Saturday, 29 June 2013

Christopher Macauley was on the 1623 trainee actors course from September 2012 to June 2013, when he explored the skills needed to perform Shakespeare and other forms of theatre. Here is his diary.

Christopher Macauley (c) Ashley Bird PhotographyTEXT WORKSHOP

The first day of any course is weird. Being thrown into a group of people who are mainly unknown to you can be unjustifiably nerve-wracking.

But the manner of Ben Spiller (1623 artistic director) is very relaxing which made the atmosphere in the room comfortable and conducive to the process of learning. We were given a series of monologues to read out loud whilst performing various exercises. I found it fascinating how I personally responded to this. Some of the monologues I didn’t connect with and some struck me immediately.

(In the proceeding weeks I’ve found that it’s those monologues of Shakespeare that you have to do a lot of work to ‘get’ that end up being the most rewarding. They slowly unfold themselves, like a flower blossoming until they’ve completely gripped your imagination.)

We were then given the space to go through our monologues from our audition. This proved invaluable as I had time to fully explore how my monologue tied in with other aspects of the play and pushed the importance of it, which reinvigorated my approach to the piece.

We then performed our monologues for the group. Daunting, but I had some experiences during my turn that I’ve never encountered doing any type of performance before. Quite bizarre.

It was good to see how Ben works as a director in regard to feedback: very clear and defined with a very accessible way of presenting his points.

I left the day feeling very confident about this being the right course for me.

VOICE WORKSHOP

Working on our voice for this session. Going through a lot of techniques with Ava Scott (1623 trainees co-ordinator) to warm up and hone the voice. I’d never been taken through a proper warm up, so really appreciated this.

I’ve been using the techniques since, but not enough. I’m definitely going to spend more time on this as the year progresses.

We also looked at how Shakespeare demands emphasis and the nuances of voice work in relation to this. This was the first time we’d gone through a duologue as a group. Gave the exercise real impact.

Christopher with fellow trainee Jessica Burman

PUPPETRY WORKSHOP

Working with Phil Coggins from Babbling Vagabonds Theatre Company on puppetry techniques. This was fantastic as I’ve used puppets in performance before, but never been taught the intricate skills involved. It gave me renewed confidence in this area of performing.

Phil demonstrated how even a sheet of newspaper can be brought to life through puppetry techniques and took us through a range of puppets, showing us the necessary techniques to achieve the greatest effect with each.

It was fascinating when it came to applying puppetry to Shakespeare how much it opened his plays to variation and artistic licence. We performed a beautifully simple piece from Hamlet with some fish puppets to a great response.

This session has left a strong sense that there are limitless ways of interpreting Shakespeare outside of what I’ve seen until now.

COMBAT WORKSHOP

Ben Adams from Lostboys Productions took us very confidently through a series of combat moves, which we resolved into our own fight sequences.

We were then given a passage from Macbeth to respond to and choreograph an appropriate fight out of. We tried to get a sense of the psychological state of Macbeth through the talk leading up to the fight so as to express that state in how the character was fighting. This was fascinating as I’d never considered this aspect before.

All of these sessions are opening up new approaches to performance that I hadn’t anticipated. It made me think that in self-created work you could actually reverse-engineer this process; picture in detail how you want the fight to go and then write an argument in accordance with those behaviours.

A ridiculously fun session.

Shadow Puppetry

ACTING-TO-CAMERA WORKSHOP

I find acting to camera quite a perverse aspect of performance. Removing the visible audience and giving yourself the extra task of imagining them through the tiny aperture of the camera lens demands an extra degree of focus and commitment that I’m only just getting used to.

I took a soliloquy from Hamlet and started working on it, first rehearsing in isolation and then with Sylvia filming me. I found when watching the footage back that it gave me an opportunity to see what I was doing wrong and could therefore ‘direct’ myself. I’d got to grips with the monologue, but I wasn’t hitting the points Hamlet is trying to communicate with enough emphasis for what I imagine his emotional state would have been.

I tried to rectify this when it came to the final performance to camera. It started shaky, but I soon  got into the groove of the piece. Of course the luxury of performing to the camera is that I could have filmed it again to remove the shaky beginning.

It was also fantastic watching how other people had constructed their pieces, especially the duologue work. Already people were bringing a real playfulness and joy to utilising the cameras range in capturing their performances.

Since this session I’ve worked with a friend rehearsing a performance piece, filmed her, showed her the footage so that she too could direct herself. This worked brilliantly so this session has opened up an invaluable working tool when it comes to rehearsal.

MOVEMENT WORKSHOP

The session was led by Julia Damassa, one of those rare teachers who you feel has absolutely no trouble pushing you out of your comfort zone.

The workshop comprised exploring movement through introducing animalistic qualities to the character.

Personally, I find this quite difficult as I’ve always shied away from this sort of developmental work. But I embark on the exercises with as much energy and commitment as possible.

I had been reading Anthony Sher’s book on performing Richard III, in which he spoke of making Richard like a spider.  I’ve read about other actors looking for animal qualities in their characters as well, which I always imagine would be visually impressive, but never consider doing myself. So this was a fantastic opportunity to explore this aspect of performing.

The beauty of this session was in bringing us together as an ensemble, the tasks requiring us toperform as a unified group. I really felt it pushed us in improvisation and helped us to connect to Shakespearean text on a completely different level.

Christopher with fellow trainee Steve PryceDEVISING WORKSHOP

We chose the pieces we want to perform from the ones we felt were most effective and are most passionate about.

After some deliberation, a bar-room setting was agreed; a place where snippets of human life can easily be encountered.

The process of inserting the pieces into this setting was a challenge, quite a difficult session. But it does us well to accept that not all creative work is unmitigated joy. The problem-solving nature of creativity implies we will inevitably run into walls. The best philosophy to have is to try and support each other no matter how painful this process.

SHOWCASE / SCRATCH REHEARSAL

After the structure of the scratch event is tidied up by Ben and Ava, we set to rehearsing it.

With my suggested piece, the first encounter of Richard III and Lady Anne, there was a lot of cutting that had to be made. Another painful process. How do you cut anything from Shakespeare? His ‘feast of words’? The internal debate in making cuts is always the weighing of making the scene short enough so as to carry the pace for the entire show, whilst retaining the essence of it. I found, when pushed, that I could be a butcher, paring it down far beyond my expectations. I wasn’t entirely happy to do it, but did it in the knowledge that sacrifices have to be made for the good of the whole production.

The rehearsal process was fantastic: the scrupulous attention to every word in the sense. Ben does not let anything go. Shakespeare has done us the huge courtesy of absolute precision in conception and expression. The least we can do is make absolute effort to return that courtesy, speaking his visions with all the energy and conviction we can muster.

Christopher with fellow trainee Sylvia RobsonOne massive point in rehearsing the Lady Anne scene was the dynamic between Sylvia Robson (who plays Lady Anne) and myself. So often in acting, we need to return to the basics: ‘acting is reacting’. Ben led us through a technique of mirroring each other so that we would be more tuned in to the others tiniest movements and, thus better able to react to them. I think this process of receiving the entirety of what someone is giving you, allowing it to change you, then giving back, can never be over-attended to.

I also worked privately on Hamlet. I’d continued my ethos of working reflexively with a camera in rehearsal. The important thing about using a camera in this way is that you can only ascertain what you are doing wrong and correct that. You shouldn’t try to replicate what you are doing right, as actions you are doing right are entirely in the moment and to make conscious effort to reproduce them would be to take you away from the moment. Aspects such as blocking, pace, diction, habitual facial ticks that detract from the character all come to light by watching yourself back.

Self criticism though is quite a task in itself, which is why directors will always be indispensable. All performing is a fascinating, coruscating process whereby your tiniest conceits are exposed to yourself and you come to that point where you have to decide to thrust on and sacrifice the objects of those conceits or dwell in self-satisfied stagnation.

SHOWCASE / SCRATCH PERFORMANCE

When the show was finally run through in rehearsal I was incredibly impressed. Very entertaining and a great exhibition of everyone’s talents.

Christopher in the scratch performanceThe performance for the scratch event had interesting elements to it. I still didn’t think that I was properly connecting with Sylvia in our dialogue as Richard III and Lady Anne. There were satisfying moments where I felt an actual reaction off something she’d done, moments where something new and unexplored was introduced to the scene.

Fortunately I was given another scene with Sylvia that I hadn’t been expecting: a silent Leontes to her pleading Hermione. Here is where I really felt connected to her words and emotions throughout the speech. So, a tangible experience of something more as an actor – to take this and apply it when I have to speak Shakespeare’s words.

As for my performance of Hamlet, I will only say that I was left with a genuine feeling that I could push it further. There is the adjustment period of being in front of an audience and how that experience defies the expectations you nurtured when rehearsing. I experienced the adjustment period very strongly when facing the audience with this speech. But I know that this was the first performance and that more opportunities would bring me closer to the mark. In this I’m simply recognising that my development as an actor needs constant attention. As Sanford Meisner put it: ‘’It takes twenty years to become an actor’’.

The course has given me a lot over the 10 months. Obviously the huge privilege of maintaining my focus on Shakespeare, but also a deeper connection to him, the feeling that I have a personal relationship with his works. Simply performing a few scenes from three different plays feels massively inspiring: the opportunity to focus in so much detail on a few lines opens up so much.

He has thrust his mind into the mouths, hearts and visions of directors, actors and audiences throughout the centuries and I get to experience the privilege of encountering that mind and standing in front of an audience attempting to fathom its creations.

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