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.

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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……!