In my first week of reading Drama at Exeter University, we did an exercise which involved writing an ‘Action Poem’. This transpired to be a short list of physical actions; stand, sit, jump, hop etc. – and this was your ‘Action Poem’. We then had to perform that poem and we were given various rules. We had the options of: performing the action and then naming it, naming the action and then performing it, performing it without naming it and (yes, you’ve got it), naming it without performing it. You could also add repeats and pauses within the list for dramatic effect. It probably sounds quite ridiculous from the outside. I can tell you that as first week ‘freshers’, it felt pretty ridiculous on the inside, or just maybe, it was wildly avant-garde. I wasn’t entirely sure. I was too busy just trying to get people’s names right.
Looking back, it was probably intended to show how simply a performance piece could be assembled, the main constituents being actions and words and the subtleties of the relationships and juxtapositions between them. When we had completed our devising preparations, we sat in a circle on the padded floor (really) in our Black Karate Suits (standard uniform for a drama student at Exeter) and watched one another’s performances of our ‘Action Poems’. They all observed the form and were pretty dull, to be honest.
Then, a very good-looking, slight lad called Alex, who later became one of my best friends in life, got up to do his piece. He was very cool and a bit of a rebel. I picked up from him fairly quickly that he thought the whole thing was a total waste of time by the dismissive way he rattled through his list with no particular conviction in the actions, but with clearly growing irritation until he dropped to the floor, looked furiously at the bloke sitting next to me and screamed, “NEIL!!!”. It was brilliant. 17 people, including me, looked at the guy and thought, “Shit, I thought his name was Liam!” which of course, it was. Alex was kneeling. It was impressive – in the context. And even now, I can never hear the word without reliving that moment.