LAMDA week three – letting go

As the physical theatre classes have increased with intensity, the singing classes introduced me to the wonder of my ‘head voice’ (quite a revelation for me actually!), and the scene study sessions frustrated me more and more with my general crapness, I have discovered the importance of ‘letting go’. If last week I made the decision to be brave, this week I have been focusing on the result of being brave – letting go. Letting go of me, of my habits, of my fears and insecurities, of all the emotion pent up inside, straining to get out and be freeeeee. When I say letting go of me, I’m not talking about wiping the slate clean completely, just being able to get to a state known as ‘neutral’ and knowing how to return to that state before getting into character. Sitting on the tube, walking through London, eating my breakfast, I will remain as me, with all the wonderful (and not so!) little things that make me me. But in the studio, the rehearsal room, or backstage, before I transform into Viola, Rosalind, Portia, I can shake off me and find that neutral state, then let the character in.

During our work on neutrality with the wonderful John Bartlett, we had the brief chance to do some mask work. Normally this takes weeks or even months to work on and build up to, but given the brief nature of the course, we were given a sneak peak into this wonderful world and the creative possibilities it opens up. We each chose a mask, as much on impulse as possible, then spent a few minutes getting to know our mask. I ran my fingers over its face, felt the prominent cheekbones jutting out, the deep eye sockets; brought it close to my face and rubbed my cheek against its. I held it above me and looked up at the look of a parent; held it below in my arms – the look of a child; held it behind me – the look of a stranger; lay down on my side with it – the passive look of a lover. Once acquainted with our masks, we closed our eyes and put them on. Unfortunately, my eyes being stupidly close together, I struggled with some discomfort to see properly out of the mask; indeed at the end of the session, as I pulled the mask off, my left contact lens, which it had apparently dragged out of my eye, fell into my palm – ouch! However, this aside, the effect of the mask was a powerful one. We were told not to sink and pull it down to us, but rather to lift ourselves to it. Walking around in neutral, executing actions on impulse, listening to what our bodies wanted to do and where they wanted to go, and listening to what the mask wanted to do, we were transformed. I felt my body move automatically, without any conscious thought, as if controlled by some other power, some other force. It was a strangely liberating experience, that loss of conscious control, that letting go.

Our group chilling during a line run at rehearsal – first time using the panorama function on my new camera so the pic’s a little messed up in places!

In my physical theatre and movement classes my body is becoming more and more attuned to letting go, and in my voice classes too, as I drop all the tension I normally carry across my chest (seems all those years of ballet weren’t a good idea after all) and let my breath sink in deeper. The problem I’m facing is putting all this hard work into practice in the rehearsal room. Working on a scene with Viola and Olivia from Twelfth Night (me playing Viola), I’m finding it takes so much time in each session for me to open up and let go of myself. Once I manage to do this, the effect is obvious, and suddenly the scene has an energy and life it was lacking before. One can only presume that, through drama school training, you develop the means to put into practice all the techniques you learn without having to consciously bring them up and go through the exercise each time. I have faith that, if I work hard and open myself to every creative possibility, this could happen. However, for the meantime I need to get this scene nailed by the end of this week, and for this I just need to let go.

LAMDA week 2 – be brave

My second week on the Shakespeare summer workshop at LAMDA has been one of great discovery. I realise that in order to be a good actor and understand each character you play you must first understand yourself. Such has been the nature of the week – a period of real self-discovery. Naturally, I have unearthed not only positive things I never realised about myself, but also painful things that I normally keep buried deep inside. An exercise during one of our physical theatre classes had a particularly profound effect on me…

We started the exercise by lying on the floor in semi-supine (for those of you who don’t practice Alexander Technique, so probably most of you, this is lying with your knees bent and pointing to the ceiling and your feet flat on the floor – very good for lower back problems!). The teacher took us through a relaxation exercise with our eyes closed, moving down the body, concentrating on each muscle group in turn. Then, feeling relaxed and our minds free from the day-to-day clutter of our lives, we had to listen to our bodies and let them move as they wanted to. We started with the lower body, moved to the upper body, then brought everything in together. Gradually, as we became more involved in the activity, a few of us occasionally grunted, sighed or moaned, and all of a sudden three people began to laugh. The effect was unexpected and immediate – I curled up into a tight little ball and started crying. Although the laughter wasn’t in any way aimed at me and was simply a release of energy and tension from the people concerned, I hated the sound and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. It felt like an attack, and following my instincts I curled up to protect myself.

As the laughter subsided I felt the suffocating pain dissipate and the fear subside, and began to relax again as I unfolded myself up to standing. We were encouraged to open our eyes a little way once we started moving around so as not to bump into anyone, so I was vaguely aware of other human forms through the curtain of lashes, some upright, others lying with their feet in the air or rolling around across the floor. The exercise advanced further then as the teacher put on some music and we let our bodies react to the music and speak to us. This may all sound very hippy-like but I defy even the greatest of skeptics to do this exercise and not become completely involved. At one point I crawled into a corner, child-like; at another I started swinging joyfully form side to side, feeling the beat of the music fill my soul and forgetting everything but that moment, that sound, that feeling.

Eventually the teacher brought the exercise to a close as he lowered the music and told us to come to stillness and open our eyes in our own time. We wandered into a circle, wondering what exactly had just happened. I felt as if I had been to some long-forgotten place deep inside my mind and I took a while to come back again. As our teacher spoke to a few of my course mates I felt a sudden urge to cry again. Very much not wanting to lose control and exhibit such vulnerability in front of the whole class I very firmly told it to go away, but it wasn’t working! The urge overcame me and the tears spilled onto my cheeks. Moments later, when the teacher had asked the group for feedback on the exercise, I explained my vulnerable state and that it had mainly brought me pain, rather than pleasure. (He called it the pleasure-seeking exercise, as we let our bodies move how they want to and in a way that gives them pleasure, rather than restricting them as we normally do.) I was assured that any exercise can evoke different reactions in different people, and was reassured to hear that several people in the group had also experienced what I did, some feeling vulnerable, others just melancholy.

As I sat in my room that night I went over these events in my head, and realised that I had come to an important moment in these early days of my training. I was feeling vulnerable, and open, and receptive, and maybe a little bit scared. The exercise had been a difficult one for me because of the emotions it brought to the fore, and I understood what my singing teacher had meant when he said there would be times at drama school when you just wanted to go home. But I didn’t want to go home. I had a decision to make: I could stop there, protect myself, not get hurt, carry on the course but hold back when I felt myself exposed, and learn a lot throughout the remaining weeks but I may as well give up on being an actor right there and then. Or I could be brave. I could take a deep breath and plunge straight back in and open myself to it all and work hard and learn and take those risks of being in a difficult place, and at the end of the four weeks I would have started to move along the path to becoming an actor.

We are coming alive again. We are rediscovering what it is to be human. There will be tears of joy and tears of pain. There will be truth, and sometimes revelation. Being an actor takes great bravery, becoming one even more so. And I’ve made the decision to be brave.

A note on Life

I was reading through my notes in my writing scrapbook earlier, and suddenly noticed a tiny bug, the colour of skin, translucent and almost too small for the naked eye to see. At first I was simply going to brush it away, most likely killing it in the process, but I decided to watch it a little, tracking its progress. I strained my eyes to watch it as it made its way across the page. Here was life. It may be small and seem insignificant, but of course everything is relative.

I tried to get it to crawl onto my finger so I could take a closer look, but every time it got near my finger it could sense it looming there and turned to take a different path. Sometimes it faltered a little before doing so, and I realised there must be some sort of thought process going on there! It seemed as if it was not just reacting instinctively, but actually choosing how to proceed. (I’m sure a biologist may have an explanation for this that renders my thoughts merely the result of an over-optimistic imagination.) Suddenly this tiny life-form became very significant. It was life; beautiful, complex, perfectly functioning life. Alive. Living.

There is so much life, all around us. So much energy, so much existence. I imagined its life, this little bug. What did things look like from its perspective? Did it really ‘think’? Was it aware at all? What was its purpose? Did it even need one? Or was it simply existing because it can? Because life is everywhere, and it needs no reason, no justification for being.

We have such small eyes. We think we’re kings of the world. But we’re like moles, burrowing through all this wonder.

Polar Bears by Mark Haddon

I think this fascination with life fuels my creative instincts. When I act a part in a play I am inhabiting a life other than my own, the life of the character. When I put pen to paper my imagination is giving birth to a character, a personality, with every hope, flaw, habit and subtle nuance that altogether moulds a spirit that is uniquely theirs, as they burst from my mind and spill onto the page.

I’m not particularly religious – perhaps ‘undecided’ would be the most suitable label, if anyone feels I need one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find life itself magical. And right now I can feel a new life coming into being. A new voice wanting to be heard. Has she been there all along, waiting for the right time, for me to discover her? Or were the seeds of her creation only sewn a week or so ago as the idea for a story, her story, first crept out of my subconscious and gave my grey matter a little nudge?

The idea I mentioned in my last post, the beginnings of yet another story that wants to grow up to be a novel, has set down roots and firmly planted itself in my mind. It’s just waiting for me to breathe some life into it, and now that life is ready. I call her Emily. I don’t know her favourite food yet, have only a vague idea of her age. I don’t even know her favourite colour, or if she indeed has one. Whether she’d choose Britney or Christina, or if she even gives a damn. But all this will be revealed to me, as she speaks and I listen, jotting down a characterisation, sketching out the lines of her life. And like the little bug – as important in the scheme of life as ever, yet blink and you’ll miss him – it’s the little details that count.