Rehearsing Synchron Productions’ Foresight

We are now over halfway into rehearsals for Synchron Productions’ latest play, Foresight, in which I play journalist Charlotte Foster. This is my second play with the company, after appearing in their first play, Chronicargo, back in November. This latest project has given me the opportunity to work with a friend that I trained with on the MA Acting at East 15 last year, but also two East 15ers from previous years.

Unlike Chronicargo, where the script developed from work we devised with the director in the rehearsal room, the script for Foresight was already written when we started the work. However, as the director, Andrew Barton, and producer, Amy Liette Hunter, wrote the script together, there has been some flexibility with tweaking bits here and there in rehearsals, as we discovered what felt right for the characters and story and what might work better phrased in a different way. I am enjoying working in this sort of ‘open’ environment where the actor’s thoughts and process can feed directly back into the script itself.

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In rehearsals

Rehearsals kicked off with some games followed by table work, which was invaluable for us as a group building an understanding of the world of the play and our characters’ place within that world. We discussed some of the character research we’d done in preparation for the first week, and through mining the script we raised several questions to answer through further research.

Week two saw us beginning work on the scenes and making even more discoveries about what makes our characters tick. It has been particularly fascinating to see the relationships between the characters develop as we’ve worked on a scene, and now in week three I can feel how the world and relationship threads have formed around each character as we have really started to embody these people.

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Playing warm-up games before getting down to work!

We are rehearsing at the Young Actors Theatre Islington (YATI), and each time I set off to rehearsals there, script, notebook, water and a multitude of snacks in my bag, I feel that little ball of excitement and pride that I am doing this – I am being an actor. This is what it’s all about – making new work with people you love and respect, and telling stories that just have to be told.

Foresight is on at The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, from May 31st to June 4th, 7.30pm. For tickets, please book online on The Courtyard Theatre’s website.

Surviving Actors 2016

A range of workshops and seminars at a decent price, the chance to network with other actors, and a room full of exhibitors including headshot photographers, showreel producers and part-time employers. Yes, I’m talking about Surviving Actors, an event run by actors, for actors.

A few Saturdays ago I headed to the Radisson Blu Hotel near Marble Arch for Surviving Actors London 2016. I went to the event last year while I was still doing my training at East 15 Acting School and found it inspiring and useful, so hoped this year would be too.

I attended seminars on how to think like a casting director, surviving in the theatre, and how to land an on-screen role. All were interesting and insightful, particularly the session with the beautifully honest Brian Astbury and Shane Dempsey. The two spoke the simple truth about a life in the theatre: it’s hard, plain and simple, but it can also be supremely rewarding. Their advice was to the point, their insights on the profession intriguing, and their approach honest and unfaltering. I won’t say brutally honest, because I’m sure all of us in that room understood how challenging it can be to keep going in this industry, so these honest words should have come as no surprise.

Listening to both Brian and Shane speak, rather than feeling deflated about the industry, I felt inspired. They both spoke of the importance of doing your own work – that’s the way to do the work you want to do and care about. This is an ethos that underpins the training at East 15, a school both Brian and Shane have a connection with, so it’s ingrained in my approach to my career and the work itself.

In between seminars I wandered round the exhibitors’ room, chatting with people here and there, picking up a few freebies and buying a few acting books. I was also delighted to bump into some of my fellow E15ers, Madeleine Dunne, Helena Devereux and Vicky Winning. After spending a year training with these guys I miss not seeing them every day!

Like last year, I really enjoyed the event and it was interesting to see how I found it a year on, having finished my training.

 

 

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)…

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.

 

Simon Stephens playwriting workshop

I’ve always considered myself a writer of sorts, but until now I have limited my efforts to writing short stories, journalistic articles, marketing copy and multiple abandoned efforts at writing a novel. My love of theatre and, particularly, my current actor training on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, has awaked a desire to write for performance. So you can imagine my excitement when I went along to a workshop run by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, called How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure.

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At this point I feel the need to say this workshop actually took place over a month ago (drama school = limited free time = a backlog of unwritten blog posts), but I felt it still worth writing about, especially as I thought it was a really useful and inspiring day. The workshop was organised by Actors and Performers and took place at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London.

Simon strode in clad in a trendy suit yet with an air of something rather rough-and-tumble and not so trendy about him. As is the custom with most people in this business he swore passionately, fidgeted and fiddled with his hair, a habit he happily drew attention to. I instantly liked him. There was something very human and not at all ‘award-winning playwright’ about him, but then, how many award-winning playwrights have I actually met?

The day was fascinating, and not only did I feel very inspired speaking with Simon, but also being in the room with so many other writers from different walks of life. There were some brilliant and original ideas zipping around, and an air of excitement and enthusiasm hung in the air like a thick electric cloud, generated by the coming together of so many creative minds and our shared passion for theatre. I came away with so many useful tools for developing characters and plot. I don’t want to set down everything here as it would spoil the fun of doing a workshop with Simon – and I highly recommend it if you get the chance – so I’ll give my top five nuggets of food for creative scribblers from the day:

 

Playwrights organise chaos and ask the question: what is it to be human?

“I am not a writer, I’m a write” (in the words of Mr Stephens) – the word ‘playwright’ comes from the word ‘wrought’, not ‘write’. ‘Wright’ was an old English term for a craftsman, so a ‘playwright’ is someone who has ‘wrought’ words into a dramatic form i.e. crafted plays.

ACTIVATE, don’t CONGRATULATE – make sure each line of speech has an action behind it (what is one character trying to do to the other?).

Structure is music – plot the structure of a play on a chart with one vertical line per scene, spaced out as they are in the play (i.e. if scenes are set far apart time-wise draw them far apart, and if there are some scenes that happen a few hours apart draw them very close together), then if each line is one beat/tap, tap out the sequence of lines (i.e. scenes) and you’ll find the rhythm of the play. This worked brilliantly with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.

CONTENT-STRUCTURE: your play and its gesture lies in the relationship between the content and the structure (music – see above).

 

If this has fizzed up your creative juices and you want to read more about the day (and don’t mind a few more spoilers), you can read a thorough account of the day by Actors and Performers web editor John O’Donovan on their website. The Actors and Performers blog is worth a read too.

You can follow Simon Stephens on Twitter at @StephensSimon.

 Creating theatre on the South Bank 

Induction week is over and the real thing is about to start. Tomorrow is the first official day of term at drama school and we can’t wait to start. We’ve had seven days of introductory sessions, Equity and Spotlight talks, headshots and general getting to know each other, and now we’re ready to get down to some work.

Last week we had a day out in London with the other postgraduate students. It was a chance to get to know people on the other postgraduate courses, explore a bit of London, and create a piece of new work – a 90-second performance.

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern - the image we chose as most representing our quote

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern – the image we chose as most representing our quote

We were split into groups of around 10 people – each person picked a quote out of a brown envelope, and we had to find the other people with the same quote (to form a group), without speaking any words or showing the quote to anyone. You can imagine the hilarity and mild panic that ensued as we all flitted around the room, desperately miming parts of our quote at each other whilst trying to spot anyone miming something that could possibly fit with ours. It was desperation-fuelled and fun and it certainly broke the ice.

Once in our little collectives each group was given a destination, and after a visit to the toilet for some of us (namely, me), and a stop-off at the school cafe for a coffee, we headed off to the tube, already chatting to new people in our groups, making new friends from different parts of the world.

We had a list of tasks to accomplish and orders to reconvene outside the National Theatre on the South Bank at 5pm, where we would perform our 90-second pieces in our groups.

On the tube we discussed the meaning of the quote to us as a group – what did it make us think of? Did it remind of us a moment in our own lives? In what different situations might it be said? Our quote was from Macbeth (yes, I said it. I will also say Voldemort, if the occasion arises), and is spoken by Lady M:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!”

We spoke of times when you pray (if you believe in a god) for the strength to cope with something difficult, but we also looked at the element of self-sacrifice in the quote. Lady M is willing to give up part of what makes her who she is – the so-called ‘female’ traits of empathy and compassion – in order to commit the dreadful act of murder, which will help her husband achieve his ambition of being king. We could also imagine this being said by someone wanting revenge.

My group’s destination was the Tate Modern, a breeding ground for inspiration. I’d only been once before, in the summer of 2012, so I was excited about going back there and seeing some of the old favourites, plus any new installations. I was thrilled to see Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus again – one of my favourite paintings – and spent a good five minutes gazing into its rich colours and fluid landscape.

Here our task was to find an image or object that best reflected our quote, consider which of the four elements resonated with the quote (we chose water), and find a new image reflecting the elemental aspect of our quote. The image a few of us settled on for best representing the quote visually was an oil painting by Francis Picabia called Otaiti (see picture). I felt its thick texture, dark colours, and the nakedness and posture of the woman, with her parted lips and upturned eyes, illustrated the sexual and malevolent nature of the words. A beautiful and very powerful painting when you’re standing right in front of it!

Another of our instructions was to explore what sounds might surround the words. We focused on the voice and the breath, and used this in the performed piece we created.

At 5pm we all congregated in a circular area near the Laurence Olivier statue outside the National Theatre, and one by one each group got up to perform their piece, arranging the audience as they wished beforehand. People walking along the South Bank stopped to watch. A few stayed through all the performances, others came and went. When all the pieces had been performed by applauded ourselves and each other, then applauded the public who had taken time out of their day to watch us. That has often been me in the past – wandering along there on the way to a bookshop or a cafe or the theatre, stopping to watch something that’s piqued my interest. This time it was the other way round – I was the one performing, and it felt special.

I had a wonderful day – meeting new and interesting people, getting to work with them, exploring London a bit, having stimulating creative conversations and getting the chance to perform outside the National Theatre….. if only for 90 seconds!

Student housing sorted!

This weekend I went up to Loughton to view a house for next year. It’s now just one month until I move up there and start the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School! Terrified, exhilarated, excited and full of anticipation only goes partway to describe how I’m feeling right now.

We’d already seen one house we liked at the Welcome Day back in July, and this time we were viewing the agent’s other property. She’s bought this one herself and put a lot of time and effort into making it lovely, so we decided on this house for our group of five.

My new bedroom

My new student bedroom

Walking into each room I felt a tingle of excitement as I imagined myself living there, learning lines by the light of the desk lamp, settling into bed at night after a long day of training, or waking to another hectic but wonderful day of movement, voice work and Shakespeare.

The house is about five minutes’ walk from the school. Considering how rubbish I am at mornings and how understandably strict the school is with getting to class on time, this is a big plus. It will also make it safer for us walking back home in the dark.

There’s a lovely big kitchen, an annex room out the back with its own shower and loo, and all the rooms are fully furnished, so I don’t have to cart a double bed and mattress up to London. This does mean, however, that I need to find somewhere to store said mattress and bed, or a skip big enough. I’ve also broached the subject with my mum of bringing a small pile – just a small pile – of stuff back home when I visit my family next weekend. I always figured that by 28 I’d be fully moved out of the family home and would have my own place. I guess I was wrong. I may have moved out in person ten years ago but the boxes labeled ‘Jennie’s stuff’ have yet to venture to the front door.

Predictably, I’ve gone for the biggest room in the house. I have a lot of stuff. Most of it I never even look at, but I carry it around with me all the same. It’s kind of like a giant comfort blanket. The largest bedroom also has a sizeable desk. I’m a writer (or I like to think I am), so a decent-sized desk is as crucial to my wellbeing as a decent pair of running shoes is to a runner. Well, perhaps not quite.

It feels good to have the housing situation sorted – one less thing to worry about. I haven’t lived in a house of five since I was last a student seven years ago, so the fight for the shower/kitchen/toilet will take some getting used to again, but I’m excited to share a place with a group of fellow actors in training, and experience that excitement and camaraderie.

With each step we get one bit closer to this whole drama school thing becoming a reality. Terrifying, but pretty exciting too…