“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”
So Bottom sang as Pyramus, just before he dropped dead in Pyramus and Thisbe. Well, in our version anyway. Sam, who played Bottom, came out with it one rehearsal and it just stuck. And it nearly always got a chuckle from the teachers.
But it’s true; we have faced the final metaphorical curtain on our Young Shakespeare Company tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three weeks ago in fact. Since then I’ve had time to digest and reflect on the experience and everything I’ve learnt.
Touring is an amazing and invaluable experience for an actor. On this tour I have strengthened my resilience, seen new parts of the country, made new friends, and had the chance to perform to several thousand children, giving many of them their first taste of theatre.
Touring can also be very challenging. It’s tiring, you can spend a long time away from the comfort of home and loved ones (though on this tour we went home each weekend), you spend all your time with the same group of people, and you perform the same show many times. However, this is all part of being an actor.
I have learnt a lot about myself, both good and bad. I’ve worked with some very talented and creative people who have seen me at my best and my worst, and for whom I have developed a great deal of respect. I’ve encountered different ways of working and learnt to acknowledge that my way of doing things is by no means always the best way. I’ve had a lot of fun and made so many wonderful memories. Oh, and I got to say a bit of Shakespeare.
It’s been a busy few weeks, and we’re now almost into week five of touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Young Shakespeare Company. Going into rehearsals at the start of January was a great way to kick off the year. What actor wouldn’t want to start the year with a job!
The company seems to have a very collaborative style of working – obviously the director steers the ship and has the final say on artistic decisions, but our lovely director Haf encouraged our own suggestions and welcomed ideas and work that we brought to the rehearsal room. In this way I feel we all shaped the final show together. It was thrilling seeing all the ideas and personal touches my fellow cast members brought to their roles.
After two weeks of rehearsals we set off on tour, initially to schools in London but then going further afield, down to the south coast and up to the midlands. In a few weeks we’ll be heading up to my neck of the woods, Yorkshire. I’ve been to both places I know well and parts of the country that I’ve never been to before. Admittedly, when on tour there’s not that much chance to check out the local sights. Sometimes the Travelodges are in the centre of town but more often than not they’re on the outskirts. However, I’m certainly getting a lot of experience driving around the different areas. When we first set off on tour I was a little bit nervous about driving Titania (as the company calls her – she’s a Ford Galaxy Titanium), or The Beast (as I call her) – she’s a fair bit bigger than my nippy little Toyota Yaris! But as they say, practice makes… well, not quite perfect but definitely better.
So far I’ve learnt a fair bit from my first touring experience:
- Each school is slightly different, each audience is different, and therefore each individual show is different. As the students’ input is crucial to the show – some of them volunteering to play parts and all of them answering questions about how the characters might be feeling and what they might do next, and everyone joining in with sound effects and bits of Shakespearean text – they help shape the show/workshop that they are a part of. This keeps everything fresh, and also keeps us on our toes.
- Eating out most nights can soon add up and too many Dominos can take its toll on your health and fitness regime, so making cost-effective, healthy options for dinner while away is something we all need to do!
- I’m a girl who’s gotta have breakfast, and when you’re staying away and there isn’t a Greggs round the corner it’s not always easy to make sure you get this crucial start to the day. Porridge pots are the answer (if you like porridge). Travelodge rooms are equipped with kettles, so you boil, pour, stir, and ta-da! Breakfast sorted.
- Always remember your phone charger, especially if you use your phone for your alarm clock. (And be eternally grateful when you forget your charger and one of your lovely tour buddies has a spare to lend you.)
We’ve had a little breather this week for half term but will be back on the road next week – looking forward to getting back into Titania’s dress and Snug’s hard hat and hi vis!
For our final class of the Puppetry Foundation Course at Little Angel Theatre (sob!) we had a go at shadow puppetry. It was a session of cutting, tearing, sticking, trying out ideas and having free reign to create whatever kind of shadow puppet we wanted. I loved it!
Oli Smart took us through the three different items you need – object, light source and screen – and what items work well for each of these. He’d set up a bed sheet for a screen (not his favourite material to use – thin canvas works better) with an overhead projector (OHP) maybe 2 metres behind it, so we could keep trying out our ideas as we were making.
Shadow puppetry is one of those creative forms that many of us have probably had a go at already without realising it’s puppetry. I remember doing class assemblies at school where we would sometimes cut out little characters from black paper and stick a dowel stick to the back, draw scenery on a clear plastic sheet with the OHP pens, then perform short stories projected onto a white wall or screen to the rest of the school. An early taste of shadow puppetry.
In our puppetry class I decided to make a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are cool. Oli said that with shadow puppetry, the less precious you are with what you’re making, the better. There’s no pointing spending hours crafting the perfect details as the audience just won’t see them. So I decided to initially forego the scissors and just tear the paper to make my dinosaur’s head, then used scissors for the finer points like the eye and teeth as I wanted them to look sharp. We attached a dowel stick to our puppets by which to hold them. A split pin created a hinge for the jaw to open and close (the head and bottom jaw are obviously two separate bits of paper), and Oli helped me devise a ‘trigger’ with a piece of string attached to the jaw and dowel, allowing me to operate the puppet and open and close its jaw using just one hand. This took a bit of practice!
My finished dinosaur actually looks considerably like a crocodile too, so make of him what you will!
Telling stories without words. That’s what Speechless Theatre Company do. It’s also something I’m pretty interested in, so the other week I went along to a four-hour workshop the company were running to find out more about their devising process.
The workshop crew
James Callàs Ball and Anthony Cule (aka Speechless Theatre Company) led a small group of us through a super fun warm-up (there was dancing involved), games, some mime, and various activities that called on our imagination, creativity and willingness to just go with it and get stuck in. I’d come straight from my corporeal mime class so was already in the flow, and loved the environment of play that the guys created.
One of the key messages I took away from the day was the importance of keeping things simple and clearly defined – being economical with our movement when telling a story in order to make each movement count towards the narrative or message we are trying to communicate to the audience. I also realised that, just as there are some gestures and movements that seem to be universally interpreted in the same way, you may also find that one particular movement can mean a different thing to each person in the room.
To aid the clarity of storytelling without words, I discovered it’s also important to let each moment land with the audience before moving on to the next. With words we can overlap each other on stage (if the text calls for this) and the story will most likely still be clear, however if we do this with movement it can muddy the story and risk losing the impact of a moment. I can imagine this aspect works in a similar way to exercising good comedic timing – react too early or a beat too late and it won’t quite land with the audience.
It was great fun being in the room with these guys and finding out about their devising techniques, and getting to spend a few hours playing and creating with a bunch of like-minded folks. You can find out more about Speechless Theatre Company at https://speechlesstheatre.com and follow them on Twitter @SpeechlessPlays. Make sure to check out their blog too!
Over our last two puppetry classes at Little Angel Theatre we have been making simple moving mouth puppets. Using electric breadknives to sculpt foam blocks into heads and hot glue guns to stick on eyes, nose and the opening mouth, we created a variety of funny-looking characters.
First came the drawing part. Drawing lots of circles for heads we tried out all different shapes and sizes of nose, and different placement of the eyes and the mouth, drawing first the front view and then profile. You can see in the second pic some of the different combinations I came up with. Next we drew the chosen face onto one side of a foam cube and the profile view onto another side, then used an electric breadknife (I genuinely hadn’t been aware such a thing existed) to sculpt the block into a sort of sphere. (It was a bit more technical than this but the best thing to do is have someone demonstrate it like our teacher Oli Smart did.)
To get rid of any sharp edges we picked away at the foam with our fingers, then smoothed this by snipping away with a pair of scissors. I, however, quite liked the pockmarked effect so decided to keep it. I didn’t manage to get it entirely spherical, but then, whose head is a perfect sphere? We’d probably look pretty funny if it was.
Sculpting a nose from foam – the bigger the better with this kind of puppet – we stuck this on with the hot glue gun (my first time using an electric breadknife AND my first time using a hot glue gun! Playing with the big toys now). The mouth was a bit more complicated – again, it’s best to watch someone do it. We cut along the line we’d drawn for the mouth until we’d basically cut off the head/face below this point, then cut it down at the point where we wanted the mouth to open from. The bottom jaw was then stuck back onto the head by sticking a folded piece of card to both bits with hot glue. No, I’m really not explaining this very well!
For the eyes we dug out sockets then glued polystyrene balls into the sockets and drew pupils on with a marker pen. Many of us finished off our puppets with some fuzzy eyebrows. There were some fantastic bushy black and brown ones, but I opted for making a pair of rather groomed-looking ginger brows. I didn’t get round to making any hair before the class finished, and if we had more time we would cover the foam with felt, but I’m pretty chuffed with him (I think it’s a him) as the first puppet I’ve ever made! At tonight’s class Ronnie Le Drew will be showing us how to make our puppets speak, so hopefully once I find the puppet’s voice I’ll discover more about the character of this little chap.
Following on from my post about the wonderful Scene Gym the other week, here are a few more pics of the event for your viewing pleasure. With thanks to Julia Taylor.
Get a bunch of actors, writers and directors together to have a play with some new writing and you end up with a day of creativity, networking and fun.
On Friday 4th November I went along to Scene Gym, an event organised by actress Julia Taylor, the Artistic Director of Scene Gym, co-producer Tim Cook, and dramaturg and script reader Natassa Deparis. November’s ‘gym’ took place at the Old Vic Workrooms in Bermondsey and workshopped four scripts.
The piece I was cast in was Numeratti by actress and writer Shamiso Mushambi – a fantastic script with a very relevant premise and interesting characters. I played a character called ‘4’, and had great fun playing with the childlike side of me that this character brought out. It was pretty cool having the writer in the room too, though a little nerve-wracking as I’m sure we all wanted to be true to her vision of the piece.
The other cast members included my friend Vicky Winning, who I trained with at East 15, so it was brilliant ‘working’ with her (it’s strange to call something ‘work’ when it feels much more like play!). I also loved meeting the other actors and our director. Mostly, I find actors to be such open people, willing to take creative risks and without a lot of the usual walls people have carefully built up against strangers. The generous spirit of everyone there created a positive and playful environment and reminded me why I love doing this.
It felt great to flex the old acting muscles, and was an exciting opportunity to meet fellow creative folk and hear about their experiences in the industry. Thank you Julia and team for creating Scene Gym!