Clod Ensemble movement workshop with osteopath Leon Baugh

As an actor and puppeteer with many years of dance classes behind me, I am greatly interested in how and why my body moves the way it does. This is particularly true when it comes to injuries that impede my movement, and how to both deal with them and prevent future injuries.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take part in a free workshop on the body and how to keep it moving and performing the way we need it to. The workshop was run by osteopath and former dancer Leon Baugh, and aimed at dancers and other performers for whom movement plays a key part of their work.

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Leon Baugh working with a client

Leon is a qualified osteopath, Anatomy in Motion practitioner, acupuncturist and sports injury massage therapist working in London. Before training as an osteopath he enjoy a career as a professional contemporary dancer, dancing with companies such as the Hofesh Schechter Company, before becoming an Olivier Award winning theatre choreographer.

On a snowy Sunday in early December I made my way into London (the trains were miraculously running), dressed in my usual movement get-up of leggings and baggy top, armed with a water bottle and notebook. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the following seven hours would turn out to be some of the most useful of my career.

Persistent back pain

About nine years ago I injured my back. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but over a period of several days a pain started to appear in my lower back and grew worse and worse, until one day I couldn’t move without horrendous painful spasms coursing up my spine. I’ve seen physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors. I’ve tried pilates and swimming. Although each of these things gave me some immediate relief, it never lasted (though I can credit the swimming with improving my mobility and getting me walking again). After two weeks the intense pain had settled down to a persistent dull ache, and I was able to move about more or less as I had done before, with one exception – fear. The pain and immobility had been so terrifying, that ever since then I never made any sort of bending movement without an element of fear that it would happen again.

In more recent years I have injured the cartilage in my left knee playing badminton, and also feel niggles in my right. Perhaps lower back and knee problems are not the best recipe for a life as a puppeteer, but I think it can have some advantages, in that it makes me more aware of how I need to look after and protect my body when I’m working.

I’ve often wondered if the knee issues could be directly related to the original back injury, and through Leon’s workshop I discovered that this could very much be the case. I learnt how, when we suffer an injury, our body adjusts its centre to cope with this. However, long after the injury itself has healed, the body can continue to perceive this off-kilter centre as its true centre. This leaves us with a greatly reduced amount of mobility. Could my body have readjusted its centre when I hurt my back, and when it didn’t revert back to its true centre once my back had healed, could this off-kilter centre have put extra strain on my left knee, making it more susceptible to injury?

Listening to the body

Leon took us through several exercises to tune into our bodies and become aware of any trouble spots. Alongside my work in the theatre I work in communications at a university, which involves sitting at a computer for most of the day. Recently I’ve been very aware of how I’ve almost tuned out my body as I jostle the crowds in the tube, cram onto the train, or sit for hours staring at my computer screen. Leon’s workshop reminded me to listen when my body speaks, and to actively ask it how it’s feeling by taking the time to tune in.

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Leon Baugh

Most of the other participants at the workshop were professional dancers, but the majority of what we covered could be directly applied to working as a puppeteer or other kind of movement practitioner. The warm-ups Leon took us through will be particularly useful, following the basic principle of preparing your body for the work ahead by doing a lower-intensity version of that same activity (for example, if you’re going to be jumping lots in a rehearsal then it makes sense to prepare your knees by doing bends and low-impact jumps). One revelation was to not always bend knees over toes when warming up (shock horror!). You cannot guarantee that in a rehearsal or performance you will land perfectly every time, so you need to prepare your knees for those times when you don’t.

There is so much useful information I took away from the day that I can’t possibly include it all here or I’ll end up writing a book! Suffice to say, that one workshop alone has changed the way I think about my body and its pain, and I can’t thank Leon and the organisers, Clod Ensemble, enough.

This workshop was organised as part of Reboot, Clod Ensemble’s free artist development programme for emerging and established practitioners. The programme provides a space for performers and performance makers, teachers and academics to explore ideas and develop their practice.

 

Images: courtesy of Leon Baugh

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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.

New writing at the Scene Gym

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.

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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!

Peaks and troughs

I’m nearly at the end of my first year out of drama school. They say the first few years are the most difficult, and I’m starting to appreciate that.

It’s been an interesting year with mostly steady work and mostly very little money. There’s been the thrill of getting an agent (hi Carol!), the excitement of going to castings, the joy of getting stuck into a part, the constant niggle in the back of my mind about money, the effort not to compare myself to other actors who seem to be ‘doing better’, the elation when I got a job and the disappointment when I didn’t.

It’s very easy to start worrying that everyone else is getting more work, their careers are progressing faster, they’re more talented or luckier, and of course there’s that fear creeping in that I’ve failed before I’ve really begun. You fall into a trough and the more you struggle and flail your arms, the more you seem to sink into the mud. But recently I’ve come to realise, and maybe for many of you fellow performers this has been obvious all along, that this is the job. This is the life. This is not me failing at being an actor. This is me BEING an actor.

And so it’s ok! Just like choosing to start not only a new sentence but a whole new paragraph with the word ‘and’ is ok! (My mum will disagree.) Nothing’s wrong, this is just how it is on this particular path I’ve chosen. No wonder they went on about ‘building resilience’ so much at drama school. It all makes sense now. I guess you’ve got to actually live it in order to really understand.

Some of my friends and fellow actors have also been feeling a bit stuck in the mud, so for any of you performers out there feeling this way, you’re not alone. Remember your support network, and try to find the balance of work and play. If you need a bit of guidance with that, I’ve found the following book to be a great help: An Attitude for Acting by Andrew Tidmarsh and Dr Tara Swart. I’m sure there’s all manner of self-help books out there for actors, and many of them are probably a waste of money, but I think this one’s pretty good. It just helped me bring things back into focus.

I feel I’m back on the upward climb at the moment. I had that amazing experience working in Russia, and since I’ve been back I’ve had two auditions, one for a play, one for a commercial, and two for TIE tours. I’ve also just been offered the two TIE tours. So things are definitely happening, even if it’s a slow trickle. Onwards and upwards I say!

No no no no no no no yes

Thus says Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley. While causing much mirth, this phrase also sums up both of my passions and chosen professions. In both the acting and the writing world, getting accustomed to regular rejection is just part of the deal. For every ‘yes’ there has usually been a stream of ‘no’s beforehand. After two such ‘no’s today I was faced with several options: throw my laptop on the floor and start smashing up Costa, sob uncontrollably much to the alarm of everyone in Costa, or get back to work, and write. Thus I chose the latter…

It’s a crazy old thing, being a ‘creative’. You put your heart and soul, and a great deal of time and, often, money into your work, only to have someone tell you it’s not what they’re looking for, it’s not quite up to their standards, it’s too different/not different enough, it’s been seen before, it would never sell, or just… ‘no’. Faced with such criticism many people would sink into a deep mire of self-loathing, or else construct a solid concrete wall around themselves. Actors, however, are required by the very nature of both what we do and the industry itself, to keep going, keep trying and, very importantly, keep feeling. Admittedly, there is a certain degree of self-loathing, self-pity and self-defence that goes on, but it has to be a temporary state. In order to do the work, we have to rise up out of the mud time and time again, learn to take the knocks and still come back for more. And while doing this, we have to stay open, receptive and fully engaged in the world around us. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s almost like going in the ring with a heavyweight boxer knowing full well we’re about to be hit in the face, yet not only doing nothing to defend ourselves, but in fact presenting our cheek for his glove.

The ‘no’s I’ve just received are actually for my writing, but the principle is the same. We put ourselves into our work then put it out there to get stamped on, discarded or, even worse, simply ignored. I have indeed just had a moment (or several) of doom and gloom, but as I pack up my things to head over to the theatre the grey clouds are lifting. Tonight I get to be a Russian, a flamingo and a wolf. I get to share a sacred space with my fellow actors and adventurers and tell the people gathered there a magical story. Tonight I get to play.

So I shake off the ‘no’ and remind myself why I’m doing this: for the love of it. For the sheer joy. It’s certainly not for the money! And I remind myself how lucky I am to get to do this every night this week. This is what sustains me through the ‘no’s. This is why it’s worth it.

Synchron Productions’ Chronicargo is on at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington tonight and tomorrow as part of the New Moon Festival.

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.

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)…