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!

Candide – a true ensemble show

This is the best of all possible worlds. So said German philosopher Leibniz. Voltaire wasn’t so convinced, and after a devastating earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, he wrote Candide, his philosophical novel in which he poked fun at this theory.

Given the current reign of positive thinking – the world is your oyster, you can do anything you put your mind to, it’ll work out fine – mismatched with the increasing effects of global warming, it seems fitting that Mark Ravenhill chose this topic to dramatise in his play Candide, written for and performed by the RSC. Luckily for those of us on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, this was chosen as one of our three final-term plays. And extra-luckily for me, I was one of the cast.

This was the first show I’ve worked on with professional standards and a fully professional outlook, and it was a fantastic experience. Our director, Chris Meads, inspired us all to work harder and go further with the work, and the satisfaction I gained from putting so much into it was immensely rewarding. There were days when I worried I wouldn’t have the stamina to do my best, but this was where eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep came in. It’s so easy to scrimp on both when you’re doing a show, but I cannot stress enough how important they are.

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Working with Chris aside, the biggest joy of the process for me was being part of a company of brilliant actors and wonderful human beings. Over the three weeks of rehearsal we bonded as a family. Sure, there were annoyances, niggling little habits were amplified, and dressing room tension was unavoidable – that wonderfully crazy mayhem of people jumping over one another to locate their particular bloodied bandage, try to squeeze a fellow actor into a corset, powder their nose for the umpteenth time, or struggle to identify their own pair of tan tights from a heap of 20. God, I miss it already. But I have a great fondness for each person in that cast, and felt quite lost without them after show week.

It’s not just the actors that I miss, either. The beauty of working on a production with such professional standards meant we had a full technical crew, and it really made me appreciate the mountain of work these people put in to bring a show to the stage. When the actors raise a hand gracefully to the lighting box during the bow to acknowledge the input of their technical crew, it is heartfelt, or at least it was for us. These magicians made sure we were dressed for the part, lit us so we could deliver our Oscar-worthy performances to best effect, constructed scenery to help create the little world of our play, made wonderful props for us to play with, and worked tirelessly to make the production work. Our ASM Hannah looked after me backstage when I was feeling faint from the heat, and our DSM Emma was an absolute hero, staying late with the director to sort everything out, long after the actors had relaxed in the bar with a beer before heading home. Us actors, we’ve got the easy part!

What a wonderful and enriching experience, and what a brilliant text to play with. Mr Ravenhill, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Uncovering the hidden treasure within a bloody good script like this one is yet another of the tasty treats in the goodie bag. Add one inspiring director, a family of actors and a tireless technical crew, and you’ve got a show folks! A show I am very proud to have been a part of.

 

Making theatre – devising a show

I’ve just had my first experience of devising a piece of theatre from scratch for my MAP (MA Project). Well, not from complete zilch. In the beginning there was an idea, but then there is always an idea – it’s what you do with it that counts.

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My MAP family

What we did with our idea was take it from a chaotic collection of philosophical musings, through the focus of a question emerging from all this, to end up with a family on a caravan holiday who encounter The Void. Yes, it was quite a leap, but there were many stepping stones on the way – not all in the same direction, but I feel our meandering exploration took us on a very human journey that directly informed the final piece. And what more fitting vehicle to share our explorations than that beacon of western society, the family holiday.

Playing the mum of the family (this is the second time I’ve played a mum in a few months – is this it now I’m in the 25-35 category on Spotlight?!) unexpectedly brought up a lot of old memories of being a little girl. It also went to a place within myself that has awoken this year – a deep place of nurturing and nature and what it is to be a woman and own that womanliness. I certainly hadn’t expected such an experience to come from the devising process, but it just goes to show how involved and invested in the work we as both actors and theatre-makers become.

The devising process was a new adventure for me. Our group of six actors from the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School formed a company and did the whole marketing shebang. We booked rooms and loosely planned rehearsals. We scribbled spider diagrams on the whiteboard, bruised our knees choreographing movement pieces, and pondered our reality. Our question: to what extent do we create our own reality?

We drank coffee and discussed religion, we rolled around on the grass exploring mother-daughter relationships through contact improvisation, we went to the woods in character as a family. Improvising was a tool we used a lot to explore our characteristics and discover the family dynamics. One night we had a family sleepover at one of our houses, which was an extended improvisation ending at 10pm and starting up again for breakfast the next morning. It was an important part of our process and produced some important character discoveries, along with a fantastic recipe for bolognese! It was also absolutely knackering – although we’d rested as our characters, in reality we had all been working until 10pm and had very little time to rest as us.

One key lesson I learnt from the devising process was how to work in a group where there is no clear leader and everyone has an equal say. I also put into practise the whole ‘applying the white paint’ process we’ve been developing over the past few months of our training – knowing when to scrap this bit or that bit and knowing which bits to keep.

It’s been an enriching and exciting journey and, with the possibility of our piece having a life beyond the MAPs, one that hopefully isn’t over just yet…

 

Surviving Actors 2015

Few opportunities seem to exist for experienced and new actors alike to network for free and find out more about their industry for a fiver. Surviving Actors is one such opportunity. This year’s convention took place a few weeks ago in London. With a manic few weeks at drama school I’ve only just found a moment to blog about the day, but I definitely think it’s still worthwhile sharing my experience of the event.

The event itself was free to attend, then each workshop or talk was £5 each, so for £25 I got a day of networking, meeting potential employers for non-acting-paying-the-bills jobs, and five sessions – bargain! The sessions I booked covered marketing yourself as an actor, screen acting, working with a director, developing the right attitude to survive in the industry, and what happens in the casting room.

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The marketing talk I attended was led by Lloyd Trott, editor of the Actors and Peformers Yearbook

 

Aside from being an extremely useful day for a rookie actor with very little knowledge of the industry, it was also inspiring. For the first time I really started to feel a part of something bigger, outside the sacred walls of drama school. There are other actors out there, yey!! Actors who aren’t just my friends and coursemates, but complete strangers who I may or may not work with in the future. It’s unlike any other industry I’ve come into contact with in my life. When I was working in corporate communications I went to the odd marketing or communications conference, where I found it interesting meeting and chatting to other professionals in the area, but I never felt a real camaraderie with them, nor was there that almost tangible zing of excitement at the thought that many of these people I was meeting for the first time might become colleagues and creative partners. I suppose it’s down to the creativity element – these are people whose talent and imagination are things I want to tap into, and with whom I’m hungry to share my creative process and ideas. Of course, it’s also an industry where reputation is everything, and where it really does pay to try to be nice to everyone.

The hall of exhibitors featured stands for Equity, Spotlight, various publishers, photographers specialising in headshots, an accountant, and various non-theatrical companies who employ actors. The latter included a call centre, sales company, and several teaching agencies employing actors as teaching assistants. The latter is definitely something I’m interested in as a back-up career, and with nine months’ experience teaching English to primary school children in Madrid I have some relevant experience. My mum’s a retired teacher, so maybe it’s in my genes!

At one of the publisher stands I bought a copy of this year’s Actors and Performers Yearbook, after attending the marketing talk that Yearbook editor and RADA dramaturg Lloyd Trott chaired. I also picked up a copy of ‘Voice into Acting‘ by Christina Gutekunst and John Gillett. Christina is our voice tutor on the MA Acting at East 15, and an absolute gem. Aside from bringing pure joy to my day with her colourful scarf and hat combinations, she is a brilliant teacher whose methods have opened up my voice to a depth and richness I never thought it possessed.

Acting and the theatre, film and television industry has often felt like a closed members-only club for which I’ve only got a visitor’s pass. Getting a place at drama school did go some way to upgrading that pass, at least in my mind, but I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in. At Surviving Actors, however, for the first time I felt like I was on the inside, that I was a fully paid-up member. Admittedly, I’m still in training, our industry showcase is still six months off, and I haven’t yet upgraded from student to full membership of Spotlight and Equity. However, for several hours that Saturday I strode around calling myself an actor, and it felt good.

 

 

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.