The Ball Game

The Ball Game

The Ball Game is an encounter with the self. It serves as a mirror in which the participant can observe the self and, through observation, come to know then change that self. The primary attention the exercise requires is attention to the details of the encounter between self and the requirements of the improvisation.

As such it operates in the way that Barba suggests is inherent to the role of exercises in training:

(An exercise) puts the actor to the test through a series of obstacles. It allows the actor to get to know him – or herself through an encounter with his or her own limits. (Barba in Zarrilli 2002: 101)

The ‘self’ the participant encounters is both the privately experienced landscape of her activated bodymind and the publicly-manifested actions of her interaction with others.

Though these two ‘selves’ are separate, they require, and are partially perceived through, one another. The experience of bodymind is, in part, predicated on observation of how the self reacts to others. The appropriate perception of others is discovered through mindful attention to the reactions of the activated bodymind. I refer to the ‘entity’ being trained as the self-with-others.

As Barba suggests:

…mixing with others puts the consistency of ones own borders to the test. It is a way of deepening the differences and of defining oneself. (Barba 1995: 144)

The exercise starts with participants silently paying attention to themselves. Standing in a circle they are also in attentive relationship to others. With the passing of the first ball, requiring the receipt, absorption and transmission of the energy it conveys, the attention of participants is drawn to both domains, to self-with-others.

The ball has no opinion, no objective, no ambition. It carries within its flight only what it is given. When passed from one person to another, it conveys only and exactly the instructions it has received from the thrower. This might not be what the thrower intended to convey, but the ball does not lie. The ball, through flight, is the direct, physical manifestation of one performer’s passing of energy to another. If both the thrower and catcher learn how to pay precise attention to the details of the ball’s flight, both can learn about the reality of how energy is passed, received and transformed, without that reality being concealed or misrepresented by intention or expectation.

Thus The Ball Game, even at its most simple – as a single ball is thrown within a circle of people – is the concretisation of the process of communication. It requires that participants notice, react to, assimilate and pass on a quantum[i] of communicative energy that someone else has passed in their direction.

This process of see-receive-transform-transmit requires the engagement of the senses, the activation of physical responses, the continual paying of attention to the passage of moments, the ability to react to the unexpected, the control and directing of energy.

Most importantly within the domain of a psychophysical training process, an encounter with the concrete reality of energy passing from one person to another allows an individual first to observe, later to manipulate and permanently change her psychic relationship to physical actions. For within the smooth transitions of see-receive-transform-transmit lurk beasts of blockage, self-doubt, ambition, self-image, habitual over/under-achievement.

The very simplicity of the task – to catch and pass a juggling ball – makes the enormity of psychic disturbance the participant encounters, disproportionate. Encountering a blockage to simple reactivity, through this simple, objective-less improvisation, offers participants a vital first step in the process of altering their psycho-emotional perspective on personal development. The repeatability of the exercise offers her a structure through which, engaging in physical tasks, she can gradually come to understand and dissolve those blockages.

This interconnectivity, whereby physical engagement offers perspective on psychological structures and the transformation of those psychological structures manifests in physical capacity, is the heart of a psychophysical developmental process.

The basic requirement of the exercise manifests quickly to participants. They are asked to facilitate the exercise (and the participation of others in the exercise) without obstructing themselves or others. As soon as a second ball is introduced and there are two independent impulses passing within the circle, the requirement to facilitate the flow of the exercise becomes magnified and the blockages people place in their own way, joyously, frustratingly, terrifyingly, self evident.

The Ball Game, like any ensemble improvisation, is predicated on a need to communicate and be complicit. An individual’s psychophysical engagement is placed in the context of serving the ensemble. She serves others so that the exercise flows. Thus she helps maintain a domain in which she experiences the details of her bodymind.

This is the core of the exercise from which innumerable variations can be built. The number of balls can be increased beyond the apparently feasible, balls can be caught and thrown in pairs, fixed and random patterns of balls can intersect. Behind all the variations however there lies the basic structure which requires each individual ball be received, manipulated and transmitted in ways that facilitate the continuation of the exercise.

The Ball Game has no end-point, it is pure process. It comprises the moment-by-moment unfolding of communication and personal control. Each time a group meets, the exercise requires commitment to, and an engagement with, the specifics of its unfolding. The exercise never repeats, even if the structures that underpin it do. It is always live and is made so by the engagement of those who are working within it.

[i] ‘Quantum’ has a specific meaning in the domain of physics but here I am using it in a more general way to indicate ‘an amount or quantity’ (Collins Dictionary, 2009).


Barba, E, (1995), The Paper Canoe: A Guide To Theatre Anthropology, Abingdon: Routledge.

Zarrilli, P (ed.) (2002) Acting (Re)Considered: London: Routledge.


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