Give the words room to breathe – a workshop with Yorgos

After a long hiatus I finally made it to another text intensive workshop with the amazing Yorgos Karamalegos of Tmesis Theatre and LAMDA.

The workshops explore ways of using the body to connect with the play text of a character, and help you ‘get out of your head’ when preparing a role. This time we also did some voice work, which I found particularly useful for my preparation of Lizzie in One Off Productions‘ performance of Pride and Prejudice this month.

The workshop took place at Chisenhale Dance Space – a new location for me – and with under ten participants it was a smaller group than previous workshops I’d been to. This allowed a much more intimate feeling and made it easier to dispel any nerves or feelings of self-consciousness.

Yorgos

Image courtesy of Yorgos Karamalegos

We started with the pleasure exercise, which by now is familiar ground for many of us – a chance to really listen to your body and let it lead you to whatever movement, stretch or pose it wishes to do. The principle is perfectly simple, the exercise amazingly effective. We writhed and wriggled, groaned and laughed, danced and stretched our way around the room, engrossed in our own bodies but also aware of the collective. At one point a man started making a deep guttural sound that gradually rose in pitch and volume, and one by one we all joined in until a powerful chorus of voices climbed to the ceiling and rang out across the room.

After this we started moving into various positions, searching for how each vowel sounded to us at that particular moment, letting our bodies guide us. I found ‘ahh’ crouching low with half my weight on my hands, leaning forward a little. It felt like an earthy, primal sound, so it felt right to be close to the ground. It was as if I was drawing the sound up from the earth below me into my body, where it travelled through my core before radiating out from my mouth in a swell of warmth.

Once we had found a position or simple movement that represented how each sound physically felt, we took a phrase of no more than nine words from whatever monologue or piece of text we had prepared, and focused on speaking those words while making the accompanying physical response. I worked on a phrase from Lizzie’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal: ‘But you could not have made me the offer of your hand’ (ok, so I had 12 words).

All of a sudden the words were filled with a deeper meaning, which came through in my voice and their delivery. The word ‘offer’ was loaded with Lizzie’s resentment of Darcy’s offer. ‘Hand’ became almost a retch of sound, as her disgust at the thought of marrying such a man coursed through me and my words.

One of the key benefits of this exercise is to give every word space. So often we run over certain words in our lines, especially ones we may not deem that important. We throw away conjunctions, prepositions and articles. We drop words at the end of sentences. This exercise made me focus on each word in turn, giving each one equal attention and importance.

I come away from every one of Yorgos’ workshops with a new tool or exercise to help me with my acting and character preparation. We spend so long bogged down with our minds when preparing a role, it’s a refreshing approach to let the body lead you, and I look forward to experimenting and exploring this in many more workshops to come.

For more information about Yorgos’ Physical Lab workshops, go to www.yorgosk.com/physicallab.htm.

Taste the emotion

Yorgos teaching in a physical theatre workshop

Yorgos teaching in a physical theatre workshop – image courtesy of Tmesis Theatre

Recently I had the pleasure of returning to LAMDA to take part in another workshop with the genius that is Yorgos Karamalegos. Yorgos teaches physical theatre at LAMDA and various other high profile drama schools, and I first discovered the magic of his teaching at the month-long Shakespeare workshop at LAMDA last summer.

Yorgos’s workshops help the actor delve into their emotional reserves and use this to explore a physical way in to a character. Back in December I attended a weekend workshop of his that used many of the exercises we had explored during the summer course, such as blindfolding, the pleasure exercise and grounding, plus some new treats. During the summer I’d found his classes especially had a profound effect on me and my approach to a character, so when I heard he was running a workshop I was thrilled. The workshop group consisted of not only actors, dancers and singers, but a life coach, a teacher, and of course me, a press officer. What we all shared was a love of performing, and of the emotional release found in that performance. Continue reading

LAMDA week three – letting go

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

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

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

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

LAMDA week 2 – be brave

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

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

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

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

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

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