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….

 

 

First term of drama school done!

Term one of drama school is done and dusted, and with just a few days of the Christmas holidays left I thought it was about time I did a blog post about the course so far! My original intention was of course to blog regularly about my drama school adventures, but it has been a whirlwind so far with barely time to sit down, let alone open the laptop and get writing. So apologies for the radio silence…

One of the beautiful willow trees by the pond at drama school – yes, we have a pond!!

I can’t say much about what we actually do on the course, as there’s this kind of Fight Club thing where we keep schtum about the details of what goes on in classes and rehearsals. It’s partly to respect each other’s privacy and safeguard the honesty and safe space we’ve created as a group, and partly to keep our shared experiences as something sacred within the group. There are many things we experience that people outside of the course won’t understand or be able to relate to, and of course for people who will be starting the course next year we don’t want to give away any surprises. There’s a lot to be said for experiencing something fresh and for the first time, rather than knowing about it in advance and having time to build up preconceptions that you bring into the room.

What I can talk about is the personal discoveries I’ve made during the course so far, and how this has helped my development as an actor. First of all, let me make something clear: drama school is HARD. It is hard work, it is hard emotionally, it’s hard physically, and it challenges me in a way I have never been challenged before. It is also amazing, and the most eye-opening, soul-enhancing thing I have ever done.

There have been several times when I’ve been whimpering to my boyfriend on FaceTime, telling him I just want to come home. There have also been many times when I’ve felt like there is no other place I would rather be. I do think the hardest thing for me has actually been being apart from him, not having my best friend there every evening to run home to and tell about my day and get a big hug from.

The second hardest thing has been the sheer volume of work involved. The work of a professional actor is not easy, therefore it makes sense that your training to be a professional actor isn’t easy, however I wasn’t prepared for the amount of information my brain would have to hold, or the amount of line-learning, research and regular practice that I would need to fit into very little free time. Well, once you’ve done all that there is no free time, but with only a year to get us industry-ready, every minute counts.

I don’t think I’d realised before coming here how much work is involved in being an actor, or how hard actors work, at least the good ones. In preparing a role there is a great amount of research and preparation to do before you even get to the rehearsal room. There is a lot of work to do to get the role in the first place. And if you don’t quite feel like putting in the blood, sweat and tears, you can betcha someone else will!

But please don’t take these as negative aspects of the training. They’re quite the opposite – drama school is the place to be tested to our limits, to try and fail and try and fail again, to discover just how crazy this industry is and how hard we need to work if we want to be a part of it. This is why we train. We also train to discover who we really are, underneath all the many layers of protection we have carefully built up over the years, under the various masks we like to wear depending on our mood. We delve down into the deepest, darkest recesses, put the key in the rusty lock and creak open that long-hidden door, then step into the room of secrets. We face our demons and we learn to love them, for they are what have made us who we are today, and who we are today, right here, right now, is all we have. A body in time and space.

Through my training I am rediscovering the person I am, warts and all, and learning to be comfortable here. I am also embracing the importance of my spine in supporting my speech, exploring new languages of movement with my body, discovering a depth and strength of voice I never new I had, and learning for the first time how to really read a play. If there is one word to describe this year most accurately it is a ‘journey’. A journey from amateur to professional actor. A journey from running away from my fears to embracing them. A journey that hopefully I will be blogging about a bit more regularly from now on……!

Facing my fear of fallen trees in the forest

Some of my fears are fairly rational, others less so, but out of all of them – water (en masse, not a tinkle from the shower), spiders (including pictures of them), small enclosed spaces – my fear of fallen trees is perhaps the weirdest.

Now, give me a standing tree and I’m happy as Larry. In fact, I love trees. I think they’re beautiful, majestic beings, like other-worldly sentries standing guard over our little earth, protecting us little humans from the monsters and ghoulies of beyond. Ok, I’m getting carried away, but you get the point – I love trees. However, a fallen tree is quite a different beast.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about a fallen tree that creeps me out; it could be a number of things. The violence of being ripped out of the earth when downed by a ferocious wind – that scares me. There seems to be something so wrong and unnatural when I see those roots clawing at the air, exposed and naked of the earth that they once lived in. There’s also the many branches, once climbing skyward, now spread out across the ground like spindly fingers. Again, the word ‘clawing’ comes to mind (with a shudder). Perhaps it’s the disturbing sight of something so grand and powerful now lying lifeless, like when you see an elephant on TV that has been killed for its tusks and is lying there with two meaty flaps, this once majestic creature never to get to its feet ever again.

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I know, I’m getting poetical, but it’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe accurately enough with words alone. I want you to see the pictures I see, the images. Then maybe you will understand. Of course, you may not at all, and find it rather amusing that I could find a dead tree threatening when there are plenty of real threats out there in the world.

The other day I went for a walk in Epping Forest, which is about 15 minutes’ walk from my house, and after a lovely little wander through the scattered leaves I came across a fallen tree. Normally I would skirt such a spectacle, taking the long way round, but on this occasion I was feeling brave and oddly serene, so I inched closer for a better look. It had either fallen recently, or else some of the roots were still bringing in nutrients from the ground, as its leaves were still green. There may be another explanation for this, but I don’t know enough about dendrology to say.

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The photos here are from my exploration of the tree. I spent about half an hour with the tree, at first daring myself to get that bit nearer, stepping closer and closer, getting to know my new forest companion. Yes, it all sounds a bit hippy, but I expect you actors out there will understand. If all we have as an actor is a body in time and space, I guess I was exploring both here – space, with my body in relation to the tree’s (I would normally purposefully create a large space between us, but here I was exploring what happened and how I felt if I reduced that space to the point of being in contact with the tree), and time, as I encountered the tree as it was dying.

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One of the pictures shows the tag which the tree bore. Looking around in the forest, I saw that many of the trees bore these (possibly all, but I hadn’t investigated further to check). Seeing the tag of that fallen tree lying there amidst its companions, a sudden saddening image flashed into my head of a prisoner in a concentration camp having died, with nothing but a number to identify them. Prisoner no.18495 has fallen! I felt the other trees standing nearby look on and mourn their fallen comrade. If this all sounds a bit like the wacky backy, I make no apologies for a vivid and active imagination, and warn you that there will be many more posts of this nature to come. Drama school is opening up my heart, my mind and my body, and awakening my senses and my spirit to the intricacies of the world around me – an absolutely crucial process for any actor.

 

 Creating theatre on the South Bank 

Induction week is over and the real thing is about to start. Tomorrow is the first official day of term at drama school and we can’t wait to start. We’ve had seven days of introductory sessions, Equity and Spotlight talks, headshots and general getting to know each other, and now we’re ready to get down to some work.

Last week we had a day out in London with the other postgraduate students. It was a chance to get to know people on the other postgraduate courses, explore a bit of London, and create a piece of new work – a 90-second performance.

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern - the image we chose as most representing our quote

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern – the image we chose as most representing our quote

We were split into groups of around 10 people – each person picked a quote out of a brown envelope, and we had to find the other people with the same quote (to form a group), without speaking any words or showing the quote to anyone. You can imagine the hilarity and mild panic that ensued as we all flitted around the room, desperately miming parts of our quote at each other whilst trying to spot anyone miming something that could possibly fit with ours. It was desperation-fuelled and fun and it certainly broke the ice.

Once in our little collectives each group was given a destination, and after a visit to the toilet for some of us (namely, me), and a stop-off at the school cafe for a coffee, we headed off to the tube, already chatting to new people in our groups, making new friends from different parts of the world.

We had a list of tasks to accomplish and orders to reconvene outside the National Theatre on the South Bank at 5pm, where we would perform our 90-second pieces in our groups.

On the tube we discussed the meaning of the quote to us as a group – what did it make us think of? Did it remind of us a moment in our own lives? In what different situations might it be said? Our quote was from Macbeth (yes, I said it. I will also say Voldemort, if the occasion arises), and is spoken by Lady M:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!”

We spoke of times when you pray (if you believe in a god) for the strength to cope with something difficult, but we also looked at the element of self-sacrifice in the quote. Lady M is willing to give up part of what makes her who she is – the so-called ‘female’ traits of empathy and compassion – in order to commit the dreadful act of murder, which will help her husband achieve his ambition of being king. We could also imagine this being said by someone wanting revenge.

My group’s destination was the Tate Modern, a breeding ground for inspiration. I’d only been once before, in the summer of 2012, so I was excited about going back there and seeing some of the old favourites, plus any new installations. I was thrilled to see Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus again – one of my favourite paintings – and spent a good five minutes gazing into its rich colours and fluid landscape.

Here our task was to find an image or object that best reflected our quote, consider which of the four elements resonated with the quote (we chose water), and find a new image reflecting the elemental aspect of our quote. The image a few of us settled on for best representing the quote visually was an oil painting by Francis Picabia called Otaiti (see picture). I felt its thick texture, dark colours, and the nakedness and posture of the woman, with her parted lips and upturned eyes, illustrated the sexual and malevolent nature of the words. A beautiful and very powerful painting when you’re standing right in front of it!

Another of our instructions was to explore what sounds might surround the words. We focused on the voice and the breath, and used this in the performed piece we created.

At 5pm we all congregated in a circular area near the Laurence Olivier statue outside the National Theatre, and one by one each group got up to perform their piece, arranging the audience as they wished beforehand. People walking along the South Bank stopped to watch. A few stayed through all the performances, others came and went. When all the pieces had been performed by applauded ourselves and each other, then applauded the public who had taken time out of their day to watch us. That has often been me in the past – wandering along there on the way to a bookshop or a cafe or the theatre, stopping to watch something that’s piqued my interest. This time it was the other way round – I was the one performing, and it felt special.

I had a wonderful day – meeting new and interesting people, getting to work with them, exploring London a bit, having stimulating creative conversations and getting the chance to perform outside the National Theatre….. if only for 90 seconds!

Student housing sorted!

This weekend I went up to Loughton to view a house for next year. It’s now just one month until I move up there and start the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School! Terrified, exhilarated, excited and full of anticipation only goes partway to describe how I’m feeling right now.

We’d already seen one house we liked at the Welcome Day back in July, and this time we were viewing the agent’s other property. She’s bought this one herself and put a lot of time and effort into making it lovely, so we decided on this house for our group of five.

My new bedroom

My new student bedroom

Walking into each room I felt a tingle of excitement as I imagined myself living there, learning lines by the light of the desk lamp, settling into bed at night after a long day of training, or waking to another hectic but wonderful day of movement, voice work and Shakespeare.

The house is about five minutes’ walk from the school. Considering how rubbish I am at mornings and how understandably strict the school is with getting to class on time, this is a big plus. It will also make it safer for us walking back home in the dark.

There’s a lovely big kitchen, an annex room out the back with its own shower and loo, and all the rooms are fully furnished, so I don’t have to cart a double bed and mattress up to London. This does mean, however, that I need to find somewhere to store said mattress and bed, or a skip big enough. I’ve also broached the subject with my mum of bringing a small pile – just a small pile – of stuff back home when I visit my family next weekend. I always figured that by 28 I’d be fully moved out of the family home and would have my own place. I guess I was wrong. I may have moved out in person ten years ago but the boxes labeled ‘Jennie’s stuff’ have yet to venture to the front door.

Predictably, I’ve gone for the biggest room in the house. I have a lot of stuff. Most of it I never even look at, but I carry it around with me all the same. It’s kind of like a giant comfort blanket. The largest bedroom also has a sizeable desk. I’m a writer (or I like to think I am), so a decent-sized desk is as crucial to my wellbeing as a decent pair of running shoes is to a runner. Well, perhaps not quite.

It feels good to have the housing situation sorted – one less thing to worry about. I haven’t lived in a house of five since I was last a student seven years ago, so the fight for the shower/kitchen/toilet will take some getting used to again, but I’m excited to share a place with a group of fellow actors in training, and experience that excitement and camaraderie.

With each step we get one bit closer to this whole drama school thing becoming a reality. Terrifying, but pretty exciting too…