Russia summer camp: teaching English through drama

This summer saw me head off to Russia again to work at a summer camp on the Black Sea for a month, running drama workshops in English.

I worked directly with CLASS Study and Training Centre this time, an English language school based in Rostov-on-Don, and there were three of us going over from England – myself, Hebe Reilly and Emily Sly, all of us East 15 graduates!

It was a fantastic experience – completely knackering but so rewarding. For the first half of camp I worked with the middle group of students, mostly aged 11, 12 and 13, then in the second half I worked with an older group of 13–16-year-olds. Both groups were wonderful – the first took a few days to settle in, so were a bit of a handful at the start, but once we were used to each other they turned out to be a very caring, creative and attentive group of kids. Being that bit older, and most of them having been to camp before, my second group of students were ready to get on with the work in our sessions right from day one. Check out the Facebook page we created for this year’s camp to see photos and videos of what we got up to in the sessions. My thanks to the wonderful Drama Menu book for some new games and activity ideas that I put to good use this year.

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My second group with their camp certificates

The camp sits on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Nebug, nestled between imposing hills carpeted with trees and a beautiful watery horizon stretching off into the distance. Looking out to sea from the fourth floor balcony in the main accommodation building, the view is breathtaking – such a huge expanse of space, the blue sea below, the blue sky above.

Like last year, the students devised their own pieces to perform to the rest of the CLASS group at camp. The theme of this year’s camp was jobs, and each day a different job or area of work was explored through the ‘quests’ the teachers prepared for the students. I used this theme with my first group and asked them to choose a job to create a piece of theatre about, looking at a day in the life of someone doing that job. As is so often the case when working with children, the results were not quite what I expected – we certainly had some unusual job titles come up, and not so much a day as six months in the life, but it was the students’ work, not mine, and that was the important thing.

With the second group I decided to try a different approach, and rather than just leaving them to their own devices I came up with the idea of creating a sort of news programme with two presenters and a variety of shows contained within it. I asked two students if they would like to be the presenters, then mostly gave the rest of them the option of creating a news report, a film trailer or a commercial. The key element here was that we were focusing on good news – this started with a group discussion early on in the process about the phrase ‘no news is good news’, looking at how so much of the news we consume focuses on negative events. We wanted to highlight the positive things happening in the world and the more positive side of human nature, from the serious to the slapstick. In the end we had a mixed tone to the overall piece, with a news report on a utopian version of camp (where the kids had ‘loud hour’ instead of quiet hour, they could get up at whatever time they wanted, and they got to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast), a quiz show, a puppet weather report, a chat show with a message about valuing how a person is on the inside, and a film première.

I felt so proud of both groups and the amazing pieces they created. They say that a great teacher inspires their students, but every time I work with a new group of children, whether 7 or 17, I find that they are the ones inspiring me. Their ideas, their energy and enthusiasm, the questions they ask, the way they approach a problem and find a solution, all of this makes me see the world differently, through their eyes, and I realise I have just as much to (re)learn from them as they have to learn from me. This is why I do camp. The beach is a draw, as is the wonderful team of teachers I get to work with out there, who make camp such a special experience for everyone, but the main reason I do it is the kids. They make it one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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!

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.

Into the Dark: playing Desdemona

My most recent project saw me treading the boards on the London fringe once again, this time in an adaptation of Othello at the Drayton Arms,  called Into the Dark. Directed by Polly Heinkel, training on the directing course at East 15, the show focused on the story of Shakespeare’s play through Iago’s eyes, or rather through his memory of the events.

As soon as I got back from Sicily I was straight into rehearsals, which had already begun for the other cast members a week or two before. I’d learnt most of my lines while I was away so could get stuck in straight away. I played Desdemona, a young woman I’ve always struggled to understand, but through a mixture of the original Shakespeare text and new writing by Polly, I came to share her story with the audience.

I think the aspect of Desdemona I struggled with the most at first was her supposed goodness – how she is perceived as the ultimate symbol of virtue and a good soul. A friend helpfully pointed out that her decision to go against her father’s wishes and marry Othello was in fact anything but ‘good’ in Brabantio’s mind, and shows a great inner strength and courage. The more I dug into the original text and applied my discoveries to the new writing (which was a monologue), the richer a picture I uncovered of a complex and at times contradictory individual.

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Yours truly as Desdemona

She is strong and brave enough to disobey her father in a time when the father was lord and master, yet her conversation with Emilia shows a naivety when it comes to her perception of the behaviour of women. However, despite this apparent naivety, she is playful and matches her wit against Iago when he teases her and Emilia.

We set the production in 1950s Mississippi, at a time when black people were regularly persecuted for the colour of their skin, and lynching was a very real threat. This allowed us to play with the setting of the play without diminishing the relevance. As our research showed, my first sentence there is sadly a rather naïve way of putting it, as black people are still being persecuted because of the colour of their skin, and we discovered several distressing cases of modern lynchings. Perhaps by setting the play in a more recent time period, our director hoped to show the audience how the themes it deals with were not just confined to several hundred years ago.

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Othello looks down on the man he once considered a friend

On a purely fickle note, one advantage of setting it in the 1950s was that Kelly (who played Emilia) and I got to wear beautiful 1950s-style dresses with petticoats underneath. I felt rather girly for once! As we set the action in Mississippi, American accents were required of the cast (apart from Othello, to make him seem even more of an outsider). While fellow cast member Toby gave Iago a southern drawl, Polly asked me to focus on what is termed ‘General American’, suggesting Desdemona is not originally from Mississippi. Although I haven’t spent much time on this accent before I enjoyed working with it and seemed to do rather well! It’s definitely one I would like to work on further.

Othello is possibly my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays – the language is beautiful, witty, dark, clever, the characters a joy to behold with their many layers, the story devastating as we see the characters’ worlds torn apart by hatred, jealousy and ambition. To work on an adaptation of this mighty play with such a talented director, assistant director and cast of fellow East 15ers was a pleasure. Plus I got to work in the lovely Drayton Arms, which does the most delicious chocolate brownies!

Take a look at some pics of the show below, courtesy of our assistant director and photographer extraordinaire, Alex Romberg. They’re in reverse order from near the end of the play to the start – I somehow managed to upload them in the wrong order then didn’t have the patience to reorder them one-by-one. Enjoy!

One Good Man scratch performance

I recently had the pleasure of working with a bunch of super-talented and very lovely actors on a project called One Good Man, a piece of devised theatre about protest. Directed by Eloise Lally and Rosa Manzi Reid (of RIAN Dance), the project involved a cast of ten actors, including fellow E15ers Carol Ellis and Dimitris Chimonas.

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The work included a mixture of movement and text-based scenes, and involved the input of the whole ensemble in suggesting ideas for devising work, although it was guided and shaped by Eloise and Rosa. Writers Tom Mair and Jack Flanagan penned some of the scenes, exploring different types of protest and what it means to different groups of people.

Along with myself, the cast included: Carol EllisSheetal Kapoor, Greta Wray, Amy Leighton, Suzy Whitefield, Georgina Periam, Kate Austen, Luke Anthony and Dimitris Chimonas.

Research for the project included cast members bringing in protest art and verbatim text, and retelling our own experiences. I joined the project after its initial stage of research and development, as rehearsals were about to start. One piece I brought in, a verbatim account by my sister of the student protests in London several years ago, made it into the scratch performance. She spoke of how her experience of the protest was completely peaceful, yet social media was going bezerk with mentions of smoke bombs and rioting. I remember texting her that day as soon as I saw the reports on the news, checking she was ok and asking her to get the hell out of there. My favourite comment from her account really struck a chord:

The tweets made me realise how negative and easily led people can be. How lies can run round the world before the truth has even got its boots on.

Earlier this month we gave a scratch performance of One Good Man at The Place in London, in a studio belonging to the London Contemporary Dance School. An audience of invited industry professionals provided feedback, which we are hoping to take on board in the future development of this piece.

I loved working collaboratively in this way and with this group of people. With East 15 and Mountview graduates, amongst others, we brought different perspectives into the room, which enriched the process and the resulting work. I can’t wait to get back into the studio.

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.

Animal studies in Chronicargo

Next week is show week – Synchron Productions’ Chronicargo, part of the New Moon Festival at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, London. Working with this new company has been great fun – we’ve devised the piece as a group but with a director guiding us through the process, providing the initial and overall vision and scripting our work as we go along. Working in this way has proven to be pretty successful in terms of both creative satisfaction and productivity, and is certainly a method I hope to utilise for future projects.

Taking notes in a Chronicargo rehearsal

Taking notes in a Chronicargo rehearsal

Without giving too much away, my favourite scene has called for a spot of animal studies during the rehearsal and devising process. Having spent a few Laban sessions being a komodo dragon during my training at East 15, I was delighted to do more animal work.

The two animals I am working with – the flamingo and the wolf – obviously call for a very different physicality. We’re following the idea that these creatures have evolved to a more human form, kind of like Cat in the Red Dwarf series, so we started playing with embodying the animals in their full animal form, then gradually moved along the scale to human. We wanted to keep certain physical and behavioural characteristics from the animal and exhibit them in a human body.

For example, my flamingo, Fiona (I love a bit of alliteration), has kept the tendency to stand on one leg and ruffles her feathers every now and then when either perturbed or showing off. Thus I spend much of that scene wobbling on one leg (I haven’t done ballet class in a while so am a bit out of practice!), my knuckles on the small of my back and my arms bent out behind me for wings. Thinking about the vocal qualities Fiona the flamingo might have, I decided on having a musicality to her speech, with the tendency to go up and down in waves.

For the wolf, Accalia (from Romulus and Remus fame), I planted her weight more firmly and evenly across both feet, and gave her a touch of a snarl every now and then. The voice is deeper and rooted firmly in the belly, with a more limited vocal range. I still need to do a bit more work on the upper body I think, possibly experimenting with hunching the shoulders forward a little or using the hands and arms more.

Our final rehearsal is on Sunday, then we open on Monday! If you’re in or around London and fancy an evening of new work, take a look at the New Moon Festival event page on Facebook. We are performing at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, and each of the three pieces in the festival will be performed every night from 9-14th November, so it’s worth getting a triple bill ticket of £18 to see all three!