Trained Actor, Still in Training – Lesson Two – Keep Playing

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I’m pretty certain that every drama school comes equipped with that eccentric teacher who’s main objective is to get you to ‘keep playing’. In my case, that lesson involved a lot of bouncy balls and sticks. Sometimes those playing sessions were the last thing I was in the mood for, but looking back now I think of them as an invaluable part of my training.

The art of play is vital when it comes to acting, and it was something I struggled with a lot at drama school – I found taking risks very difficult. Over time, I think my ability to play  developed during rehearsal periods. However, when it came to the actual performances, the playing ceased for me completely. Every production there was a maximum of five performances, and they had a great deal of pressure attached to them. The audiences largely consisted of friends, family and lecturers, basically five chances to impress them and then it was over. During show week, I would want everything to be very smooth and controlled. I did not feel able to play around under that pressure.

And it certainly was a lot of pressure. Five weeks of solid hard work ending in five shows over four days. Looking back, show week was really over in the blink of an eye. There was no time for the shows to develop any further, and so playing didn’t feel so important anymore.

Now I’ve been on the road for a few months, I can really let the advice of ‘keep playing’ take effect. The tour includes performing in three different shows, and I’ve now done them all about twenty-five times. The first week we were on tour I didn’t do much playing. I stuck with what we had done in the rehearsal period. That first week was about adapting to having an audience, and letting our work settle into our skin. Now, six weeks on, I am incredibly comfortable and confident within these shows. And it is that comfort and confidence that is allowing me to be more playful with my performance.

When I started the tour, a part of me was a somewhat intimidated at the thought of doing a show for longer than a week – I had never done that before. I was nervous that I would get bored, or that the material would become stale. Having never considered myself a particularly playful actor, I thought I would get locked into a mechanical performance for months on end.

But now that some time has passed, I see that the more shows I do, the more confident I feel to push the boundaries and experiment. I know the material and my cast members well enough now to know how far I can take my playing without putting the shows at any risk. Over time, we have developed a trust with each other that allows us to feel safe in experimenting, and this helps us to keep things feeling fresh and spontaneous. And this is so vital, because if we didn’t do that, we and our audiences would get so unbelievably bored.

I have both seen and been a part of shows that run smoothly on autopilot – and they are no fun. They might be slick and polished and clear, but they’re missing a spark – the spark that separates theatre from film: the spark of live performance. This spark is easily lost when performing in the same space day after day. Luckily for me, my tour involves changing venue daily, and this always brings new challenges to the table. And of course, with every performance there comes another mistake or blunder that keeps us on our toes (I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as a perfect show). But now, on top of these things, I think I am finally developing my own sense of playfulness that can also contribute to creating that spark. With every show I do, I try something that I haven’t done before, even if it’s something as small as changing the delivery of one line, or adding a simple hand gesture. Rarely do I pre-plan these changes, mostly they are spontaneous. And this spontaneity helps me feel like I’m really sitting in my character, and (I hope) giving a better performance because of it.

There are probably some actors reading this and thinking: well yes, this is all pretty obvious. And it is. But there are some lessons that can make complete sense in one’s head, but then still take time to actually come to fruition. For me, this is one of those lessons. I have known for a long time how important it is to play, and I have known throughout my training that my performances lacked this kind of spontaneity. But only now that I am out of a ‘five-show system’ have I been able to find and develop that playfulness.

I needed more time, and that was something drama school simply couldn’t give me. So for anyone else out there that is struggling to get the lessons they are taught in drama school out of their head and into their body – just wait and see. Perhaps a change of pace is all that is needed.