Brief Encounter with an Archetype

Archetypes 01‘I enjoyed your workshop yesterday very much. It felt a bit like Commedia del Arte without masks and without having to keep to your character’s stereotype. Using text with these archetypes was a great exercise towards “truthfulness” of the lines. As an actor I want to be flexible and open for new things when I work on a character and going through the different archetypes with the text allows me to train that flexibility and openness I want to achieve.’

Yesterday afternoon I had the great pleasure of introducing a small group of 3rd year students to the process and concept of working with Archetypes.  I volunteered to give a free workshop, and they chose to show up of their own free will. What. A. Blast.

Why do I like this process so much?  Because it is a fantastic way to experience failure, over and over again, until you learn to love it – failing. ‘Love me, or leave me’ goes the song, and each Archetype seems to promise love and security right up to the moment when you think you have captured its essence, and then you realise you have slipped into Stereotype and have to start again.

Because there is no such thing as an Archetype. It’s an idea, a way of being human, and humans are made in such a way that we are all complex combinations of lots of Archetypal qualities. When the actor tries to embody a specific  Archetype, she brings all her cultural and social and behavioural experience to the task, and is obliged to recognise, and then to begin stripping away all judgement, bias and prejudice – or as much as possible. And it is impossible to strip it all away, so again, she experiences failure.

So rather than engage with the Archetypes as intellectual or cultural Archetypes 02concepts, we engage with them physically. We explore the physical sensations of imagining the features of the mask of the Archetype as our own features. We experience how the body shifts, how its alignment, its centre shifts as it responds to the act of imagination by becoming the body that accommodates the mask/features. We adopt the belief system of the particular Archetype, its own sense of self and then we discover how the voice also responds physically (and therefore aurally) to the imaginative act.

This work is deep, intellectually and physically challenging.  You don’t ‘get it’ in a 3 hour workshop. You get a taste, a tantalising glimpse of its possibilities. I hope you also become infected with the desire to explore it further, and all the amazing and impossibly possible of ways of being human.

The Magic of Omnish

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Warming up for Omnish

We are halfway through my final term of teaching voice in my current position, and this morning I had one of those magical moments that make teaching acting students so special.

Our first years are all taking turns at leading a short warm-up in class, and I’ve been at great pains to encourage them to be inventive, to mix and match exercises they may have learnt elsewhere, to make connections between their voice training and all their other classes and training. And boy, have they responded, with humming while doing squats and star jumps, different emotional sighs, singing rounds (including something from The Hunger Games), and an amazing range of tongue twisters – including “Benedict Cumberbatch”.

This morning, a student concluded his program by inviting everyone to speak in Omnish*, fully physicalising/embodying various emotional states as he called them out. Next, the instructions were to find your partner on the opposite side of the room and tell them how you felt in Omnish after the warm up leader called out various scenarios. The first was “pissed off”, the next was “you really love them, but you can’t actually touch them”. Then he selected one pair, who expressed their annoyance with each other (most vigorously!) until he sent in another actor to try and calm them down; then another walked past and attracted their attention, changing the dynamics of the scene until yet another entered and the mood and tone shifted again.

At this stage I suggested to the leader that he invite others to join in, one at a time, as if it were the situation of the monologue they are working on. They would begin speaking in Omnish and then slip into English whenever they felt like it.

So. Much. Fun.  I would pay money to see that play.

*Omnish is the language, invented by Dudley Knight for Knight-Thompson Speechworks, which includes every sound that occurs in every language that is known to exist in the world at the present time.

How I Spent My Holiday

 

Flloyd and Roderick performing at Threshold Festival 2016, Lantern Theatre, Liverpool.

Flloyd and Roderick performing at Threshold Festival 2016, Lantern Theatre, Liverpool.

I had the best holiday I’ve had for years. Hopping onto a train, sitting in comfort watching the fields and towns roll by, hopping off the train to be met by lovely friends who wined and dined me for a couple of days before dropping me off at another train station, to be met a few hours later in a different part of the country by more friends who wined and dined me, with lots of lovely catch up chatter.

My last stop was Liverpool, staying with my son Roderick whom I conscripted to accompany me for a mini-gig I had acquired as part of the 2016 Threshold Festival. This is a delightfully vigorous grass-roots music-and-the-arts festival that takes place each year in and around the Baltic Triangle, a part of Liverpool that is rapidly becoming the ‘in’ place to be. A lot of semi-derelict industrial buildings have been rescued and refurbished to a minimal standard, and are now gorgous little cafes, bars, craft shops and of course, music venues.

The quality of the music at the festival is terrific. Terrifically loud, but also the standard of musicianship is phenomenal.

I was fortunate to be invited to perform my solo show, Yes! Because… as part of the theatrical festivities. This is Dame June Bloom’s latest outing, she’s back in town from an exhausting world tour, and determined to continue on her mission to make Shakespeare accessible to all. This time she’s exploring his sonnets, and manages to get through a few of them, almost intact, but also to share a few memories, aches and pains and to have a jolly good laugh at herself.  When I performed it last month in Southend it was gratifying to have a bunch of my 1st year students insisting on hugs after the show, along with their assurances that they now ‘got’ what I mean about using your whole body, heart and soul when performing sonnets.

Then, probably by accident, I also found myself agreeing to perform a short song and sonnet set as part of the Secret Circus troupe’s offering for the Threshold Festival.  In the event, we only managed one sonnet and two songs, but we all enjoyed ourselves enormously, and one charming member of the audience was kind enough to send me the snippet that she had video-ed.

The case for learning about sonnets – in reverse

a - 1

A summer’s day

Working – or playing – with sonnets is a fabulous way to learn about how language works, why poetry CAN be its highest form. But where do you start?
Ask just about anyone what they know about sonnets, and they will probably say “iambic pentameter”.  Then ask them what that means. Some will know that it refers to a kind of rhythm, most will say it means 10 beats to a line, and some that it means 10 syllables to a line. That is not what the words actually mean, but they are on the right track.

Let’s break it down. What does ‘iambic’ mean?  Perhaps you know it refers to a specific rhythm, the one that occurs when you have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.  And what is a syllable?  What is a stress?

In the English language, a syllable must have one, and only one vowel sound – but it may also have one, and only one diphthong, which is two vowel sounds quickly run together so that to the uninformed ear, it seems to be one sound. For example, “a” in the sentence “Here’s a box” is one vowel sound, (phonetically I would write it as a schwa thus: /ə/.  “I” in the sentence “Where am I?” is a diphthong, represented phonetically by the two symbols /aɪ/.  The words “a” and “I” are both one-syllable words.

Confused?  How many syllables are there in the word “confused”?  Forget about the spelling. There are three vowel LETTERS in the spelling, but when we say the word there are only two vowel SOUNDS.   Say it out loud, and hear how many vowel sounds you are making. Each vowel sound has one or more consonant sounds before and after the vowel sound, and the combinations of vowel and consonant sounds make up the syllables. So, there are two syllables in “confused”.

As it happens, we give slightly more stress, or emphasis, to the second syllable than we do to the first, so “confused” is a classic example of an Iamb.  One iambic foot.

Still with me?  Many people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about, but there are some who will be thoroughly bamboozled by all this talk of vowel sounds as against vowel letters, and stresses and syllables. These are the ones who will probably be even more put off Shakespeare at the thought that all this is necessary in order to speak, read or perform Shakespeare. This stuff is not taught in schools – any more.

[Oh, in case you are wondering, the word “pentameter” means five measures (commonly referred to as feet) in a line of poetry. So five iambic feet, unstressed + stressed, gives us the well know rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets (and of Blank Verse):

di DAH di DAH di DAH di DAH di DAH]*

Personally, I’d rather approach sonnets from the other end. Rather than analysing the structure at the beginning, I advocate starting with the text, the language itself.  What do the words mean? Does it make sense to you?  And this approach also is fraught with danger, because many people will immediately start making assumptions about what the words mean. Actors in particular will often create a whole agenda, a generalised back story – as they’ve often been trained to do in the interests of seeking out the sub-text. In other words, all the stuff that the poet is NOT saying.

So I insist we go back to what the poet IS saying. What are the actual words?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

When I ask what these words mean, more often than not I will get a reply along the lines of

“My love is very beautiful.”

But that’s is not what he is saying.  For one thing, it’s a question, not a statement. “Shall I?” Shall I what?  “Shall I compare thee?”  (Here usually has to follow an introduction to these strange words, “thee” “thou”, “thy” “thine”, which a lot of people are under the impression refers to themselves, rather than to the person they are speaking to).  “Shall I compare thee (you) with” with what? With “a summer’s day?” Not with a goddess, or a flower, or a galaxy, but a day in summer.

How easy was that! He’s saying exactly what he’s saying. He means what he says. So all the performer has to do is know and understand the words, and say what they mean. And they mean to ask that specific question, and nothing more.

Phew.  Too easy…  And what’s more, if it is spoken as a genuine expression of thought, and asked as an actual (and not a rhetorical) question, it will be in the rhythm of iambic pentameter in which the poet wrote it. He put it there. So you don’t have to. Because it’s already there.

Alright, not quite that easy, but it’s a start.

*Writing the rhythm like that give the false impression that the stressed syllables are equally stressed. They are not! We don’t talk like that. It does not make it poetic to do so.

End of rant.

 

Playing comedy – for real

A young actor remarked to me the other day “when you play comedy, you can’t be real.”  My response was a heartfelt denial.

Broadway actress, Andrea Martin, 5 times nominated and 2 times winner of a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, says in today’s New York Times, that “comedy comes from dedication to a role, rather than angling for laughs.  ‘To go into something thinking, How am I gonna get a laugh?  Is really disastrous in a play'”.

Her current co-star, Tracee  Chimo, agrees: “You want the audience to laugh, and you want them to enjoy themselves, but you can’t ask for it – it’s a funky balance,” she said, “like walking this beautiful tightrope. You just have to stay as true as possible to the material and hope that they find it funny.”

Happy Festive Season!