The actor showcase

Ah, the industry showcase. That gem of an occasion, shrouded in mystery for the uninitiated, subject of both fear and wonder, and having become an almost ritualistic element on every drama school’s calendar.

Having just done my showcase, I must admit there is still a thin wispy cloud of the unknown hovering over the event. I still wonder at the conversations in the bar before we stepped boldly into the pit. I haven’t a clue what makes one brilliantly talented actor get an agent and another equally brilliantly talented actor hear nothing. And I am still asking myself: what exactly can you get across in just two minutes?

The showcase is unique. At least in my experience, nothing quite compares to it. From sitting in the café across the road from the theatre at 8am, sipping my cappuccino as the nerves slowly rumble in, to the thrill of performing on a West End stage, to the steps down into the bar afterwards where the agents await, the nerves by now attacking my digestive system with full force. In no other event has the concentration of conflicting emotions (or are they complimentary?) – fear and excitement – been so great.

My East 15 MA Acting showcase was at the Duchess Theatre in Covent Garden, and took place last Wednesday. Just before the showcase I moved to Putney to lodge with a friend and his family, so this last week has been a period of change all round. Of adapting to a different pace of life – the frantic rush of London set against the relatively ponderous pace of my life for the last few days. Of going from full-time student to being without a job for the first time since I was 21. Of graduating from the dream to the reality of life as an actor. Shit just got real.

Four days on, I can see more than ever how important my training was at East 15. I’m not talking about the voice work or the Laban or the units and objectives. I’m talking about the stuff to draw on when you don’t get an agent, or you haven’t had an audition in a while. The feeding of the soul. With that comes resilience and the power to carry on.

Some of us may sign with an agent straight away, for others it may take much longer. Some of us may find fame and fortune, others may never be rich but make good work and work consistently. Others still may turn to writing, directing, producing. Whatever our journey becomes, we must remember we have the training, and we have each other. Equipped with those two, the industry is our oyster.

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My actor’s showreel

In the digital age, every emerging actor needs a showreel. Back in the day, if you wanted to get an agent you had to invite them to come see you in the flesh, acting in a play, but these days we have the internet at our fingertips. With agents’ and casting directors’ days getting even busier, they are just as likely, if not more, to click on a link on Spotlight to view your showreel, than trek out to whatever tiny theatre space above a pub you’ve saved up your meagre earnings to hire. This is not me dissing such venues – they’re the bread and butter of what we do and some of the most innovative and inspiring theatre I’ve seen has been in a black studio space above a bustling pub – but many agents just won’t travel that far from where they’re based unless they have an inkling it’s going to be worth their while. Which is where the showreel comes in….

This is our chance to give a taster of our talents, to hook the agent, pique their attention, and basically show them we can act. With this in mind, at drama school last term we were encouraged to put together our own short showreels and upload them to our Spotlight profile. Choosing the right material to film proved perhaps the biggest challenge – something not too emotionally heightened, outlandish or risqué – and then there was the task of trying to choose a location that worked well both for the action and on film, getting the lighting and sound levels right, and making sure we didn’t film over anybody else’s clips! It was a fantastic learning experience, and after a spot of editing training we all gave it a go.

I downloaded a free 30-day trial of Final Cut Pro so I could edit at my own leisure, but I have to say trying to edit footage on an 11-inch Macbook Air screen was not the easiest of tasks! You can watch the final edit below. Although it will suffice for the moment, I will be re-doing the showreel before our industry showcase in September. I don’t feel I did my best acting at all as I was still getting used to working in front of the camera rather than on stage (everything has to be brought down a few notches, and you certainly cannot lie to the camera!). The two clips also don’t show enough variety as they are rather similar, and in hindsight, they’re probably not the best scenes for my casting. So please be gentle! I’ll be posting the new and improved showreel on here later this year, so watch this space! Meanwhile, enjoy (yes, that is my best grumpy face to kick us off)…

Candide – a true ensemble show

This is the best of all possible worlds. So said German philosopher Leibniz. Voltaire wasn’t so convinced, and after a devastating earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, he wrote Candide, his philosophical novel in which he poked fun at this theory.

Given the current reign of positive thinking – the world is your oyster, you can do anything you put your mind to, it’ll work out fine – mismatched with the increasing effects of global warming, it seems fitting that Mark Ravenhill chose this topic to dramatise in his play Candide, written for and performed by the RSC. Luckily for those of us on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, this was chosen as one of our three final-term plays. And extra-luckily for me, I was one of the cast.

This was the first show I’ve worked on with professional standards and a fully professional outlook, and it was a fantastic experience. Our director, Chris Meads, inspired us all to work harder and go further with the work, and the satisfaction I gained from putting so much into it was immensely rewarding. There were days when I worried I wouldn’t have the stamina to do my best, but this was where eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep came in. It’s so easy to scrimp on both when you’re doing a show, but I cannot stress enough how important they are.

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Working with Chris aside, the biggest joy of the process for me was being part of a company of brilliant actors and wonderful human beings. Over the three weeks of rehearsal we bonded as a family. Sure, there were annoyances, niggling little habits were amplified, and dressing room tension was unavoidable – that wonderfully crazy mayhem of people jumping over one another to locate their particular bloodied bandage, try to squeeze a fellow actor into a corset, powder their nose for the umpteenth time, or struggle to identify their own pair of tan tights from a heap of 20. God, I miss it already. But I have a great fondness for each person in that cast, and felt quite lost without them after show week.

It’s not just the actors that I miss, either. The beauty of working on a production with such professional standards meant we had a full technical crew, and it really made me appreciate the mountain of work these people put in to bring a show to the stage. When the actors raise a hand gracefully to the lighting box during the bow to acknowledge the input of their technical crew, it is heartfelt, or at least it was for us. These magicians made sure we were dressed for the part, lit us so we could deliver our Oscar-worthy performances to best effect, constructed scenery to help create the little world of our play, made wonderful props for us to play with, and worked tirelessly to make the production work. Our ASM Hannah looked after me backstage when I was feeling faint from the heat, and our DSM Emma was an absolute hero, staying late with the director to sort everything out, long after the actors had relaxed in the bar with a beer before heading home. Us actors, we’ve got the easy part!

What a wonderful and enriching experience, and what a brilliant text to play with. Mr Ravenhill, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Uncovering the hidden treasure within a bloody good script like this one is yet another of the tasty treats in the goodie bag. Add one inspiring director, a family of actors and a tireless technical crew, and you’ve got a show folks! A show I am very proud to have been a part of.

 

Simon Stephens playwriting workshop

I’ve always considered myself a writer of sorts, but until now I have limited my efforts to writing short stories, journalistic articles, marketing copy and multiple abandoned efforts at writing a novel. My love of theatre and, particularly, my current actor training on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, has awaked a desire to write for performance. So you can imagine my excitement when I went along to a workshop run by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, called How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure.

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At this point I feel the need to say this workshop actually took place over a month ago (drama school = limited free time = a backlog of unwritten blog posts), but I felt it still worth writing about, especially as I thought it was a really useful and inspiring day. The workshop was organised by Actors and Performers and took place at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London.

Simon strode in clad in a trendy suit yet with an air of something rather rough-and-tumble and not so trendy about him. As is the custom with most people in this business he swore passionately, fidgeted and fiddled with his hair, a habit he happily drew attention to. I instantly liked him. There was something very human and not at all ‘award-winning playwright’ about him, but then, how many award-winning playwrights have I actually met?

The day was fascinating, and not only did I feel very inspired speaking with Simon, but also being in the room with so many other writers from different walks of life. There were some brilliant and original ideas zipping around, and an air of excitement and enthusiasm hung in the air like a thick electric cloud, generated by the coming together of so many creative minds and our shared passion for theatre. I came away with so many useful tools for developing characters and plot. I don’t want to set down everything here as it would spoil the fun of doing a workshop with Simon – and I highly recommend it if you get the chance – so I’ll give my top five nuggets of food for creative scribblers from the day:

 

Playwrights organise chaos and ask the question: what is it to be human?

“I am not a writer, I’m a write” (in the words of Mr Stephens) – the word ‘playwright’ comes from the word ‘wrought’, not ‘write’. ‘Wright’ was an old English term for a craftsman, so a ‘playwright’ is someone who has ‘wrought’ words into a dramatic form i.e. crafted plays.

ACTIVATE, don’t CONGRATULATE – make sure each line of speech has an action behind it (what is one character trying to do to the other?).

Structure is music – plot the structure of a play on a chart with one vertical line per scene, spaced out as they are in the play (i.e. if scenes are set far apart time-wise draw them far apart, and if there are some scenes that happen a few hours apart draw them very close together), then if each line is one beat/tap, tap out the sequence of lines (i.e. scenes) and you’ll find the rhythm of the play. This worked brilliantly with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.

CONTENT-STRUCTURE: your play and its gesture lies in the relationship between the content and the structure (music – see above).

 

If this has fizzed up your creative juices and you want to read more about the day (and don’t mind a few more spoilers), you can read a thorough account of the day by Actors and Performers web editor John O’Donovan on their website. The Actors and Performers blog is worth a read too.

You can follow Simon Stephens on Twitter at @StephensSimon.

Making theatre – devising a show

I’ve just had my first experience of devising a piece of theatre from scratch for my MAP (MA Project). Well, not from complete zilch. In the beginning there was an idea, but then there is always an idea – it’s what you do with it that counts.

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My MAP family

What we did with our idea was take it from a chaotic collection of philosophical musings, through the focus of a question emerging from all this, to end up with a family on a caravan holiday who encounter The Void. Yes, it was quite a leap, but there were many stepping stones on the way – not all in the same direction, but I feel our meandering exploration took us on a very human journey that directly informed the final piece. And what more fitting vehicle to share our explorations than that beacon of western society, the family holiday.

Playing the mum of the family (this is the second time I’ve played a mum in a few months – is this it now I’m in the 25-35 category on Spotlight?!) unexpectedly brought up a lot of old memories of being a little girl. It also went to a place within myself that has awoken this year – a deep place of nurturing and nature and what it is to be a woman and own that womanliness. I certainly hadn’t expected such an experience to come from the devising process, but it just goes to show how involved and invested in the work we as both actors and theatre-makers become.

The devising process was a new adventure for me. Our group of six actors from the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School formed a company and did the whole marketing shebang. We booked rooms and loosely planned rehearsals. We scribbled spider diagrams on the whiteboard, bruised our knees choreographing movement pieces, and pondered our reality. Our question: to what extent do we create our own reality?

We drank coffee and discussed religion, we rolled around on the grass exploring mother-daughter relationships through contact improvisation, we went to the woods in character as a family. Improvising was a tool we used a lot to explore our characteristics and discover the family dynamics. One night we had a family sleepover at one of our houses, which was an extended improvisation ending at 10pm and starting up again for breakfast the next morning. It was an important part of our process and produced some important character discoveries, along with a fantastic recipe for bolognese! It was also absolutely knackering – although we’d rested as our characters, in reality we had all been working until 10pm and had very little time to rest as us.

One key lesson I learnt from the devising process was how to work in a group where there is no clear leader and everyone has an equal say. I also put into practise the whole ‘applying the white paint’ process we’ve been developing over the past few months of our training – knowing when to scrap this bit or that bit and knowing which bits to keep.

It’s been an enriching and exciting journey and, with the possibility of our piece having a life beyond the MAPs, one that hopefully isn’t over just yet…

 

Surviving Actors 2015

Few opportunities seem to exist for experienced and new actors alike to network for free and find out more about their industry for a fiver. Surviving Actors is one such opportunity. This year’s convention took place a few weeks ago in London. With a manic few weeks at drama school I’ve only just found a moment to blog about the day, but I definitely think it’s still worthwhile sharing my experience of the event.

The event itself was free to attend, then each workshop or talk was £5 each, so for £25 I got a day of networking, meeting potential employers for non-acting-paying-the-bills jobs, and five sessions – bargain! The sessions I booked covered marketing yourself as an actor, screen acting, working with a director, developing the right attitude to survive in the industry, and what happens in the casting room.

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The marketing talk I attended was led by Lloyd Trott, editor of the Actors and Peformers Yearbook

 

Aside from being an extremely useful day for a rookie actor with very little knowledge of the industry, it was also inspiring. For the first time I really started to feel a part of something bigger, outside the sacred walls of drama school. There are other actors out there, yey!! Actors who aren’t just my friends and coursemates, but complete strangers who I may or may not work with in the future. It’s unlike any other industry I’ve come into contact with in my life. When I was working in corporate communications I went to the odd marketing or communications conference, where I found it interesting meeting and chatting to other professionals in the area, but I never felt a real camaraderie with them, nor was there that almost tangible zing of excitement at the thought that many of these people I was meeting for the first time might become colleagues and creative partners. I suppose it’s down to the creativity element – these are people whose talent and imagination are things I want to tap into, and with whom I’m hungry to share my creative process and ideas. Of course, it’s also an industry where reputation is everything, and where it really does pay to try to be nice to everyone.

The hall of exhibitors featured stands for Equity, Spotlight, various publishers, photographers specialising in headshots, an accountant, and various non-theatrical companies who employ actors. The latter included a call centre, sales company, and several teaching agencies employing actors as teaching assistants. The latter is definitely something I’m interested in as a back-up career, and with nine months’ experience teaching English to primary school children in Madrid I have some relevant experience. My mum’s a retired teacher, so maybe it’s in my genes!

At one of the publisher stands I bought a copy of this year’s Actors and Performers Yearbook, after attending the marketing talk that Yearbook editor and RADA dramaturg Lloyd Trott chaired. I also picked up a copy of ‘Voice into Acting‘ by Christina Gutekunst and John Gillett. Christina is our voice tutor on the MA Acting at East 15, and an absolute gem. Aside from bringing pure joy to my day with her colourful scarf and hat combinations, she is a brilliant teacher whose methods have opened up my voice to a depth and richness I never thought it possessed.

Acting and the theatre, film and television industry has often felt like a closed members-only club for which I’ve only got a visitor’s pass. Getting a place at drama school did go some way to upgrading that pass, at least in my mind, but I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in. At Surviving Actors, however, for the first time I felt like I was on the inside, that I was a fully paid-up member. Admittedly, I’m still in training, our industry showcase is still six months off, and I haven’t yet upgraded from student to full membership of Spotlight and Equity. However, for several hours that Saturday I strode around calling myself an actor, and it felt good.

 

 

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

One of my notes last term was to ‘get more mud’ in my life. Now, as a child I was never really into mud. I don’t remember making mud pies, though I’m sure at some point I must have, and I certainly don’t remember ever finding mud fun. In fact, my most vivid memory of encountering mud was during a school trip to a farm, when I got my welly stuck in the mud. I remember panicking as everyone wandered off, unaware of my predicament. The more I struggled to free myself, the more the mud sucked and slurped at the sides of my welly, until all I could do was call out for help and hope the others heard me or at least noticed I was no longer with them.

Mud

Naturally, then, when I got the note about mud I didn’t jump at the prospect. However, I have embraced this new direction, albeit tentatively at first, and the other day on a walk with my coursemates I well and truly went for it when I slipped and ended up lying on my back in the mud! Admittedly, this isn’t something I plan on repeating any time soon, but it was strangely liberating at the time, after I’d brushed the inch of gloopy sludge off my backside and peeled off my sodden gloves.

Every time I go for a walk now, either out in Epping Forest or back home across the rugged hills of Yorkshire, I make a point of heading straight through the muddy patches rather than skirting around them as I would have done before. It still doesn’t come to me naturally. I was never a mucky child, in fact I did everything I could to avoid dirt. When out walking in my shiny red wellies with mum and dad, on encountering even the smallest of puddles I would deftly step around the muddy water so as not to get any muck on my prized footwear. My sister was the opposite – she seemed to seek out muck. Perhaps more time spent traipsing after her across the muddy fields back home as she marches ahead in her typical no-nonsense Yorkshirewoman way is needed.

Sadly, we’re currently miles apart, so until my next trip up north I’ll be stomping around Loughton looking for the nearest patch of mud to squelch through. Hmm, I wonder if a trip to Lush to buy one of their mud face masks also counts….