A workshop with Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd

I recently got to meet a bit of a legend in the theatre world. Mike Shepherd, artistic director of Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre company, came to Little Angel Theatre to give a day-long workshop as part of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ sessions.

When he turned up in a flat cap and long tweed coat and carrying a load of bamboo sticks I thought, he looks just like in the YouTube videos! It was that strange thing when you meet someone who you’ve already seen on TV or in an interview, and your brain feels sort of like you’ve already met them, even though you haven’t.

IMG_8307

Sculpture made from my bag contents – read into it what you will!

After a warm-up to get us present in the room we worked with the sticks a little and played a few more games, all this work building on giving and receiving, working together towards a joint goal. Mike advocates playing games in the rehearsal room but making it relevant to the work you are doing, and don’t just do some warm-up games then sit down and start doing script work, losing all that wonderful energy and creative zing that you’ve just generated. Instead, use the games throughout the session.

Just before lunch we were tasked with creating sculptures out of the contents of our bags (see pic). Great fun, and an activity that could be used to flesh out a character.

In the afternoon we looked more at the devising process and how to go about adapting a written story into a piece of theatre. We used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ as an example, as Mike directed this with puppets at Little Angel earlier this year. The initial steps involved first reading the story aloud together, then jotting down words from the story, making a note of the main themes, and then summarising the action of the story in a maximum of seven (though aiming for five) bullet points. Storyboarding was another option.

Mike struck me as pretty chilled on the surface but with a fire fizzing underneath – a rebellious streak fuelled by his passion for theatre and making work that actually means something to him. He spoke of how, after a few years as an actor in London, he moved back to his native Cornwall. In London, at least nowadays, there is this idea of a ‘career’, whereas he just wanted to make theatre, so he started Kneehigh and over the years it grew, then he made the work he wanted to make. There never seemed to be a big plan with a capital P. I think and talk so much about my ‘career’ and how to build it up that this gave me pause for thought. It’s true that there is such a sense of focusing on developing one’s career that I feel it’s good to remind ourselves why we’re in this game, and in turn take a look inside at work we really want to do.

It was a marvellous day. I got to meet someone I greatly respect and whose work I admire, the group was a lovely bunch of people who inspired me with their ideas and creativity just as much as Mike did, and I left feeling determined to make my own work that I care about and believe in the value of. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday.

Speechless Theatre workshop

Telling stories without words. That’s what Speechless Theatre Company do. It’s also something I’m pretty interested in, so the other week I went along to a four-hour workshop the company were running to find out more about their devising process.

img_7833

The workshop crew

James Callàs Ball and Anthony Cule (aka Speechless Theatre Company) led a small group of us through a super fun warm-up (there was dancing involved), games, some mime, and various activities that called on our imagination, creativity and willingness to just go with it and get stuck in. I’d come straight from my corporeal mime class so was already in the flow, and loved the environment of play that the guys created.

One of the key messages I took away from the day was the importance of keeping things simple and clearly defined – being economical with our movement when telling a story in order to make each movement count towards the narrative or message we are trying to communicate to the audience. I also realised that, just as there are some gestures and movements that seem to be universally interpreted in the same way, you may also find that one particular movement can mean a different thing to each person in the room.

To aid the clarity of storytelling without words, I discovered it’s also important to let each moment land with the audience before moving on to the next. With words we can overlap each other on stage (if the text calls for this) and the story will most likely still be clear, however if we do this with movement it can muddy the story and risk losing the impact of a moment. I can imagine this aspect works in a similar way to exercising good comedic timing – react too early or a beat too late and it won’t quite land with the audience.

It was great fun being in the room with these guys and finding out about their devising techniques, and getting to spend a few hours playing and creating with a bunch of like-minded folks. You can find out more about Speechless Theatre Company at https://speechlesstheatre.com and follow them on Twitter @SpeechlessPlays. Make sure to check out their blog too!

 

New writing at the Scene Gym

Get a bunch of actors, writers and directors together to have a play with some new writing and you end up with a day of creativity, networking and fun.

On Friday 4th November I went along to Scene Gym, an event organised by actress Julia Taylor, the Artistic Director of Scene Gym, co-producer Tim Cook, and dramaturg and script reader Natassa Deparis. November’s ‘gym’ took place at the Old Vic Workrooms in Bermondsey and workshopped four scripts.

20161104_1133551

The piece I was cast in was Numeratti by actress and writer Shamiso Mushambi – a fantastic script with a very relevant premise and interesting characters. I played a character called ‘4’, and had great fun playing with the childlike side of me that this character brought out. It was pretty cool having the writer in the room too, though a little nerve-wracking as I’m sure we all wanted to be true to her vision of the piece.

The other cast members included my friend Vicky Winning, who I trained with at East 15, so it was brilliant ‘working’ with her (it’s strange to call something ‘work’ when it feels much more like play!). I also loved meeting the other actors and our director. Mostly, I find actors to be such open people, willing to take creative risks and without a lot of the usual walls people have carefully built up against strangers. The generous spirit of everyone there created a positive and playful environment and reminded me why I love doing this.

It felt great to flex the old acting muscles, and was an exciting opportunity to meet fellow creative folk and hear about their experiences in the industry. Thank you Julia and team for creating Scene Gym!

Mime, puppetry and people

Last week was fantastic. I went to my first corporeal mime class, had a puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre, took part in ‘Scene Gym’ at the Old Vic Workrooms and attended a one-person storytelling workshop with Little Angel Theatre’s Artistic Director, Samantha Lane.

The mime class was taught by Vini Carvalho of Fool’s Cap Theatre, and was a pure delight. Inspired by the work of companies such as Theatre Ad Infinitum, I was looking for a good mime class when this one popped up on Facebook! We worked on opposing forces (and got very sweaty), different rhythms and learnt an offering sequence. Corporeal mime, or contemporary mime, can be used to choreograph pieces, and it felt so good to be there in a class, learning the moves and practising them in front of the mirror. That’s my comfort zone, right there! It harked back to my ballet days. Vini’s planning on teaching the class every week so it will be great to make it a regular part of my ongoing training.

In the puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre we explored motion, firstly using puppetry sticks and then going on to having a play with some cloth bunraku-style puppets. The sticks are a great tool for puppeteers to practise movement before going on to try it with the puppet itself. I am so getting me some! (Or failing that I might chop up an old broom handle.) Just always check for splinters beforehand!

Friday’s ‘Scene Gym’ was an absolute joy – a bunch of actors, directors and writers all together in a room getting to play with some brilliant new play texts. But more on that, and yesterday’s storytelling workshop, in the next two posts!

Along with the chance to be creative, what made the week really special were all the interesting people I met and had the chance to be creative with. Being in a room full of people who all want to work together and create something together gives me the biggest buzz. I love meeting new people and finding out their story, and actors in particular are generally so open and engaging. It’s also great to hear what brings non-performers to the room, for example in my puppetry class and the storytelling workshop. It’s the people that are the true joy of an actor’s life.

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.

photo 1

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.

 

 

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