Monday, 13 January 2014

Breaking Down Actors - Do we really need it?

In answer to my title, I'm not entirely sure we do. Simple enough. (I didn't have a clever way to start this blog so I thought I'd go straight for the point of the matter, then set out my thoughts.)

Let me clarify on what I mean by 'the negative breaking down of actors' in regards to a few scenarios:

I am not referring to actors having truthful emotions and breakdowns within the moment. If an emotion is really living it may cause a response one might call 'breaking down'. A debate for another day is this idea of the actors dual conscious where, within a theatre setting, how do you go from the depths of despair and upset in one scene. To the very next scene which carries a different emotional preparation. Another day.

What I am concerned with is the development of actors and the way teachers handle them. Teaching acting is a very nuanced, and sensitive art. You can run the risk of damaging an actor's confidence and their own mental well being if this is done wrong. Even down to so much as the way you word criticisms, no matter how constructive, in the end the comment is about the person and often what can be taken away from this, by the actor is 'The problem is with you', 'you are wrong', 'you are not good enough', 'you aren't connecting to that role' etc etc. unlike a pianist for example, whereby you can diagnose a missed key, a rhythmic blip or to simply say, 'that was wrong, but if you practice you'll get it right'. The same cannot always be said to an actor. 

It makes me angry when I hear teachers threaten to be harsh. I've heard the phrase 'if something is shit, I'll tell you it's shit' as a threat before the student-actor even began to perform.  Is it me or does that then put the student actor in to a worrisome state of impressing the teacher, rather than to just exist truthfully in the moment.  The teacher suddenly becomes the most important person in the room, and a rehearsal room is not a place for ego.  I hear reports of teachers in prestigious schools, charging you in excess of £10,000 a year for the privilege of being there, screaming 'that was shit' in the face of students.  I often find that actors do their best work when they are empowered to do so, and are not under pressure to achieve a result, often being "pleasing the teacher".  More on results in a bit. I don't feel the need to bully my actors, I am quite a passive teacher, perhaps too passive in certain situations however, the fact remains I see better work from actors who only have to worry about the person in front of them in the given moment.

Within Meisner Technique work, I am very happy to let my actors play and explore and discover what happens, and then analyse what happened, the effects the work has on each actor etc. The truthful, emotional results can be staggering. I say can be, because neither I, nor the actors know what is going to happen, it is wholly dependant on what happens in the moment. I sometimes worry, when I hear of teachers putting pressure on actors, suggesting that an exercise is only good when actors either kiss, fight or end in floods of tears. Whilst I have seen exercises resulting in all of these, it has never been because I demanded it of my actors. Rather, it has been a truthful response based entirely on the other person. If a teacher pushes you to reach a pinnacle of emotion, surely then, as an actor your attention is now split between the exercise and trying to cry/attack/kiss. Internally you are trying to make yourself feel something, or in other words, play to a result in order to satisfy the teacher, or at least his/her demands. Sometimes the most truthful and honest moments happen in a whimper, rather that a shout and the difficulty again is in recognising what is truthful and what is not. That is the job of a teacher.

Have you had experiences similar to any of the ones I've mentioned? Share your thoughts on here or tweet me.



Friday, 3 January 2014

New Years Resolution and January Acting Classes

Happy New Year Everyone.


I’m currently sat on the train on the way back to London which means a number of things: my holidays are coming to an end, term is about to start, I need to go back to the gym and it’s time to make 2014 work.


I always feel recharged after time at home.  Durham is a gorgeous city and when it is full of many of my favourite people there isn’t a better place to be. I needed these two weeks off; the last several weeks of work in November/December were incredibly stressful, busy and rewarding in equal measures.  I love my job and my work however it can leave you drained.  Teaching, especially anything performance related is physically demanding, it can’t be any other.  Teachers aren’t allowed a lazy day, or a one to just sit behind a desk, piano or ballet bar and “teach” from that point.  I’ve yet to find the way in which to do this, if it can be done I’d love to know how.  In the meantime, my battery is stocked, and I’m raring to see what the new year will bring me.   I have a number of plans.  Forgive me if this blog is somewhat more of a personal reflection rather than my usual, fully work-related posts.  They shall resume rather soon!


New Year Resolution


2013 saw the beginnings of me really taking control and setting foundations for the way in which I want to teach and where I see my teaching career going forward.  Job in London, check. Living in a nice area of London, check.  Teaching at an excellent school, check.  Further pushing my own teaching practice, check.  Getting my name out and about, check.  In a short space of time, just this year, I’ve worked with roughly 380 professionals, drama school graduates, drama school students, students I’m employed to teach and novices, I just about reckon I could tell you most of their names.  Most.  Quite a wide range!


2014 is all about pushing and building on the foundations I worked to develop last year.  Last year I was pushing, probably too-hard-too-quick, for people to come and work with me.  This year I want that to reverse, people are beginning to want to work with me and seek me out and this is what I need, it tells me I’m not an idiot and that I know what I’m doing and people are beginning to acknowledge that.  I have to say a huge thank you within that to the people who are championing what I do and spreading the word.  I continue to hope that is because they value my work, as much as my friendship, and that means a lot.


To those of you who are interested in what I do, here’s an opportunity for you.  I’m running a series of Meisner Acting Workshops starting the 21st of January.  There are still a few spaces available:


Where: Church on the Corner, Angel   

When: 21st January – 11th February(Tuesday Evenings 6.30pm-9.30pm)

Course Cost £80 (Student discounts available, email me)


You can read a little more about it here including past comments, feedback etc:

For info, or to book, email me


You want to know what I know, you will be changed as an actor (potentially, as a person) and you will be truthful.  These aren’t empty promises. Invest in yourselves as Actors, it's never too late to develop.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Learning is in the Doing

A friend of mine raised an interesting debate point the other day. The premise of it was something like this:

The more we know about something, or the more skilled we become at it, the more inhibited we are by this knowledge.

It was likened to that of a musician. Her partner was a Royal Academy of Music trained instrumentalist. One can only dream of being such a gifted musician. However, he had been asked to play for a particular piece and declined, certain of the knowledge that he would not be the best person for the job. Whereas a lesser trained musician would simply throw themselves in there. The expert knowledge that he has was sabotaging a career opportunity based on his awareness of his skills and knowledge of the material.

Is knowledge power?

As children, we are adventurers, discoverers, pioneers. There's a big tree, let's climb the shit out of it. That hill's really steep, let's sprint down it. The older we get, the more afraid we become because we are aware of risk, failure, social politics. I could go on forever, but overall, society and the external factors we come across inhibit us more and more. Especially in this day and age. My parents generation were simply told to go out, play and be back when it's dark. Now in the days of information, fear rules all. Parents are aware of every possible danger their child is in and in this age of instant communication, instant messaging, instant information they need to stay aware and connected consistently because they are afraid of what could happen. Knowledge creates fear, fear is the path to the dark side as Yoda says. 

So, let's bring this back to Acting. That is what I do after all. I recently posted a blog asking how clever do you have to be as an actor. I guess this is a variation on a theme. Can over training be a problem for a young actor?

My fantastic year 13 BRIT School students put on a huge revue show last week. It went very well indeed, was well received by the audience and some great learning experiences occurred. The show involved a mixture of musical theatre segments including scene, song and dance.  Naturally, there was some strong scene work going on. They had a solid previous year of actor training to draw on and were applying their skills well. Some scenes were developing nicely however pace and energy was becoming an issue at times, notably in the earlier 1920's, 30's and 40's musicals. And then the note to give them hit me, they were looking for deep subtext where there was none. Especially in Cole-Porter esque works where scenes were fun ways to string a plot together linking Porter's witty songs. That's not to belittle their importance, without a plot there's little reason to care. But needless to say, people flocked to see a Cole Porter musical for Cole Porter's music. With that in mind they were free to be energised and work with the text they were given. The energy and pace picked up and the piece remained consistent. Happy days.

Thinking on that one note for the actors I've began to ponder the benefit of Actor training at young ages. Several young actors have been caught with the affliction of being too intelligent, too analytical and having amassed so much knowledge of acting theory that it has hindered them in practice. They have inner critics that can't switch off, even when they are supposed to be in the moment. They have been hyper-trained to monitor 'what's my objective?' 'What's my action?' 'Have I achieved that?' 'Is it landing?' 'How well am I doing?' All these circulating questions are so damaging.  

I was the exact same as the above paragraph AND the case of the musician in question. The more trained I was, especially by the time I finished my MA at the (now Royal) Central School of Speech and Drama I was all too aware of my limitations as an actor in musical theatre. I had the fear. But also I had the curse of an overly active brain. Consistently self monitoring within classes. Originally I was the actor who would say 'I just do it'. We all know those actors right? The ones who learn their lines, turn up, do the work and somehow it's good (Just to clarify, I don't think that is good practice, the right technique is crucial) but the more I was aware of text based techniques, of the craft of acting, the shape of the industry etc I was becoming trapped by own awareness and subsequent fear. I had become one of the over trained hundreds being released in to the wild every year by drama schools. 

Ian Mckellen argues that the UK will not produce the highest calibre of actors in this day and age because of the distinct drop in repertory theatre companies:

Here, actors learnt their trade attempting various roles frequently. The learning was in the doing, they discovered their limitations and discovered new things to play in the safety and company of other actors. Where now, actor training is predominantly happening in classrooms. Graduates consider themselves lucky to have left with a decent agent and some regular auditions.

My method of acting (Meisner, if you hadn't guessed) was the first technique which brought me back to trusting my instincts. However with the focus primarily placed on the other person. It is a beautifully simple technique but a technique nonetheless. You can clearly see when it is being applied correctly or not. However it got me out of my head, and allowed me to be truthfully responsive. Not constantly questioning. Now that I teach it, I see the benefits daily in those that I have taught it to. It lets actors discover, let's them climb trees and take risks in the safety of the technique. 

Knowledge is power. Absolutely. But being in your head is exhausting. Take a break and climb a tree. Meisner's book concludes by telling actors to keep acting, take roles which don't suit you just yet, one of these days your age and emotional experience may match what is on the page. Trust me, over time you will learn by doing. Apparently it takes over 14 years to be an actor. Not just three years in a lecture room. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Why I'd never be a Method Actor

So, this week I'm going a little out of my knowledge area to talk a bit about Method Acting.

By Method Acting I'm referring specifically to acting that takes on Stanislavski's principles of Acting as developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. Not necessarily the practice of specific Method Actors.

Famed Method Acting names get banded around quite a lot: Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman etc. All fine actors (though my acting teacher would ferociously disagree with the latter) but you can't argue the fact they have all had fantastic careers, with the occasional stumble here, there and everywhere, who hasn't.

Day-Lewis is perhaps the most chronicled Actor by the ways in which he prepares for roles. For the film My Left Foot he lived in a self imposed state if paralysis for the duration of the filming, to gain an insight in to the character. After The Boxer, his trainer insisted he could turn pro if he wanted and during Lincoln, he insisted in being addressed as Mr President throughout filming, never breaking character. You'd hate to be married to the guy right? I don't believe THIS level of preparation is wholly subscribed to by practitioners of Method but the urban myths prevail. 

Now, were I to take on the role of a homeless person, should I go and live on the streets myself? In order to gain an insight in to the characters world? For one simple matter, I wouldn't want to. But suppose I did. Am I not simply generalising that all homeless people have a similar experience?  In all honesty, whatever best helps you is fine by me, each actor creates their own method eventually, and who am I to criticise, it's just not for me.  But regardless, this isn't my biggest issue with Method Acting.

Emotion Memory/Affective Memory

Perhaps one of the most debated topics within actor training; the practice of recalling your past experiences to stir your emotions within your work on a role.

If you have time, here is a wonderful article on Stanislavki's system with a large sector given over to the emotion memory debate (but I'll give you some abbreviated highlights):

The fact of the matter is that Stanislavski chucked emotion memory from his system in his later years in favour of the Method of Physical Actions, which would later go in to the current trend of Actioning.  Stella Adler had the sense to go back and work with Stanislavski after the Group Theatre disbanded and brought back his new principles.  Strasberg instead ran with Emotion Memory, developing it in to the newer, radical Affective Memory, defined by a Starbergian student as

'the conscious creation of remembered emotions which have occurred in the

actor’s own past life and then their application to the character being portrayed on stage'
The 'conscious creation'....whereby you're not truly living within the moment, but being forced to vanish within yourself to attempt to bring up past emotions.  Here, you're introverting the already introverted, because that's what we are.  As extroverted as one might appear, the fact of the matter is actors are working with ourselves consistently, our body, our instincts and our feelings are our tools and a permanent process of self awareness is in effect.  By asking you to put your attention in to your past, how can you be engaging with the present moment, and the actor opposite?  Also, we run the risk of squeezing for every last drop of emotion within ourselves, tensing and searching deep to try to feel something, it's ugly to watch someone squeeze emotion out, and you know when you're watching it. 
I titled this article 'Why I'd never be a Method Actor' because, emotion/affective memory is not for me.  Quite simply, I've had an alright life.  I certainly didn't get in to acting because I wasn't loved enough as a child, or to deal with some life-issue.  Granted I have memories, I've gone through the usual relationships, break ups, arguments, my childhood dog dying, a whole array of stuff.  But ask me to liken the death of my dog to say, a character who loses the love of their life and I'll laugh in your face.  Plus, as time moves on those memories have different meanings to me.  Were I to have had major trauma growing up that would be a different story, why would it be even remotely helpful for me to bring up horrific past memories in front of my peers?  Eventually, you'll end up with such an unstable, internalised, collective of actors requiring consistent therapy.  Surely it's not healthy for anyone's craft.  And let's not forget, an audience don't come to the theatre to watch you have feelings, they come to have feelings of their own.
Within my work, I've seen an actor in truthful tears based on an exercise in which she was no longer able to have children, based on a past abortion.  For this actor, there was no such memory to grab on to and yet the moment was served and the emotion truthful, it was gorgeous work and the other actor responded beautifully.  The imagination can be more fruitful than the memory when we stop squeezing for results.  The process is much more beneficial than the result, and that's where the real work happens.

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.

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