The actor showcase

Ah, the industry showcase. That gem of an occasion, shrouded in mystery for the uninitiated, subject of both fear and wonder, and having become an almost ritualistic element on every drama school’s calendar.

Having just done my showcase, I must admit there is still a thin wispy cloud of the unknown hovering over the event. I still wonder at the conversations in the bar before we stepped boldly into the pit. I haven’t a clue what makes one brilliantly talented actor get an agent and another equally brilliantly talented actor hear nothing. And I am still asking myself: what exactly can you get across in just two minutes?

The showcase is unique. At least in my experience, nothing quite compares to it. From sitting in the café across the road from the theatre at 8am, sipping my cappuccino as the nerves slowly rumble in, to the thrill of performing on a West End stage, to the steps down into the bar afterwards where the agents await, the nerves by now attacking my digestive system with full force. In no other event has the concentration of conflicting emotions (or are they complimentary?) – fear and excitement – been so great.

My East 15 MA Acting showcase was at the Duchess Theatre in Covent Garden, and took place last Wednesday. Just before the showcase I moved to Putney to lodge with a friend and his family, so this last week has been a period of change all round. Of adapting to a different pace of life – the frantic rush of London set against the relatively ponderous pace of my life for the last few days. Of going from full-time student to being without a job for the first time since I was 21. Of graduating from the dream to the reality of life as an actor. Shit just got real.

Four days on, I can see more than ever how important my training was at East 15. I’m not talking about the voice work or the Laban or the units and objectives. I’m talking about the stuff to draw on when you don’t get an agent, or you haven’t had an audition in a while. The feeding of the soul. With that comes resilience and the power to carry on.

Some of us may sign with an agent straight away, for others it may take much longer. Some of us may find fame and fortune, others may never be rich but make good work and work consistently. Others still may turn to writing, directing, producing. Whatever our journey becomes, we must remember we have the training, and we have each other. Equipped with those two, the industry is our oyster.

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.

Candide 2 Corbett

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.

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.

The Hobbs family - I'm back centre

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.

 

 

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……!

 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!