One of the unexpected things that happened to me whilst I was at the National Theatre of Scotland’s Open Stages Residency was that I had an insight into the mind of an Classical Age infantry soldier and into the leadership of Hannibal Barca of Elephant fame.
As part of a group improvision leading to a a performance of the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet we were doing some movement exercises. At one point we were placed in groups of three, in a triangle formation, and asked to move around the space avoiding other groups, staying in formation and changing direction. Each time we changed direction the person at the point of the triangle facing forward became the leader. We were encouraged to try and create a link with the leader pro tem so that we could anticipate their movement and try to move as one group. Then we tried the same exercise with a group of six.
Six is an obvious triangle. As we were forming up I had my first insight into how it would be to be a Classical infantry soldier. I was standing in the second row on the right and I felt anxious. It is almost Understanding Classical Military Tactics 101 that you would expect a formation to creep to the left and that the mentally strongest infantry are placed on the right of the formation. Why? On the extreme right you are exposed. You hold your spear in your right hand and your shield in your left. Your shield covers the left half of your body and the right half of the man to your left. If you are on the extreme right of the formation your right hand side is exposed. You try and creep to the left to get more of yourself behind your own shield. This nudges the man to your left to the left and so on down the line until your whole formation is moving crabwise.
So, standing in the formation I could see this clearly but there was something else going on too.
I didn’t feel we were standing close enough to each other. Not for physical protection but for the co-ordination of movement. I wanted to be sholder to sholder with the other person in the second rank and have the rank behind me right up against my back so that I could feel them move and they could feel me move so we all moved together. That was the aim of the exercise, for us all to move together. I was worried that I would look at the right ear of the leader, see it move, step forward and the people behind me would not see or feel me go and we’d create a gap. Stepping closer to the rest of the group I think would have just caused them to shuffle along a bit and maintain the gap.
There is a link here to the group exercise where a team of people holding a cane on their outstretched index fingers have to put the cane on the floor.
You can stop or slow this formation creep with rigid discipline. Everyone concentrates on not moving left. Everyone concentrates on staying still relative to a fixed, clearly indentifable leader.
So I learned a bit about what it is like to be in a group of people trying to move in formation with each other and the psychological need to be close to the others to feel safe and to feel that you are in contact with them so you can co-ordinate your movements.
When we started moving in sixes I noticed that it’s harder to spot the new leader as you angle the formations. A quarter turn will open up some ambiguity. Am I at the front? Should I be or am I just here because the formation was a bit loose? Who’s leading us now?
To solve this people need to be both happy to lead and happy to be lead and happy to sit in a dynamic place switching between the two. The same for being an individual and part of a mass. This takes practise, it takes focus. You need to know how to do it so you can look up and see what’s going on around you and then respond.
There are parallels with improv here. Being and not being the leader. Switching from one to the other. Focus and internalising the skills so you can concentrate on what is going on beyond your own small group.
I know what Hannibal did that made him such an effective general. He created armies with very flexible formations. This allowed him huge tactical flexibility. He could perform manoeuvres that Classical doctrine said would be impossible because the mass formations of the phalanx or the legion would break up. He also had good use of combined arms, different types of soldiers working with each other. From these two factors, flexibility and combination he was able to win a series of very heavy victories over the Romans.
I now see how he created that army. From very small groups of self-leading troops he built larger formations that could break apart and reform very quickly. Each small group had confidence in its leaders and knew that it could find its own way to where it was needed because it knew how to stay in touch with itself and could concentrate on problem solving.
For think I think he would have needed to drill his soldiers in small groups. Smaller than he would ever deploy on the battlefield. Again, and again, get from here to there in a small group, through obstacles, mainly made up of other soldiers going somewhere else. Practise it again and again, this time not leaving anyone behind. Stay within arms-reach of each other – or break up and form another group and follow the rest. He would have had to drill them in the practise of handing leadership from one equal to the next. He would have had to give them the confidence that he would always explain to them what he wanted, the effect not the position, so they could trust that they all would know what the sought after outcome was without having to be told.
His leadership was distributed around his army, and then lent and borrowed amongst his soldiers according to their need in the moment.
So, trust, handing over leadership amongst equals, everyone knowing the desired outcome, knowing the basics really well so you don’t have to think about them, fluidity about method.
Hannibal was an improviser. You can tell. He rehearsed a lot.