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.

Requiem for Twelfth Night

It’s now over two weeks since the last night of Twelfth Night, the post-show blues have started to wear off and ‘normal’ life is slowly seeping back in. I can actually get through a whole day without wistfully pining after my castmates, and my thought pattern is finally shaking off the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s that were in danger of popping out every now and then. Several key lines are still there however, especially my first scene, and my mind feels the need to revisit them at random moments in the day; queuing for my morning coffee at Greggs – What country, friends, is this?, logging in to my emails – This is Illyria, lady, heating my soup in the microwave – And what should I do in Illyria? I don’t know love, do whatever you like, just get out of my bloody head!

Chris and I in rehearsal as Sebastian and Viola, with me cracking up as usual!

But Viola is still there, rooted firmly within, and so she shall remain – a little part of every character stays lodged there, even when the play has come and gone and you’re onto the next one. I find her comforting; she reminds me of a wonderful week of living another life. Of the rehearsals before that, the instant coffee, not quite up to standard but enriched by the company, of the camaraderie and the exploration and fun.

Me as Viola in the dress rehearsal, performing the ring speech (monologue)

After the nerves of the first night, excitement took over, and Viola came out to play. The newspaper reviews were really positive, so everyone was on a high. Not to say the run wasn’t without its difficulties however… On the second night, with my mum, little sister, and several workmates in the audience, I lost my voice. I’d been feeling a bit croaky all day and then after the willow cabin speech, my arch nemesis, my voice cracked. As Olivia (Jess) said her next lines I fought back a choking cough, and realised with mild panic that I was about to have a choking fit, the kind only remedied by downing liquid and focusing all your concentration on forcing your diaphragm back into a normal rhythm. As Jess turned away, I noticed the glass on the little table behind her still had some juice in it. My mind racing, I sauntered over to it in character and downed it cheekily, trying to pretend Viola was doing it to purposely annoy Olivia. Jess accordingly reacted in shock (she later said it was half Olivia, half Jess) and I went in for my next line. What came out of my mouth was a weedy and strained whisper – just listening to it was painful – and I realised a quick swig of juice wasn’t going to sort it out. Only a few lines from my exit, I decided to end the scene early, and made to head offstage. But it felt too much of a tragedy to miss out those key final lines and the tension they created, so I headed back to Jess to deliver the final blow… and had to bail after only one more line. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get anything louder than a hoarse scratching whisper, so I turned for the second time to make my exit. As soon as I was in the wings I ran backstage to get some water, and one of our directors, Paula, handed me a packet of throat sweets. I was working my way through one when I realised I was due back on, so I ran round to the other side of the stage, got a tissue ready in my hand, and as I strode back on stage I slipped the sweet into the tissue and then into my pocket in one sweep. This scene was my big monologue. Thankfully, my voice was back, though I played it as safe as possible throughout the speech, and breathed a sigh of relief when the scene was over and I could get off the stage.

Although obviously at the time I was horrified it was happening, looking back I’m glad it did. It proved that I can think on my feet and not let something like that throw me on stage. I dealt with it the best way I could and all the while I was working out what to do in my head, externally I stayed in character and none of the panic I was feeling inside was visible.

Cracking up

Jess and I rehearsing Viola and Olivia scene, and me trying not to crack up!

 

Olivia falls for Cesario

Jess and I as Viola and Olivia in the dress rehearsal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve learnt a great deal from playing Viola, about getting into character and sustaining it throughout, about the subtleties and the little details that make your interpretation unique, about learning lines until they’re absorbed in your system. I’ve given a performance that I feel I can be proud of, but know there is still so much to learn, so much to improve on. I’ve discovered the importance of nurturing and developing your voice, the importance of correctly-placed breathing, and the importance of looking after yourself physically as well as mentally. After a week of practicing wonky posture to look and move like my twin, my back was killing me! So this has been a true learning experience for me. And though I look back fondly on every part I do with the SSA, this one will always hold a particular special memory for me, as my first major speaking part. Hopefully one of many.

Twelfth Night – The First Night

So the first night of Twelfth Night is done. Having felt surprisingly calm up to this point, I then awoke yesterday and went on a mad cleaning spree of the house, sweeping, vacuuming, polishing and washing up (my least favourite of the chores) – anything to keep busy and stave off the nerves! My mum and little sister were coming down to stay so the cleaning was definitely needed, but I’m not sure I’d have been quite so productive in the same amount of time if I hadn’t had the adrenaline to keep me going. Whenever I took a few minutes to sit down either with a cup of coffee or my lunch the nerves began to creep back, stealthily at first then full-on and frantic, so that I jumped up and ran to grab a duster and get back to it. By the time I headed off to the theatre I was babbling away (a sign of nerves), but when we reached the theatre I fell silent (a sign of extreme nerves), and got into costume in mute panic. As the house lights went down and the stage lights went up, waiting in the wings I felt the panic suddenly give way to a burst of excitement, fizzing through my entire body.

The performance went really well for a first night – people can often be thrown by the sudden presence of an audience after weeks of rehearsal rooms, but the energy was high and everyone gave it their best. Personally, I felt my performance in the first few scenes was rather flat, and after each I trudged backstage to forlornly stuff my face with Quality Street and make exasperated noises, but by my third or fourth scene I had warmed up, and the rest of the performance, though not my best, was at least satisfactory. During one or two scenes I really felt on the ball, and the last scene finally made Viola come fully alive, so I left the stage on a high, but with some definite areas to work on for the next show. Now I’ve just got to get it right on the mark for tonight’s show. I need to ground myself more on the stage, bring more of Viola’s presence to the performance, and hopefully it will be a show to remember!