Sunday Afternoon in the Park with Will

And so to Brisbane where one of the country’s newest experiments in outdoor Shakespeare had its second, annual 2-day event.  Shakespeare on Oxford in Bulimba Brisbane culminated in a one-off performance on Sunday afternoon of that most satisfying of Shakespeare’s plays, Much Ado About Nothing.

The team of mostly professional actors worked on the project over several months. The development of this project speaks volumes for the determination and talent, not to mention savvy, of Brisbane’s artists and creatives. It feels as though there is a ‘tipping point’ happening in this respect … a critical mass to draw upon to create the kind of diversified ‘independent’ theatre scene that Melbourne has long had. But really … I’m just thrilled to see another community-supported gig start to take a meaningful lung-full of air: as chief sponsor, 4MBS (a community radio station) is committed to ‘classical’ work. Shakespeare on Oxford is also supported by the Brisbane City Council Morningside Ward’s Liveability Committee. Yes please! It’s nice to see local government in Brisbane taking the hint from Toowoomba Regional Council in seeing the point of spending money on optimising the use of their green spaces (and ratepayers’ assets) by supporting public theatre production. Did I mention this was also free? Props to local government, community organisations and all business sponsors.

And the production itself? The word ‘delightful’ springs to mind. The costumes were basic, but worked just fine. The set was … well, IMHO not the most compelling part of the production … but it served. The real winners were the actors who took the old adage of bare boards and a passion as well as a good yarn, and ripped into it with gusto. The story and their skill at telling it lay at the heart of the production’s success … and isn’t that the way it should be?

The inspired clowning under Scott Witt’s direction figured strongly in the success of those (usually) god-awful clown scenes in Shakespeare … I dread ’em like the plague. They are linguistic nightmares, and mostly to be endured between the ‘real’ scenes.  Yesterday afternoon I laughed myself silly … so did everyone around me. They were beautifully integrated with the rest, and totally within the spirit of the play which swings across its arc from sunlight to stormclouds in a beat.

Open air Shakespeare can be a tough nut to crack … and daylight performance even more challenging. It’s a sweet idea at heart, but prone to the vagaries of weather, ambient noise, and distraction.  On the other hand, this is all part of the gig … you bring a rug or a chair, slap on the sunscreen, the kids run around what is a soccer field most of the year, the jets hang a right on the flight path in the audience’s eyeline, traffic revs up and down on Oxford Street beyond the fringe of trees (a lovely green backdrop by the way) … but it’s OK. The action, the story, the excellence of the work up there is sufficiently engaging to keep the groundlings happy. And in the best tradition of groundlings, we laughed, booed, hissed, ‘aaawed’ and generally had a great time egged on by real, actorly engagement with us … and the cheesiest ‘sound track’ which well … just worked.

I was delighted to see how the wriggly little girls suddenly materialised from all over during the second wedding scene towards the end of the play. As is the nature of little girls, they’d been running around the park on their own adventures, but when Hero, Beatrice and the wedding party appeared with basic ‘bridal accoutrements’ they stopped wherever they were and silently, and from all directions, crept back to the front. There they sat reverently, completely wrapt to watch the high romance unfold … . It’s a girly thing of course … Princess Bride stuff … if you get my drift. The boys equally sat still and gaped at the swordplay and knockabout physicality choreographed by Nigel Poulton. All of which proves … if you had to prove it … that the audience itself is a vital part of the passing parade of open-air theatre.

It was a lovely afternoon in the park with Will.  Thanks to all the Shakespeare on Oxford team lead by AD Tama Matheson. Do come back now won’t you.

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The Voice Warmup

This is the most popular post on Groundling. I continue to add to it with hotlinks and further comment on one of the more important skills for the actor – the voice warmup.

Scribbles to Myself (April 2008)

So the voice is on my mind right now, not only because of my own recent scare in the run up to performance, but also because I am currently working with a group of students on a production; I’m co-directing Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch with a group of actors in the second year of their professional training program. One of my briefs is also to teach them how to rehearse, to gear themselves up for the tasks of exploration in the rehearsal room, and then to take this work to performance before a live audience.

I found myself at yesterday’s rehearsal urging them to prep the head as well as the body for work. When energy is distracted e.g., stretching whilst chatting about last night’s party, the body is not being brought to the mind or the mind to the body. This is a phrase I really like from An Acrobat of the Heart by Stephen Wangh. Urging a focussed attention on self as part of the warmup forms part of my instruction on this most important part of the actor’s process. Getting from where you are to where you need to be is what the warmup is all about.

And the voice warmup? As a voice coach myself, I know how really vital this is, and my students tend to approach a warmup from this angle. The voice workout (a different beast altogether) and the warmup are taught as part of the actor training in our program, so they know what it is and why they do it, but customising the warmup for rehearsal and then performance has to be learned. Indeed, integrating a body, voice, mind warmup is the goal.

This is what I wrote some time back during another production.

The voice warmup
There can’t be too many actors who’ve trained during the past 30 or so years, who aren’t familiar with the warmup. It’s part of contemporary thinking about the nature of the actor as an ‘athlete of the heart’ with all the connotations of preparing to challenge the body, mind, and heart for the act of performance. For many actors, it would be impossible to imagine performing without going through a ritual that takes you ‘from where you are to where you need to be’ to work.

Watch a group of actors doing a warmup, and you’ll see a range of styles, from the energetic to the focussed and intense. There are some actors who love to warmup with the others in the company; other actors can’t abide being distracted from their own personal process. Horses for courses. What is common to all is the recognition that a different energy is needed to perform. There is a commitment to getting the body-mind out of the daily and into the extra-daily state of being, and ready to go.

What many actors in training don’t do however, is to prepare for a rehearsal or a class. And many don’t have a process to help deal with the particular task. A rehearsal on a scene is very different from a performance; a class is another beast altogether. A warmup for a rehearsal or a class should take no more than 10-15 minutes of focussed preparation. This is what you should do:

  • A quick diagnostic humming up and down the range and then on full breath to check for missing notes.
  • Stretching, check alignment and spinal rolls. Spinal rolls during the diagnostic are good.
  • Focus on the task to come and leave what’s outside, outside.
  • Free the lips, tongue, soft palate and yawn. Open up the channel.
  • Finish with some text based on the class or rehearsal.
  • Don’t warm up lying down.
  • Don’t chat with others warming up. This is work.

To begin at the beginning …

Welcome to Groundling. This is the first post of what I hope will be many.

I wanted a place to write about my love of theatre and good acting with others. Since I was introduced to theatre as a child, I’ve never found anything more thrilling than spending a couple of hours in a big, dark room with a bunch of strangers, ‘dreaming out loud in front of ourselves.’ I think Groucho Marx and Martin Esslin said something pretty similar about the theatre experience. Even if they didn’t, watching great acting (preferably live) beats the heck out of anything else for me.

I plan to post fairly regularly, and as the mood takes me. It’s a reflective (maybe even chatty) spot for me to drop by. I hope you will join in.