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The Performers’ Playground: “A place of risk, daring and pleasure”

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Featured image: Rebecca Lupton

Alice Robinson and Mark Winstanley are a pair of actors, teachers and directors based in Manchester, who “love to play and mess around in the name of theatre and performance”.

Together, they run The Performers’ Playground, an independent acting and theatre school based in Manchester, where they teach actors, artists and theatre makers to go in search of their pleasure and freedom on the stage. They also produce the occasional cabaret and host workshops.

We caught up with them to find out more.

What was your first impulse to create The Performers’ Playground?

Well that’s simple. It came from the best impulse of all, love. A love of clowning, a love of playing, and a love of growth. Originally we focused on learning as much about theatre clown as we could – back then we called ourselves Clown Lab.

We invested a lot of time and money travelling around Europe and the UK, learning about clown and playful approaches to theatre from the best teachers we could find. This search took us from Berlin to Ibiza, Barcelona to Bilbao, Paris, Dublin, and London.

Usually the workshops were far away from where we lived, so finally we just decided that we would try and teach it ourselves. Not long after, we began bringing these brilliant teachers to Manchester because no one was doing it. 

How and why was The Performers’ Playground first formed? 

We paused Clown Lab when we left Manchester so that Mark could complete his training at Ecole Philippe Gaulier and Alice could gain her MA in Movement Studies from Central. We spent some years in London, building connections, teaching, performing, directing, and touring work to theatres and festivals across the UK.

In 2016 we returned to Manchester with five more years of experience under our belts and decided to set up this course that combined all of our skills and interests. Oh, and we produced a clown festival too, in a beautiful marquee in the centre of Manchester.

Describe The Performers’ Playground in a few words.

This intensive training is built on the foundations of play and performance pleasure from Philippe Gauliers’ pedagogy and the work of his contemporaries. Students will laugh a lot, move a lot, and discover great pleasure and beauty onstage.

Why the name ‘The Performers’ Playground’?

It’s just fun isn’t it. In the playground, we experience most things! We are free, impulsive, and expressive. Once we grow up it’s harder to find the ‘playground’, the permission to play and learn through risk and failure. We urge each other on to climb higher, run faster, leap further, play harder, and laugh louder – all done with joy. It is a place of risk, daring and pleasure.

Who or what do you draw inspiration from, in your work and in your teaching?

We work with each individual to help them grow, to become more playful, sensitive, open, and beautiful on stage. The master of this type of teaching is Philippe Gaulier. Mark studied with him at his school in Etampes, learning to see how Philippe worked with this actor to become more ridiculous, that actor to be more open, that one to show more humanity. Mark tries to emulate Philippe and has recently been invited to teach at the school in Autumn 2024.

John Britton and his ensemble training ‘Self-With-Others’ is a great guide for the training onstage, and in life. Alice has spent time with John studying his approach to training the performers’ body. The inspiration comes from the people in the room, our past learnings, the rhythms of life and nature, our children, the cycle ride home, the space, and the colours around us. Theatre is about life so we must see and experience life and let the pleasure of life lead us and inspire us.

How can people get involved and train with you? 

The Performers Playground is our favourite thing to do. We run an intensive course with groups of curious, playful and committed actors. It happens three days a week on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday and is ongoing until 13th July. Some people do the whole journey and others join for individual modules. The modules are the Game of Theatre, Text Play & Chekhov, Character, Clown, Bouffon, and Creation & Creative Practice.

What is your favourite module of the intensive course?

Favourite module? The one we are teaching in class at that moment. We have to find our way into the territory with each unique group of people. How you teach one module to one group is not going to be the same with another group, often the material is similar but the groups’ taste and what each person needs is different every time so we have to try and figure out the best way to help everyone.

Most people’s experience of training before they come to us is towards a degree or a certificate of some kind. What we offer is an opportunity for you to explore and play because you want to, not to be good so that you can get a piece of paper at the end.

Mark loves to teach bouffon, but if the group don’t have a taste for parody, satire and the grotesque, or they just try to be good then it can be a bit tame. However, if they have a mischievous spark, a bite to their humour and want to be free then it can go incredibly far. The kind of far that you remember for years afterwards.

Does that help? Oh, you want specifics? Okay then, our favourite is Le Jeu, no neutral mask because it’s so imaginative, no wait characters for the huge impulses released through the masks, yes that’s right clown definitely clown, no, bouffon, that’s it yes we love bouffon and the creation bit too.

Will that do? Okay in that case… Alice loves character work, in particular mask play. Mark loves bouffon because it goes very far.

Who is the intensive course for?

Curious actors and performers, or anyone working with a live audience, we have even had a priest attend (a very funny one).

Which people should not take this course?

People with no sense of humour, people who don’t want to fail, people who don’t like to have fun.

What will people come away from this course with?

The feedback is positive from our graduates and what they take away is varied. Some have been successful at auditions for top drama schools and credit the training, some feel more playful and confident in their work and auditions, others feel the contact hours and small group have given them techniques that complement previous training but are uniquely playful… We would hope that you leave with some new lenses through which to view life.

As well as the intensive course, are there any other upcoming events or workshops?

We like to make it possible for those with the passion to join us, so we offer concession rates (including for students) and payment plans to suit different needs. Get in touch… we don’t bite! Excitingly, we are running our first residential course on 12th to 16th August in the beautiful Hebden Bridge. On this course, we will train during the day, enjoy nature, share meals and stay together for five days. The course will cover a mixture of our modules from the intensive including comic characters, text play and the game of theatre. It will be awesome!

For more from The Performers Playground visit and follow @theperformersplayground

About the author / 

Tara Morony

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