Martha and I had a great conversation today, the central focus of which was developing a collection of methods/techniques that you can call on to help produce your best work. Your acting toolbox, if you will. Not all the tools inside will work for you all of the time and not all will be deployed at the same time, but having them there for when you do need them is very important.
We began by discussing Martha’s time at drama school, which has taught her a great deal about herself and how to develop her skills in a more focused manner.
Benefits of Drama School
She saw how easy it is to rely on or fall back on a style or trope you know works for you. Martha believes drama school forces you to face that and grow beyond it. Martha says it's vitally important for amateurs to learn to investigate this on their own. Try and discover new ways of doing things and test them out.
Although I continue to be slightly skeptical about the majority of drama schools and their true intentions, she did raise some good points that have made me reevaluate my initial thoughts. The main one is that an actor will never again get a chance to do as much acting as they do at drama school. Which in and of itself might just make them a worthwhile investment.
Martha was clear that the key to taking advantage of that time acting is to stay motivated and enjoy the process, wherever it takes you. Some things will be useful and some won’t. Some of it will be a challenge and some of it will come naturally. If you can wake up wanting to continue through all of this, then you are one step closer to the journey being truly beneficial.
A few of the key elements that she has learnt so far revolve around the idea of understanding what your mind and body can handle and learning to reduce the strain on both where possible. She has come to a clear understanding that acting is a physically and emotionally draining experience. If you’re planning to do it every day you need tools to survive long term. Add on top of this the brutal nature of the professional world (the auditions, failed castings, rehearsals, and length of runs) you can easily be broken by the system you love.
Of all of the things she now has in her toolbox, Martha believes that the power of an effective warmup cannot be underestimated.
“Your body is a tool, look after it”
The two things you have at your disposal are technique and your body and you can forget about employing a technique if your body isn’t ready to comply. You may know what's required at a certain moment intellectually but if your body isn’t warm and can’t produce the outcome you desire it's worthless.
She believes amateurs should be taking it upon themselves to learn some warming up skills, whether that is a simple set of stretches and some vocal exercises or something more elaborate.
It also helps with transitioning from your daily life into the rehearsal room. So, amateur directors, it is well worth you looking at ways you might integrate this into your rehearsals.
Next, we discussed characterisation. Our discussion led us to agree that amateur theatre actually has one clear advantage over professional theatre when it comes to characterisation. It seems that the more time you can spend together socially the more opportunities you have to discuss and develop relationships, subplots, backstories and make interactions more natural between characters.
Generally, all actors should be mining the text for character information. Find distinctions between “this is what people say about me” and “this is the truth that my character feels”
Learn to spot the difference between; how your character comes across (whether that's driven by what people say about them when they're not in a scene or their reactions to them when they are) vs how your character perceives themselves (look at intention and expectations they hold).
The friction between these two is where the character becomes interesting.
When discussing auditions, Martha's view was that early on you needn't be picky. The more auditions you go to the better you’ll become. The more shows you're in the better you become, the more time on stage you have the better you’ll become. So don’t turn down roles just because you don’t get the part you wanted. If you’ve found the time to be a part of a production make use of it as it might be a while till the next window of opportunity opens up.
Once in the room, be flexible and open. You need to learn you're not being judged for who you are, you are being assessed for a part. A part that the director may have a very specific set of requirements in mind for and that you may not conform to. So try and change your mentality. Start telling yourself that if you love acting, auditions are another opportunity to act. It lowers the stakes. They are asking you to act for them and you love acting.
A few of the more practical tips Martha brought up were: be off book for your audition piece, don’t pick something you think they want to see but something you want to do, and the idea of making a choice, whatever that choice is, as it shows a willingness to make decisions and deliver on them. Then finally don't forget to be flexible.
First up we looked at how Martha liked the rehearsal room to feel. She felt it was very important to feel relaxed and free to explore during rehearsals. You need to speak to your director if something within the rehearsal room is making you feel uncomfortable, especially if it’s outside of the work.
If your fear is a personal one, begin to work through how you can face it. Martha makes a very nice point here about trying to vocalise it. Don’t let it sit within you, bring it to the surface, and present it outwardly. Also, accepting there will be moments of failure throughout the process will help you come to terms with some part of the vulnerability that you feel.
Feeling safe can also come from knowing you’re in safe hands. That the director and your fellow actors are on the same page and working towards the same goals. Also, simple things like making sure every scene is covered in a timely fashion, that people are learning their lines, blocking is progressing well and there is trust within the room will all help to make for a productive rehearsal process.
Finally, we discussed the shows. Martha wanted amateurs to remember not to underestimate how hard a run is. Especially as you will have so many other things going on in your lives. You may be working all day before the shows, at home with the kids, or going through something more personal. Be aware of your and your fellow actors' lives and be generous during show weeks.
From a personal perspective, if you’ve done the work of digging into your character and have it held within you, you can play when on stage and react naturally to the things that impact you scene by scene.
And remember, shows are your chance to show off all your hard work.