In March of this year, fire broke out at the Battersea Arts Centre, engulfing the roof and destroying the beautiful old Grand Hall of the venue.
What do Steve Carrell, Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy all have in common? Apart from being successful that is?
Something had to give last week and unfortunately, it ended up being this blog post.
March has just been one of those crazily hectic months where everything seems to happen at once. Did I meet any of those deadlines I set myself in March? Erm…well….some.
My only foray into any work by George Bernard Shaw took place during my drama school years. In our second year we did scene work on Candida and I also chose a speech from Man and Superman for an oratory exercise where we each had to address an argument to the audience and it couldn’t be from a Shakespeare play.
The speech I picked was one that the Devil makes in Act III. Previous productions of Man and Superman usually cut out this entire third act, a dream sequence in which the Don Juan character meets the devil, Dona Ana (Ann in the rest of the play) and an escapee from “boring” heaven. The NT production, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Ralph Fiennes has kept that third act and I was keen to see it.
Initially, after noting that the play had the earlier start of 7pm to incorporate the 3 hours and 45 minutes playing time, I was concerned that this wordy play with plenty of philosophical musings would be a bit inflated and boring; that I would get a bit lost in all the verbose arguments about the nature of man and love and art and how we live our lives. But it’s so well acted, directed and effective in terms of the design that the time flew by and I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Yes there are plenty of moral, political, social and philosophical debates within the play but it’s also extremely funny with an element of a romantic, comedy of manners about it. The design has to incorporate a drawing room/study setting, a villa abroad, a Brigand hideout in the mountains, hell (with an ingenious lift to heaven), a dream world and also an exterior road with a fancy car, all of which are beautifully realised by designer Christopher Oram.
Ralph Fiennes is fantastic in the lead role of Jack Tanner, the Don Juan figure, a confirmed bachelor and revolutionary firebrand who is trying to escape convention and his feelings for Ann, played with great cheekiness and charm by Indira Varma of whom I’ve long been a fan. It takes a lot of stamina and technique to deliver such a huge, wordy amount of text and ideas and make it interesting and believable and funny. While I still can’t watch him without thinking of Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp, Fiennes has excellent comic timing and a really watchable stage presence. He and Indira sparked off one another and I really believed in their relationship.
Tim McMullan is also superb. I’ve seen him often in various NT productions and no wonder, as he always brings humour and warmth to any part he plays. He’s an excellent Brigand leader and a very funny Devil. The rest of the cast are also very good and Simon Godwin has done an excellent job of staging this tricky play, getting the most out of his cast and really bringing Man and Superman to life.
What I didn’t expect was the amount of fun I had watching it. It’s a fun, funny play! It’s certainly not how I remembered it when I struggled to read it all the way through and then learn that particular Devil’s speech (which was a devil of a speech to learn!)
Get a ticket if you can. It’s on till 17th May and you can find more info about the production and how to book tickets by clicking here.
I did a 2-day workshop with Patrick Tucker over the weekend on the Secrets of Screen Acting. Not only was it fantastic and incredibly useful but it made me realise how misinformed I was about the techniques needed for acting in front of the camera. I wasn’t alone.
One group member felt that everything she’d ever learnt previously about TV/Film acting was b*****ks (her words), and all that “less is more” advice isn’t actually helpful. The techniques Patrick taught us almost seem to be the opposite of what feels right and what we’re taught in drama schools (which is still primarily a theatre training for the stage).
I’m not going to share too much about what Patrick teaches because he’s written all about it in his book, Secrets of Screen Acting, (which is also accessible as a series of podcasts – click here) and he still runs courses and workshops. So I would encourage anyone interested in doing film or TV to buy the book or do one of his workshops (he also runs courses for directors).
What I found particularly interesting was that my on-screen presence was different from my off-screen presence and to how I think I come across in everyday life. In the theatre, I usually play strong, intelligent and sometimes slightly neurotic women. What came across on screen was that I looked like a gentle but sad-eyed victim.
How the camera “reads” your features can be totally different to how you see yourself. I remember once doing a short film with an actor who was the warmest, loveliest guy in person, with finely chiselled features and a great smile. But on camera, he looked like a cold-hearted, evil murderer. It was freaky how nasty he looked on screen!
In that same film, I was cast as his domestically-abused wife, so you’d think I might have figured out back then what my on-screen USP might be. But because it was a role so different from my generally happy self in everyday life, I didn’t put two and two together. After that, I played a grieving mother in a campaign for St John Ambulance which involved lots of looking sadly into the distance. So really, the signs were there.
Even if you don’t want to be typecast in certain roles, it’s useful to market yourself as such, achieve some level of success playing those roles and then you’ll be in more of a position to break out of that typecasting bracket because people with the power will be more willing to take a chance on you the more successful you are and the more experience you have. I used to hate the whole idea of typecasting but now I try and embrace it.
It can be tricky trying to determine what your USP is, especially if the vibe you give off is different from theatre to TV/film. Get someone to film you or film yourself on a mobile or camera of your choosing and try and watch it back objectively. Patrick also got us each to do this exercise which you might like to try:
Imagine you’re meeting a director/casting director for the first time and they have an initial chat with you. What 4 words do you think that director might have written about you? Not necessarily what you’d like them to write but what you actually think they would. Keep it positive.
E.g. do you have a particular feature which stands out? Are you petite? Do you have a big personality which comes through on-screen? Do you look stern and aloof or warm and friendly? What does your face look like in repose? What does it look like if you’re smiling? Try and be objective when watching yourself on screen and try not to get disheartened. We all wish we could change and improve parts of ourself. Embrace what makes you different, what makes you unique.
When you have your 4 words check your headshots and any marketing material like a showreel. Do they accurately represent what you have to offer? Ask other people (preferably people who don’t know you) what 4 words they’d use when looking at your photo or showreel or from meeting you.
Make typecasting work to your advantage.
I’m going to use the familiar “plate-spinning” analogy to describe my life over the last few weeks. I seem to have so many projects on the go at the moment, each a different metaphorical plate that I’ve started spinning on one of those long, thin, slightly bendy poles. I feel like I’m running between all these spinning plates as they wobble and teeter precariously, threatening to fall.
I know I’m not the only one. Another actor-friend of mine regularly talks about how she’s juggling lots of balls. I’m pretty sure she’s not talking about doing a circus-skills workshop but is actually trying to find time outside of full-time work to organise and fund a tour of a one-woman show that she wrote last year (click here for details). In fact, everyone I seem to speak to lately is feeling the same way. Under pressure. (Cue music: dum dum dum deddle la dum.)
I’ve been trying to gain some perspective (when I’m not running between each pole, shaking it frantically to get the plate spinning again) because when I think about it, most of these projects and looming deadlines are of my own making!
Sometimes, it’s a case of timing; events conspiring to take place at the same time through no fault of my own and everything seeming to break down or go wrong all at once. But I do seem to have this streak in me that embarks upon new projects when my schedule is already full and I haven’t finished the previous one(s). So on top of current house renovations, working extra shifts on reception to help pay for the renovations, research and form-filling for the adoption process, a devised project for a festival in May, an upcoming Acting for Camera weekend workshop, weekly updates for this blog, a showreel I really should have finished last year and a hectic social calender because everyone’s birthday seems to be in March (including my own), I’ve decided on top of all that, TO WRITE A PLAY!!
Oh. And I announced to people I respect and look up to that I would have a rough draft together by the end of March. What was I thinking?!
I’ve never written a play before but even I know that you need periods of undisturbed time in order to sit down and write it. To make matters more complex, the play I want to write, that’s been floating around in my head for the past year, seems to involve a cast of about 14! Fourteen! Talk about running before you can walk…
So what is all this about? Is it a form of self-sabotage – i.e. filling my plate (sorry about the plate metaphor again) with too much so that I’m unable to finish anything? Do you recognise yourself in my behaviour? Perhaps it’s a perverse need to shake things up a bit?
I believe that deadlines are important and committing to something when you don’t see how you could possibly do it is an act of faith which generally pays off. But I know that in my own case, I’ve really got to get down to finishing some of the projects I’ve started. I also know that, for me, taking some time-out (even when I think I can’t manage it) to do 10 minutes sitting in silence or a half-hour’s morning pages, is key to helping me regain some balance. Even a brisk 20-min walk through a park can really help.
Expending all my energy on my “to-do” list without taking even a little bit of time to replenish my energy in some way will ensure that I continue to feel overwhelmed and I don’t know about you, but once I reach a certain stage, it’s the little things that tip me over the edge. So when an important audition I’d prepared for didn’t go well (an understatement – it was a complete car-crash of an audition in front of a director and writer I admired) I still kept it together. Then my watch stopped working (a sign from the Universe?!) and it turns out it’s nothing to do with the battery. It was only when I was sobbing away watching DIY SOS the other night that I realised my slight over-reaction to the programme was probably down to some much-needed release of tension.
If you’re feeling something similar, try at some point this week to carve out even 15 minutes for yourself to do whatever helps you replenish your energy. It might be feeding the ducks or sitting quietly for 10 mins or writing down how you feel in a journal. Embrace the positive aspects of a Time-Out. While they are usually reserved for a naughty child they are still given in the hope of calming the child down and giving them time to reflect on their behaviour. That sounds like something we, as adults, could do with on occasion.
So give yourself a Time-Out. It might help gain a positive perspective on things.
Already, I feel better for having written this post. I read back what I’ve written and see that my “to-do” list is, generally, full of things I like to do and want to do. My job on reception is hardly toiling away at the coalface. Broken belongings or a bad audition are what could be called “first world problems” and apart from the inconvenience of a bathroom renovation, (a process that will end at some point soon), pretty much everything I’m doing is of my choosing.
I shall try to finish my showreel and write a rough draft of a play by the end of March and if my timeline is not realistic, I shall also try not to beat myself up if it doesn’t get done. But I will make sure that give myself a Time-Out every now and again. Just until I’ve stopped juggling those balls and spinning those plates.