Emotion vs self pity

We had a fascinating Acting through Song class on Sat 25th Oct, led by the fabulous Julie Atherton – with a couple of regular issues arising and addressed when approaching a song.

The first issue arose of how to deal with songs that appear to dwell in their own self pity. This comes up over and over again when I run these classes at drama schools etc.

Often we come across music that is schmaltzy & self indulgent. This does not make it bad music, it just means that we, the actor, have to work harder to keep our audience engaged. Actors often fall into the trap of playing the emotion of the music, letting themselves feel sorry for their character and wallowing in self pity.

There is nothing that will turn an audience off quicker than an actor acting self pity! It is not an attractive state to watch. We want to see struggle, bravery and defiance in the face of adversity. These are the things that make theatre exciting. So I always suggest to play the opposite. Literally, as a first layer of piecing a song together, play the complete other end of the spectrum. If the piece is all about being upset because your boyfriend left you, then laugh your way through the whole song to begin with. You’ll be amazed at how poignant it can be. In real life we often try to put on a brave face and laugh at things in public that really hurt. That is a much more interesting choice to make on stage!

Of course there will be moments when the hurt takes over. But a couple of small moments when you are losing the battle of a brave face will be far more impactful than a whole song of self pity.

The second issue that came up is the extraneous use of hands and arms.

As actors we inevitably feel that we have to be interesting. I often see actors fully engrossed in their work and then suddenly get the feeling that they are not interesting enough and throw in a completely unconnected arm gesture.

These gestures completely alienate the audience if they are not connected to truth.

The thing that interests us is the story beneath the characters words. The subtext. In other words, the life of the character. Sometimes an actor can stand and deliver a song without moving at all and have the whole audience in the palm of his hand, because he is connected 100% to the truth. Other times he can fling his arms wildly and still have the audience riveted, as long as he is connected to his truth.

Basically you can do whatever the hell you like with a song as long as you know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it and of course as long as you are completely connected to the truth and not Trying to be interesting.

What makes theatre great?

When I go to the theatre I want to be moved in one way or another. I either want to laugh or cry, be shocked or angered – sometimes all of the above at the same time. What I definitely don’t want is to come out after the final curtain and not feel any different than how I did before.

That’s the beauty of theatre as an art form; It informs us and inspires us and makes us look at the world in a different way than before.

However not all theatre does this. That doesn’t make it bad theatre, it just doesn’t make it great theatre!

But what does make a great piece of theatre? I don’t believe there is a steadfast answer. It’s when the writing, direction and acting just flow together in perfect synergy. Or when the subject matter of a piece really touches a nerve in society. When a cast truly inhabit the characters and tell the story. Or when a piece simply speaks to its audience without pretence of being anything other than what it is.

Sadly I don’t feel we produce an abundance of great theatre these days. We definitely have a lot of good theatre and occasionally we do still have great theatre but, in my opinion, the obsession with celebrity in this country detracts from the opportunity of producing something magnificent. Producers first thoughts are not “who would be best for the role”, but ” who will put the most bums on seats”, often to the detriment of the piece.

There is also a strange over appreciation of the celebrities in these roles, even if they are not particularly good. A perfect example for me was James Macavoy in Macbeth. Now here is an actor who I have great respect for – he is a fantastic actor and has produced some stunningly beautiful moments of cinema – but was extremely mediocre in the Scottish Play. His use of verse was painful to listen to and played the end of the play from the moment he walked on leaving me feeling cold and uninterested. However he received rave reviews for his performance from critics and audiences alike.

Now for me this production could have been fantastic if it had a more suitable actor in the title role. It was a clever post apocalyptic take on the play which was intriguing to watch, but fell short of the mark due to poor casting.

Some of the best theatre I get to see is Off West End where the plays are cast with the right people in mind and are not produced solely for profit. That said you will of course occasionally come across a gem in commercial theatre which simply blows your mind. The National Theatre is great for this. They have the desire to produce a wide variety of theatre and the resources to really take risks with what they do.

I will never grow tired of going to the theatre, as long as people keep putting on exciting and challenging work. Even when they don’t and you have to sit through a couple of hours of drudge, it’s still a great thing to have witnessed, especially as you can go back to your friends and laugh about just how bad some theatre is.

The acting life

There really are extreme highs and extreme lows involved in being an actor.

When you work on a job that fulfils you artistically and if you’re lucky financially as well, the world seems like the sun is shining on you at all times.

Confidence is high, acting muscles are nicely honed and you feel like anything is possible.

On the flip side however, there are the dark times, when work and even auditions are scarce, and the world feels like it’s crumbling around you.

The ups will always outweigh the downs. Even if you only get a hit, sporadically, from the drug of acting – it can keep you going for a long time.

It’s important as an actor, or I believe any freelance artistic type, that we find something else that we can get enjoyment from and pay the bills.

Getting stuck in a job that bores you, with people who don’t understand what we do, can be extremely detrimental. Although sometimes the jobs might have to be a bit dull but as long as they are flexible with auditions etc.

Finding outlets for our artistic needs is also an absolute must. As well as taking class regularly I often get together with a group of friends to read a play, usually Shakespeare and usually with a slap up roast dinner thrown in.

Little things like this help us to keep focused and never stop feeling like an actor, ever!

And then when the work comes and the highs hit we feel ready and complete and grateful to be in this wonderful business, full of wonderful people and wonderful experiences.

Genius Giles

We are so lucky to have so many amazing theatrical types coming to run masterclasses for us. None more so than the irrefutable genius that is Giles Taylor.

His knowledge and approach to speaking Shakespeare is second to none and his ability to make verse more accessible to everyone, from beginner to ardent professional, is invaluable.

Check out this vid of when we caught up for a chat in his West End dressing room.

Acting

I love being an actor. Even the darkest times when you feel you will never work again are completely worth it when you get to flex your acting muscles. In fact the down times are often the most valuable life experiences that help fuel character choices and inform us about humanity, which is of course what we are trying to portray.

Rehearsals are easily my favourite part of the process of being in a play. The feeling of being completely submerged in an artistic environment is second to none.

Although it does come with it’s natural stresses and anxieties.
– Day 1 – first day at school. Always terrifying! No matter how many times you have done one, it’s always the same; Nervy, excited, scared, enthralled!
– The penultimate week – suddenly it all becomes a bit too real with the first performance just around the corner.
– First preview – make or break!
– Press night – now other people get to tell you their opinions – best to be taken with a pinch of salt but not always easy to do.

However, the intensive work is exactly the kind of remedy all actors need to keep them sane. Not since college does one get to simply live and breathe acting all day everyday, apart from during the rehearsal period for a new play.

Back in the day a lot of our current favourite actors got to hone their craft in repertory theatre, rehearsing one play during the day whilst performing another at night. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that we are slightly diminished in our development as actors without such formative work.

Actors just want to act, the mundanity of making money often gets in the way as does the industry which holds the juxtaposition between artistic and business minds, but fundamentally Actors just want to act.

Great Britain – National Theatre

I was very privileged to see the first preview of the National Theatre’s new play ‘Great Britain’.

It’s a wonderful satirical take on the current phone hacking scandal, which skips fantastically close to the bone as it parallels the tabloid media that we endure on a daily basis.

We are led through the world of a newspaper office by Paige Britain (Billie Piper), a young, over ambitious news reporter who is prepared to do whatever it takes to get people to buy the paper she works for. Her career skyrockets when she discovers a secret about messaging services that, as she puts it, “gives her superhuman powers”.

The play for me is an impressive statement on how the Police, the Press and the Politicians are all cosied up in bed together and leaves the audience thinking that we’re all as much to blame; as long as we keep buying the papers they’ll keep finding the stories by any means possible.

Being as it was the first public viewing, the play undoubtedly ran for a touch too long with moments being in danger of over exposition, but I have no doubt that with the genius of director Nick Hytner and writer Richard Bean at the helm that this will all be ironed out in no time.

The cast was sublime led by a highly energetic Billie Piper, who captured the cut throat energy of the media moguls perfectly. Aaron Neil’s comic timing is utter perfection as the inept police commissioner, who simply doesn’t have a clue what is happening around him. The only moral conscience comes in the form of Oliver Chris, whose unwillingly corrupt policeman is clearly doing what he must to survive the dog eat dog world in which he lives.

This wonderful new piece of theatre will at times have you belly laughing in your seat, coupled with an uncomfortable disbelief that people can really become this corrupt; if it wasn’t for a certain high profile court case happening at the moment, you would be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t be true.

The National will of course deny that it is based on anyone in particular, but the play is a sublime take on the current phone hacking scandal. It cleverly makes each of the characters slightly too ambiguous for any law suits but I have a feeling that certain members of our so called democratic society will not be overly thrilled by the depiction of their world.

In my opinion, this is theatre exactly as theatre should be; a magnifying glass held up to current affairs and helping us, the general public, to form opinions on our lives without the manipulation of the current media.

My advice: book tickets now, before it’s too late.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/great-britain

Fancy a cup of tea with Hadley Fraser? Yes, we thought so…

We caught up with the extremely talented Hadley Fraser for a chinwag.  We loved wagging our chin with him so muh, we’ve invited him back to hold some more acting masterclasses in London for us.  Keep checking our website to find out when and where you can catch the man himself in person!