Wednesday, 27 November 2013

How Clever do you have to be to be an Actor? A Research Question

Learning is good. I was always a good student, I still am. I actively enjoy researching new things, the google machine and (shamefully, though never on academic stuff) Wikipedia become my go to, initial, learning tools.
My BA year at university was spent researching critical and literal theories (and watching all 4 seasons of Prison Break): Marxism, Feminism, Post-Colonialism all really fascinating things which made me a better intellectual, a better writer and certainly affected some of my ways of thinking. Did it make me a better Actor? No. 

Disclaimer: That's not to devalue that education, I'll happily have a debate on the Marxist elements inherent within Sweeney Todd until the cows come home!

This all bodes the question, how much practical knowledge do we need to take on a role, to be an actor?  In my early stages of training the notion or research was hammered home! If I was playing Torvald Helmer in A Doll's House I would be expected to FULLY Research the given circumstances of the script. "Immerse yourself in the world of the play" explore the themes, what was it like for a middle aged bank manager in Norway? What were the social and economic factors of the time? Etc etc. if you had a heavily Stanislavski based teacher I'm sure you'll know what I mean. How much does all of this knowledge help me as an actor? Do the audience actually care that I've looked at all of this? Is there actually ever an opportunity do display this vast amount of research within my performance? No, that's not the Actor's job. Were I a director, that would be a whole different question. Or if an Actor wanted to appear clever while talking to Jonathan Ross about their up and coming play.

A question to pose to any Actor playing Nora Helmer in A Doll's House. Does Nora even know, or care about the feminist movement? Or women's rights? If there is something in the text to suggest she does, then go for it.

What is useful to know is the character's knowledge prior to any scene beginning. Facts, events, beliefs etc. Everything the writer has given you. If they know something that requires you to understand it to a similar level, then research becomes important. For instance if a character says 'le chat, elle ne reviendre, jamais....jamais' it is safe to note that they know the French for this phrase. Then you would want to know that means 'the cat, she will never, never return'. If it is knowledge that they can sew, then you should be able to too. That's a given circumstance of which it is the Actor's job to adhere to. 

Once you have that knowledge then let's put our attention on the actor in front of us and observe and respond. Ascertain the CHARACTERS given circumstances, and then live truthfully under them. 

Be clever, be a researcher, be studious, I can't get enough of it, it will enrich you as a person. Just don't get stuck within it as an actor. It helps only so much. 

Feel free to comment, debate or question. 


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Post-Meisner Class Thoughts (A Note on Objectives)

This Sunday gone I started a Meisner course, on the student side of things this time. Yes I am that much of an addict, a student said to me the other day 'don't you get sick of it' clearly I must be sharing my addiction quite ferociously. The answer to her question is a resounding 'no'.

The reason for that being, it's never the same one moment to the next, one class to the next or even one actor to the next. Every actor brings something new to the mix therefore it's always going to be fresh. Plus, as a spectator, it's always gripping to see private moments and feelings played out in front of you. I would argue I've seen more radiant, truthful living (beyond acting) in small classrooms than many TV screens or stages. I've been moved to feel something by the sheer honesty of the actors in front of me so many times it's ludicrous. 

My Sunday class at the Actors Centre led by Scott Williams was a great chance for me to flex my own observe and respond muscles again, it's difficult when I am teaching/leading to truly switch off the teaching hat and just let go, so it's nice to give myself permission to do so. It's a very tensile and varied group too. I do my better work with groups of relative strangers than my friends. I think social politics can damage an actor, especially a young one, if their attention is split between being a friend or peer and being an actor. Also, people I don't know are so interesting, I love to hear the stories of what brings them to a class, or their previous life and acting experiences. On top of that, there are no 'in jokes' to detract anybody. It's a very healthy environment. 
For my repetition I was with a female actor, very quickly it became a comfortable and fun exercise and it seemed at some point like a kiss might have occurred. On reflection afterwards it was clear that that had become my driving intention. It certainly wasn't my objective going in to the exercise, but perhaps I let it become a driving force during, unintentionally yes, but a force nonetheless. The issue with objectives is that they are self driven and motivated. And don't always come as a response to the other person. I had an end result in sight.

'What happens to you as an actor doesn't depend on you, it depends on the other person'

Actors should be striving to live in the experience, moment to moment or the process.  If you're aiming for a result, you're not fully engaged in the present.

To quote Bill Esper (Who's book, The Actor's Art and Craft I would highly recommend) 'Objectives are like loose change in your pocket' in that you don't walk down the street going "I have change in my pocket, I have change in my pocket, I have change in my pocket." the knowledge of that loose change will come up when it needs to, i.e. when you need to pay for something.  An actor shouldn't come in to a scene chasing an objective.  Yes if there is one to find, know it, then leave it alone, put your attention on the other actor and begin to observe and respond.  It will become relevant when it needs to, within a text, the writer gives you the outlet to do so.

Objectives are a funny thing, it tends to be one of the biggest words batted around in British Actor training, and I understand why.  Often (though I don't think all the time) a character does have an objective within a scene, but once it is ascertained, it can't become the all encompassing focus of the scene. 'I need to blackmail Nora Helmer, I need to blackmail Nora Helmer, I need to blackmail Nora Helmer'  If you're playing Krogstad and that is all that moves through your head you'll become paralysed and not truly in the moment. 'Living Truthfully' refers to the constant responding to the behaviour of the person in front of you, not a self motivated objective.  The focus of many Stanislavski teachers

Know it, then leave it alone.

Footnote:  I realise I do harp on about Meisner a lot, it is my specialism now, and I do intend it to remain so.  But I am always interested in debate or research and do have a good old grasp on your other practitioners too.  Let me know if there are any practitioners which influence you, or any you want me to blog about on here.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Starting out Small.

Over 100 views of my last post, I'm impressed, surprised and humbled my words are being widely read. Happy times.

Starting to sell yourself as a freelance Acting teacher and practitioner in London is hard! For a multitude of reasons:

1. Who the hell am I? And why would actors come to me? Being relatively new to being back in London, without exposure, I won't find actors who want to work with me. But without an 'in' how do I get that exposure? Word of mouth is spreading though but it's at a slow (and steady) pace.

2. How do I advertise? In these early days I'm unwilling to invest in a personal website so have been relying on social networking sites, this blog and word of mouth. Perhaps time to invest in flyers or posters? 

3. The money. If you're good at something, never do it for free. That being said, I am hugely passionate about the techniques I'm starting to teach, it works, and is accessible to any actor. But I am trying to make a living at the end of the day.

My evening classes in London are going great, I have a lovely core of actors and people who are dropping in for the occasional top up which is fantastic. I'm always excited when teaching Meisner, as every actor brings something new to the table, it's never the same for them, therefore it's never the same for me. Always fresh. Plus, my teaching of this is still relatively in it's infancy, I'm still very on my toes about it all, which I think is a good thing in any case. I've already seen amazing results in actors after only two (or in some cases one) session(s). The only issue is that in reality I will probably lose money this time around. On one hand I'm thrilled the classes are going as well as they are for the actors involved, they are lovely and working at the level I want them at. On the other, it's a shame it hasn't balanced financially. I need to figure a pricing structure which financially works if I'm going to do this in the future, so that students commit to working with me (suggestions welcome). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate plans change but when I end up chasing people up to find out they're not coming, that's irritating, as that was my electricity bill, or food for a week. But, lessons learnt. The experiment, I still consider a resounding success.

Next week I'm going to work with a group of Birckbeck University/RADA postgraduate students for an afternoon. That's really exciting, I'm reaching a higher/older audience and the word will spread. The head of Acting from the London School of Musical Theatre came to my class last week, that was shit-scary, teaching someone who has had a career and lifetime of experience more than me. But she seemed really interested in the work, and that's what's important, egos and insecurities aside. For both of those I have friends to thank, I'm very grateful to have so many friends in seemingly the right places now, championing what I do, it's ok to ask for help.

Keep the faith, if I build it, they will come......eventually.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

What I do....(and perhaps a spot of advertising)

'Fish don't believe in water, they swim in it'

This is one of the many mantra's passed on by my first and only real Meisner teacher, Scott Williams (The Impulse Company) when I first encountered the technique. Meisner really has become the focus of my work since then.  It's a beautiful expression, one which I'll happily unpack in a short while, but allow it to sink in first.

The Meisner technique is derived from the teachings of Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, America.  By all accounts he was famously not a happy or pleasant man, but regardless his technique is rather individual, and for the "trained" actor, can be difficult to grasp on to.  I find myself more often than not instructing people to 'stop acting', quite a contradiction considering I am taking money from people under the guise of an acting coach.  But this is what we do.  The definition of acting given to us by Meisner is this:

'to live truthfully under an imaginary set of circumstances'


'to live truthfully under a given, imaginary set of circumstances'

or more preferably:

'to live truthfully under a given set of circumstances'

Why might it be preferable to be rid of the word imaginary, I hear you ask.  I can offer a number of solutions.  1. Of course it's imaginary, unless of course you think Macbeth is real in which case it might not be an acting teacher you need to talk to.  2.  As soon as the word 'imagination' or 'imaginary' or the moment arises when an actor is asked to 'imagine' something, you disappear in to the one place we do not want you to be, in your head.  The intended aim of the technique is to take your attention away from yourself and put it on to the other actor(s), therefore be present.  We can take 'a given set of circumstances' to assume the world of the play as prescribed by the writer, the knowledge of the characters, even indeed the staging if any is set by a director and so on. Leave the imaginary to the audience.

'Fish don't believe in water, they swim in it'

Therefore I am not asking you to 'believe' in the imaginary (your water). Simply swim, and see where the journey takes you.  It's fun to be a fish, or at least enjoy the swim.  This means to exist in the present, rather than invest in imagining things, that's hard work.

I say this can be challenging for the "trained actor" in that, the technique goes against quite a few of the methodologies that are banded around at the moment. Take actioning it's one particular method, where you, the actor, are required to imbue a line/thought with a particular transitive verb with which to transfer the line to your partner (example 'I attack you, I insult you etc). When this was taught to me at first I thought 'this is it, this is the pinnacle of technique!' But on reflection my brain was never then truly invested in the moment with my scene partner. I was either busy recalling my objective or my action, my attention was split. Beyond this, I was planning the future, rather than being truly reactive and responsive I had a stencil already mapped out within which I had to fit. What was initially freeing had become stuck and challenging. With Meisner, the strugglers are the actors who refuse to let go of their methods and therefore don't allow themselves the chance to experience and live as opposed to 'act' but it is possible, and the rewards are enormous. That's not to say I believe Meisner is the ONLY way to act. Inevitably every actor will experience different techniques and it's up to them to decide which one clicks, or if they want to take elements of each and form their own method. If you have a preferred technique, tweet me or comment, I love a good chat about any form of acting method. What my work, and that of any good Meisner teacher does, is to take your attention off yourself and focus it on to the other person. You become an observant and responsive actor to the behaviour of that actor. From there, we become able to live truthfully.  

Like these actors:

Two lovely Actors, Amy (@missamyjensen) and Faye (@fayejayx) they had only met on this day for the first time. And in this exercise became furious with each other, not faked, but real. They were literally shaking with anger, pulses racing afterwards (and you cannot act that). We can allow the other actor to generate real feelings in ourselves if we allow them to affect us. They hugged not long afterwards and it was all smiles again.

If Meisner technique interests you, or you are interested in my work. You can email me on I am currently running an introductory course on Tuesday evenings in Angel, details can be found here:

-Scott Williams and the Impulse Company
Artistic Director Scott Williams trained with Sanford Meisner at Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1970s, relocating in London in the mid-1990s following a San Francisco-based career as a teacher and director. He now teaches and directs internationally and has shared his commitment to helping actors become the best they can be with thousands of practitioners all over the world. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Acting Once in a While.

Last night I dusted off my Acting boots and flexed those old muscles for a wonderful fundraising event at the Battersea Barge.

The event was a great success, it was hosted by my extremely talented friend Emma Trow (@inventionem) in support of Pitgems. Next year they will be performing the musical Elegies: For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and we managed to raise some cash to go towards it. A more supportive crowd you couldn't have wished for; friends, family, students and professionals alike. There was stand up comedy by Thomas Hewitt (@TJ_Hewitt) Mentalism and psychological illusion by Sam Lupton (@samlupton) and incredible musical theatre and commercial music performances by wonderfully talented singers, songwriters and actors. My job was performing the opening monologue to the show Elegies, no pressure then. Thankfully, it went well and set up the singers well to (just about) close the show. 

I think I become more and more terrified of acting the better I become as a teacher. The self imposed pressure is somewhat on considering I teach acting, therefore if I was crap at it questions would surely be asked. When I am teaching, I do my best not to act in front of my full time students, I don't think they need to see me act. If anything I think it's damaging, what if they form an opinion or judgement based on my ability? Surely that would then affect their acceptance of the techniques I teach? Perhaps I overthink, though I certainly think it should be about them and not about me. 

That being said I did enjoy performing last night. There's nothing to replicate the feeling. Especially when you walk away satisfied with the work you did.  I do want to keep in touch with the actor in me, just in case that ever became a viable option.  

In the meantime, let's keep sharing good technique and developing actors the right way. 

On a personal note, there's nothing like having a night of sharing in the unimaginable talents of your friends. It's crazy to think how far so many of us have come since saying 'this is the life we want to lead'. And that goes for the friends who couldn't be there too. There's something about Emma Trow that has an irresistible pull to bring so many people together in such a great way. For one, she is ridiculously talented. A fantastic teacher, writer, composer and director. An all round creator. And we want to be there to share in her talents. As well as that, she taught many of us singing at some pivotal moments in our lives. A relationship with a singing teacher is very personal, because singing is, especially for musical theatre performers, you expose yourself so much, so that connection with your singing teacher is massively important. And I don't think any of us want to let go of that. Beyond that, she became a friend to so many if us, you can't ask for anything more. You can keep track of her work and new writings, including Elegies, and her new musical Inking, which will be at the Camden Fringe in 2014 by following her on twitter or her website

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Perils of Being a Young Acting Teacher

Think of your best Teacher, picture their face, their mannerisms, the way they speak, the way they teach....

My favourite secondary school teacher was an English teacher, he was incredibly authoritative, had some strict rules, some of which felt silly at the time, but looking back he ran a very good class.  We listened, we learned and we respected him.  Good job, year 8 English was definitely my favourite year, though I definitely had a crush on my next teacher...another story.

When you ask most people about their favourite teacher it often wasn't the one who was 'down with the kids' or cool, it often tended to be about how effective they were, did they make you learn?  Their knowledge, the quality of their lessons, and not always about being fun.  Though that was always a benefit.

Having gone through 6 years of establishment training as an Actor I had a whole host of teachers in Singing, Acting, Dance and so on.  Many were great, a small number of them inspirational, a few forgettable and a number of whom I have become friends with, something to be very grateful for.  But needless to say, I've seen a good few, and had a good number of various teaching styles to then draw upon as a teacher myself, and a few I try my best to emulate.  I always aim to be the teacher who just knows everything; about acting, politics, history, theories etc.  I'm still learning, but someday that'll be me.  I still love to learn, something I think is important for all teachers.

The tricky thing with having the aims I do, is being seen as a 'young' teacher, maybe it's because I have 'youngest-child-of-the-year-syndrome'.  However, my target audience would not perceive me as THAT much older/wiser/more experienced and I can often imagine will think 'what can I learn from him then?' and  'What has he got to teach me?'.  The second drawback was my decision to go straight in to teaching.  Something which I'm now very proud of, however, I do believe that the fact I have no perceived "credits" distinctly adds another layer of judgement.  'What's he done?' or  'What can he offer?' The answer to which is, plenty.  As quite a few people would attest to:

Some feedback from a recent Mesiner Workshop

If I believe in it, and build it, they will come.  Things are starting to move, my North-East Masterclasses have been fantastic on all occasions,  I have a fantastic job in a wonderful school in BRIT and Freelancing in London is picking up (slowly, but surely).  These have involved professionals, drama school trained, drama school training and students from all walks of life, including my actor friends which has been daunting at first, but they all have a few things in common, a desire to learn, a trust in me, and the fact they are all fabulous.  But I still need more.  In the end it's establishing my name so that people want to work with me, rather than me whoring myself out for customers.  But it will come.

What about you?  Actors and none-actors.  What qualities have you looked up to in a teacher? Do successful Actors/Practitioners in their field make for the best teachers?  Is age a relevant factor?  Or is it maturity?  Comment, or drop me a tweet.


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Breaking the North/South divide

First blog post.  Exciting times.  I've just come back to London where I work as a teacher at the BRIT School of Performing Arts after ten, clean air filled days in the North-East, Durham to be precise.  It's very much my home town, if you haven't been there, you should go.  I'm sure there was a recent trip-advisor type survey with Durham Cathedral as the number one place to visit in England, so it must be good.

There's a lot of stuff going on at the moment, so starting a blog seems a good way to keep it in order and process it while it's happening.  That seems to be the logic anyway.  So I'll get on with it.

The north-south divide is always something that's talked about.  Be it social, political, cultural, financial blah blah blah, you get the picture.  But having spent 4 days with a group of actors in Durham, my resolve that that is NOT the case when it comes to passion, artistry, craft and that ethereal 'talent' in the arts, but I'll get to that in a bit.

I guess, in training as an actor, I was more than likely to be one of many to be part of an exodus from the north-east.  London has the allure of not only being somewhat of an epicentre of theatre and acting in general (not conclusively), but also containing most (not all) of the NCDT Drama Schools in the country (though I believe the title now is Drama UK).  There are some great opportunities for actors in the north east to craft skills; Northern Stage, Live Theatre, New College Durham, Newcastle College, Northumbria Uni, the Gala Theatre and GTSS and many more, a good few of which I've had experience of as a student and later, as a teacher.  I could also take time to write about the exports from the homeland, many of whom I'm very happy to say are friends, but that would take far too long.

One thing I do feel the North East needs is some place for professionals to congregate and share skills, or develop.  An Actor's Centre-type of location for the North-East if you catch my drift.  Which is why, now I'm a teacher, and living in London, I'm doing my best to set up and run as many things in Durham and around the area whenever I can.   And I do believe there is a hunger for that work too.  It's just a case of spreading the word.

And what this week proved to me is that when the right people come together, with the right goals in mind, who aim to do what we do as a living, amazing things can happen.  4 days of Meisner fun gave a small group of actors a platform to just do some living for a change.  No pressure, no stress, just opportunities to learn a new technique and to let it breathe in the most fantastic of ways.  The only shame being that it was only for 4 days.  I think it went to show that Actors really do their best work when they're comfortable and supported.  We made mistakes, we laughed at ourselves, we ate a lot of cake and drank a lot of tea but beyond that the actors were free, and it was beautiful.  Intimate moments, truth, and real emotions, not faked whatsoever.  My head still hurts in processing it all.  Let's do it again in Feb.

More posts on my work soon, I think I'll do this as a weekly thing.  Who knows, we shall see! 

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