Notes Session: reflections on work

I maintain other blogs, private ones, for use with my acting students … as reflective places. Here are some extracts which chart the learning paths we’ve wandered in.

A quote that keeps insisting it be heard …
A character is the sum total of her inconsistencies.

Living Dangerously and Impulsively
In many ways, the approach we have taken to work on Shakespearean text this semester has been ‘dangerous.’ The basic work on ‘givens’ is accepted as having been done, and as you delve deeper into the exciting and truly creative realm of text interpretation, it’s possible to find yourself clinging on to the known, rather than letting go and responding to impulse.

Kristin Linklater’s approach, and a lot of her workout, mentions impulse. What is meant by this? Simply, that as in real life, we act as a result of an inner urge (impulse) to do something. Sometimes, and especially if this urge could result in an undesirable outcome … being sideswiped after running a red light for example, or saying something witty but hurtful … then we counter our impulses with a block. We resist the urge to run the amber, and bite back our smart comment.

Linklater wants you to give way to the first ‘true’ impulse … at least to see where that urge leads you. This is what we have been doing in the text exercises, many of them developed by Dean Carey in his Masterclass series of books. We’ve worked on subverting our impulse to reproduce what we know, or to end-game.

And why is this dangerous? Because the outcome is unknown, and as inherently conservative creatures, we humans tend to be rightly wary of the unknown. However, as an artist, you need to be equally wary of the counter-impulse, the ‘block’, the clinging to old ways, so as to make the break throughs that lead to exciting discoveries and eventually, to thrilling performances.

I mentioned an old saying in class early this week. It was with reference to our consideration of performance energy, and how it is we work on finding the right energy to fit the impulse, or in acting terms, the ‘right-sized’ impulse to feed the thought and its resulting action-outcome.

The saying is ‘the heart of the art is knowing how much heart to put into the art.’ We know the actor can often indulge and bluff when s/he is stuck, but this sort of acting is neither truthful nor acceptable. It rings false. Really the only time indulgence or bluff have a place on stage is when they are self-consciously ‘played’ by a character.

I find it valuable to explore a character’s impulses by raising the stakes a bit, and getting physical. We are conservative by nature i.e., we would rather hold back and play it cool, let our acculturation not to make a fuss, to be polite, or to ‘cope’ rule our choice of action and censor our body ‘talk,’ and to let speech dominate the body’s expression.

Let an action take over sometimes. Move to the interior monolog; you should be almost able to dance it exploring its tempo and intensity. And balance the head with as much heart as you can.

The question raised this week on ‘what do you do to exercise your imagination?’ got me thinking. Serendipitously, I came across a posting this morning from an eminent Canadian educator. His names is Stephen Downes. His posting ‘Things You Really Need to Learn’ addresses this question.

Here they are: 10 things you really do need to learn and go on exercising all your life. These things are what fuel your imagination as a human being and an artist:

How to predict consequences
How to read
How to distinguish truth from fiction
How to empathise
How to be creative
How to communicate clearly
How to learn
How to stay healthy
How to value yourself
How to live meaningfully

I’d suggest you read Stephen’s article in full. It’s terrific.

We’re coming to what I always think of as the reflective period in the semester.
We’re nearly finished with formal classes, daily workshops where you learn and test out new craft skills, and put your process to work on new texts and projects. Why reflective? Because whilst it’s good sometimes to just do it, I think the learning is improved if we reflect on the doing, and especially if we map out or think about the next step, in art as well as life.
I’ve put a couple of questions to you in these posts. Look back over some of these and reflect for yourself. What have you learned; what haven’t you learned that you wish you had? Are you happy with the work? Is it good enough to satisfy you? If not, why not? Can you see a way to get this to happen? If not, and you find the whole thing too hard, I would ask you to address the big question fearlessly and honestly. Do you really need to be an actor? Only you can answer this question, but if you don’t need to do this, don’t. Find something else to engage your creative life energies.

Looking for a monologue? Look no further! Go to this great database of monologues listed according to playwright and play. There’s something here for everyone. Happy hunting.

Students often come to me with the question, ‘How am I doing?’ Now that’s a good thing to be mulling over as an actor in training. I usually find myself asking a question back, ‘How do you think you are doing?’ I don’t do this because I’m trying to avoid the issue, but to put the focus back onto the person who should know the answer, i.e., you.

And that leads me to the topic of this post, taking charge and setting goals … keeping your eye on what it is you are attempting out to achieve. In this way, you will know ‘how you are doing’ relative to the tasks, goals, aims, objectives … call them what you will … that you are seeking to achieve. If you don’t keep aim firmly on one target at a time, then they will start moving, you’ll get dispirited, depending on someone else to tell you ‘how you are going,’ and you’ll never hit the bulls-eye.

Set a task and a goal per session, per week, per semester. Got the idea? Then come to me and ask for a discussion on what you have achieved, and perhaps, what you are aiming for next. Much better approach and a conversation I can enter into with you to assist you with ideas as to how you might proceed.

Now, whilst it’s not the only great theatre in the UK, it is the best in my humble opinion. It’s the National Theatre of Great Britain, or NT to those in the know. It’s also one of my favourite haunts when I am in London. Why? Well, not only is the theatre great … I saw two outstanding productions out of two when I was there this summer … the ambience is great. You can sit outdoors by the river or indoors with a coffee or drink, spend your spare change in the most insanely good bookshop, listen to musicians or a talk, or to interviews with actors, directors and other creatives. You can get a cheap ticket … see something for free, eat, snooze (not really), breathe theatre in fact, and generally bemoan the lack of this kind of thing in a suburb near you.

But when you can’t be there, the NT website is pretty good too. There you can read about what’s on, see some pretty cool ‘trailers’ of shows, and subscribe to their regular podcasts (Judy Dench among others talking about what she does).

To listen or watch talks, interviews, and trailers, go to the Resources page on the site. From here, you can listen or subscribe to podcasts or vidcasts. Just hit the subscribe button, or paste the URL into iTunes or your favourite podcast application, and it will do the rest.

The NT also has a great collection of short movies, trailers of productions and interviews on their YouTube site. What you will find useful I am sure is this interview with the young cast of Chatroom/Citizenship. It’s a goldmine sample of EE (Estuary English). Click on the link and listen, but you should grab the URL feed from YouTube. If you haven’t already got one, you should make yourself an online archive with links to your collection of sound and video files.

The voice workout is different from a warmup. Whilst a warmup gets you ready for a particular task, the workout forms part of an ongoing training regimen for the actor. A voice workout is like taking your voice (along with the body and mind that it belongs to) to the gym.

A voice workout is composed of a series of exercises which focus on an individual part of the vocal mechanism. Beginning with awareness, stretching and alignment work, the exercises build incrementally to give the actor a full vocal workout across the board. Most workouts finish with articulation and diction drills. You should expect to spend around 40-50 minutes on a good workout.

The voice warmup
There can’t be too many actors who’ve trained during the past 30 or so years, who aren’t familiar with the warmup. It’s part of contemporary thinking about the nature of the actor as an ‘athlete of the heart’ with all the connotations of preparing to challenge the body, mind, and heart for the act of performance. For many actors, it would be impossible to imagine performing without going through a ritual that takes you ‘from where you are to where you need to be’ to work.

Watch a group of actors doing a warmup, and you’ll see a range of styles, from the energetic to the focussed and intense. There are some actors who love to warmup with the others in the company; other actors can’t abide being distracted from their own personal process. Horses for courses. What is common to all is the recognition that a different energy is needed to perform. There is a commitment to getting the body-mind out of the daily and into the extra-daily state of being, and ready to go.

What many actors in training don’t do however, is to prepare for a rehearsal or a class. And many don’t have a process to help deal with the particular task. A rehearsal on a scene is very different from a performance; a class is another beast altogether. A warmup for a rehearsal or a class should take no more than 10 minutes of focussed preparation. This is what you should do:

A quick diagnostic humming up and down the range and then on full breath to check for missing notes.
Stretching, check alignment and spinal rolls. Spinal rolls during the diagnostic are good.
Focus on the task to come and leave what’s outside, outside.
Free the lips, tongue, soft palate and yawn. Open up the channel.
Finish with some text based on the class or rehearsal.
Don’t warm up lying down.
Don’t chat with others warming up. This is work.

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Getting People to Talk: Interviews

The blog for Shakespeare in Queens Park Festival (SiQP) which I’ve been keeping for a couple of years now has an addition: interviews with some of the key artists, creatives, and technicians. It’s been fun talking to them. What surprised me was that I didn’t have to prod them to reveal all. Once they got going, they took off, and the editing afterwards was pretty painless–a couple of repetitive “ums and ahs” here and there, a phone call that interrupted the flow (note to self, take phone off hook before pressing the record button), but nothing else. Really, to get people talking, all you need to do is ask them about their passion–in this case, what they’re doing for SiQP.

Girding the loins

I spent yesterday afternoon watching a run-through of a play for which I am voice coach. After the run I had dinner with one of the actors, and we talked less about the run-through, and more about the approach to prepping the body and mind for the act of artistic-athleticism, aka stage performance. Pacing across the arc of the performance, knowing the journey (as it is often called) of the character and of the actor-self is a vital component to ensuring a good performance. And so is eating and resting properly, and breaking through that thing called resistance, which as Steven Pressfield notes in his terrific book The War of Art is the chief block to creativity and artistic performance. Nice to remind myself of this as the weeks hurry by, and resistance becomes a partner in my daily activities. Got to wrestle this demon; it’s not a friend but a trap. Got out Pressfield’s book last night and will re-read it today, just as a reminder … and perhaps set it free in the rehearsal room.

Talk, Talk, and more Talk!

End of the academic year once again, and this week has seen us gather as a staff to discuss where we’re at and where we’re going collectively as a Department, and individually as workers within the group. Two and a half days of navel-gazing, planning and wishing on stars resulted in a surprisingly consensual assembly.

There is no doubt, after the costing exercise, that the practical courses are costing us. although the “loss” needs to be seen as an “investment” and panic ought not to drive us into cutting what we do best in order to meet the economic rationalists in the back rooms. Our call to action is a determination to continue to work in the most efficient and fiscally responsible way possible, though there must be an acceptance that in our sector of the creative arts locally, nationally, and internationally are not ever going to make money for their organisations.

During the staff retreat I found myself agreeing to direct a production of Carol Churchill’s fantastic Mad Forest in Semester 1. I’ve somewhat reluctantly agreed to this and traded off my second year classes and a production of Black Box Shakespeare later in the year. I should have driven a harder bargain and traded off some more, but perhaps that would have been a little less collegial than expected! Now I have to get into prep for another show, work on the sonnets, and bring Black Box: All’s Fair … back to life. Oh my, the life creative is a busy one.

On the personal creative front I’m enjoying learning more about digital photography and having fun with my new Nikon D-40. Took it along to the Faculty Christmas party on Thursday afternoon and grabbed a few happy snaps. So nice to have all those pixels to play with when editing; you can go w-a-a-y in, crop and still get the brilliant clarity that the lens provides. I’m going to have to spend the summer learning how to drive my newest toy, but given the locations I’m visiting, that should be neat!

Derek Story’s podcast on “The Second Shooter” was a nice thing; main shots filled in by the second shooter on the side doing reaction shots, views from the back etc. I think I’ll take this approach and work in tandem with Ed on the wedding shoot in Mexico. The combination of video and stills should work nicely on a DVD. Important though to prepare the shot list beforehand. Goody! My first assignment …

Oh yes, 10 days till Boxing Day and the shops are madness …