A workshop with Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd

I recently got to meet a bit of a legend in the theatre world. Mike Shepherd, artistic director of Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre company, came to Little Angel Theatre to give a day-long workshop as part of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ sessions.

When he turned up in a flat cap and long tweed coat and carrying a load of bamboo sticks I thought, he looks just like in the YouTube videos! It was that strange thing when you meet someone who you’ve already seen on TV or in an interview, and your brain feels sort of like you’ve already met them, even though you haven’t.

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Sculpture made from my bag contents – read into it what you will!

After a warm-up to get us present in the room we worked with the sticks a little and played a few more games, all this work building on giving and receiving, working together towards a joint goal. Mike advocates playing games in the rehearsal room but making it relevant to the work you are doing, and don’t just do some warm-up games then sit down and start doing script work, losing all that wonderful energy and creative zing that you’ve just generated. Instead, use the games throughout the session.

Just before lunch we were tasked with creating sculptures out of the contents of our bags (see pic). Great fun, and an activity that could be used to flesh out a character.

In the afternoon we looked more at the devising process and how to go about adapting a written story into a piece of theatre. We used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ as an example, as Mike directed this with puppets at Little Angel earlier this year. The initial steps involved first reading the story aloud together, then jotting down words from the story, making a note of the main themes, and then summarising the action of the story in a maximum of seven (though aiming for five) bullet points. Storyboarding was another option.

Mike struck me as pretty chilled on the surface but with a fire fizzing underneath – a rebellious streak fuelled by his passion for theatre and making work that actually means something to him. He spoke of how, after a few years as an actor in London, he moved back to his native Cornwall. In London, at least nowadays, there is this idea of a ‘career’, whereas he just wanted to make theatre, so he started Kneehigh and over the years it grew, then he made the work he wanted to make. There never seemed to be a big plan with a capital P. I think and talk so much about my ‘career’ and how to build it up that this gave me pause for thought. It’s true that there is such a sense of focusing on developing one’s career that I feel it’s good to remind ourselves why we’re in this game, and in turn take a look inside at work we really want to do.

It was a marvellous day. I got to meet someone I greatly respect and whose work I admire, the group was a lovely bunch of people who inspired me with their ideas and creativity just as much as Mike did, and I left feeling determined to make my own work that I care about and believe in the value of. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday.

End of YSC tour

“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.

Touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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!

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Sherman the Shakespeare duck, courtesy of Samuel Lane

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!

 

Shadow puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

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.

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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!

Speechless Theatre workshop

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.

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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!

 

Mime, puppetry and people

Last week was fantastic. I went to my first corporeal mime class, had a puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre, took part in ‘Scene Gym’ at the Old Vic Workrooms and attended a one-person storytelling workshop with Little Angel Theatre’s Artistic Director, Samantha Lane.

The mime class was taught by Vini Carvalho of Fool’s Cap Theatre, and was a pure delight. Inspired by the work of companies such as Theatre Ad Infinitum, I was looking for a good mime class when this one popped up on Facebook! We worked on opposing forces (and got very sweaty), different rhythms and learnt an offering sequence. Corporeal mime, or contemporary mime, can be used to choreograph pieces, and it felt so good to be there in a class, learning the moves and practising them in front of the mirror. That’s my comfort zone, right there! It harked back to my ballet days. Vini’s planning on teaching the class every week so it will be great to make it a regular part of my ongoing training.

In the puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre we explored motion, firstly using puppetry sticks and then going on to having a play with some cloth bunraku-style puppets. The sticks are a great tool for puppeteers to practise movement before going on to try it with the puppet itself. I am so getting me some! (Or failing that I might chop up an old broom handle.) Just always check for splinters beforehand!

Friday’s ‘Scene Gym’ was an absolute joy – a bunch of actors, directors and writers all together in a room getting to play with some brilliant new play texts. But more on that, and yesterday’s storytelling workshop, in the next two posts!

Along with the chance to be creative, what made the week really special were all the interesting people I met and had the chance to be creative with. Being in a room full of people who all want to work together and create something together gives me the biggest buzz. I love meeting new people and finding out their story, and actors in particular are generally so open and engaging. It’s also great to hear what brings non-performers to the room, for example in my puppetry class and the storytelling workshop. It’s the people that are the true joy of an actor’s life.

Jacket puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

I have a lovely (fake) leather jacket. Perfect for the autumnal weather, perhaps not so perfect for puppetry. It’s got a stiff neck, you see.

Our most recent puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre involved animating our jackets. Oliver Smart led us through the stages of focus – thinking (eg of the clock on the wall), looking at the clock, turning your body towards the clock, then moving towards the clock. We practised this ourselves first before applying it to our puppets.

In order to establish our jacket puppet’s focus we first let the gaze of the puppet follow our finger as it moved around. It was interesting to see how our puppet reacted if the finger came closer and invaded it’s personal space. We kept it simple here with a clear like/dislike or curiosity/boredom reaction. Too complicated a reaction and the puppet’s movement loses its clarity and intention.

Once we’d had a go at the different stages of focus with the puppets, we looked at jumping. Just as with us humans, the puppet’s ‘knees’ (obviously imaginary knees in the case of the jacket) bend, it pushes up into the air, comes back down a little quicker and the knees bend again as it lands. We practised the required amount of ‘push’ – what happens if it doesn’t bend the knees enough? What if it bends them too much and jumps too high or far? Once our puppets could jump on the spot we had a go at bouncing to travel, paying attention to the transfer of weight and keeping it slow and steady. When working with a puppet, Oliver says, its movements should be a little like it’s underwater – not over the top, but steadier and more pronounced than our movements.

My beloved jacket was fun to work with but the softer jackets seemed more suited to the work, so I’m off to a charity shop to get my very own puppetry practise jacket!