Guest Post: Directing Theatre with Young People – Matthew Church

Matthew Church notes the limitations that many young people face when working in a rehearsal environment. In particular, he notes their seeming inability to ‘trust their instincts’ and places the blame squarely on the lack of attention paid to this part of their learning in the current drama curriculum. What do you think? Drama teachers, TYP people … ?

A Professional Environment

It is always interesting working with school students who have a keen interest in taking up professional theatre as a career. They show up to the first rehearsal of a production extremely excited for the journey ahead.

The problem with drama school curricula or school musical rehearsals is that acting intuition is lost from the working equation.

How can we train a new generation of actors when we are teaching them at school level to ignore their instincts?

We get started working around the table, breaking down the text, asking questions and they get extremely excited when they find out new information about their character. We play with a few improvisations, and end week one on a high.

As we begin week two I start to block the play. This is where the lack of attention in school drama curricula to rehearsing and rehearsal environments becomes apparent. Students expect to be told where to go; they wait for me to tell them “two steps to stage left”, or “look shocked on the word ‘Mum’.”  As a director, it so very saddens me when students work like this.

My work is primarily focussed on encouraging – pushing – young people to work as if they are in a professional environment. I assume the role of a professional director and I expect them to work accordingly. When a senior secondary student joins my cast, I ask of them what any director might do: make offers and play with the text. Students are challenged by this, but what astounds me continually are the types of offers that are made by young people. Their limited but very different life experience allows them to inform work in a very different way.

Theatre for Young People (TYP) is a powerful medium. It is an incredible sounding board for the next generation of actors who are being encouraged to work in a professional environment but it is also a wonderful medium for informing young people. That is what we can provide for them, not simply a stage, but a whole learning experience.

In my opinion, the role of a TYP artist is to encourage young people, and to prepare them for a career in professional theatre: NOT to take advantage of one’s own experience to get the best production.

Matthew Church is the young Artistic Director of Half Life Theatre. He is living the life in Trinity Beach, FNQ. You can find (and like) Half Life Theatre on Facebook

Letters from a Voluntary Exile #2: … and so it goes …

GUEST POST: Nick Backstrom is an actor and writer, formerly based in Brisbane and more recently in Melbourne. He also sings, teaches and directs, though rarely at the same time. Nick’s Melbourne relocation forms the basis of his occasional posts to Greenroom. He would be delighted to respond to any comments or queries made here.

‘Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down’ as the old spiritual goes.  How do we describe these spirituals nowadays?  Negro was the adjective of my childhood, but that’s at least three PC language generations ago. Slave, I suppose, would be the most accurate.  The adjective is important.  But I digress…

My last letter discussed how much more I was enjoying the audition process. This is a new step for me. Tom McSweeney told me as part of a class many years ago – my final year of uni in fact – that my job was now auditioning, and that I should see auditions as a chance to act, and not as a nerve-jangling job interview.  It’s taken me that long for that simple idea to penetrate my admittedly thick skull.  It is, in modern parlance, an empowering idea.

I did a workshop in auditioning last week with Ann Fay of Maura Fay and Gary Davy of Gary Davy Casting (UK). While there were no startling revelations or ideas, it was good to hear the casting experience from the other side and to watch them work with actors and take note of the advice they had to offer.  This was a free event organised by Equity – join the Union, people!

Fired by confidence and renewed focus, I went to my audition the next day for a very minor role in a very large production.  I had three scenes (only one of which was the character in question, the other two for roles I would understudy) and of course, I had learned all my lines, watched the film of the show so I knew the context – better to read the script of course, but not possible in this case – had thought about three possible approaches to each scene, vocally warm, physically warm and raring to go.  The auditions were running about 15 minutes late, not bad in the overall scheme of things.  I went in at about 2pm; I was out on the street at five past.

I was only introduced to two of the three auditioners.  I didn’t even get to do the whole of the first scene.

I had heard the two women at the sign-in table, looking forward to  Hairspray auditions, that would be, and I quote “real auditions.”  The warning signs were all there.

So it goes.

As it was a very minor role, I am certain that they were looking for a visual, and as long as I could do an American accent and remember lines, all the rest was how I would fit into the cast as a physical presence.  So they had indeed seen all they needed to see in those three lines (out of four) that I was able to say.

Still… I felt pretty low afterwards.  The rehearsal notice had said to be prepared to hang around for a couple of hours afterwards just in case. Turned out this was a standard clause for dance auditions.  I didn’t know that and, having hoped I would be asked to hang for a couple of hours, walking along Chapel St with an empty afternoon ahead of me was not my happiest moment.

I have discussed this with my agent and other actors and discover this is a fairy regular experience for a musical audition. Well, I guess it just goes to show that we live in an industry that at times cannot show simple respect for its members, and we accept that as normal.

We live in an industry that at times cannot show simple respect for its members, and we accept that as normal

Also, another city is not a magic remedy for the dispiriting experiences that actors go through.

Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.

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.

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

Sir Ben Kingsley at the premiere of Tennessee ...
Image via Wikipedia

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.