Archive for the ‘Workshop’ Category

Looking for inspiration? I found it in Folkestone.

Chris here. Right now I’m feeling inspired, empowered and raring to go! On Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of attending an acting workshop led by freelance professional director Douglas Rintoul. This was at the Tower Theatre in Folkestone, right over the other side of the county. So why exactly did I trek my way over there after a day’s work at the office? Come closer, reader, and I’ll tell you…

Facebook may have its pitfalls but, as the recent film has it, it is undeniably successful as a social network. Despite not seeing her for five years, Facebook has enabled me to be ‘friends’ with Emma, a hugely diligent and successful stage manager and now theatre producer who shared a house with Heidi for over 2 years when we were all at drama school and who later played the important role of bridesmaid at our wedding! When I blurted out on my Facebook status not so long ago my intention to be an actor again, Emma sent me a very encouraging message and, to cut a long introduction short, I soon found out that Doug Rintoul, with whom Em has created the theatre company Transport, was offering this workshop for free in Folkestone on 30th March. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to start getting creative again and, frankly, a chance to meet a gen-u-ine Kent-based theatre director! Any possibility of making contacts that might help with Boffo’s future plans had to be useful.

Ensuring I was wearing the regulation ‘loose clothes and soft shoes’ that are a clichéd but essential part of any acting class, I set off from work at 4pm full of high hopes. My lustre was slightly tarnished while waiting at the station for the coastbound service as, distracted by phoning my brother to congratulate him on getting a new job, my train pulled in and I realised I was standing on the London-bound platform… Cue a mad dash up the stairs, across the bridge, down the other stairs and, stopping only to land in a puddle with an almighty splash that completely soaked my right leg up to my thigh, leapt on to the train just as the beeps started to signal the doors were about to close. As my lungs strenuously laboured to catch up with the rest of me, I realised that my shoulder bag was also sopping wet. I opened it to discover I was now hauling around a sackful of water – my bottle had opened when I, gazelle-like I’m sure, hotfooted it for the train and had now disgorged its contents all over the food I’d brought with me, the 700-page book I was a third of the way through reading and the map I had oh-so-carefully printed out from Google to show me how to get from Folkestone West station to the Tower Theatre: a 20 minute walk. “I vociferated curses enough to annihilate any fiend in Christendom” (copyright E. Bronte, 1847 – couldn’t resist, I love that quote) and probably seriously worried the poor woman sitting in front of me.

You know how sometimes things go wrong and you convince yourself it’s a sign that you’ve made a bad decision? That fate, sorry, ‘Fate’ is throwing up roadblocks? You might not even believe in an ordered universe but at that moment, when you pour coffee down your shirt just before the important job interview, you’re convinced that some supernatural bastard has decided to mess with you. This is how it seemed to me as I sat there in my damp patch. I was already feeling slightly guilty about the cost of the train fare and that perhaps this was a waste of time when I should be concentrating on staging our own production or continuing the writing I’ve recently started (something I’ll blog about another time). Or that perhaps I shouldn’t really be contemplating a return to acting at all. I knew it was really only my own head telling me things were bound to go wrong and eventually I snapped out of it, and enjoyed the nostalgic (for some reason) sight of the white cliffs of Dover and the grey sea as we chugged past. But my mood switched back to doom again when I stepped out of the station at Folkestone to be greeted by howling winds and a curtain of lashing rain. Too much ridiculous symbolism? Bear with me.

My map was already wet through when I gingerly removed it from my coat pocket and unfolded it, carefully trying not to increase the size of the hole in the middle of the crease. After I’d tramped through the tempest in the wrong direction for three minutes, a passerby was able to help me turn the map round the right way and I set off for the Tower Theatre. I’d left my raincoat at home so by the time I’d walked up and down several hilly roads I was as drenched as an Olympic swimmer; I had to remove my glasses because they were so fogged up and my map was in sodden tatters. BUT. Eventually an imposing tower loomed out of the mist and I knew I’d made it. The theatre had been converted from a military church about 10 years ago and its steeple provided the building with its current name. It was a welcome sight.

All gloomy thoughts vanished as soon as I stepped inside and was greeted by the friendly faces of others who had come out to play for the evening. Many of them were locals and some were members of FHODS, the amateur society that owns the theatre. All of us were enthusiastic about starting the workshop and finding out what Doug had in mind for the next few hours. The director was there with his coffee, waiting for us all to arrive and settle down. He was a calming presence, exuding affability and good humour. I could tell this was going to be a great evening.

We formed a circle and introduced ourselves, adding an adjective in front of our names that started with the same letter. In a moment of hideous naffness the best I could come up with was ‘Creative Chris’. After this we spent a long time playing games that help to bond a group of people into a genuine ensemble, that help your mind and body learn how to be continuously aware of your own and others’ place in the space. Doug detailed how he uses these games at the beginning of any rehearsal process so that the actors feel part of a company, free and confident to try anything.

We drew lines and shapes in the air, passed a clap around the circle, played the legendary game of Zip-Zap-Boing, walked in the space and ‘filled all the holes’; we all chose somebody else as a bomb and another person as our protector and had to always keep our protector between us and the bomb; in pairs we had to silently enter the space from opposite sides of the room at exactly the same time without looking at each other, sit in chairs in unison, look at each other simultaneously and then decide when to both stand up and walk our separate ways. The rest of the group commented on what scenarios these spontaneous pieces of theatre made us imagine. We filled the space with chairs and one person (I’ll call them Person X) had to walk steadily from the far side of the room towards the only empty chair; everybody else had to work together as a company, in silence, to prevent Person X from reaching the chair by one other person rising from their own seat and sitting in the empty chair as fast as possible. This of course makes another chair available, so the process would start again. If Person X reached the empty chair first, the other standing person would become Person X. Gradually we discovered a strategy: the person furthest away from the empty chair should be the one to decide to get up and race past Person X, but only when Person X was equidistant from the running person’s own chair or Person X could quite easily turn around and snatch the newly empty seat! The natural impulse when seeing Person X homing in on an empty chair next to you was to panic, get up and fill the seat, but this would only create another empty chair in the same vicinity. It was a challenging and fun way to develop a hive mind.

Doug was extremely good at explaining, naturally and easily, how these exercises correspond to performing on stage: the importance of being able to fully concentrate and do more than one thing at a time (say a line, carry a prop, time an entrance, emphasise a moment); the ability to feel the impulses of other members of the ensemble; the theatre inherent in any movement if it is committed to fully. These games and techniques are part of the work Doug has done in the past with the famous Complicite theatre company, whose productions are very much based in the physical theatre tradition that springs from the teachings of Jacques Lecoq, who emphasised the importance of playfulness, togetherness and openness (ah, the wonders of Wikipedia…).

The last exercise we played (and theatre is ‘play’, of course) before having a break was to again walk as a group in the space and without communicating with each other all stop moving, simultaneously. This sounds impossible but when the right moment comes, you can really feel it. When the group stopped, one person only had to decide to walk again, stop, then two people in unison had to walk, stop, then three, stop, then four… An amazing energy filled the space. We did the same exercise in two groups, and the half watching could see the theatricality of it. This was all incredibly entertaining!

During a tea break, Ann from FHODS showed us the auditorium of the Tower Theatre (the workshop was in a different room). As I said above, the theatre used to be a church and it’s also a listed building, so in converting the building into a theatre the society had to keep the original architecture. This means that the ceiling of the auditorium is filled with the huge stone arches and ornamental touches of the church, and gives it a wonderful atmosphere. The stage itself is of a good size and the backstage area is both spacious and very well-equipped. Hmm, I thought, perhaps one day Heidi and I will rent this theatre…

After our tea and biscuit, we returned to a circle of chairs and did some text work on the opening scene of a play called ‘Europe’ by David Greig, which I see online Doug directed with Transport four years ago. The scene has a chorus describing the setting for the rest of the play, a shabby town that could be anywhere in Europe with a border that’s been contested throughout the ages. Going around the circle, we each read a line. Then Doug asked us to take one word each and warned us that though it might seem tedious, we should by the end of the two-page scene understand the importance of exploring the meaning and the sound of every word in the text. At this point I feared something akin to this old sketch:

Fortunately, though it had the potential to be like the above, it turned out to be incredibly fun and rewarding as each person spoke their word and accompanied it with a physical gesture that fitted both its intention and its sound. From here we were able to eventually read the scene as a company with an artificial emphasis that nevertheless underlined anew the meaning of the scene and of the thought process behind every line. We also explored the importance of paying attention to the full stop at the end of every sentence: so often our voices drop at the end of a statement, as if we’re afraid to commit to what we’re saying, instead of asserting with confidence that THIS IS WHAT I HAVE TO SAY.

After this we each chose a line of our own and found a space in the room to rehearse the line, fitting an action to every word and speaking it to the wall. Doug circulated around the group, observing and commenting on us all. Then we all in turn projected our lines to one another, first with the physical actions, then without but still over-enunciating each word, and then with a natural delivery that still maintained the work we had put into it. Doug helped out those who were still not fully connected to their line by offering them some ‘resistance’: pushing against their shoulders and asking them to push with their bodies against his hands. This led to a better posture and an increased connection to their breath (“gather from the buttocks”, as Mr Fry says above…). The results were clear to see and hear. Doug told us that techniques such as this can be directly gleaned from the work and books of Patsy Rodenburg, the great voice and speech coach: a name that brings back memories of training…

So much of what we did that evening was an instant reminder of exercises I did back in drama school, in voice, movement, acting and improvisation classes. It was wonderful to once again spend my time in this way. It was a hugely inspirational evening and now I really want to get on and perform, so Heidi and I really must start rehearsing ‘Old Times’ in earnest. Daily life keeps getting in the way but that’s no excuse. “If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.” So said Turgenev; one of my favourite quotes and I just have to bear it in mind and act on it – in all senses of the word.

 At the end of the workshop, Doug took all our email addresses so he could contact us in the future for other classes and opportunities, and I managed to sneak in a quick conversation with him to say there are actors in North Kent too! It’s great that Transport is based here and not in London: there are both performers and audiences in this county hungry for theatre. It’s just a case of searching both of these groups out and providing it!

 Footnote: I managed to get a lift in a car back to the station. No more angsty metaphors about difficult journeys. A happy Chris smiled his way home on the train.