximum return
  4. Alert (Curiosity, Ready, the Director)
  5. Purpose (Tasks are achieved, tension is now held in the body)
  6. Urgency (Panic lives here, passion intervenes. The body achieves big attitudes)
  7. Hyper-tense (Rabbit in the headlights – so tense you can’t move. The space of tragedy)

In the exploration of each level, it is useful to find a human vocabulary, eg, sitting, standing, running, going to the ground, lying, leaning, stopping and starting. Also, it is useful to note what happens to the voice with every level.

Improvisation – Two participants and one suitcase. One person is leaving. They start the play with the level of urgency (6) as they’re trying to pack a bag. The other starts with level of relax (2). As the improvisation moves on we play with the levels, swapping them around etc. and noting what effect this has on the scene.

We work with bamboos to improve spatial awareness and develop physical co-ordination in pairs and in groups.

In pairs, we label ourselves A and B. One bamboo is held with pressure between the pair’s index fingers. A leads B and must keep the tension for the bamboo to remain in place. After a while, with a signal given by A, we stop and B begins to lead. B now follows A. Once this basic relationship is in place, we start to experiment with different rhythms, planes of movement, height, and moving up and down, left and right, below and above, oppositions, finding complementary moves, as well as mirroring.

Next, we imagine placing the bamboo between our foreheads and we move in the space in this configuration, maintaining the same space as though the bamboo was connecting our foreheads.

In another version of this exercise, B follows A by starting behind, imagining that the bamboo is connecting the forehead of B to the back of A’s head. We maintain the physical relationship as though the bamboo was there and explore the space – again playing with rhythm and dimension.

Throughout this work we are reminded to think about punctuation – ‘stop’ and ‘go’.

Finding the vertical and the horizontal, then making a twist to find tension and a third dimension – Still in pairs, we each hold a bamboo vertically in between our thumb and forefingers. We pull the sticks apart as if there is fabric being stretched between them, strictly maintaining the vertical line in space. We find ‘the threshold of stress’ – the maximum space we can achieve between each pair of bamboos before we feel that we’re no longer relating to each other. How do we feel while moving the bamboo with particular attention to the vertical? We repeat this with the bamboo now emphasising the horizontal line in space.
After exploring the horizontal and the vertical, we next try to find the third dimension by creating a twist in the connection. A twist in the opposite direction from B, but always within the boundaries of the threshold of stress. How far can we move before losing the connection with the other person? The movement is much more limited, it causes tension and therefore has an effect on each participant. What is that effect?

This work can help to explain the dynamics of space – what is going on in the space between a pair of performers.

The Kernel – In groups of three, we make a knot, a point where all three sticks are connected. Using the ‘breath’ and ‘line’ of the cane, we move apart and then return back to reform the kernel. We try other ‘kernels’ and note if our direction/journey changes. We double the group to six and repeat. We build the group size until everyone is in one group and then we find as many different directions as possible for the sticks to connect in. With the breath, we expand and contract. We move as far out from the centre as we can before the lines in space are broken, before the threshold of stress is broken. We find the breath to return to exactly the same centre point. We repeat. Finally we try to do exactly the same thing, but without the sticks.

This takes us outside our bodies, makes us lighter and more sensitive to others. It draws awareness to the communal aim – it’s the beginning of the chorus.

Grandma's Footsteps
Playing this game, we split into two groups, so each group has an opportunity to watch. We suggest tasks for the journey, like touching the ground, turning round and stretching up. Once everyone has had a go, each group then has to achieve the same quality of movement without the Grandma figure ‘conducting’ the movement. Therefore the group has to move and stop organically, but maintaining the sense of a communal aim. We add changing an item of clothing en route. Then we try adding a final location – for example, we’re heading to a party which starts when everyone arrives.

The elements
Without the study of our natural surroundings – elements, materials, colours, words – the human body is limited in its expressive possibilities. We tend to look to naturalistic human mannerisms when we’re performing, but if we ignore these and instead explore the dynamics of nature as a possible way of expressing ourselves as actors, then the body becomes more sensitive, interesting and expressive. Lecoq calls this ‘the Universal Poetic Sense’ in his book "The Moving Body".

We spend a little time, over the weekend, studying the elements – learning to be fire, air, earth and water, finding the qualities of movement that define each element:

Water: finding undulating qualities, beginning in the knees and working through the body. We consider the water in our bodies, the qualities of movement in different types of water (stream, river, raindrop, a puddle, steam, boiling water).

Air: as light particles, we rise, we topple, we fall into the movement. We become dandelion seeds, blown from the head of the flower.

Earth: we use clay as a starting point, with deep rooted, solid, low-centred movements. We move with great difficulty, falling and sticking. We physically describe the relationship between the body and quicksand. We kneed and pummel clay in our hands; a large lump that we manipulate.

Fire: shallow breaths lead into sparking, jerking, erratic movements. We burst and spark. We become a fire that is stoked, blown, encouraged, before being dowsed and sanded.

Transitions – Each group of about seven people is given a transition to work out and perform. For example, water poured from a tap into a kettle and then boiling in the kettle. Or gin hitting ice in a glass. A thunder storm stopping and the rain turning to steam.

In truth, this a longer and more intensive study than we’re able to do in a day, so it’s useful to transfer the language from ‘being the element’ to using it as human expression. Therefore, finding a level of play in the body that is more natural and less abstract. With each element, we find a way of walking in the room that contains that element without too much exaggeration – perhaps we could call it the memory or rhythm of that element. We walk (with the memory of the movement that we’ve previously found for earth, for example) around the space. Stop. We see someone far away. We wave to them with the quality of the chosen element in our arm. We walk towards them and have a conversation with the rhythm of the element in our voice. This weekend we also tried teaching a drama lesson with the quality of an element – a more very comfortable way of exploring how simple and effective this work can be.

The artist, Degas. said: It is very well to copy that which one sees. It is much better to draw on what one has retained in one’s memory. One reproduces only that which is striking, that is to say, the necessary. Thus one’s recollections and invention are liberated from the tyranny which nature exerts.

Improvising around ‘elements’ – A group of about nine people take the space with an awareness of the qualities of movement we learned from studying ‘air’. We imagine that the space is extremely delicately balanced – balanced on a pin – so when someone new enters the space, the ‘chorus’ of nine must redistribute themselves to balance it again. This stops people getting stuck in one place and keeps the theatrical space alive – and if a group can become constantly attuned to it, should be used in all work.

We add the element 'work' to our earlier A & B situation – in which one person was packing a suitcase to go on a journey. A & B take on the qualities of different elements, for example A is water, B is fire. The chorus then have to balance the space around the movements of A & B.

With the group concentrating on movement, rather than narrative or character, we hope that the situation remains playful, non-psychological and physically alive.

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I hope that you have found this case study useful.

Paul Webster
Subject Advisor for Performing Arts and Drama

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