Puppetry rehearsals with Vertebra Theatre

I am currently rehearsing for my first professional puppetry role with Vertebra Theatre, in their show Dark Matter. Rehearsals are well under way and I’m loving getting to grips with both the play and the role of puppeteer as we near our first performance, at Brighton Fringe next week!

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The show deals with dementia and how it affects the mind, focusing on the story of Alfie, a former Professor of Astrophysics now living in a care home. There’s also a healthy dose of quantum cognitive theory in there, which has provided a juicy challenge for us to get our heads round.

I animate Alfie’s feet – yes, Alfie is the puppet. Whenever working with a bunraku-style puppet in training I always chose to animate the feet, as I find it a wonderful test of how well you can listen to, and be in tune with, the other two puppeteers. Some schools of thought say you should always focus on the body part that you are animating, so in this case the feet, whereas others would suggest you look up at the body if you are on the feet. With Alfie I tried both, and ended up basically looking at the puppet’s backside and using my peripheral to take in what’s happening with the other body parts. Obviously this means I can’t always see what I’m doing with the feet, but I can get a good sense of what’s happening through touch.

Although I’ve done bits of puppetry in shows before, this is the first time I’m solely a puppeteer throughout the whole show, animating Alfie’s feet for the most part, but also occasionally other objects in the story. During my puppetry training, either at Little Angel Theatre or with Gyre and Gimble, I remember being told that puppetry is painful. The morning after the first rehearsal I certainly agreed with that statement! Two weeks in and my body has got used to the stresses and strains put on particular parts, but there are still some days when my back and knees feel about 60. However, in a strange, sadistic gym-bunny kind of way, I like that it’s hard work physically as well as mentally. I enjoy pushing my body and working it hard, probably from so many years of dance training throughout my childhood.

It’s wonderful, getting to work with such a beautiful puppet. Alfie really is a little old man. The other actors and puppeteers on the project are also fantastic to work with – Douglas Rutter, Aurora Adams and Sofia Calmicova – and I think we make a great team, along with director Mayra Stergiou, writer and producer Eirini Dermitzaki and composer Gregory Emfietzis.

Our first show is next Wednesday 1 June, 4pm at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton, as part of Brighton Fringe. After that we perform at Little Angel Theatre in London on 13 June at 7pm as part of Creativity and Wellbeing Week, then we’re at Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 26 August, 6.30pm, at Greenside Venues, Olive Theatre. Come and see the show if you can!

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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!

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.

From page to stage – acting Pride and Prejudice

In rehearsals for Pride and Prejudice we are getting deeper into the subtext of some of the scenes, and the subtleties of emotion that characters such as Jane and Elizabeth Bennet show.

Page to stage - Jane Austen

If you’re playing a character that is larger than life, and some of those in my familiar treading ground of Shakespeare are almost caricatures, it’s quite easy to project your character’s feelings, thoughts and opinions out into an audience of hundreds. If you’re playing a truthful and at times very subtle character such as Lizzie Bennet, that’s where the challenge comes in.

I think the key element of acting is communication – with your audience, and with the other actors (and therefore characters) on stage. If you don’t communicate effectively with your audience, you may as well be all alone in that theatre.

In a play there is a story, and in each scene there is a part of that story that you are trying to tell the audience. Lizzie’s feelings and emotional responses to what’s going on around her are so important to the overall story, it’s vital that I communicate these to the audience. But how do you show all this without it becoming pantomime?

I’m afraid this isn’t actually leading up to an answer to that question, as I don’t yet have one. In the rehearsal room my director has said she’s enjoying watching the subtext play out through my eyes and facial expressions, but will the audience also see this when we’re in the Kings Theatre, and they’re up in the dress circle?

With stolen glances and subtle nods a-plenty, Pride and Prejudice lends itself perfectly to the flexibility and intimacy afforded by film, but how will this play out on the stage? Will they notice the faint flicker in my eye as contempt turns to love, or will it be lost in the vast space of the auditorium? Perhaps just as crucial, will my contact lenses attempt to pop out as they like to every now and then when I’m doing a bit of ‘eye acting’?

You’ll have to come and see the show to find out! You can buy tickets online or call 023 9282 8282. Pride and Prejudice, performed by One Off Productions, runs from Wed 26-Sat 29 March (evenings 7.30pm, Wed and Sat matinee 2.30pm) at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.

Be more cat-like…

Comedy of Errors opens (and closes) this week. During rehearsals recently, the director gave me the following note: be more cat-like.

Now, I have a healthy respect for cats. I’ve certainly never been a ‘cat person’ and would much rather own a dog any day, but I can observe our feline friends with something bordering on admiration. With an air of independence they roam the streets freely at night, a freedom pet dogs will never know. They fight other cats in the neighbourhood for their territory, and strut about with an air of unadulterated arrogance. Not that I think arrogance is a trait to be commended – it isn’t – but to have that much confidence in oneself is something to be desired.

Tom cat

I realised the director’s note made perfect sense. The Courtesan, with her sultry looks, fluid movement and self-serving character is feline personified. So I set to doing a spot of cat-watching. This turned out to be a lot easier than I had expected, as it seems cats like to have an audience. They may spring away if you get too close, but watch from afar and they will bask in the attention, preening themselves on display, or tiptoeing along a narrow wall like a furry tightrope walker before leaping onto a nearby rooftop in an impressive display of acrobatics.

The cats I observed all had one thing in common – their movement possessed a fluid quality, something I was already trying to adopt in my movement as the Courtesan. Now I had to use this in my voice. Unfortunately I am prone to mumbling, a very unfortunate habit for an actor, so in rehearsals I try to focus on really hitting the consonants. This would be perfect for some characters, but isn’t right for the Courtesan, for whom everything should be smooth and silky. So I thought of how the cat purrs and tried to adopt that smooth, low resonance while maintaining clarity. Ensuring the breath comes from the abdomen and tummy rather than high up in the chest is important for any actor on stage, and for the Courtesan I have to focus even lower. Not meaning to be crude, I have to find my ‘vagina voice’. The Courtesan’s voice should be rich, smooth and velvety but with a certain breathy quality. I feel my voice is my weak point as an actor, and one that would greatly benefit from the training I hope to soon undertake.

Hopefully, with a good warm-up and a warm drink or two I will be ready to hit the stage this evening and project to the back row and beyond. Now I think there’s just time for a bit more cat-watching…

For more Comedy of Errors rehearsal antics, read the SSA blog.

Comedy of Errors, performed by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, runs from 13-16 November  at the Station Theatre, Hayling Island, 7.30pm with a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Book tickets online on the Station Theatre website.

A comedy read-through

The show was cast and the agonising task of putting together the rehearsal schedule was done, so that could mean only one thing: the dreaded read-through.

I say dreaded because, for most actors, the read-through is a necessary evil. For others it is an unnecessary tradition. For our director of the Comedy of Errors, Vin, it’s somewhere in between. A tradition that no show would feel properly started without, a chance to formally kick off the rehearsal process, and an important opportunity for the whole cast to get together. For some of us, this will be the only time we see certain members of the cast until the first full run-through, particularly if we don’t have any scenes together.

Comedy of Errors

Many actors dread the read-through because that’s just what it is: reading. Sight-reading is a far cry from actually acting, and requires many different skills altogether. I have seen actors who can deliver the most commanding performance on stage being reduced to a gibbering wreck in a read-through, tripping over their words until they end up lying in a heap of jumbled letters.

Although everyone did admirably well last night, we did have a few giggles here and there. Accidentally substituting prostrate with prostate got a good laugh.

The read-through also has another very important function. It gives everyone an overall flavour of the play, which can be difficult to get from individual rehearsals. Even if we don’t meet your character until the third act, it is important that they have a backstory, and what happens and is said in the previous two acts can inform this backstory.

It is also important that each actor’s interpretation of their character fits in to the journey of the play, rather than being a standalone element, so having the chance to hear the whole play read through in this way gives each actor that sense of how their character fits in.

I’m playing the Courtesan, who doesn’t make an appearance until the second half of the play, but is mentioned by other characters earlier on. Despite her limited stage time, she is a strong character and hopefully, in our version at least, a memorable one, so getting a feel for the world of the play in which she exists will help me bring to the stage a fuller and more rounded performance rather than something flat which exists solely in that moment on stage.

Rehearsals start this week, where we’ll be working on a big ensemble scene. With plentiful laughs in this wonderful Shakespearean farce, it promises to be a lot of fun.

The Comedy of Errors, performed by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, runs from 13 to 16 November 2013 at the Station Theatre, Hayling Island.

One day to go…

It’s now just one day to the first performance. As the moment approaches, I feel a strange sense of

The Thursday’s Child cast

something momentous drawing near. This isn’t like any play I’ve done before. It’s not like a well-worn Shakespeare, where there’s been a hundred Portias live and breathe before yours. Anne is mine, and I am hers. I am her vessel, her conduit off the page and to the real world. I give her a human voice, allow her to move and walk and stand there for all to see.

I imagine the others must be feeling the same. This will be the first time these characters have ever lived off the page for an audience. The excitement is hanging on the air, an almost tangible electricity that surrounds me as I go about my daily routine. Continue reading