World Theatre Day 2009: reflections on a (long-distance) tribal gathering

World Theatre Day 2009 has come and gone, but as the song lyrics go,  ‘the memories linger on.’  And the achievements do too. You can see what I mean at the World Theatre Day blog and its Tumblr feed of images and sounds of the celebrations around the globe. WTD got the online treatment for the first time this year – and it happened, as these things do, as a result of a conversation. Continue reading World Theatre Day 2009: reflections on a (long-distance) tribal gathering

Working on text – the early phase of rehearsal

UPDATE – this is an out of the archive post reworked a year or so on. If you’re a regular here or to my other blog Groundling, from which this is taken, you may have already read my rehearsal and performance posts for the Empire Theatre’s 2008 production of Cabaret directed by Lewis Jones.  I played the role of Fraulein Schneider. You can find these posts elsewhere on the site. Just type ‘Cabaret’ in the search pane, and stand back. I’m revisiting some of my posts on actors’ process, which I hope you may find useful. This one looks at text analysis.  As always, I would love your commentary.

Sunday’s rehearsals swung into a first shuffle-through of the play scene by scene. This was table talk about character, backstory, and relationships followed by a work through of a couple of scenes in which my character first appears.

First appearances are critical for character revelation. For a start, an audience starts to make up its mind about how it relates to a character. First appearances are also where a play’s obligatory exposition is revealed. A good play will give out the information on who, what, were, why and so on via character interaction and dialogue that hopefully doesn’t beat you over the head, as well as through other subtle clues in the script. These are things the actor needs to pick up and feed the character.

Text analysis for the actor is a bit like the forensic analysis of a crime scene. However, there is something you also need to bear in mind, and that is to balance what the character knows with what the actor knows … or as it’s often expressed, don’t play what’s on the ‘next page.’ I got a bit carried away myself today wondering how significant the first mention of Jewishness in the play would be to my character. Of course the audience is going to prick its collective ears at this point … ‘Uh oh, we’ve got an issue here that is going to come back later!!’ but the characters themselves are at this stage, blissfully ignorant of the fate in store.

This is what I like about these early turning over the text rehearsals … playing with possibilities and making choices, and seeing where they lead. It’s good to have a director like Lewis who allowed me to stumble my way around the set, getting its geography and furniture layout into my head, getting the feel of ownership that the character would have; it’s my house after all – it was once a large home and where I was born and where I grew up. Alas, nowadays it’s been converted into a boarding house. Yes, this was one of the creative choices I’ve made, along with what has brought Schneider to where she is right now … New Year’s Eve 1929.

I’m really going to enjoy the next phase of rehearsals, and it’s going to include something I’m not all that familiar with … making the transition in and out of a musical number. I’m sure it’s going to be all about finding the right energy level and bridging from speech to song, though handily all of my songs tend to do this with quite a bit of ‘spoken in rhythm’ appearing on the score. Although we are not singing within scenes yet, this finding the right heightened energy was something the director worked on quite a bit during the final run-throughs of the scenes this afternoon.

Queensland’s Matilda Awards 2009: where to now?

Artifical beach at Southbank, in central Brisb...
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Congratulations to all winners at the 2009 Matilda Awards held on March 2 at Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre.
Best Mainstage Production: ANATOMY TITUS FALL OF ROME: Queensland Theatre Company
Best Independent Production: HOODS: Real TV
Best Direction: Michael Futcher; RABBIT HOLE Queensland Theatre Company; THE WISHING WELL La Boite Theatre Company
Best Actress in a Lead Role: Helen Howard: RABBIT HOLE: Queensland Theatre Company
Best Actor in a Lead Role: Jean-Marc Russ: I AM MY OWN WIFE: Queensland Theatre Company
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Kaye Stevenson: SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL: La Boite Theatre Company
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Andrew Buchanan: FEMALE OF THE SPECIES: Queensland Theatre Company
Best New Australian Work: ATTACK OF THE ATTACKING ATTACKERS: Matthew Ryan: La Boite Theatre Company
Best Emerging Artist: Kathryn Marquet: JANE EYRE, BRONTE, RISK
Best Design: Jonathon Oxlade: ATTACK OF THE ATTACKING ATTACKERS: La Boite Theatre Company
Best Technical Design: David Walters: AUGUST MOON Queensland Theatre Company, RABBIT HOLE Queensland Theatre Company; WISHING WELL La Boite Theatre Company
Best Musical Production: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE: Oscar Theatre Company

Hooray for Queensland’s theatre community, and hoorah for the Matilda Awards which support it. However, given some of the comments in Katharine Lyall-Watson’s recent blog post, I’d reckon the awards are ready for a comprehensive review. Herewith my 2c worth.

As I understand it, the Matildas were originally conceived to celebrate Queensland theatre talent. From the list of this year’s nominees, they are clearly Brisbane-centric. This is a real pity, as there is much great work going on outside the capital city of our state.

As to the categories, these are clearly problematical for some, and I include myself in this. The panel of judges which once comprised reviewer-critics (now as I note no longer solely so) have chosen to copy the Green Room and Critics Circle categorisations, themselves a copy of much larger awards. Do we really have the critical mass yet of Melbourne and Sydney to support all of these categories? IMHO, the fewer the awards, the more prestigious and probably, more affordable.

Instead of the constraints of categories, why not simply recognise outstanding practitioners or groups to reflect any aspect of our profession? I understand this used to happen. Whilst I am sure not all would agree, I have a problem separating out male and female actors for awards as outstanding performers, for example.

And finally, putting on my theatre academic’s hat, where do we and those coming after us go to read all about this thing called the Matildas? I did a Google search and was sent to Wikipedia to get some background for this post.  I found an out of date entry at Wikipedia, and nothing more. So I added an external hotlink to Lyall-Watson’s blog post which contains this year’s nominees and the subsequent discussion on the pros and cons of the awards.

I’d like to see the theatre community pitching in by contributing to this entry on Wikipedia. It shouldn’t be a one-person job and it certainly isn’t difficult to do. Wikipedia is intensely democratic and, like the theatre itself, collaborative. Bloopers, glitches, and the like are quickly erased and replaced by others with the right info. It’s another way of endorsing and supporting the theatre, and getting the word out beyond Queensland.

PS Congratulations to all the nominees and thanks to the panel of judges who have worked long and hard to keep the Matildas going. You’re champions all!

PPS What’s the definition of a ‘Mainstage Production’ please? Curious as to its application as a category – presumably the other side of the coin to ‘Independent Production.’

Ben Kingsley in conversation with Charlie Rose: ‘We do our best work when we are happy.’

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I couldn’t resist posting Charlie Rose‘s recent conversation with Ben Kingsley … for a couple of reasons. Firstly Sir Ben talks about the nuts and bolts differerences between stage and screen acting … something we all like to sift through. But in the second part of the conversation, he opens up in quite an extraordinary personal way, providing an intelligent and insightful glimpse of how he works as an actor.

It proves to me, if I needed to be convinced, of what I reckon is the secret ingredient in good performances – the emotional and intellectual intelligence of the actor in the role.

So you want to be an actor? … we have a problem

In 2007 I wrote about American scholar and practitioner Robert Hornby‘s ‘The End of Acting’. It’s a book that has a strong point of view about the art of acting and the education of artists.  I’ve enjoyed dipping back into it since a first reading in 1993.

That an actor needs training is, from Hornby’s perspective, a given. In that post I noted the importance the author placed on skills aquisition for the actor in training:

… these are means to an end, ’skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’Three things you need to learn, Nov 2007

So what skills or knowledge do you need to be an actor, a creative artist? What kind of education does an artist require?  They’re good questions, and they continue to exercise the minds of many, as they have done in the past.

The idea of formalised, western actor-training in specialised institutions came to us quite late. Once upon a time an actor learned on the job. The integration of courses of study into higher education departments came in the latter part of the 20th century, and after drama had been well established as an discipline in its own right either within university Departments of Literature or Departments of English.

From the mid-1930s, there was a move by influential British figures to establish a modern training for actors based on the French model.  Michel St Dénis the French director, teacher and theatrical innovator was consulted, and from this time until his death in 1971, St Dénis was perhaps the most influential of the European theorists on the development of English-speaking actor-training curricula.  St Dénis’ program of study was built upon European foundations, and whilst programs of study have developed beyond his original blueprint, this influence can still be felt in the curricula of schools such as Julliard (US), RADA (UK), NIDA (Australia) and other high-profile actor-training institutions. The European push has had, and still exercises its generative influence upon the training of theatre artists in Australia, the UK, and in north America. Historically Australia has pretty much always looked to the UK and then the US for inspiration when it comes to developing theatre-training programs of study.

NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) Australia’s first theatre-training institution opened its doors in 1959; NIDA is now affiliated with UNSW. Indeed it has always been physically close to the UNSW campus, occupying as it once did the premises of the Old Tote Theatre Company on the university’s campus. NIDA is housed in its own splendid buildings these days, but it remains just ‘across the road’  from UNSW. In time Australian CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) also developed training programs for actors and other theatre practitioners from the 1970s. Most of these colleges and institutes then morphed into universities from the late 1980s.

This shotgun marriage was a political act driven by the federal government’s rationalisation of the higher education sector; colleges of art and universities were amalgamated … in some cases … under duress.  Apart from the organisational and governance differences which now affected many of these formerly autonomous organisations, what really seemed to matter was the new feel in the corridors.

What had been an industry-style training program of study found itself side by side with more academic or theoretical programs. There were inevitably gains and losses over time as some schools literally disappeared or courses of study were abandoned. In the best of these amalgamations, the practice of the art form informed theory and vice versa; courses that claimed to focus their study on the intersection of theory and practice were developed, and a newer discipline often called Performance or Theatre Studies developed.

It has to be said that the relationship in these institutions between the theorists and the practitioners, or between the theorist-practitioners and the artist-practitioners was never an easy one; perhaps the relationship was never really understood.  Fundamentally the issue was whether or not creative arts skills training was appropriate i.e., ‘academic’ enough in a university setting.  This false dichotomy which separates out learning outcomes continues to plague pedagogical discussions on the best or most appropriate way to train artists and creatives. The sad outcome was that a pecking order was battled over; a competitiveness encouraged to ensure survival.

David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast) published a paper which explored the link between actor-training and advocacy for court-room practitioners. He noted:

It has become conventional in higher education to analyse learning outcomes in terms of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. … I would propose the adoption of a third term – ‘qualities’ – to identify those attributes which can only be acquired by systematic and consistent practice. (my emphasis)

Practice is the key word here. Grant’s ‘qualities’ relate to Hornby’s ‘three things’ in that they are learned through experience, through doing. Hornby focuses on three attributes which a trained entry-level professional should have aquired over a course of study. These are: how to relax, how to relate to a scene partner, how to pursue objectives. Easy, right? Yes and no.

Hornby’s attributes are not particularly difficult to teach, and it’s worth saying that there are many angles from which to approach this training,  but the key ingredient is/has to be time … time to accommodate the reality of experiential learning. Hornby goes on to say that these skills have to be learned over and over again. It’s time consuming … and here’s the rub: time=money. In a time when cost-cutting and restructuring is a fact of life in most higher education institutions in Australia, the inevitable outcome for performing arts training is clear: the ‘resource-rich’ i.e., labour-intensive programs are the first to go.

Courses and programs designed to educate the next generation of artists are being reviewed … nothing wrong with that, indeed this should be one of those ‘rolling’ activities that exercises the mind of all educators. If however, it’s cost-cutting which is driving … as it almost always does … the reviewing and restructuring, then the exercises is being approached from the wrong end. These exercises always lead to no small degree of angst in those academics tasked with the job of rationalising their program offerings, and anxiety for those who will be affected.  It’s not overstating things to suggest that the future of our creative artists, and the quality of the industry is at stake when penny-pinching leads the charge for change.

The importance of  intensive, immersive engagement in experiential training for creative artists cannot be overstated.  It’s not possible to cut short skills-training and expect artistry to begin. Nor is a legitimate program of arts training possible without such engagement.

I’m worried …

Audition time … a few truths

The jacaranda trees are starting to go off after a month or more of blooming their lovely hearts out. That means end of year uni exams are over, but it also signals the start of audition season here in Queensland, and indeed, all over the country.

As I write, hopefuls are being coached and lining up to compete for a place at an Australian theatre-training institute. NIDA, WAAPA, VCA, QUT, USQ … the acronyms of the institutions are well-known by the hopeful auditionees, many of whom are trying out for them all. Only a handful will make it as professionals, and that’s probably a good thing. The truth is that a self-sifting process begins at the starting gate for those who aspire to a career as a performer. It’s heartbreaking, but also true.

I also know it’s audition season because I used to be part of a team at USQ that took applicants through their paces every November with call backs in early December. Although auditions are, according to US actor-trainer and author Robert Barton, the ‘least fair thing about the theatre,’ I recall these day-long workshops being most enjoyable for the participants … at least that’s what we’d hear in feedback. And they did relish the opportunity to loosen up, to let go of the nerves. We would lead them through activities and games for a couple of hours in the morning before the individual presentations to the audition panel in the afternoon. The panel knew that playfulness and trust are requisites for creativity, and it was always part of the approach taken by USQ’s panel. Give an actor the best chance to perform, and s/he’ll usually deliver. However, it’s  also true what they say about the first minute of an audition … we could almost always tell in that time whether or not the applicant had that indefinable aptitude and imagination that we were looking for. I won’t use the word ‘talent’ although that’s part of the package, but it can be something as vague to explain but as potent to experience as a particular energy and connection with others in the space. And so someone who had never (sadly) experienced theatre outside of school could give a blinder of an audition. Another person with years of speech and drama behind them as well as performance experience would fade away. True.

I also coach people for auditions. My approach is to encourage them to be as flexible and open as possible to the ideas in the script and to their own energies. I often find myself having to ‘break the mould’ that the candidate has poured for himself. The first run through of a piece is a warm-up; the second time you start to get a sense of where the actor is coming from, how she’s thinking about the character and situation … most don’t know how to read a dramatic text for clues by the way.

At this point I like to redirect to see whether or not s/he can start cracking open the constraints of the inevitable repetition of lines learning, rather than ideas learning. What Stanislavski called ‘rubber-stamping’ of a performance is of course death to freshness and vitality, but most just repeat what they have learned, trying to make it the same as last time, to get the words and moves right. This focus of energy on ‘getting it right’ chokes the imagination and stifles the content of the material.  If an auditionee cannot take direction and replay a moment or a scene from a different angle … in other words to apply her imagination and energy to the situation right then and there, then it’s all over. True.

I’m sending good vibes out there to all auditionees; god knows it’s a tough business, but perhaps it’s also a good thing to start getting used to this least fair part of being an actor. Auditions are a fact of life for working artists, and in the real world of professional acting not all audition experiences are good ones … nor is much playtime spent on them. One ex-student of mine, a very fine actor, calls himself ‘a professional auditionee.’ There’s no small amount of angst involved in the whole audition process, so it’s probably a good idea and helpful to one’s mental health to get used to seeing auditions not as a test of your worth, but as a chance to perform.

Break a leg!

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