End of YSC tour

“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”

So Bottom sang as Pyramus, just before he dropped dead in Pyramus and Thisbe. Well, in our version anyway. Sam, who played Bottom, came out with it one rehearsal and it just stuck. And it nearly always got a chuckle from the teachers.

But it’s true; we have faced the final metaphorical curtain on our Young Shakespeare Company tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three weeks ago in fact. Since then I’ve had time to digest and reflect on the experience and everything I’ve learnt.

Touring is an amazing and invaluable experience for an actor. On this tour I have strengthened my resilience, seen new parts of the country, made new friends, and had the chance to perform to several thousand children, giving many of them their first taste of theatre.

Touring can also be very challenging. It’s tiring, you can spend a long time away from the comfort of home and loved ones (though on this tour we went home each weekend), you spend all your time with the same group of people, and you perform the same show many times. However, this is all part of being an actor.

I have learnt a lot about myself, both good and bad. I’ve worked with some very talented and creative people who have seen me at my best and my worst, and for whom I have developed a great deal of respect. I’ve encountered different ways of working and learnt to acknowledge that my way of doing things is by no means always the best way. I’ve had a lot of fun and made so many wonderful memories. Oh, and I got to say a bit of Shakespeare.

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Touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It’s been a busy few weeks, and we’re now almost into week five of touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Young Shakespeare Company. Going into rehearsals at the start of January was a great way to kick off the year. What actor wouldn’t want to start the year with a job!

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Sherman the Shakespeare duck, courtesy of Samuel Lane

The company seems to have a very collaborative style of working – obviously the director steers the ship and has the final say on artistic decisions, but our lovely director Haf encouraged our own suggestions and welcomed ideas and work that we brought to the rehearsal room. In this way I feel we all shaped the final show together. It was thrilling seeing all the ideas and personal touches my fellow cast members brought to their roles.

After two weeks of rehearsals we set off on tour, initially to schools in London but then going further afield, down to the south coast and up to the midlands. In a few weeks we’ll be heading up to my neck of the woods, Yorkshire. I’ve been to both places I know well and parts of the country that I’ve never been to before. Admittedly, when on tour there’s not that much chance to check out the local sights. Sometimes the Travelodges are in the centre of town but more often than not they’re on the outskirts. However, I’m certainly getting a lot of experience driving around the different areas. When we first set off on tour I was a little bit nervous about driving Titania (as the company calls her – she’s a Ford Galaxy Titanium), or The Beast (as I call her) – she’s a fair bit bigger than my nippy little Toyota Yaris! But as they say, practice makes… well, not quite perfect but definitely better.

So far I’ve learnt a fair bit from my first touring experience:

  • Each school is slightly different, each audience is different, and therefore each individual show is different. As the students’ input is crucial to the show – some of them volunteering to play parts and all of them answering questions about how the characters might be feeling and what they might do next, and everyone joining in with sound effects and bits of Shakespearean text – they help shape the show/workshop that they are a part of. This keeps everything fresh, and also keeps us on our toes.
  • Eating out most nights can soon add up and too many Dominos can take its toll on your health and fitness regime, so making cost-effective, healthy options for dinner while away is something we all need to do!
  • I’m a girl who’s gotta have breakfast, and when you’re staying away and there isn’t a Greggs round the corner it’s not always easy to make sure you get this crucial start to the day. Porridge pots are the answer (if you like porridge). Travelodge rooms are equipped with kettles, so you boil, pour, stir, and ta-da! Breakfast sorted.
  • Always remember your phone charger, especially if you use your phone for your alarm clock. (And be eternally grateful when you forget your charger and one of your lovely tour buddies has a spare to lend you.)

We’ve had a little breather this week for half term but will be back on the road next week – looking forward to getting back into Titania’s dress and Snug’s hard hat and hi vis!

 

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!

As one show ends, another begins

There is a phenomenon commonly known as the post-show blues that possibly all actors experience. It creeps over you as the final applause lingers in your mind and you face the daunting prospect of empty evening after empty evening and not a rehearsal in sight.

With the final performance of The Comedy of Errors past us, I managed to avoid the blues by cracking straight on with the next show and heading to Fuerteventura with fellow Comedy cast members Leigh and Amy for a girly week in the sun. Leigh and I even took our scripts for the next show to make a start on those lines. We’re both in Pride and Prejudice with One Off Productions at the Kings Theatre next March.

Sun, sea and sangria in Fuerteventura

Sun, sea and sangria in Fuerteventura

Having spent so much time together as a group, spending a week with the girls made it feel like the show wasn’t really over. We could go on pretending, each playing our beloved roles – Leigh as the fiery Adriana, Amy both a whisky-swigging nun and a crazy soothsayer, and me as a sultry courtesan.

Once back in Portsmouth Leigh and I were straight back into rehearsals for Pride and Prejudice. Naturally the step from prostitute to pious was a considerable leap, but the more I delved into Lizzie’s character, using both the script and the novel as my source material, the more I realised the two share several significant qualities.

Like the courtesan, Lizzie is strong-willed, clever, and a force to be reckoned with if she has her mind set on something. Of course, Shakespeare’s text didn’t set all of this out for the courtesan’s character, but the courtesan I created on stage exhibited these characteristics as she took on her own life off the page.

With a new script, a different setting and a cast made up of several familiar faces but mostly new friends, the exciting creative process can start all over again. Though I miss the courtesan and her swishy-hipped confidence, I’m falling head over heels for Lizzie all over again, just like I did the first time I read the novel. I can’t wait to step firmly into her shoes. And if I’m missing the Comedy cast too much, there’s always the pub just down the road for a natter over a rum and coke!

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.

Beware the seagulls

Last week I reviewed a performance of Henry V by local amateur dramatic theatre company Collingwood RSC, part of the Royal Navy Theatre Association (RNTA). The company performed the play in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, in the open air alongside Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. Such a setting presented some wonderful dramatic possibilities but also came with a few challenges. The actors carried on regardless, a skill that every actor must at some stage come to master.

My review in local newspaper The News

My review in local newspaper The News

The major issue open-air performances have to deal with, especially in this country, is the weather. However, with the amazing heatwave we’d been experiencing, rain was the last worry on anyone’s mind. The seagulls were a different story.

In the very first scene one particularly brazen bird decided he wanted his moment in the limelight and swooped down on stage. Taking a fancy to the prop sandwiches (at least they looked like sandwiches from where I was sitting), he proceeded to wolf one down, much to the amusement of the audience. I could hear the titter of faint laughter and the stifled giggles as he went in for seconds. I’m sure the audience were all too aware of how off-putting a good snort of laughter would be, especially as at this point the actors on stage possibly hadn’t seen the antics of our feathered friend going on behind them.

We did our best to keep the laughter in, even when a rival seagull turned up, having spotted the feast taking place and wanting in. Observing him struggling to stay on top of the tent roof in the background as his feet slippy-slided all over the place was particularly giggle-inducing, as was the moment when we realised the seagulls between them had managed to eat the entire collection of prop food on stage. The actors, by now acutely aware of the presence of the feathery food thieves, did an admirable job, and managed to draw us into the action of the play and away from the bird antics.

The actor announcing the death of Falstaff competed with a soundtrack of seagull cries and helicopter blades, but again not even a twitch or the tiniest slip of character from those on stage. It served as a good reminder of the challenges one can face when putting on a show somewhere other than the traditional theatre setting. It also reminded me of the merits, and with the magnificent HMS Victory overlooking the actors as they brought this rousing play to life, it made for a wonderful evening.

Read more about the seagull antics from one of the actors on the RSC Open Stages at The Dell blog.